Monday, May 12, 2008

Chicago 1928: "Big Bill" burns "Pro-British" books


1920s Chicago mayor 'Big Bill’ Thompson had been an outspoken critic of American intervention in the First World War (earning him the nickname ‘Kaiser Bill’). During the 1920s his anti-British stance developed to the point that he regularly expressed a standing offer to punch King George ‘on the snoot’ if he ever dared visit Illinois. In 1928 Thompson, acting on a tip-off from the self-styled ‘Patriots’ League’, deputed his friend U.J. ‘Sport’ Herrmann to take four of the most invidious pro-British books to the shores of the lake and torch them. Although it is not even absolutely clear whether the books were eventually destroyed or merely quarantined, Big Bill's posturing was the delight of pundits and cartoonists: here Thompson and his mate Herrmann light their pipes on the 'Lamp of Wisdom'.
Intriguingly, Herrmann was a famed philanthropist, who once lent the same library a quarter of a million dollars. He stayed on the library board after 1928, and became its president in 1933. He is reputed to have told Big Bill that he would help destroy the pro-British books, so long as he wasn't forced to actually read them. Many people have tried to make something of the fact that his yacht was named the 'Swastika', but I will resist.

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