Hey, PENANCE has a cover. Now, some of ya’ll may have already seen this, since it snuck out on to Amazon, but consider this the official reveal. The chaps (they’re English, I get to call them that) at Exhibit A tell me a tweak or two is still possible, but, so far as the front of the book goes, this is it. I like it. I like the color, I like the urban feel of it. I like the way that the title appears to be projected on to the pavement by the street lamps. It really gives the feeling of a story that’s not just set in Chicago, but that is of Chicago.
But I like it for deeper reasons, some of them esoteric, reasons the designer had no way of knowing when he picked this image.
I like it because cities have ghosts. And Chicago’s ghosts, some real, some created for the novel, play a vital role in PENANCE.
I’d had nothing to do with choosing the cover photo, but when I saw it, I recognized the location instantly. The corner of Wacker Drive and Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago. The building on the left? Back in my freelancing days, I had a client in there. I was in and out of that place all the time. And Catch 35 is on the ground floor, nice seafood joint. Place I used to take my big-ticket customers for Christmas lunch. It gave me a little chill – the fact that someone I don’t know, someone I’ve never met, someone over in the UK for chrissake, picked a Chicago intersection that I was so connected to as the image for my first book. It’s almost like I’m a ghost haunting my own cover.
Based on the angle, I’d say the shot was taken from one of the Marina Tower buildings just across the river. The Chicago River. And that was haunting, too. Because cities do have ghosts, and Chicago tends to make them in bunches. By fire and water.
The Chicago Fire, of course. October 1871. Some 300 dead, they never did find out how many for sure. More than 17,000 buildings burned. A third of the city’s population left homeless. Every structure you could have seen from the corner of Wacker and Dearborn would have burned to the ground. But you’ve heard of the Chicago Fire. That’s not the fire I’m thinking of.
I’m thinking of 1903.
The Iroquois Theater opened in November. It had a bad first month. A combination of foul weather and the labor unrest that had delayed the theater’s completion kept the crowds down.
By Christmas, though, things were looking up. Designed to be Chicago’s grandest theater and hailed by architectural critics from as far away as New York for its opulence, The Iroquois had become the talk of the town. The December 30th matinee performance of Mr. Bluebird was a sellout, more than 2,000 people in
attendance, many of them mothers and children looking for something to do during the school holiday. Every seat was taken and so many patrons packed into the standing room areas that some of them sat in the aisles, blocking the exits.
Once the performance started, the iron gates that kept the hoi polloi in the two balcony levels from sneaking down and mixing with those who could afford main floor tickets were closed and locked.
Around 3:15 pm, an arc light shorted out and sparks caught in a muslin curtain. The theater had a fire curtain, a supposedly fire-proof barrier that was supposed to drop and keep any fire that might start on stage (that’s where theater fires tended to start) from spreading out into the audience. But the fire curtain got hung up on a lighting rig. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The fire curtain burned. The owners had mixed too much wood pulp in with the asbestos, cost-cutting move I guess.
So the fire leapt from the stage to the seats. Panicked, theatergoers scrambled to find the fire exits, which were hidden behind curtains so as not to mar the building’s magnificence. The fire exits were latched with bascule locks, not familiar to many of the patrons. Only a few of the fire doors were ever opened. Bodies were found stacked ten deep at the others, and at the base of the iron gates that blocked the stairways.
605 people died, the most fatalities in any single-structure fire in US history.
The Iroquois stood at Dearborn and Randolf, just two blocks south of the spot on the cover of my book. From Wacker and Dearborn, you would have heard the screams.
Ghost by fire. And by water.
On July 24, 1915, more than 2,000 employees of the Western Electric Company had crammed aboard the SS Eastland, headed for a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. The day dawned cool and misty, but that did little to dampen the festive atmosphere. This unusual act of corporate largess was a major occasion for the workers, many of them Czech immigrants, most of whom couldn’t afford diversions and didn’t have paid vacations or even days off. Whole families crowded the ship’s deck.
Good deeds seldom go unpunished. Especially in Chicago.
At 7:28 am, the Eastland, still moored to the dock, listed sharply to port and then rolled onto its side, coming to rest on the muddy river bottom 20 feet below. Passengers on the top deck were hurled into the river. Few knew how to swim, and the women especially were damned by the cumbersome fashions of the day. Hundreds of children, many of them just infants, flailed in the water. They were the lucky ones. Some of them were saved. But many of those aboard had crowded below deck to escape the early-morning chill. Those that weren’t crushed by the bookcases, pianos and other furnishings in the ship’s parlors drowned as the river’s muddy, stinking water poured over the side.
844 passengers and four crewman died, among them 22 entire families.
The Eastland took its multitude to the grave on the south side of the river, just east of LaSalle Street. If you had been standing at the corner of Wacker and Dearbon that July morning and looked west, you could have almost reached out and touched the ship’s bow.
Ghosts. Cities have ghosts. And, in Chicago, there is a reason why so many of them don’t rest easy.
The Iroquois was advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” A Chicago Fire Department Captain made an informal tour of the Iroquois just after it opened as was so alarmed by what he saw – no water connections, insufficient and confusing exits, locked stairways – that he met personally with the theater’s fire warden. The fire warden told him there was nothing he could do, that, if he raised these concerns with the owners, he’d just be fired and replaced with someone more complaint. The captain then went to his superiors at the fire department, who told him to speak to the building’s fire warden, that the building had passed its inspections, that he should be quiet and go away. After the fire, it was alleged that the fire inspectors responsible for certifying the theater had been bribed – with free tickets. One wonders if any of them were in attendance for the matinee on December 30. Due to the public outrage, charges were filed against many, including the mayor, but the charges were all dismissed after three years of delaying tactics on the part of the city, the theater’s owners and their attorneys. By then, the outrage had cooled. One man was convicted in association with the fire – a Loop barkeep who was caught stealing from the corpses and was sentenced for grave robbing. Only 3o families were ever compensated for the deaths of their loved ones. They received $750 a piece.
The Eastland was originally designed as a cargo ship, which would have meant heavy loads low in its holds. Even then, it had a reputation for instability. Converting it to an excursion ship meant moving its load, now people, higher up. Legislation passed after the Titanic sank required that passenger ships add additional lifeboats. The boats, davits and rigging added to the Eastland’s top deck made it even more unstable. The ship’s reputation for listing was well-known, but the licenses necessary to make it an excursion vessel were issued anyway. Bribes were almost certainly involved.
When the Eastland went turtle killing hundreds,there was outrage, again. Charges were filed, again. The head and three of the corporate officers of the Chicago South Haven Line, which owned the Eastland, were indicted for manslaughter and the ship’s captain and engineer were charged with criminal carelessness. All five men lived in Michigan and refused to come to Chicago to face trial, so an extradition hearing was held. The judge ruled that the ship had carried thousands of passengers safely and that the unfortunate affair was nothing more than an accident that occurred in the regular course of business. No one was convicted. No one even stood trial.
And the families of the dead, being powerless immigrants and not middle-class-or-better theater goers, were never compensated so much as a penny for their loss.
Cities have ghosts.