It turns out that a Wolfe relative was commissioner of public works in Chicago in one of the most corrupt, mob-infested administrations in the city’s history. How corrupt? Where the mayor was concerned, two words: Al Capone. Where Richard W. Wolfe was concerned: The Chicago Tribune published on its front page images of canceled checks and bank statements bearing Wolfe’s signature, suggesting that he helped divert most of nearly $140,000 in flood-relief money (some of which was raised from school kids!) into the mayor’s own coffers. It gets worse. When a state’s attorney subpoenaed payroll records from Wolfe, looking for evidence of graft, some mobsters showed up at the garage where the records were stored and killed a night watchman in a failed attempt to get at them first.
Yet nothing ever seemed to touch Commissioner Wolfe. Remarkably, obituaries in the New York Times and even in the Tribune, published in 1951, make zero mention of any scandals. And the Trib really, really hated Wolfe back in the day. (It must have been awkward for Wolfe that his sister’s kid was a reporter there.)
Don’t worry, though. The commissioner got his payback. In 1930, the mayor, Big Bill Thompson, planned to give a campaign speech attacking the Tribune bosses and the publisher’s sister-in-law, Ruth McCormack, who was running for U.S. Senate. A sudden bout of appendicitis prevented Thompson from delivering his speech, so he had Wolfe do it for him.
It was Halloween night at the Apollo Theater in Chicago:
Wolfe employed a verbal scalpel to tear open eighty years’ worth of Tribune misdeeds. Rambling and reckless, Thompson’s speech linked old Joe Medill to the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Mayor Carter Harrison, accused the nineteenth-century editor of debasing half a dozen pre-pubescent girls, and blamed the death of Governor Len Small’s wife on the paper’s relentless hounding of “the greatest constructive governor the state of Illinois ever had.” Thompson also dredged up the affair between “the moral pervert” Joe Patterson and the wife of a friend, leading to Patterson’s fervent embrace of Socialist doctrine …
The mayor, through Wolfe’s Irish brogue (the commissioner was born in County Limerick), went on to accuse the current publisher of the Tribune of adultery and, to some ears, he expressed hope that “some courageous citizen” might kill him. Ruth McCormack lost her election, but, in the name of all things just, so did Thompson. And aside from having to appear before a grand jury, Wolfe faded into obscurity.
He had a great run, though. For a fuller accounting of his life, including how he fits into the Wolfe family tree, go here. Or, in the photos below, you can relive his rocky time as commissioner through headlines from the Chicago Tribune. We could all wish for such an interesting career!
As a taste, here’s my favorite, in which an alderman (with the Tribune‘s help) makes fun of Wolfe for having published a forty-three-page book titled Culture, a volume I have just ordered, by the way:
images: Richard W. Wolfe (left to right) from the Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1931; Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1909; Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1916; headline from the Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1928
[July 14, 2013]