Reading Richard Lindberg’s new book Tales of Forgotten Chicago is like spending the afternoon exploring Chicago’s attic. Nestled in amongst the holiday decorations and old suitcases are people, places, and events that were once the talk of the Windy City, but have since slipped from civic memory.
Richard Lindberg, an award-winning author and historian, has braved the cobwebs and compiled twenty-one stories that resurface unusual and surprising moments from Chicago’s past.
For example, did you know that the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped inspire Walt Disney to create Disneyland? That Chicago once had a baseball team called the Chicago Whales that played in what is now Wrigley Field? That John F. Kennedy got an early career boost early from Mayor Richard J. Daley when he was invited to speak at Chicago’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade festivities?
Wide-ranging and meticulously sourced, Tales of Forgotten Chicago traces surprising connections and allows little-known voices of past Chicagoans to speak to us once more.
I recently talked with Richard Lindberg about historical research, connecting with the past, and the state of Chicago today. This interview has been edited for length.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
This book was originally going to be co-authored with Alderman Ed Burke. I went to work for Ed Burke as his speechwriter in September of 2014. Ed had co-authored several other books in past years, and he wanted to do another book.
I think that was probably one of the reasons why he hired me, with the idea of conceiving a book about Chicago history. So, I thought of the idea of a book about some offbeat stuff, in contrast to these same old tired out stories of Al Capone. We get an Al Capone biography maybe every other year, we get a Jane Adams biography every other year, and there is so much about the World’s Fair of 1893 it’s exhausting.
So I said, “Why don’t we do this? Let me look at some offbeat, more obscure stuff that blends human interest with arts and science, entertainment, sports, the criminal underworld, just a potpourri of things?” And Ed said okay.
How did you unearth these lesser-known people and events to talk about? What was it like tracking down that information?
I’m a researcher, and my happiest time is when I can research these stories. I enjoy researching books—the hard part is sitting down and writing them. But gathering the research to me is a joy. It’s like a lawyer’s process of discovery. Uncovering new information and new facts—I get as much of a jolt out of that as somebody who is digging by the pyramids looking for artifacts. To me, finding a new fact is like finding an artifact. If I can introduce something new into a story or resurrect something that was famous in its day but completely forgotten now, this is what I always try to shoot for, to be an original researcher.
I mean, there’s two ways to write a book if you’re a nonfiction writer. The easy, lazy way is to go to the library and take out every single book you can find on a subject you want to write about. This is why we have so many Lincoln biographies, so many Capone biographies, and Kennedy biographies. Say you have 30 biographies stacked up about Abraham Lincoln. So what does the writer do? They will go into each of those books and they will extract the best information and they will hybrid that which was done before into their own story. That’s why you see so many biographies of people who have had a hundred biographies already written about them.
To me that’s a lazy way of doing things. I much prefer taking the story from scratch. I’ve published a biography, called The Gambler King of Clark Street, about the most powerful Illinois politician that you’ve never heard of. His name was Michael C. McDonald, and he was the guy that built the Democratic machine of Chicago. He had a big gambling casino in the 1880s at Clark and Monroe street. I spent 4 or 5 years researching his life. Several people said “How on earth did you write a biography of Michael McDonald? Where did you get the information?” I got it everywhere—went to the Library of Congress, went to various libraries in Washington D.C., contacted people out of state who were related to Michael McDonald, I even found his great-grandnephew in Chicago working on the Mercantile Exchange.
So this is how you do it. You look for the information wherever you can find it. You turn over a rock and you never know what’s going to show up.
When you were working on this book, did you hit any research roadblocks that you were unable to overcome?
It wasn’t so much not finding something, it was a question of having too much. I turned in my manuscript and my editor told me, “Geez, Rich, you’re 10,000 words over the limit.” I had to go in systemically and tear out things that I thought were interesting to get the word count down. And you know, for an author, your book becomes your baby, and it’s like you’re suffocating your baby when you have to excise material. Because when you really get into it, and you really get jazzed about a book, it becomes your life. You think about it every single day. You live the story.
When I write these stories, I tend to go to where the event occurred just to see what it looks like today. One of the fun things about writing Chicago history is that it’s right in front of me and I can go to where it happened. For the story about the Chicago stockyards, I went down there to the exact spot where Bubbly Creek was, and I could see methane gas bubbles still bubbling to the surface because of the sludge from the stockyards, all these years later.
To me, history is a very tactile experience. You touch the places, the buildings, you look at it, you absorb it, so you can live it in the telling of the story. And that’s basically how I perceive the craft.
Were there any people in the book that you felt a particular connection with, or were particularly interested in?
Yes! Elisha Gray. He’s the man who invented the telephone, not Alexander Graham Bell. This poor guy was cheated out of getting credit for the invention of the telephone. He lived in Highland Park. He was a great scientist. Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone six hours before Elisha Gray did. But Alexander Graham Bell had the help of a patent clerk who apparently received a bribe to speed along the patent.
So everybody knows Alexander Graham Bell, but Elijah Grey is a forgotten figure, and lived out the remainder of his days embittered by the whole thing. He had gone to court numerous times to get his credit for the patent and was turned down. He invented all kinds of gadgets and things in his lifetime, but how do you lose out on the invention of the telephone? How do you deal with that? My heart went out to him.
What do you think the stories in the book reflect about the character of the city?
First of all, I hope that they enrich readers who appreciate the Chicago experience. Right now we are going through a very difficult time in our city’s history. We are torn apart generationally, racially, ethnically, politically. We are at each other’s throats. We have seen our city be looted, we have seen our policemen shoot people, we have seen all kinds of horrific things in the last couple of years, most notably in the last six months. And now we have a pandemic.
But Chicago has a great kind of resilience to it, and we’ve overcome far worse. Our city burned down in 1871. We had horrible race riots in 1919, again in 1951, and into the long hot summers of the 1960s. We’ve had cholera plagues in the 19th century, we’ve had two mayors assassinated. We’ve had disease, and we’ve had Depression, and we’ve gotten through it.
I believe that there’s a strong resilience here in the city and we will get through this as well. And if my book can maybe put a smile on a few people’s faces, or at least encourage them to see that Chicago is a city of survivors, we will certainly get through all of this.
Tales of Forgotten Chicago
By Richard C. Lindberg
Southern Illinois University Press
Published July 28, 2020
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.