John Coughlin (alderman)

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John Coughlin
Bathhouse John Coughlin.jpg
A depiction of Coughlin from the 1890s
Alderman of the Chicago City Council
In office
1892 – November 11, 1938
Serving with John R. Morris (1892–1893)
Louis I. Epstean (1893–1895)
Francis P. Gleason (1895–1897)
Michael Kenna (1897–1923)
Preceded byNicholas A. Cremer
Succeeded byVacant, then Michael Kenna
Constituency1st ward
Personal details
Born(1860-08-15)August 15, 1860
DiedNovember 11, 1938(1938-11-11) (aged 78)
Political partyDemocratic
ResidenceChicago, Illinois

John Joseph Coughlin (August 15, 1860 – November 11, 1938), known as "Bathhouse John" or "the Bath", was an American politician who served as an alderman of the Chicago City Council from 1892 until his death. Representing the 1st ward for the entirety of his tenure, he represented the Chicago Loop and in later years its environs in what was often called the "world's richest ward", he was the longest serving alderman in Chicago history until November 2014 when his record was surpassed by Ed Burke of the 14th ward.

Notoriously corrupt, he and longtime fellow alderman Michael Kenna led the Gray Wolves, a group that attracted much scorn from reformers but was able to maintain power for over half a century, he and Kenna were able to control the notorious Levee vice district and were involved in the rise of organized crime in the city, presaging the advent of "Big Bill" Thompson and Al Capone. A colorful figure in Chicago politics, he was known in addition to corruption for his outlandish fashion, eccentric poetry, and horse racing.

Early life[edit]

John Joseph[1] Coughlin was born August 15,[2] 1860 in Chicago to Johanna (née Hanley)[2] and Michael Coughlin.[1] Michael, a native of County Roscommon, had come to the 1st ward in 1857,[1] and owned a moderately-successful grocery at Polk and Wells before it burned down in the Great Chicago Fire.[2] John never seemed concerned about the poverty the fire caused his family,[2] remarking:

Why, money didn't mean anything to me. I'm glad that fire came along and burned the store. Say, if not for that bonfire I might have been a rich man's son and gone to Yale—and never amounted to nothing![3]

Coughlin acquired his nicknames as a result of working in a bathhouse as a masseur.[4] Eventually he was able to purchase a tavern and several bathhouses of his own.

Political career[edit]

Coughlin's tenure was marked by a large amount of corruption, in which he, Kenna, and 19th ward alderman Johnny Powers led the Gray Wolves, a group of notorious aldermen. In the late 19th century Chicago would award franchises to private companies for construction of such utilities as gas and public transit, the latter of which would prove contentious in Chicago. Businesses seeking such lucrative contracts would bribe and otherwise work with the aldermen in a practice known as "boodling"; such antics ultimately led to the creation of the reform organization Municipal Voters' League to run and endorse candidates in opposition to the Gray Wolves.[5] Despite being almost invariably excoriated by the Municipal Voters' League Coughlin himself was re-elected 19 times and never defeated,[6] running unopposed in his last four elections. Indifferent if not enthused about his reputation for corruption, upon being accused of corruption he demanded a retraction not for the charge of graft but for the claim he was born in Waukegan.[4]

Entry into politics[edit]

Coughlin was elected alderman as a Democrat[7] from Chicago's First Ward on April 5, 1892 despite having no prior experience in public service.[8][a] Coughlin and his partner, fellow First Ward alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, were known as the "Lords of the Levee", a district which was part of their ward. The Levee was known as being a vice-ridden section of Chicago and home to many saloons, gambling dens, prostitutes, pimps, and flop houses.

1894 election[edit]

In 1894 Coughlin was unanimously nominated as the Democratic nominee[9] in what Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan would later call "the briefest political convention in Chicago's history"[10] and was reported by the Chicago Herald as lasting "only a few minutes as the delegates were in a hurry to get away to attend a prize fight."[11] However, rival Billy Skakel, who specialized in offering and soliciting gambling on fraudulent stock quotations[11] and hated Coughlin for allowing local Prince Hal Varnell to cut into his turf,[11] formed his own Independent Democratic Party.[12] Working with Sol van Praag, who had ambitions of his own to rule the 1st ward,[11] he ran as a rival to Coughlin for the race[12] and was endorsed by such publications as Mixed Drinks: The Saloon Keepers' Journal.[12] Fearing for his career despite Kenna's insistence that he would win,[13] Coughlin visited Mayor John Patrick Hopkins, who unsuccessfully asked Skakel to withdraw from the race.[13] Coughlin then presented a petition to get Skakel's name removed from the ballot,[13] which was initially accepted by the election board but would later be overturned by a local judge[14] and backfire on Coughlin.[14] Nevertheless, Kenna reassured Coughlin of victory[14] and used his organizational skills to bribe the homeless with fifty cents, as much food as desired, and a place to stay for each voter.[15]

Kenna also suggested that Coughlin visit Hopkins once again and remind him of how the duo had helped him.[16] After Hopkins once again pled with Skakel to withdraw to no avail, he ordered the police department in the 1st ward to detain any Skakel supporters seen and to close any saloons supporting Skakel immediately at midnight.[16] Kenna also recruited members of the notorious Quincy Street gang to protect any voters of Coughlin, noting that the police would ignore any tactics used to that effect,[17] preceding von Praag, who had had a similar idea, by a few hours.[17]

Coughlin would win the election with 2,671 votes[18] while independent Republican J. Irving Pearce[12] received 1,261 and Skakel received 1,046;[18] the tactics used in the election received much scorn in the press,[16] with the Chicago Tribune writing that "Bathhouse John's election was secured by methods which would have disgraced even the worst river parishes of Louisiana,"[19] but neither Coughlin nor Kenna cared about such reception.[19]


Kenna ran for alderman in 1895, but van Praag and Skakel took vengeance for the events of 1894 and with the help of a controversial franchise to the Ogden Gas Company aided Republican candidate Francis P. Gleason to defeat him. Coughlin retaliated for the loss by introducing an ordinance banning fighting in the city the night before van Praag had a gloved fight scheduled in the ward.[20] Although the ordinance had passed but was found to not be able to stop the fight,[20] the previous ordinance banning only bare-knuckled fighting was argued by attorneys to be able to stop the fight, and Coughlin arranged for the top fighters to be arrested immediately before the semifinals.[21] Knowing of the impending police intervention the fight's manager called it off, damaging the Skakelites' credibility.[21]

The 1895 elections had produced a Republican mayor and a Republican majority in the City Council,[22] both of whom Charles Tyson Yerkes would fight in his efforts to construct the Loop during the Chicago Traction Wars.[23] Kenna, recouping his forces in preparation for the 1897 race, saw that Coughlin would serve as a vital tool for Yerkes, and arranged for an alliance between him and Powers.[22]

As the 1st ward contained the locations of most of the targets of boodling, including the Loop, Coughlin found himself sponsoring most of the corrupt measures.[23] However, Powers had betrayed Coughlin by December, collaborating with Yerkes and the Republican majority to the exclusion of Coughlin and introducing most of Yerkes's ordinances.[24] Coughlin and Kenna took their revenge on Powers by defeating his bid for the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party Central Committee in favor of free silverite Tommy Gahan.[25] Emboldened by this victory Coughlin introduced an ordinance to grant the General Electric Company a streetcar franchise that included Jackson Street, a valuable street that would fetch a high price from Yerkes,[26] passing the ordinance over Mayor George Bell Swift's veto.[27]


Kenna unseated Gleason in 1897 to take office in the City Council, alongside Carter Harrison Jr. for the mayoralty. In the meantime Yerkes had tired of buying streets individually in the city and wanted to go to the Illinois General Assembly in order to get the State to grant him franchises across the City;[28] this united the reformers, who felt that the City was being deprived of tax dollars, and the corrupt aldermen, who saw their sources of profit vanish, to oppose Yerkes's efforts.[29] Harrison was the leader of this opposition, but while he made Coughlin his leader in the Council he felt as if reformers were better suited to directly attack Yerkes,[29] he decided to make Coughlin the leader of opposition of a bill in the General Assembly to allow the seven gas companies of Chicago to merge into one and form a monopoly.[29] In such capacities Coughlin won some begrudging admiration from the reformers, although he did not fully believe in reform.[30]

First Ward Ball[edit]

Cartoons from the Chicago Tribune depicting "Bathhouse" John (left) and "Hinky Dink" Kenna (right)

Coughlin and Kenna were also the hosts of the First Ward Ball, an annual political fundraiser which brought together safecrackers, sex workers, gangsters, politicians, businessmen, gamblers, and a variety of other types; the event raised more than $50,000 a year for the two First Ward aldermen until it was closed down in 1909 by Mayor Fred Busse. By the time it was banned, the ball was so large that it had to be held in the Chicago Coliseum, the city's major convention center. Besides its notoriety in attracting many unsavory characters it often ended with the police having to curb disorderly conduct bordering on rioting.

Kenna steps down[edit]

In 1923 the number of aldermen a Chicago ward was entitled to was reduced from two to one, in concert with the number of wards being increased from 35 to 50. Kenna stepped down in favor of Coughlin after this change, but remained as 1st ward committeeman.


Coughlin was opposed to Prohibition, introducing a motion in the Council to praise New York Governor Al Smith for repealing the law enforcing Prohibition and encouraging Illinois to do the same. In anticipation for the ratification of the 21st amendment he introduced an ordinance providing for the licensing of liquor; the Berghoff in his ward was the first bar in Chicago to receive a liquor license after Prohibition was repealed.

Later career[edit]

By 1933 a report on Coughlin's unopposed run in that year's aldermanic election by the Associated Press described him as a "Vestige of a past era" and "the epitome of a vanishing [type of] American".[31] At that time the longest-serving municipal legislator in the country by his own estimate, he decried that Council business distracted him from his poetry.

After 46 years as alderman of the First Ward, Coughlin died in office at age 78 of pneumonia at Mercy Hospital in Chicago on November 11, 1938.[4] After a vacancy in the position his longtime partner Kenna would assume the office of 1st Ward alderman.[32]

Personal life[edit]

Coughlin was an eccentric figure in Chicago politics, known for his erratic behavior, flashy fashion, poetry, and horse racing, his boisterous personality and large figure often stood in contrast to the comparative meekness and small stature of his partner Kenna. When Harrison asked Kenna whether Coughlin was crazy or on drugs, Kenna replied that "John isn't dotty and he ain't full of dope. To tell you th' God's truth, Mr. Mayor, they ain't found a name for it yet."[33]


Having grown up in poverty, Coughlin liked to dress himself in ostentatious fashions, often contracting the services of costumers for vaudevillian actors, he was known to prefer bright colors.


Coughlin was known for his poetry, which was often considered of dubious quality; such was his infamy in poetry that it was common practice for Chicagoans to pen doggerel and facetiously credit it to Coughlin, a practice he allowed.

One of his poems, known as "Dear Midnight of Love", was penned during a vacation in Denver.[34] Coughlin set the poem to music[35] and had the daughter of a friend sing it after Emma Calve refused,[36] performing it at the Chicago Opera House on October 8.[37]


Coughlin was known for his endeavors in horse racing, and was often successful in it. Ultimately, however, they failed and he died penniless.

Colorado Springs[edit]

Coughlin opened Zoo Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1906, he had first vacationed in Colorado Springs in 1900 and fell in love with it, spending most of his summers there. One of the main attractions of Zoo Park was an elephant named Princess Alice, which had been granted from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo after Coughlin convinced his fellow aldermen that owning another elephant was a waste of taxpayer money. However, the rise of reformers dried up Coughlin's Chicago revenue, and combined with declining attendance at Zoo Park and the destruction by fire of Coughlin's summer residence in 1914 his stay became more difficult, and he ultimately left Colorado for good upon its passing of Prohibition.[38]


A 2012 retrospective by NBC News Chicago ranked Coughlin and Kenna as the 3rd and 4th most corrupt public officials in Illinois history, behind only William Hale Thompson and Paul Powell.[39]

The last surviving link to Coughlin and Kenna was Anthony C. Laurino, who had served as an assistant precinct captain under their tutelage[40] and would later serve as alderman of the 39th ward from 1965 to 1994, dying in 1999.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reference incorrectly states Coughlin's age at election as 35.


  1. ^ a b c Wendt & Kogan, p. 11
  2. ^ a b c d Wendt & Kogan, p. 12
  3. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 13
  4. ^ a b c Evans, Arthur (November 12, 1938). "Coughlin to Get Kind of Funeral That He'd Wish". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL: Tribune Co. p. 12.
  5. ^ Maureen A. Flanagan. "Gray Wolves". Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
  6. ^ Doherty, James (May 24, 1953). "The Story of Bathhouse John: Chicago's Fabulous First Ward Alderman Coughlin". Chicago Tribune.
  7. ^ "Chicago's New City Council". Chicago Tribune. 3 April 1929. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  8. ^ "All Down But Nine: Out Of 34 Old Aldermen 25 Are Retired". Chicago Tribune. April 6, 1892. p. 1.
  9. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 97
  10. ^ p. 97
  11. ^ a b c d Wendt & Kogan, p. 98
  12. ^ a b c d Wendt & Kogan, p. 99
  13. ^ a b c Wendt & Kogan, p. 100
  14. ^ a b c Wendt & Kogan, p. 101
  15. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 102
  16. ^ a b c Wendt & Kogan, p. 103
  17. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 104
  18. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 107
  19. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 108
  20. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 123
  21. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 124
  22. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 125
  23. ^ a b Wendt & Kogan, p. 126
  24. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 136
  25. ^ Wendt & Kogan, pp. 136–137
  26. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 139
  27. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 140
  28. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 172
  29. ^ a b c Wendt & Kogan, p. 173
  30. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 174
  31. ^ McCoy, Homer W. "Bathhouse John Coughlin Still Power in Ward". The Dispatch. 55. Associated Press. p. 2. Retrieved April 7, 2019 – via
  32. ^ "Centennial List of Mayors, City Clerks, City Attorneys, City Treasurers, and Aldermen, elected by the people of the city of Chicago, from the incorporation of the city on March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1937, arranged in alphabetical order, showing the years during which each official held office". Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  33. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 229
  34. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 219
  35. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 221
  36. ^ Wendt & Kogan, pp. 221–222
  37. ^ Wendt & Kogan, p. 222
  38. ^ Fitzgerald, Doug. "'Bathhouse John:' Zoo Park's pickled pachyderm spiced up early 1900s Colorado Spings". Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  39. ^ McClelland, Edward. "The 12 Most Corrupt Public Officials in Illinois History: The Complete List". NBC Chicago. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  40. ^ Fremon p. 254