"City of Scoundrels"

 

An airship crash, a murder mystery, and a bloody race riot. We look at 12 days of disaster in Chicago's history. 

City of Scoundrels author Gary Krist joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from the book below.

 

Prologue
The Burning Hive

July 21, 1919

The Spanish influenza had nearly killed Carl Otto that summer, but now the young bank telegrapher, clearly on the mend, was eager to return to work. On the warm, sunny morning of Monday, July 21, therefore, he rose early to prepare for his commute. His wife, Elsie, was concerned about his health and tried to discourage him. Carl was still not well, she insisted, and his extended sick leave didn’t officially end until tomorrow. Couldn’t he put off work for just one more day?

But Carl was adamant. He truly enjoyed his job at the bank and valued his reputation as a conscientious worker. And although he knew better than to make light of his illness (the recent flu epidemic had already killed more people than the Great War had), he felt he should delay his return no longer. He was, after all, an employee of one of Chicago’s premier financial institutions: the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, located right in the heart of the downtown Loop district. Standing at the foot of the Chicago Board of Trade Building on the corner of LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard, the bank was an important conduit for the countless transactions generated each day by the largest and most significant commodities exchange in the world. New York’s Wall Street may have been the center for the trading of company shares, but it was in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade that the fate of real things—of wheat, corn, hogs, lumber, cattle, and oats—was determined. Populations worldwide were dependent on it for the raw fuel of civilization itself.

As telegrapher and “all-around utility man” for the Illinois Trust, Carl Otto was a vital cog in the complex machinery of that market. From his telegraph desk in the bank’s central courtyard, right under the building’s distinctive two- story skylight, he kept his employers and their clients in close communication with the financial centers of the East Coast. As a translator for the Foreign Department (Carl had been born in Germany and spoke several languages), he also facilitated transactions with companies in the grain- importing countries of Europe and Asia. Besides, Monday was usually the bank’s busiest day of the week. Carl felt that he had to go back.

The couple discussed the matter over breakfast. In Elsie Otto’s opinion, the worldwide commodities market could surely survive without her husband until Tuesday. She argued that their son, Stanley, a six- year- old orphan whom the couple had adopted some time before, would appreciate another day of his father’s company. But Carl would not be dissuaded. Determined to be punctual on his first day back, the telegrapher said good- bye to his wife and son, left their little cottage at 4219 North Lincoln Street on the city’s far North Side, and headed for the Loop.

At roughly the same hour about twelve miles south—at 5448 Calumet Avenue, in the city’s Washington Park neighborhood—Earl H. Davenport was also just leaving home for his morning commute. After years of working as a sportswriter for various newspapers around town, Davenport had recently switched careers. He had taken on a public relations job representing the White City Amusement Park, South Side Chicago’s most popular summer recreation center. Named after the world’s fair that had done so much to boost Chicago’s image a generation earlier—the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the White City—the park was an entertainment extravaganza, a thirteen-acre playground of bowling alleys, shooting galleries, roller coasters, ballrooms, and novelty attractions such as the Midget City and a walk- through diorama depicting the famous Johnstown Flood.

Wingfoot Express; Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

Handling the publicity for such a place was Davenport’s idea of fun. This week, though, Earl was working on a special assignment. White City’s aerodrome, leased by the navy during the recent war for the construction of B-class dirigibles, was now being used for commercial purposes again. A crew from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron had arrived on the site several weeks earlier to assemble one of their already fabled blimps, an airship called the Wingfoot Express. Davenport was using the opportunity to launch a major promotion. Even as the Wingfoot was being put together and tested, he was busy urging newspaper photographers and city dignitaries to come down to the White City and take a ride. Just last week, in fact, he had asked Frederick Proctor, a former sportswriting colleague who now worked for the Board of Trade, to issue invitations to the board’s president and several of its other members to make a flight as official guests of the amusement park.

Davenport, a plump, balding man of unfailing good nature, planned to go up himself on one of the airship’s maiden flights. As he’d written in that week’s edition of the White City News, he felt just “like a kid with his first pair of red- top boots” anticipating his airborne adventure. Technical problems with the bag’s carrier mechanism had postponed the blimp’s debut several times, but now, on this bright Monday morning, Davenport was hoping that his luck would change. The weather was good, and the engineers had had the whole weekend to put the Wingfoot in top flying condition. Confident that he’d finally be taking to the skies, Davenport pulled on an old pair of tennis shoes—appropriate footwear for a blimp ride, he thought—and set out on his one- mile trip south to the park.

Another person hoping to get on the blimp that day was Roger J. Adams, president of the Adams Aerial Transportation Company. Having arrived in Chicago on Sunday via the overnight train from New York, Adams had quickly made arrangements with Goodyear representatives for a demonstration of the Wingfoot. His eponymous company, which had recently inaugurated a passenger- carrying hydroplane service between Albany and New York City, was now in negotiations with a consortium of Italian capitalists to start a transatlantic dirigible service. The group was considering buying the Wingfoot Express or another craft of the same type for this purpose, so Adams was eager to see the blimp in action.

Knowing the value of good publicity for his nascent business, Adams had that morning contacted the Chicago Daily News to offer himself as an aviation expert qualified to comment on this exciting new technology. The paper had sent over a reporter to interview him. Dirigibles (the terms “dirigible” and “blimp” were used interchangeably in 1919) had been employed with some success on scouting missions during the war, and now many people hoped that the airships could revolutionize long- distance passenger travel and mail delivery. During his talk with the Daily News reporter, Adams waxed eloquent on the unlimited possibilities for Chicago as a center of national and international air services. “Chicago,” he opined to the reporter, “will be the Blimpopolis of the Western World!” He predicted that transatlantic flights from London would end in Illinois rather than in New York, which would be merely “a crossroads aerial station” where pilots might make a whistle- stop en route. “There is no reason why passenger blimps cannot go direct from Chicago to London and vice versa,” Adams concluded. “The seacoast city as a ‘port’ will become obsolete in the day of aerial travel.”

The Daily News reporter had taken all of this down, promising that an article would appear in that afternoon’s edition. This was, after all, just the kind of news the local papers loved to print. Always sensitive to their status as residents of the nation’s second city, Chicagoans liked to disparage New York and tout their own town as the city of the future, the true American metropolis of the still-young twentieth century. Having an expert like Adams say that Chicago—rather than the old and hidebound cities of the East—would soon be the world’s “Blimpopolis” was just what readers wanted to hear.

But now Adams was eager to see the blimp itself. With the time of his afternoon appointment approaching, he found a taxi and headed down to the White City aerodrome. After a short drive, they passed the amusement park at Sixty-third Street and South Parkway, its landmark electric tower, brilliantly illuminated at night by thousands of lights, looming above in the sunshine of a quiet weekday afternoon. As the cab approached the aerodrome at the other end of the park, however, Adams could see that something was wrong. There was no blimp tethered outside the enormous hangar. Could it somehow still be inside, not yet inflated?

Adams got out of the cab and inquired at the hangar. No, he was told, the blimp was already gone. It had left shortly after noon, heading for the airfield in Grant Park, from which point it would make several exhibition flights around the city. Adams mentioned his appointment for a ride that day, but no one seemed to know anything about it.

Frustrated, the entrepreneur got back into his cab and directed the driver to take him north again to Grant Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan just east of the Loop. If he was going to get his blimp ride that day, Roger Adams was apparently going to have to chase the airship down.

Michigan Avenue Bridge; Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

In the meantime, the entire city of Chicago had begun to take notice of the Wingfoot Express. Visible from many parts of the city on its flight from White City, the giant silver lozenge was attracting crowds of gawkers on street corners citywide. Chicagoans had seen plenty of aeroplanes during the war, but blimps were still something of a novelty in the city skies. Some people were even telephoning the newspapers, trying to find out exactly what it was and what it was doing.

Around midafternoon, a telephone rang at the Madison Street offices of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, another of the city’s six English-language dailies. The call was transferred to the desk of the city editor, who listened for a moment before hanging up and calling down to N. M. Meissner, head of the paper’s film department.

 “Have you got a cameraman ready?” the editor asked.

Meissner looked around the cluttered room. The only photographer in sight was Milton G. Norton, who was just then loading up his camera case with photographic plates and extra lenses. At forty-five, Norton was significantly older than most of his colleagues—newspaper work was very much a young man’s game in 1919—but he was an able cameraman, especially good with a portrait. Meissner called out to him, asking whether he was ready for an assignment.

“All set,” Norton replied. “What’s the story?”

Meissner sent him to the city editor, who said that he’d just had a report about the blimp that had been flying over the city all day. The ship was supposed to land at the airfield in Grant Park within minutes. Norton was to go over there to get a few pictures of it for the next morning’s edition—and to hurry, because a photographer from a rival newspaper was supposedly also on his way over.

Norton returned to the film department, grabbed his photography kit, and left immediately.

As Milton Norton rushed across town from the Hearst Building, his path was thus converging with that of the other three men: Carl Otto, now sitting at his desk in the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank; Roger Adams, speeding north in his taxicab from White City; and Earl Davenport, already at Grant Park, trying to get his promised ride on the Wingfoot.

The blimp had landed some minutes earlier at the lakeside aerodrome, where Davenport was waiting for it. The publicist had already been thwarted twice that day. He was unable to get on the blimp’s first run from White City to Grant Park—as the inaugural flight, it was considered experimental, and so Goodyear insisted that only its own pilots and mechanics ride. Davenport was also shut out of a two-thirty flight from Grant Park north to Diversey Avenue and back, since the seats on that run were taken by military personnel— among them a Colonel Joseph C. Morrow, who had been sent to Chicago to evaluate the blimp for the government—and two writers from the Chicago Evening Post.

And now, as five o’clock approached and the Wingfoot was being prepared for what would probably be its last flight of the day, there was another difficulty. So much hydrogen gas had been valved out of the blimp’s bag on the first two flights that the ship could now safely carry only five people. The pilot had already reserved three of those places for himself and two mechanics, Harry Wacker and Carl Weaver. Undeterred, Earl was angling to get at least one of the remaining seats for himself.

Captain Jack Boettner, however, was reluctant. This had not been an easy assignment for him. The pilot had had his hands full all day, fending off crowds of spectators while trying to test- fl y a new blimp in difficult circumstances. Having come to Chicago from Goodyear headquarters in Akron for the test, he knew little about the geography of the city he was flying over. And though he was an experienced dirigible pilot, he was unfamiliar with the Wingfoot’s engines. The twin Le Rhône rotary motors mounted above and behind the gondola were still experimental; as far as he knew, rotary engines had never before been used to power an airship, and he had no experience running them. True, the engines had behaved well on the first two flights, but Boettner was still learning their eccentricities.

What’s more, the attention attracted by the Wingfoot was becoming oppressive. Every time the blimp moored, thousands of people would gather around it. Local dignitaries and self- proclaimed aviation experts would materialize to present their credentials, ask questions, and try to cadge a ride. Since Goodyear regarded this project in Chicago as a publicity opportunity, Boettner had to be agreeable to these people, willing to act as tour guide even as he was supposed to be testing a blimp. The Wingfoot crew had received a letter to this effect from E. R. Preston, the company’s advertising manager, indicating that prominent men should be encouraged to ride the blimp. (Preston had mentioned Henry Ford as an ideal candidate.)

So when Earl Davenport appeared at Grant Park asking for his long-promised ride, Boettner was inclined to oblige. He and the entire crew had come to like the genial publicity man in the days they’d been working at the White City aerodrome. So Boettner finally agreed to take him along. He kidded his passenger about his choice of footwear, and Davenport answered in kind, insisting that the tennis shoes would help him get a running start in case anything happened in the air. Laughing, Boettner replied that “a running start would be no good, that what he wanted to practice was a standing jump.”

Meanwhile, the pilot and his crew continued their preparations for the day’s final flight. They primed the engines and made adjustments to the controls. They checked the rigging that held the bag to the gondola. Mechanic Weaver burned a bit of stray oil off the twin engine propellers with a blowtorch.

Just before they were ready to board, another figure emerged from the crowd—Milton Norton, with his camera kit on his shoulder. Seeing him, Davenport asked Boettner if the photographer could join them as the fifth person in the gondola. He pointed out that aerial pictures in the next day’s Herald and Examiner would certainly be good publicity for Goodyear. Boettner agreed and allowed the photographer to ride. But given the amount of hydrogen gas left in the bag, he decided that no one else would be taken aboard on that flight.

Mayor William Thompson; Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

The pilot issued each of his passengers a parachute harness belt. He demonstrated how a rope tied to the belt’s D- buckle was fastened to one of the parachute packs attached to the outside of the fifty foot gondola. If for some reason the passengers and crew were forced to jump ship, the ropes would pull their parachutes away from the packs and open them automatically. “All you have to do is jump,” Boettner explained. “The parachute takes care of itself.”

The two passengers made light of the idea of being tied to these glorified silk parasols. Parachutes were supposed to be for aeroplane pilots headed off into battle. How likely was it that a photographer and a publicist would need them on a joyride over the streets of Chicago?

At exactly 4:50 p.m., Jack Boettner sounded a warning blast from his siren. The taut lines tethering the Wingfoot Express sprang loose, releasing the sleek gray blimp into a partly cloudy Chicago sky. The passengers in the gondola looked down, watching as the milling crowd of spectators in Grant Park seemed to recede, the throbbing pointillism of upturned faces and white straw boaters losing distinctness as it dropped away beneath them. Shrinking rapidly, the oblong shadow of the airship slid silently across the ground toward the glittering surface of Lake Michigan.

Captain Boettner, seated at the wheel in the prow of the gondola, turned the ship immediately to the east, toward the lake. The wind was steady. Twin American flags secured to the bow and stern of the bag rippled calmly as the engines purred and the two propellers spun in the warm early-evening air.

The men sat single file in the leather- covered wicker seats of the gondola. To those on the ground, they would have looked like oarsmen in a five-man canoe: first Davenport, seated directly behind Boettner; then Norton with his cameras and plates; and then mechanics Wacker and Weaver abaft, just under the whirring propellers. When the blimp had gained some altitude, Boettner turned it north. The 150- foot- long airship, its bag enclosing ten thousand cubic feet of hydrogen, responded well. Each movement of the rudder was answered by a corresponding turn of the nose to port or starboard.

Finally, Boettner wheeled the airship west, toward the crenelated wall of buildings that lined Michigan Avenue like a rampart at the edge of the park. The pilot had decided that they would fly over the downtown Loop before heading south back to White City. That would give Norton an opportunity to take some spectacular photographs of the city’s skyscrapers from above. It would also mean that the Wingfoot would be seen by thousands and thousands of Chicagoans as they left their offices at the 5 p.m. close of business. No one could ask for better publicity than that.

Norton leaned over the edge of the gondola, snapping pictures. It was certain that no other newspaper would have anything like these photos tomorrow. From 1,200 feet up, the view of Chicago was magnificent. The entire city lay at their feet, humming like a fabulously complex machine, its miscellaneous components spreading out northward, westward, and southward from the shores of Lake Michigan and far into the distance. Directly below was the dense, teeming core of the downtown business district, a checkerboard of brooding modern skyscrapers and grim two- and three-story commercial buildings. Streets clotted with trucks, automobiles, and horse- drawn wagons threaded through these blocks of stone, intersected by silvery railway lines and, to the north and west, the snakelike curve of the Chicago River. And around this hub, its center enclosed by the rounded rectangle of the elevated Loop tracks, clustered the dozens of individual neighborhoods that together formed this huge and diverse metropolis. Here was Little Poland, Little Italy, the Black Belt, and Greektown, the silk- stocking districts and the New World shtetls, each one of which—whether made up of crumbling tenements, luxurious mansions, or neat little worker cottages—stood in many ways apart from the others, a self- contained enclave with its own ethos and mores. From this height, one could also see the engines that kept this collection of urban villages in operation—the interlocking feedlots and slaughterhouses of the stockyards district to the southwest, the enormous steel mills to the far south, the reaper works, the railcar factories, the gasworks, the warehouses and merchandise marts of the retailing trade, and the endless railyards full of trains that connected the city to the rest of the world. To call this conglomeration by a single name—Chicago—seemed wildly inappropriate. It was less like a city than a world unto itself, bringing together the artifacts and energies of a vast multitude.

The Wingfoot Express continued westward and southward over this cluttered assemblage, attracting ever more attention as it sailed through the Loop. Automobiles pulled to the side of the road; commuters pointed at it from the platforms of the L; office workers stopped typing and hung up phones to watch it from the windows of their buildings.

But then, just as the airship crossed over busy State Street, Boettner felt something strange—a tremor in the fuselage, a shudder of the steel cables that held the gondola suspended beneath the blimp. He looked up and saw smoke and flames licking the bag just above its equator, and he knew immediately that the situation was dire. The pilot stood up and started waving his arms at the men behind him. “Over the top, everybody,” he yelled as loudly as he could. “Jump or you’ll burn alive!”

The other occupants of the blimp seemed confused at first, but then, looking up themselves, they comprehended the gravity of the situation. As they scrambled to heave themselves over the side,

Boettner could see the flames moving rapidly above. The bag was crackling noisily as the fire spread out to consume the whole blimp. Just as the airship buckled in the middle and started to fold in on itself, Boettner jumped.

People all around Chicago’s central district watched in awed disbelief as the silver blimp in the sky crumpled and began to fall. Roger Adams, the entrepreneur, was now at the airfield at Grant Park. His taxi from White City had been just a little too slow. “I got there just as [the Wingfoot] went up again,” he would later say, “and I was too late to get on.” Annoyed at the missed connection, he had been forced to content himself with taking pictures of the blimp as it floated away. But then he heard something troubling. “I heard both engines starting to backfire,” he reported. “There was too much gasoline flowing through the carburetors . . . and I knew that [the blimp] was in trouble.” He was horrified to see the distant airship burst into flames.

C. M. Kletzker and L. B. Blake, employees of the Horton Engraving Company, were looking on from the twelfth-floor windows of the Lees Building on South Wells Street. They had been watching the blimp when it first approached the Loop, but then returned to their desks to get back to work. A few minutes later, a colleague came into the office and asked to be shown the dirigible that everyone was talking about. “We went to the window to look again,” Kletzker said. “We had barely located the airship when there was a fl ash of flame. . . . With the first flare, five [figures] jumped and their parachutes opened.” Realizing that they were watching a tragedy in the making, they began to sketch the scene, hoping to create an eyewitness record of what was happening.

Much closer to the action, in the halls of the Board of Trade Building, Frederick Proctor was in the process of delivering one of Earl Davenport’s invitations to fl y. Proctor had moments before entered the office of Warren A. Lamson and asked the young broker whether he “craved a sensation.” He explained that the publicity director of White City had offered Lamson and other board members an opportunity to take a ride in a blimp. Lamson demurred. “Exmoor and my Marmon are enough for me,” he said, referring to his favorite golf course and his sporty automobile. At that moment, the two men heard a terrific crash just outside the office windows.

At Comiskey Park, not far south of downtown, thousands of baseball fans gasped and jumped to their feet when they saw flames erupt from the blimp hovering over the Loop. They had just watched their hometown White Sox win the first game of a doubleheader against the Yankees. Ace infielder Buck Weaver had singled in the decisive run in the bottom of the ninth inning, leading the Sox to a 7–6 win.

Now, three innings into the second game, all action stopped as players and spectators alike anxiously watched the catastrophe unfolding in the distance. Reporters in the press stand immediately reached for their telegraph keys. “It was the most quickly reported accident that ever occurred,” Sherman Duffy, the Chicago Daily Journal’s sportswriter, later reported. “The blazing balloon had not reached the ground before its fall had been telegraphed to newspaper offices both here and in New York.”

Witnesses could see the five tiny figures falling away from the flaming blimp. They saw four parachutes start to open—like long ribbons fl uttering out of a magician’s hat—as the ropes pulled the chute packs from the side of the gondola. One ribbon caught fire before it opened completely. This was Carl Weaver’s chute. As the silk fabric dissolved in tongues of flame, the mechanic fell “like a rocket,” crashing through the glass skylight of the two- story building below.

At least two of the other parachutes also seemed to be afire, though they were burning more slowly. Harry Wacker was able to control his descent somewhat, though he fell faster and faster as each square inch of silk above him was consumed. Plunging toward the street, he struck a ledge on the Insurance Exchange Building, nearly gained his footing on the masonry, but then fell again. Milton Norton, who had delayed jumping from the gondola as he worried over his camera and plates, was descending just as fast, spinning wildly round and round. He was thrown violently against a window of the Western Union Building. The window smashed, and Norton was snagged momentarily on the sill, but his momentum was too great and he, too, continued falling to the street.

Jack Boettner, being a trained pilot, had known to jump as far as possible from the flaming bag, and so his parachute had just been licked by the spreading flames as it opened. Even so, one edge caught fire. The pilot began to whirl in the air as he dropped. He couldn’t see where he was going, but his feet soon struck the roof of a high building. Jolted by the impact, he rolled a few times and found himself peering over the edge of the roof, down into the street far below. Boettner didn’t know it at the time, but he had landed safely on top of the Board of Trade Building, one of the tallest in the city.

Only one of the five figures did not fall away from the gondola. Earl Davenport had tried to jump with the others, but his rope had somehow become entangled in the blimp’s rigging. He fell only about fifty feet and then just hung there, upside down, swinging back and forth. According to witnesses, he was kicking and struggling, but couldn’t free himself from the tangle. All he could do was hang there helplessly as the flaming blimp collapsed in on itself, losing all buoyancy and then plummeting toward the roof of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank below.

Carl Otto sat at his telegraph desk, finishing up work for the day. Many of his colleagues had been surprised to see him when he showed up that morning. They had heard about his bout with influenza and knew he wasn’t scheduled to return until Tuesday. But there he was, still busy at a few minutes before five, having put in a full day’s work despite his lingering illness.

A number of the bank’s other employees were also still hard at work on their tasks. The bank had closed to the public some time before, but there were still about 150 clerks, bookkeepers, and stenographers moving about the bank’s central court, closing the ledgers for the day, finishing up their correspondence, and locking away bonds and other securities. Bank president John Mitchell had just left the building a few minutes earlier to go home.

Illinois Trust and Savings Bank; Courtesy Library of Congress

The Illinois Trust, a small Greek Revival building tucked in among much higher skyscrapers in the southern Loop, was considered one of the most beautiful banks in the city, fronted by tall Corinthian columns that made it look more like a temple than a place of business.

The ornate interior was just as grand. A magnificent central rotunda, rising two stories to a huge glass skylight, was surrounded on three sides by teller cages. Business with the public was conducted around the outside perimeter of these teller windows. The rotunda’s central court, directly under the skylight and overlooked by a balcony, was reserved for the bank’s internal business. Here were the telegraph stations and the stenographer pool, as well as the desks where clerks and bank officers did their work. As a security measure, this area could be entered only through one of two entrances in the perimeter of teller cages.

As the five o’clock hour approached, activity on the floor was waning. The women in the stenographic pool were finishing up for the day, pecking out a few last lines before pulling the covers over their typewriters and getting ready to leave. Helen Berger, the stout but ever-energetic chief stenographer, was attending to last- minute details with teller Marcus Callopy. Assistant cashier F. I. Cooper had left his desk and was accompanying a messenger to the vault area with some records.

A few people noticed a change in the light around them as a shadow passed over the skylight above. This was followed by a sudden flash, which made some think that a photographer was taking a picture. Cooper the cashier, standing at the entrance to the bank’s large time vault, heard a sound of breaking glass overhead and turned around to investigate. What happened next was horrifying: “The body of a man,” he later said, “so badly burned and mangled that I could not tell at first that it was a man, came hurtling through the air and fell at my very feet.” It was the body of mechanic Carl Weaver.

That was when the entire bank seemed to detonate.

“I thought a bomb had been exploded,” one man said. Bombings had been in the news all year, and many bank employees worried that the Illinois Trust might be a target. But it instantly became clear that this was no ordinary explosive device.

A. W. Hiltabel was working in one of the teller cages at the south end of the room: “The first thing I heard was the breaking of the skylight,” he said. “I looked up and saw fire raining down from the roof. There seemed to be a stream of liquid fire pouring down into the room.”

Debris was suddenly falling everywhere. A huge engine and fuel tank slammed to the marble floor in front of him. “They exploded,” Hiltabel said. “Flames shot high into the room and all over the place. I ducked under my desk.”

Carl Otto and his colleague Edward Nelson were in conference at the telegraph desk when they heard the terrific explosion above them. Suddenly they found themselves showered by “an avalanche of shattered window panes and twisted iron.” Something sharp and heavy struck Nelson in the knee, throwing him to the ground. As hot sheets of flame billowed around him, he managed to crawl across the floor to an open teller cage. He scrambled up over the marble counter and out of the teller window to the lobby outside.

Carl Otto was not so lucky. The telegrapher took a direct hit from the falling engine and was instantly, horribly, crushed.

The initial shattering of the skylight had brought C. C. Hayford out of his office in the credit department. “I ran out and an explosion . . . hurled me over,” he later explained. “I got up and someone ran into me, screaming, ‘Oh my God, it’s raining hell!’” Then Hayford saw great columns of fire rising almost majestically above the line of teller cages before him. He could make out silhouetted figures struggling in the flames. “The screams were indescribable,” he said. “I turned sick. A man—I don’t know his name—staggered out of the cage carrying the body of a girl. His own face was covered with blood.”

By this time, the central court was, according to workers in the balcony, “a well of fire, a seething furnace.” Clerks, stenographers, and bookkeepers, many of them with clothes ablaze, were clawing toward the two exits; others managed to escape through the narrow teller windows. “I saw women and men burning,” said Joseph Dries, a clerk in the bond department. “I saw everybody trying to get out through the doors of the cages.”

But many didn’t move fast enough. Stenographer Maria Hosfield looked on in horror as her boss was burned alive: “I was sitting next to Helen Berger and saw her become enveloped in flames,” she said. Several men ran to the chief stenographer and tried to extinguish her burning clothes. “She was saturated with gasoline,” said bank guard William Elliott. “Everything was so confused . . . but I heard the screams, and I looked and saw flames eating her.” He took off his coat and wrapped it around her. Pushing her to the ground, he rolled her on the floor to douse the flames, severely burning his hands. But he knew he had been too late. By now, police and firefighters were arriving on the scene. The intense heat of the fire, however, made it difficult for them to enter the caged rotunda. People were pouring out of the bank’s windows like bees escaping a burning hive. Half- naked, dazed, and bloodied, many were now wandering numbly through the streets of the financial district. “When I got to the street,” bank employee W. A. Woodward said, “I noticed that my face, head, and arms were covered with blood. . . . A man I had never seen before rushed up to me and said, ‘Man, don’t you know that you are badly hurt?’ There was no ambulance near, so this man hustled me into a taxicab and took me to St. Luke’s Hospital.”

A crowd estimated at twenty thousand people had been drawn to the streets of the southern Loop to watch the disaster. Many were trying to help the victims. Several gathered around Milton Norton. The photographer lay in the street in front of the Board of Trade Building, still attached by rope to his smoldering parachute. By all appearances, the man seemed dead. But someone flagged down a passing automobile and ordered the driver to take the battered man to the hospital.

Meanwhile, Jack Boettner had made his way to the street. After detaching himself from his burning chute on the roof of the Board of Trade Building, the pilot had found a fire escape and started down. It took a long time for him to reach street level. Amazed to find himself only slightly injured, he set off amid the confusion to search for his men. He was intercepted on the street by two police detectives, and when he told them who he was, they immediately arrested him and took him away for questioning.

Back at the Illinois Trust Building, firemen struggled to bring the blaze under control. Charred and bloody bodies were now being removed from the rotunda. Friends and relatives of bank employees ran frantically around the streets, looking for their loved ones.

Bystanders were doing what they could, wrapping the injured in their own jackets and helping them to waiting automobiles. Even those people who had only witnessed the disaster were stunned, incredulous. No one could quite take in the reality of what had happened. How had this experimental blimp—this enormous, floating firebomb—been allowed to fl y over one of the most densely populated square miles on Earth? Shouldn’t someone have recognized the potential disaster and prevented it?

It was a question that would be asked numerous times over them next days, as the people of Chicago learned the details of what had happened that afternoon. The crash of the Wingfoot Express—the first major aviation disaster in the nation’s history—had taken the lives of more than a dozen people, while injuring dozens more, and had brought utter panic to the heart of the second largest city in the country. To many, it was unthinkable that such a thing could occur, that people quietly conducting their business in a downtown bank could suddenly find themselves in the midst of a hydrogen- fueled inferno. Chicago had recently come through a world war and an influenza epidemic relatively unscathed. But in the new age of twentieth-century technology, there were exotic new dangers to fear, new sources of turmoil to be reckoned with.

White men stoning a black victim during the 1919 race riots; Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

What no one could possibly realize at the time, however, was that the turmoil of the summer of 1919 had just begun. Over the next weeks, Chicago would plunge headlong into a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions, suffering an appalling series of trials that would push the entire city to the edge of civic disintegration. A population so recently preoccupied with fighting an enemy abroad would suddenly find no shortage of enemies within its own ranks, threatening residents’ homes, their jobs, even their children. The result would be widespread violence in the streets, turning neighbor against neighbor, white against black, worker against coworker, while rendering the city’s leaders helpless to maintain order. The Red Summer, as it would later be called, would leave Chicago a changed and chastened city, its greatest ambitions for the future suddenly threatened by the spectacle of a community hopelessly at war with itself.

All of this would happen over just twelve days. In retrospect, the crash of the Wingfoot Express—as horrifying as it may have seemed on that warm July evening—would come to be regarded as the least of the city’s woes.

Reprinted from the book City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist. Copyright © 2012 by Gary Krist.  Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.