Will Jesse Jackson Jr.'s personal items make the cut in Chicago's archives?

September 24, 2013

For those who were interested in buying the furs or celebrity memorabilia once owned by former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., the opportunity was fleeting.  Just three days after they were been posted on TXAuction.com, US Marshals yanked them, after concerns over their authenticity.

While the US Marshals determine whether Jackson’s belongings will return to the auction block, the capes and signed photographs of 80’s actors and musicians have become the butt of jokes.

But will they make the cut in Chicago’s historical archives? And how will these items be judged by the arbiters of Chicago political history?

There is only one place to start to answer that question: The Chicago History Museum, formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society.

John Russick, director of curatorial affairs at the museum, is the tour guide du jour for what he calls the “cook’s tour” of the museum. Russick has a pretty big hand in choosing what lives on the four floors of the building on Chicago’s North Side, and its two additional storage areas across the state.

The top floor of the Clark Street building is like a well-organized attic. Hundreds of thousands of items are hidden from public viewing in cabinets or covered with big white sheets. Quarters are pretty tight. Only a small group of people could wind their way through the stacks of toys, dinnerware, political buttons and more. There’s everything from a trophy made of melted dimes for Admiral George Dewey to a replica of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that actually kicks.

Then down in the basement, more Chicago relics. On one side, in the sculpture storage room, carved heads and busts of all shapes and sizes stare you down as if you’ve disturbed them. Around the corner, there are rows upon rows of more faces - many of them belonging to Abraham Lincoln - but this time, on hanging portraits. In another corner, costumes; in yet another, architectural models and maps.

Russick says deciding what else to add to this vast collection is a pretty complex process.

“Everything that happens in Chicago could be a great Chicago story,” he said. “But not everything is a great Chicago story, so we are charged with that - to try and figure out what stories, especially recent stories, are really going to wind up being important stories in the future.”

There are a few criteria the museum staff must follow when they receive a donation or come across an item they might want to acquire.

First: Collecting in 2013 isn’t the same as collecting when the museum was founded in 1856. Curators and staff ponder if the new item provides more insight into a story. Or might they already have something better in their massive collection so the museum isn’t bursting at the seams?

Second: Can this item evoke a larger story? Is there something that makes it more than just a costume or a document?

“We’re not just here for researchers and scholars who want to tap into Chicago historical material,” Russick explains. “We’re also here for citizens of the city who want to see objects that spark their imagination, that inspire them to look more.”

And Russick doesn’t answer these questions alone. He’s one of five curators that review possible items for the collection - and they’ll also work with archivists, library staff and the collections department as things are processed and catalogued.

Take the Jesse Jackson Jr. items, for example.

Russick said he and his team talked it through, and decided in the end, the furs or signed photos, while intriguing, don’t really tell the full Jackson story, or any other Chicago story, for that matter. The items ranged from a red cashmere cape with mink trim to Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson memorabilia.

“We thought these might be evidence of some measure of personal style or even somewhat of maybe excess in his life, but it wasn’t truly evidence of corruption or anything of that nature,” he said.

Instead, he points to a gold, diamond-studded sheriff's badge that belonged to Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. He was one of two aldermen who represented the first ward in the late 1800’s. Back then, the area south of the Loop was home to brothels, saloons and gambling halls. Kenna and Alderman “Bathhouse John” Coughlin profited from the schemes to keep them open.

Russick says some constituents gave Kenna the star in 1897. And this, he says, is a great fit for the museum’s collection. It’s material evidence of a culture of political back-scratching, and it could even be used for research.

“It has sort of the markings of a gift,” he said. “Even in our culture today, we would see that as sort of suspicious and I think that it sort of builds on story we already know about Kenna and his times and the notion of first ward politics.”

Russick says Jackson’s personal items wouldn’t fit in the collection in the same way. The items could end up at universities or political libraries or in someone’s home, depending on the outcome of the auction.

Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, says the museum is making the right call.

“What would be the purpose of it?” Green said. “This is the stuff that got a guy sent to the slammer?  You know, if we did that for everybody in Chicago and Illinois, we’d have to turn Soldier Field into a museum and put a cover on it.”

According to Green, Chicago politicians are conscious of the material legacy they’ll leave behind.

“We like to put our names on everything, you know, sooner or later, Millennium Park will be the Richard M. Daley Millenium Park. I’m not wishing the mayor any ill but when he goes to great precinct in the sky, that’s gonna happen.”

But Green says, in this case, it’s not the stuff that will secure Jackson’s legacy in the city’s history of corruption.  And coming from a professor whose office could give the History Museum a run for its money, that’s a significant statement.

Green’s office walls are filled with signed photos of the last few mayors, and multiple keys to the city. He even has a picture of Kenna by his office door.

But Green says Jackson Jr.’s story will survive without any relics. His story is one of a promising young politician whose future came to a screeching halt by his own devices - through illness or otherwise.

“There will be some people who think government is all corrupt and filled with bad people and they’ll do a little giggle and say, ‘oh, there goes another one,’ but people who are a little more conscientious [might] think what pressures [might he] be under that we don’t understand?”

There is one thing about Jackson’s loot that sticks with Green: The guitar that was supposedly signed by Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson. That’s the item that brought the whole auction down after reports that it might not be real. Green says he’s surprised Jackson would spend that kind of money and not get certification for his purchase.

The US Marshals are still checking to see if the guitar is real or not - and whether they’ll repost Jackson’s belongings is also still up in the air. The auction was supposed to pay into the $750,000 of campaign funds that Jackson and his wife Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, admitted to using on personal items. Jackson has also been sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.  His wife is sentenced to serve a year after that.  

Meanwhile, The Chicago History Museum’s John Russick says items can become more interesting over time. The twist in the auction story shows the Jackson saga isn’t over - and something might give the items more historical significance down the road.

Russick says curators aren’t in any rush. As historians, they can wait.

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ Reporter/Producer. Follow her @laurenchooljian.