John “Bathhouse” Coughlin: Masseur, Alderman and … Poet?

Chicago’s history is full of colorful characters. Al Capone, Cap Streeter, Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson (Capone’s protector), the Everleigh sisters (madams of an upscale brothel), and Alderman John Coughlin.

John “Bathhouse” Coughlin and his partner Mike “Hinky-Dink” Kenna ruled the South Side Levee District. This area was, to use an obvious cliché, a veritable den of iniquity. Prostitution and gambling were de rigueur. Organized crime flourished and Bathhouse and Hinky-Dink reigned supreme. These two Aldermen started the vote early, vote often reputation of Chicago elections.

The pair were like an early 20th Century Odd Couple. Coughlin was the outrageous Oscar Madison, and Kenna the stodgy Felix Unger. Even the origins of their nicknames reflected their characters. Kenna was called Hindy-Dink just because he was short. And Coughlin earned his moniker because he had been a masseur in a Turkish bathhouse.

Bathhouse cut a curious figure. He favored brightly colored waistcoats and was known for his terrible poetry. One of them was actually performed once, and only once, at the Chicago Opera House:

“Dear Midnight of Love 
Why did we meet?
 Dear Midnight of Love 
Your face is so sweet. 
Pure as the angels above 
Surely again we shall speak 
Loving only as doves
Dear Midnight of Love”

His bad poetic skills were such a joke that ghost writers would pen bad verses and attribute them to Bathhouse, which he allowed.

Another quirky story was his purchase of a lame elephant for his zoo in Colorado Springs. Supposedly, when the elephant came down with a cold he instructed the caretakers to give it whiskey, since that had always worked for him. The elephant, Princess Alice, purportedly developed a taste for the strong drink and would search out visitors with flasks. Once she got her fill she’d pass out.

His poetry, his attire, and his eccentricities caused several to think he was a simpleton. At one point Mayor Harrison asked Kenna if Bathhouse were crazy or on drugs. Kenna said “To tell you the god’s truth, Mayor, they ain’t found a name for it yet.”

But his reputation did nothing to hinder the power and wealth that he and his partner attained. They controlled the First Ward. When the Mayor ordered the police to shut down the Everleigh Club, the city’s most luxurious brothel, the inspector waited for the partners’ approval. They received protection money from gambling dens, bars operating without a license and other businesses operating outside the legal parameters. They could also get rid of nasty indictments like theft, grand larceny and kidnapping.

Their money-making efforts weren’t just limited to typical protection schemes. These two hosted the First Ward Ball. Held in the Chicago Coliseum, this annual celebration of all things underworld brought them as much as $50,000. Attendees included 15,000 pimps, prostitutes, madams, and the city’s first reported drag queens. Women who fainted were passed hand over hand to the exits, like a modern-day mosh pit (Dink even called it a “lallapalooza”). In 1907 Alderman Coughlin proudly led a group of prostitutes into the party while wearing a lavendar cravat and a red sash.

Not even a bomb two days before the ball in 1908 could prevent the revelry. Police investigators claimed that it was the work of “fanatical reformers”. Church officials had been trying to rid the city of this celebration of immorality, but even after a destroyed warehouse and broken windows Bathhouse claimed it was the “nicest Derby we ever had.”

That was to be the last First Ward Ball. The reformers got their way as the public outcry overwhelmed Mayor Busse, and with no liquor license the party was a bust.

In 1938, Bathhouse also died rather ignominiously, no longer wealthy and suffering from gambling debts. Although he and Hinky-Dink made an odd couple, their tie was strong. Hinky-Dink become a hermit after his friend’s death, and even though he died in 1947 a millionaire, he died alone.