In April of 1897, Michael Kenna—better known as “Hinky Dink” on account of his diminutive stature—was elected alderman for the 1st Ward, known today as the Near South Side but back then as the Levee District and the city’s vice capital, home to saloons, whorehouses, opium joints, and one establishment called Bucket of Blood. Kenna himself was the proprietor of the Workingman’s Exchange, a saloon that sold the cheapest beer in Chicago.
In celebration, and to show their appreciation to Kenna, whose political largesse kept them from being shut down by the city’s vice squad, a group of his constituents calling themselves the Star League threw him a dinner on April 22 and presented him with a token of their goodwill: a big gold star, studded with diamonds.
“They’re probably not very high-quality diamonds,” Chicago History Museum intern Frances Hathcock whispers confidentially.
Indeed, reports curator Naomi Blumberg, the gold was only 14-karat and the diamonds were a mere one carat each, except for the big one in the middle, which weighed in at four carats. But no matter. When Kenna died in 1946, still the duly elected representative of the 1st Ward, the star was found in a safe deposit box among his most treasured possessions.
Kenna’s family did not, apparently, feel the same way about the gold star—they sold it at auction for $1,325. Within a few years, it ended up in a pawnshop in Peru, a small town halfway between Peoria and Joliet. The pawnshop owner appreciated the star and its history and decided it would be the centerpiece of the museum he was planning to establish someday. He showed it to one of his favorite customers, Ruth McCormick Tankersley, a newspaper publisher in nearby LaSalle and, yes, one of those McCormicks.
Tankersley kept in touch with the pawnbroker after she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1949 to run another of her family’s newspapers. Alas, he never got to open his museum; he was murdered a few years later. When Tankersley sent his widow a condolence letter, she sent back the gold star with a note saying her husband would have wanted Tankersley to have it. Tankersley had the star appraised—by then, its value had appreciated to $10,000—and sent the money to the widow.
Tankersley remained the custodian of the gold star until last year, when she donated it to the Chicago History Museum. She died this past February. In March, the museum put the star on display as part of its ongoing “Unexpected Chicago” exhibit; you can see it until the end of this month.
“We have nothing like this,” says Blumberg, gazing at the star, secure in its display case. “It’s really special. It’s a great Chicago narrative, with a great afterlife.”