Long John's sign raid

June 18, 2012

“The Mayor of Chicago is one tough, ornery dude. You don’t mess with him.”

That’s what people were thinking when they heard the news from June 18th—155 years ago.   

Long John Wentworth–all 6 feet 6 inches of him–had been elected mayor in the spring of 1857. He’d pledged to clean up the city. Today that would mean an attack on political corruption. In Long John’s time, he meant a literal clean up. Chicago looked like a junkyard.

The city’s sidewalks were still made of wooden planks. In the downtown area, many merchants had erected large signs and awnings over the public walk. They also set out display cases and piled up wooden boxes. People had to step into the muddy street to get around them.

There were laws against these obstructions. They had never been enforced. Maybe Long John had banged into an overhanging sign once too often. Whatever the reason, he decided to do something about it.

The textbook way would start with the police giving the merchant a ticket. Then there would be a court hearing, perhaps delayed by continuances for a few months. In the end, the judge might make the offender pay a fine–or might not. All this time, the obstruction would still be in place.

That wasn’t good enough for Long John. Late on the evening of June 18th, he assembled his police. He ordered them to get rid of any sign or barrel or wooden Indian that was blocking the public sidewalk. The cops fanned out and went to work.

Long John had hired a fleet of wagons for the occasion. They slowly drove through the streets while the police tossed the signs and other junk into them. When everything was collected, it was dumped into a pile outside the city market.

The next morning, the offenders were invited to come and pick up their property. Many complained that the Mayor had acted illegally. They said the cops had been drunk and caused needless damage. One dentist ran a newspaper ad, saying “Long John or one of his imps stole my sign away, but not my official instruments. I remain in business at 77 Lake Street.”

But the sidewalks were now clear. Long John knew that the public backed him, and there was little chance of nuisance lawsuits–Chicago still had very few lawyers. That bit of progress would come later.