William Lorimer circa 1911 (Courtesy Library of Congress via The Commons on Flickr)

William Lorimer (1861-1934), was a rare bird indeed: a Chicago political boss who was Republican.  By the time he paused to have this photograph taken, he’d risen to a seat in US Senate, but under circumstances that steeled reformers’ determination to amend the Constitution, so that nothing of the kind would ever happen again.

Lorimer had the bored, jaded look of a man who’d been around the corner and back again.  Known as the “the Blond Boss,” Lorimer, who’d been born in Manchester, England, had risen to wealth from poverty, the son of a Scotch-Presbyterian minister who died early, leaving his family to negotiate the late nineteenth-century Chicago immortalized in works like Sister Carrie.  From the age of ten, Lorimer worked various jobs, including in the stockyards; he received negligible education.

In his early 20s, he became a street-car driver, married a woman who was Irish Catholic, and converted to her religion.  Known as a clean liver who did not drink, smoke, or attend the theater, he fathered 8 or 9 daughters, many of whom later worked for the city.

Lorimer’s determination to enter politics on the Republican side is said to have dated from 1884, when a Chicago polling place could not provide him with a Republican ballot to cast for James G. Blaine.  Lorimer became the political favorite of ethnic voters on the city’s west side, including many Russian Jews, Bohemians, and Irish who had previously voted Democratic.  Lorimer was not a reformer; he believed in competition.

He thrived by delivering on promises to supporters and friends, and by wedging himself between the Democrats and the reform wing of his own party.  Exploiting these divisions, he managed in 1908 to defeat a rival Republican for the US Senate, at a time when all Senators were chosen by state legislatures.  A year later, one Illinois state assemblyman claimed to have been paid $1,000 for his vote.  Several others joined him, claiming to have received payments from a jackpot fund set up to influence decisions in the Illinois assembly.

The allegations were investigated over the next several years by state and federal legislative committees, which could not find evidence of Lorimer’s personal wrong-doing.  But the winds of change had been blowing strongly, and eventually grew strong enough to blow Lorimer away.  Ignoring the detailed conclusions of the committees, the Senate voted to expel Lorimer in 1911.  Two years later, the nation ratified the 17th Amendment, which empowered voters to elect US senators directly.

Though Lorimer dropped dead in a Chicago train station decades ago, something of his spirit still haunts Chicago.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, from this source.

Boss Lorimer and the Illinois Bribery Scandal,” New York Times, 1909.

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