The Ogden Gas Scandal

By John F. Hogan

History Press


146pp/$31.99/July 2018

Chicago Shakedown

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

John F. Hogan's Chicago Shakedown: The Ogden Gas Scandal does explore the political shenanigans of the subtitle, but more broadly looks at the lives and political careers of three Illinois politicians who were active from the 1890s to the 1910s: Democrats Mayor John P. Hopkins, Roger Sullivan, and Republican Senator William Lorimer. Despite the importance the subtitle places on the scandal, the book's real focus is on the rise and mechanizations of these three men and the way they tied in to Illinois political culture during the period.

For background, Hogan looks at Hopkins and Sullivan and their rise into the ranks of Chicago politicians, with Hopkins achieving the rank of mayor at the young age of 35, just in time to have to deal with the Pullman Strike, only a few years after he had worked for Pullman. Hogan makes it clear that Hopkins played the middle ground during the strike, being seen as supportive of the working man, but not antagonizing George Pullman or similar businessmen. At the same time, Hopkins was seen as strict on the subject of gambling and an adversary to Carter Harrison II, whose father's term Hopkins filled following Harrison the elder's assassination, and who would eventually serve five terms as Chicago's mayor in his own right.

The scandal referred to in the title of the book is one in which unknown people set up a dummy corporation to provide competititon to People's Gas in an attempt to both drive down the price of heating gas in the city, as well as cause People's Gas to buy out the dummy corporation for tremendous profit for the Ogden Gas shareholders. The scheme worked, and although Hopkins' successor attempted to rescind Ogden's license, the courts deemed that there was no legal reason to do so and overturned the action.

Hogan equally focuses on the political maneuverings that managed to place William Lorimer in the United States Senate from 109 until 1912 when he became the first Senator ousted from the body due to a corrupt election. Lorimer was elected to the Senate when Senators were still selected by state representatives and there is evidence that votes were bought and paid for in order to help him attain the Senate seat. In describing the process, Hogan makes it clear that party loyalties were only a small part of the political process, with personal vendettas playing an equal role as well as graft and the hope for future power.

One of the problems with Hogan's book is that he attempts to portray the Ogden Gas scandal as a conspiracy and a mystery, as it might have appeared to Chicagoans of 1895, with the result that what they players were attempting to achieve and how they were going about it are cloaked in a sense of melodrama, which effectively undermines the entire chapter of the book which deals with the scandal. He does a better job of following Sullivan's role as a political boss who worked to gain his own ends, but even there, it isn't clear how Sullivan went about amassing his power or why individuals began to turn their back on him, which seemed to cause a domino effect. The book is too focused on Hopkins, Sullivan, and Lorimer, neglecting to fully explore the milieu in which they find themselves.

Hogan also takes a very familiar approach to his subjects, referring to all of his subjects by their first names, nicknames, and diminutives, so Hopkins is also Dapper Johnny, Lorimer is either Billy or "The Blond Boss," and Sullivan is often just Roger. This use of informal terms undercuts the more serious nature of the political corruption he is writing about. Instead of highlighting the corruption and the damage it does to people's faith in the system, Hogan offers the politicians' underhanded successes with a boys-will-be-boys mentality, divorced from consequences except for Lorimer's removal from the Senate, which Hogan indicates was done despite Lorimer not being directly involved in the chicanery.

Chicago Shakedown: The Ogden Gas Scandal offers itself as a focused exploration of specific scandal, but in fact takes a much larger view of politics and corruption in Chicago and Illinois over a thirty year period. his important topic tends to get lost in his attempt to offer a familiarity to his subjects and not attempt to explain why their connections and clout worked in some cases, but not in others. While the nature of the Ogden Gas Scandal may not have been fully understood in 1895, by the time Hogan was writing this book, it could have been better explained to make exactly what happened more clear.

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