William E. Dever: The mayor who cleaned up Chicago

October 3, 2011

Ken Burns has a new film about Prohibition. One of the forgotten players in that comedy-drama was a Chicago mayor. His name was William E. Dever.

Dever was born outside Boston in 1862. He came to Chicago at 25, worked as a tanner on Goose Island, and studied law at night. In 1890 he became a lawyer in the teaming West Town neighborhood.

Soon Dever was active in the clean-government wing of the Democratic party. He was elected 17th Ward alderman, and became one of the most visible and effective members of the City Council--even then, newspapers were touting him as a possible mayor. In 1910 he was elected to the Municipal Court.

Being a judge was a nice job, but it was a political dead end. The public forgot about Dever. Then, in 1923, Democratic leaders were looking for a squeaky-clean candidate to run for mayor against scandal-ridden Big Bill Thompson. They chose Judge Dever.

Thompson saw the way the wind was blowing and decided to retire. Dever won an easy victory. He took office saying he "wanted to be associated with something big in the history of Chicago."

He immediately launched a massive public works program. He built bridges, widened streets, straightened the Chicago River, opened Municipal airport, and replaced the decrepit South Water Market with double-decked Wacker Drive. The parks were spruced up and his school board constructed a record number of schools.

And most of these projects came in on-time, and within budget. Not once was there even the hint of scandal.

Dever's problem was the Prohibition law. The bootleggers were operating openly. Though Dever felt Prohibition was a silly law, the ex-judge thought it had to be enforced. He ordered a massive crackdown, the so-called "Beer War."

Within months the bootleggers were routed. News of the remarkable happenings in Chicago spread throughout the nation, and journalists descended on the city. Dever became the second-most-photographed person in America, trailing only President Coolidge. Many people began to speak of Chicago's mayor as the next President of the United States.

But the bootleggers had not been conquered. They had simply moved their operations into the suburbs, out of Dever's reach. And within the city itself, the mayor's cleanup eventually brought on more violence.

Think of it this way. Dever was drying up the city. Business was down, so the bootleggers had to market their products more aggressively, to keep ahead of competitors and preserve their own profits. The result was a major gang war.

So the people of Chicago had gotten grand public works, efficient city government--and violence in the streets. And they were starting to get thirsty. As Dever's popularity rose nationally, it declined at home.

Big Bill Thompson was watching events closely. Seeing that Dever was vulnerable, he jumped into the 1927 mayoral race, declaring he would make Chicago "a wide-open town." Big Bill crushed Dever by a margin of 83,000 votes.

The nation was stunned. How could America's best mayor be beaten by a crooked buffoon? Humorist Will Rogers thought he had the answer. "They was trying to beat Bill [Thompson] with the Better Element vote," Rogers said. "Trouble is, in Chicago there ain't much Better Element."

William E. Dever died in 1929. Today he is remembered with a public school and a water intake crib three miles out in the lake. Perhaps most significantly, he is also remembered as the last Democratic candidate for Mayor of Chicago to lose.