Lily Clara Letter 3 - The "King" of Chicago

 Mike McDonald ruled Chicago with unprecedented power for more than two decades as the head of the city’s first political machine and its first organized crime syndicate. Born as Michael Cassius McDonald to Irish immigrants near Niagara Falls in 1839, Mike ran away from home when he was 13 years old and survived in the streets of Chicago as a scam artist and gambler. McDonald reportedly coined the now-famous phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and he used others’ gullibility to his advantage. After rising to prominence in Chicago’s criminal underworld, he extended his political influence through his infamously violent temper and tight control of politicians, police, judges, and criminals. His reign was marked by widespread corruption, bribery, fixed elections and trials, extortion, racketeering, vice, fraud, violence, and other crimes.

In 1873, McDonald opened “The Store,” which became the most notorious gambling parlor in the nation. The lavish five story building, on the corner of Clark and Monroe Streets, included a saloon on the first floor, an illegal 24-hour gambling hall on the second floor, a boarding house on the third floor, and McDonald’s personal residence on the top floors. The Store was known as “the unofficial City Hall” because so much of the city’s business was conducted and controlled from there. The McDonald political machine and gambling empire defined Chicago during the Gilded Age and paved the way for future political corruption and organized crime bosses like Al Capone. The reign of “King Mike” left a permanent stamp on the city.  

Mike McDonald, ca. 1907. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum, ICHi 51298.

Learn the Lingo:

  • Cuisle mo chroidhe: an Irish Gaelic term of endearment meaning “darling”; pronounced CUSHLE-MO-CHREE; literally “vein of my heart” or “pulse of my heart”
  • Mott Haven: a South Bronx neighborhood primarily populated by Irish immigrants seeking to escape the overcrowding of Manhattan in the mid-nineteenth century
  • Drinking your coffee: drinking black coffee was a popular asthma treatment during the 1800s; the caffeine in coffee does in fact contain a mild bronchodilator that can help open airways
  • Smoking treatment: popular nineteenth century remedies for asthma and other respiratory problems included the therapeutic inhalation of smoke from tobacco, opium, lobelia, stramonium (“devil’s snare”), and other plants; inhaling smoke is now generally understood to significantly worsen asthma
  • Malmsey Nose: a heavily-acned nose; “a red pimpled snout, rich in carbuncles and rubies”
  • Jimmer Jawed: having the lower jaw out of joint, jutting out beyond the upper jaw, and moving with unusual freedom
  • Skycer: a no-good or worthless person; a swindler, rogue, or scoundrel; defined in the 1890 Dictionary of Slang as “a low, mean, sponging fellow.”

To learn even more, check out:

Kelly Pucci, Chicago’s First Crime King: Michael Cassius McDonald (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2019).

Richard Lindberg, The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).