CHICAGO: The Ghost of Richard J. Daley

Boss Richard J. Daley

In the spring of 1987, I was a young reporter in Chicago covering the city’s race for mayor for a national magazine called Irish America. At the time, Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, was running for a second term. Also running that year was Jane Byrne, who had served as mayor before Washington and was now seeking to reclaim her old job. There were a couple other candidates as well. One person who was not running was Richard M. Daley. He had run four years earlier and not performed well, so he was sitting this one out.

As with all Chicago’s mayoral campaigns, this one was rambunctious. Washington was favored to repeat, but Jane Byrne was a fiery, slash-and-burn competitor who seemed to always be in attack mode.

Even though Richard M. Daley was not running, I wanted to interview him – for many reasons, but mostly because of his father. Richard J. Daley had ruled over the city of Chicago for twenty-one years as mayor and twenty-three years as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, holding both positions until he died in office in 1976. He was a legendary figure, larger than life; his blunt repudiation of anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at which he unleashed Chicago police to brutalize everyone in sight – all of it captured live on TV – was a seminal event in U.S domestic politics. Daley the senior had presided over incredible economic and physical growth in the city of Chicago and done many positive things, but because of the ’68 convention he would be remembered, nationally, as the epitome of a political thug and would-be dictator.

I arrived to interview Richard M. Daley on the 22nd Floor of the Daley Center, a building named after his father. At the time, “Richie,” as he preferred to be known, was serving as Cook County State’s Attorney. Already, I had interviewed Jane Byrne, who made some dismissive remarks about Richie Daley. I was curious about that. As a young, up and coming political figure, Jane Byrne had been a protégé of daddy Daley. Presumably, Richie Daley and Byrne had known each other for along time. I arrived at the Daley Center determined to get at the root of this bad blood between Byrne and the Daley family.

Jane Byrne savors her victory in the previous night’s Democratic primary in 1979, when she defeated incumbent Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic. She became the city’s first female mayor.

I was ushered into the office of the state’s attorney, and there he was – Richie Daley. This was two years before Daley would himself be elected mayor in 1989 (in a special election). Daley would go on to serve for twenty-two years, one year longer than his father. He was re-elected five times. In 2011, they wanted him to run for a seventh term, but he decided to retire.

Back in 1987, the attribute Richie Daley exuded most was humility. His challenge to Jane Byrne in 1983 had been something of an embarrassment. Not known as verbally dexterous or as a quick-silver intellect, he floundered during interviews and in televised debates. He crawled away from that campaign with his head between his legs, but it was largely thought that he would regroup, re-strategize and one day make another run.

In Daley’s office, the dominant feature was a massive, framed oil painting portrait of his father, on the wall hovering over the room. It was one of those portraits that, no matter what era in which it was painted, it made it’s subject look like a 17th Century lord of the manor. The father, of course, was a forbidding figure, portly, jowly, and salt-of-the-earth. Throughout the interview, I felt the gaze from that portrait; Richard J. Daley was looking down at us, listening to every word.

The first thing Richie Daley did was offer me a cigar. And so we sat underneath the massive portrait of Chicago’s most notorious potentate, and Daley the son said, “Go ahead, ask me whatever you want.”

He was a very likable guy, down-to-earth, earnest and humble. He did not strike me as the brightest guy in the world; his thought process was slow, and his manner of speaking was round-about, but you could tell he was a man with a good heart, and that his concerns and cares were genuine. He was a good listener and a ‘people person.’ You could tell that he was a doer, not necessarily a thinker, and I was not surprised at all that he would go on to became a highly popular mayor known for getting things done.

Anyway, we sat there and chatted, and I waited till our cigars were nearly down to the nub when I asked Richie about Jane Byrne.

I knew that it was a loaded question: there had always been rumors, never proven, that daddy Daley had became so enamored with his young female protégé that they had an affair. After Daley died in office, and Byrne and Richie Daley sought to run for the office that Boss Daley had held so indelibly for so long, it was seen as though they were vying for control of his legacy.

Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, who served as mayor one year longer than his father. Together, they ruled Chicago for nearly half a century.

I asked Richie about that, whether the tussle between his family and Byrne had been over who was the rightful heir to the Daley legacy. He paused for a beat, and then said, “No. The media commented a lot about that. But that wasn’t it.”

“So what was it,” I asked.

Daley thought about it for a second, puffed on the stogie, took it out, rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, and said, “She moved the Christmas tree.”

I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Richie let it stew for a few seconds, then added, “The Christmas tree. It was always right here in front of the Daley Center. Every year. It meant a lot to my dad to have it there. And when she got into office, one of the first things she did was move the Christmas tree to another location.”

Daley was seated on the edge of his desk. He looked sad. The pettiness of that action on Jane Byrne’s part had cut deeply. It was an unforgivable slight. In my heart, I wanted to give him a hug, but instead I glanced up at the portrait of his father. When I’d first taken in the painting, the expression on Richard J. Daley’s face struck me as neutral, but now he was glowering. Boss Daley was listening to us, and he was pissed off at what Jane Byrne had done.

And that’s when it hit me: they take their politics very personal here in Chicago. Slights and recriminations are swallowed, digested, and then kept buried deep inside, to be avenged at a later date.

Well, that was nearly thirty years ago, and I’m happy to say that I’m returning to Chi-town on January 22, 2016 for two very special appearances. They are as follows:

  1. The Irish American Heritage Center (4626 N. Knox Ave.): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 6pm.

I’m pleased to be appearing at this great facility to discuss The Irish Mob Trilogy and read from Where the Bodies Were Buried. Please drop by!

  1. City Winery (1200 W. Randolph): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 8 pm.

This is truly going to be a blast. I will be the opening act for the Westies, a Chicago-based folk rock band led by esteemed singer-songwriter Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton. The band was created and partly inspired by the book The Westies, and this event is to celebrate the release of the band’s second CD, entitled Six on the Out. I’ll be reading from the Irish Mob Trilogy, including selections from Paddy Whacked and The Westies.

To all my Chicago homies, I hope you can make it! I’m pretty sure the ghost of Richard J. Daley will be there.




I sometimes get asked why I don’t write about white collar criminals. Implied in the questions is the inference that white collar criminals, financially speaking, are certainly as much a menace to society as the gangsters I write about. I do agree with the premise. In America, white collar criminals are the true scourges of society. But there is a simple reason I don’t often write about them. They are boring.

I read the stories about them in the news – Kozlowski, Madoff, and this recent douche bag, Martin Shkreli, who marked up AIDS medication by five thousand percent and was recently arrested for securities fraud. These are people whose financial crimes are worse than the average organized crime family. They are certainly worse than, say, a street gang; their crimes do more damage to society than most gangsters.


But here’s the problem: most of them are “true blue Americans,” white men with wives and kids who live in garish mansions inside gated communities. Their version of the American Dream is the most unimaginative and shallow ever conceived. It’s based on acquisitiveness, and nothing more. It is crass and devoid of morality. Disgusting and pernicious? Yes. But also boring. Their daily lives are filled with nothing. The storyteller in me dies a little bit every time I read about their activities.

When I write about the criminal underworld – be it from the POV of my own Irish American culture, or Cuban American culture, or African American, or Mexican – it is from a place of respect and curiosity (curiosity being the highest form of respect) for the culture I’m writing about. I write about an aspect of that culture in which people are shut out from the mainstream, and they are struggling to become a part of that tapestry. In the underworld, violence and crime are the dominant transactional methods available; they always have been. The means by which outcasts and “suspicious characters” navigate this world is endlessly fascinating to me. It is the true American story.

White collar crime has no larger narrative. Sometimes, a storyteller will try to make something of the lives of Wall Street vampires, or hedge fund con men, or corporate predators by focusing on the excess. Perhaps there is drama and entertainment value to be found in the gleeful immorality of their lives (see: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). Doesn’t work for me. Greed as a motive is the most base and least interesting of all the Deadly Sins. It is mundane and lacks heart. It is boring.

So, yes, I will read the accounts in the media of those capitalist pigs who choke on their own gluttony, or those who are still getting away with it. It is important to stay informed, and to know who are the true criminals. Just don’t ask me to engage my imagination in their narratives. If you are so concerned, then you write those stories.

I would much rather spend my creative energy or my time with a street hoodlum than a CEO. I would rather do research in a Kingston tenement yard or a colonia in Ciudad Juarez than in a corporate boardroom. White collar crime may be an important subject, it may be worthy of discussion, but for a storyteller, it is about as nourishing as a speech by Donald Trump.



The year 2015 marks the 25-year anniversary of the THE WESTIES, the first book written and published by author T.J. English. At the time, there had never been a major book published on the subject of the Irish Mob in America. The Westies became a national best seller, and the book has gone on tIMG_6083o sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Since its initial publication in 1990, The Westies has never been out of print.

At the time that T.J. English first began researching the story of a notoriously violent gang of hoodlums in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, he was a 30 year-old freelance journalist driving a taxi in the evenings to pay the bills. In some ways, he was not yet at a level in the business of writing where you would think he had the juice to get a book published. Except that there was no one else at that time with the perfect combination of talent, drive and insight to tell the story of the Westies. He was the perfect person at the right time, and the rest is history.

The book tells the story of the gang primarily from the point of view of Mickey Featherstone, who was the number two man in the gang behind boss Jimmy Coonan. The author spent many hours interviewing Featherstone, first while he was being held in federal prison and later when he was relocated into the Witness Protection Program. The author’s ability to forge an intimate relationship with his source would establish what has become a staple of English’s subsequent best selling books: his ability to tell underworld tales from the point of view of those who actually lived those stories.

The Westies were k158121nown primarily for the level of savage violence that characterized their criminal activities in the 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, they developed a macabre reputation for making their murder victims bodies “do the Houdini.” After they killed someone, they cut the bodies into pieces, bagged the body parts and dumped them into the East River. Eventually, the gang’s criminal activities came to the attention of the Mafia. Led by Coonan, the gang sought to establish a working partnership with the Gambino Crime Family, who were led at the time by Paul Castellano. This partnership, hotly debated within the gang, would eventually sow the seeds of the gang’s destruction.

In late 1987 and on into 1988, the Westies were the subject of a major RICO, or racketeering trial in the Southern District of New York. The primary witness against the gang was Featherstone, who felt that members of the gang, including Coonan, had deliberately framed him for a West Side murder he did not commit. Featherstone had been convicted of that murder and sentenced to life in prison. Instead of accepting that diabolical injustice, he struck back and became a cooperating witness against the gang.

The trial was attended by T.J. English. The courtroom stories of the gang’s roots and crimes,  s41qWifh2+NL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_panning more than twenty years, captured the imagination of the young journalist and cab driver, himself an Irish American from a working-class background. What made it possible for this neophyte, would-be author to sell the story to a major publisher was that English saw this yarn in the larger context of the Irish American experience. The book became about something more than the story of this particular criminal group from this particular neighborhood. It became the story of a certain type of hard-nosed, tough guy Irish American culture that had existed in many U.S. cities for nearly a century.

There is a reason The Westies is now considered a classic. The intimacy of the storytelling at times makes it feel as if this is not even a book about organized crime, but rather the story of a group of friends and associates from a tough neighborhood with a long tradition of criminal activity. In the hands of English, the story of the Westies is humanized and brought down to earth, made to feel relatable and emotionally intimate. All these years later, the book is still shocking for the levels of violence and betrayal that are exposed in such vivid detail.51dJKP1uOeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Read The Westies and you will be brought into the lives of the story’s main characters, but you will also be made to feel as though you are experiencing a living history of the city. Not the “official” history of politics, wars and big public events: a people’s history of ethnic tribalism, survival, and the pursuit of the American Dream from the POV of the mean streets of a festering American metropolis.