William Stead, Chicago's man on the Titanic | Bleader

William Stead, Chicago's man on the Titanic


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William T. Stead
  • William T. Stead
When big news happens, Chicago is no different from any other small town: it wants to hear about its own.

When the movie Titanic came out in 1997, Chicago’s skin in the game was Billy Zane, playing young Caledon "Cal" Hockley, as cold, smug, and self-absorbed a one-percenter as ever tested the outer limits of cliche. I’m wondering if Zane, whose assignment in the movie was to give Kate Winslet ample reason to flee to the arms of Leonardo DiCaprico, survived its recent conversion to 3D. Where would his character's third dimension come from?

But when the actual Titanic went down in the Atlantic 100 years ago this Sunday, Chicago’s own was someone altogether different. William Thomas Stead, born in England in 1849, was a muckraking journalist who believed "the Press is the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world" and came to Chicago in 1893 to find out if this lofty credo could be applied even here. His stay resulted a year later in If Christ Came to Chicago, a shrewd, passionate, angry portrait of our city in the slough of the financial and spiritual despond that followed the 1993 world’s fair.

Here, from the opening pages, is a taste of the book, Stead describing the central Harrison Street Police Station:

There is something dreary and repelling about a police station even in the least criminal districts. But Harrison Street Station stands in the midst of darkest Chicago. Behind the iron bars of its underground cages are penned up night after night scores and hundreds of the most dissolute ruffians of both sexes that can be raked up in the dives of the levee . . .

The station is the central cesspool whither drain the poisonous drippings of the city which has become the cloaca maxima of the world. Chicago is one of the most conglomerate of all cosmopolitan cities, and Harrison Street Police Station receives the scum of the criminals of Chicago. . . . The cells, if they may be called such, are in the basement, half underground. They resemble the cages of wild beasts in a menagerie. . . . An open gutter at the back provides the only sanitary accommodation . . .

Into this criminal stock pot of the city the homeless tramps were thrown to stew in their own juice together with the toughs and criminals and prostitutes, the dehumanized harvest nightly garnered by the police of the district. . . . The place had a weird fascination about it. It is not a locality where a very sensitive psychic could live, for its cages have witnessed the suicide of desperate prisoners who, while the jailer’s back was turned, hanged themselves to death from the bars behind which they were imprisoned. Murders red-handed have lodged there, maniacs have battered their heads against the iron gates, for there is no strait waistcoat or padded cell in Harrison Street; women shriek and wail in hysterics, and, saddest of all, little urchins of ten and twelve who have been run in for some juvenile delinquency have found the police cell the nursery cradle of the jail . . .

In 1982, the Reader, then a young publication feeling its oats, serialized the book. With this exception, those installments aren’t entered in our archives, but you can find the entire book on this Northwestern University site.

Stead was taking the Titanic to New York to attend a peace conference in Carnegie Hall. One report had him reading a book in the first class smoking room as the Titanic sank. Another had him last seen clinging to a raft in the water with John Jacob Astor IV. And according to this reference, he was last observed "standing upright on the deck in prayer."

Chicago soon got word that Stead was lost. Here, courtesy of the online Encyclopedia Titanica, are the comments of legendary Chicago alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, as reported by the Chicago Record-Herald.

“Know Billy Stead?” said Kenna. “Sure I know him. Billy came blowing into Chinatown along with the panic, of world’s fair year. He was with Ned Brown they called him ‘Bum’ Brown. ‘Billy’ sure looked like a bum. When Ned came in with Stead and asked me to put his pal to work I says ‘What can you do?’ He says, ‘Nothing.’ I says, ‘Well, you’d make a good white wing, then and so I gets him a job. He and ‘Ned the bum’ worked on the streets.

“‘Hank’ North used to be a great pal of Stead’s. Both he and Ned are dead now, and now ‘Billy’s’ gone. Stead used to live over at the Auditorium, but he always went to ‘Hank’ North’s saloon to change clothes. ‘Hank’ was doing business then at Clark and Harrison street. He had a joint where musicians out of work hung out at.

“Ned always acted sort of like a chaperon for Stead and steered him out of trouble. They sure were a couple of good pals.

“Stead told me before he left that he wanted me to come and see him in London, so when I went over in 1905 I dropped in on him. He sure was glad to see me and we had a long talk. He asked about all the boys and seemed real anxious about some of them.”

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