When the mayor fired the cops | Sightseeing | Chicago Reader

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When the mayor fired the cops

For eight hours in 1861, Chicago had no police force.

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Mayor "Long John" Wentworth anticipated the midnight operations of future Chicago leaders. - THE WENTWORTH GENEALOGY, ENGLAND AND AMERICAN, VOLUME 1
  • The Wentworth Genealogy, England and American, Volume 1
  • Mayor "Long John" Wentworth anticipated the midnight operations of future Chicago leaders.

An easy exercise in local tourism would be to walk by a local police station and contemplate the night that the mayor fired the entire police force on March 22, 1861.

The state of Illinois authorized a three-man police force for Chicago early in 1835, when it was only a town, population 3,200. When it was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1837, the same three men served.

An ordinance issued on May 17, 1851, assigned the city marshal the role of acting police chief, while the mayor was the head of the police force. The mayor could appoint officers and issue orders. In 1855 the department was overhauled and expanded the number of police to nearly 20.

Elected as a reformer against vice in 1857, Chicago mayor John "Long John" Wentworth stood an imposing six-foot-six and weighed 300 pounds. He seized the opportunity to use his powers as the head of police. That April 20, he led 30 policemen on a raid of the Sands, a red-light district in present-day Streeterville. Ropes tied to horses toppled nine shanty brothels.

Claiming budget concerns during his second term in 1861, Wentworth reduced the police force and imposed a midnight curfew. Outraged voters prompted the state of Illinois to become active in Chicago's police politics again. On February 15, 1861, the state legislature established a Board of Police Commissioners in the city. It would be composed of three commissioners, one for each of the three districts—north, south, and west—divided by the Chicago River. The initial commissioners would be appointed by the governor and the successors would be elected.

Wentworth did not cozy to these terms. At 2 AM on March 22, he called all 60 or so of the city's police officers to City Hall (then on a square bound by LaSalle, Washington, Clark and Randolph) and pulled off something of a coup. Wentworth spoke out against the Illinois state legislature's decision to establish a board of police commissioners. Governor Richard Yates wanted the police force under the jurisdiction of state government, while Wentworth wanted the police to remain a municipal force. Wentworth then fired the entire police force. From 2 to 10 AM, Chicago had no cops.

The mass firing was largely a show. Few people would have known that there was no active police force. The officers were reappointed later that day. Wentworth claimed that the move would allow the Board of Commissioners to have a clean slate to begin appointing police. Instead of a city marshall, there would be a general superintendent of police.

In the hours of lawlessness, the only reported crimes were two burglaries.  v

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