Chicago's 'Great Boodle Trial'
Then & Now: Stories of Law and Progress, pp. 4-13 (2013)
10 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2013 Last revised: 9 May 2013
Date Written: April 3, 2013
In the summer of 1887, three Chicago politicians made national headlines, not for their oratory skills or legislative acumen, but for the brazenness of their “boodling” — the uniquely-Chicago talent of using political office to enrich oneself through bribes and kickbacks. William McGarigle, Edward McDonald, and Michael “Big Mike” McDonald — the boss of Chicago’s Democratic Machine and the city’s first politician gangster — engineered the “most sensational corruption scandal of the late nineteenth century.” As revealed through testimony of the “Great Boodle Trial” of 1887, their fantastic story is one of proudly corrupt politicians, seemingly-righteous reformers, bag men, kidnappers, and suckered citizens, all set against the backdrop of a city emerging as a national power.
This chapter, which begins "Then & Now: Stories of Law and Progress," a compilation of essays produced in connection with IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law’s 125th anniversary, examines Chicago’s Boodle Trial and its legacy. On one level, the Boodle Trial offers a rare and entertaining glimpse into the crooked machine politics of early Chicago and the equally underhanded tactics of overzealous reformers. Some saw the trial as a “corrective antidote” to “[a]n epidemic of fraud” that helped galvanize the city’s reform movement, proving that even well-connected Chicago politicians could be brought to justice. At the same time, the trial exposed the lengths — some say necessary; others say illegal — reformers will go in the pursuit of their goals. On another level, the Boodle Trial is a mirror of today’s public corruption and white collar scandals. Current headlines read much as they did 125 years ago, describing colorful Chicago politicians fighting indictment for schemes that would get an approving nod from the boodlers. In the end, the trial reminds us of just how entrenched corruption is in politics — as dramatic as it was at the time, the trial may have been the beginning, not the end, of Chicago’s legacy of corruption.
Keywords: Chicago, boodle, Great Boodle Trial, 1887, William McGarigle, Edward McDonald, Michael 'Big Mike' McDonald, machine politics, corruption
JEL Classification: K10, K19, K30, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation