Carter H. Harrison II was the 30th mayor of Chicago, in office from 1897-1905 and then again from 1911-1915. His father, Carter H. Harrison, also served as mayor of Chicago from 1879-1887. Harrison senior was re-elected 1893 for a fifth term, but was assassinated in his home by a failed politician named Patrick Eugene Prendergast on October 28th, 1893. Earlier that day Harrison Senior had announced in a speech “I intend to live for more than half a century! And at the end of that half century London will tremble lest Chicago shall surpass her.”
Although the Daley family, (Richard Joseph Daley and Richard Michael Daley) are today noted for their domination of the Chicago political scene, the same can be said for the Harrison family in the late 19th and early 20th century. Both Carter H. Harrison Jr. and senior were elected to five terms in office accounting for 10 of 17 mayoral elections from 1879 until the outbreak of World War I. Carter H. Harrison Jr. greatly respected his father and resembled him in appearance and political policy.
Carter Harrison Jr. was born on April 23, 1860 in Chicago. In 1873 Harrison’s mother, who never took a liking to the Chicago lifestyle, took Harrison Jr. and his brother and sister to Germany. Harrison Jr. stayed in Germany with his brother and sister until his mother’s death in 1876. Upon returning to Chicago, Harrison Jr. enrolled in a Catholic prep school where he received his high school and graduate educations. After graduating, Harrison Jr. chose to attend Yale Law School, the same place his father received his law degree.
After Harrison Jr. graduated law school in 1883, he passed his time in Chicago working as a poet, and a journalist under the pseudonym Cecil H. Harcourt. During this time, Harrison developed a great respect for his father, and decided to carry on his legacy and run for the mayor of Chicago. Like his father Harrison appealed to the working class, but his elite upbringing also appealed to the Chicago’s affluent community. He ran on a platform of progressive civic reform which was well received by the City’s population, and in 1897 he was elected the 30th mayor of Chicago.
The largest controversy Harrison faced in his administration was known as the “Traction Wars,” traction referring to electric streetcar companies. In 1858 the Chicago City Council gave corporate rights to private streetcar companies to carry passengers on Chicago streets for profit. The original contract gave rights for twenty-five years, but in 1865 private companies received a ninety-nine year contract from a corrupt Illinois state legislature. A man named Charles Tyson Yerkes owned most of the streetcars in the city by the time that Harrison Jr. became mayor of Chicago. Yerkes was known to have a number of politicians in his pocket, one of them being state senator named John Humphrey. Humphrey introduced a series of legislation in 1896 which would expand private streetcar rights in Chicago by fifty years. The bills also only mandated minimal compensation from the streetcar companies to the city. Harrison Jr. took an ardent stance against the Humphrey bills and over the next decade fought any franchise expansion. Although Humphrey did very little in leading the fight against the streetcar companies, his visible stance on the issue earned him public approval.
Like his father, Harrison Jr. was an ardent Democrat and believed morality should not be a part of politics. In regards to gambling, prohibition, prostitution and other vices, Harrison adopted a “live and let live” policy. However, the political opposition to vice which surrounded the 1911 mayoral election forced Harrison to use Chicago Police to close several brothels in the city. Ironically, coming down hard on prostitution is what Harrison is most remembered for in Chicago. At the end of his fifth term, Harrison was physically weary from the strain of politics, and after being defeated in the 1915 Democratic primary, he officially retired from politics.
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