The Brehon Pub sits inconspicuously at the northeast corner of Wells and Superior. From the outside, its bold green signage, four-leaf clover decorations, and Gaelic logo make it hard to pin down as anything other than a traditional Irish pub. But from the inside its completely nontraditional roots are impossible to disguise. The Brehon has a history deeply tied to the corruption of Chicago: the establishment was formerly known as the Mirage Tavern.
The Mirage was a phony bar established by the Sun-Times in 1977 as part of an investigation into corruption allegations and quickly became a hotbed for shady business dealings, bribery, and other white-collar criminality until the story broke in 1978. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the revealing 25-part series that impacted everything from city zoning laws to the ethics of investigative journalism. It was here that journalist and historian, Paul Dailing and I met to talk about his Corruption Walking Tours. In Dailing’s eyes, the stories he tells on the tour are in many ways more poignant now than ever before.
On the tour, Dailing brings groups to a plaque on the Wells Street Bridge dedicated to William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, a former mayor and Al Capone crony. He describes Thompson as a “politician of his time, who would run his mouth off, launch into anti-immigrant tirades, and tell outrageous lies.” He stands obstructing the view of Chicago’s second-tallest building and then slowly moves aside to reveal the word “TRUMP” in bright, bold lettering.
“That got a lot less funny last year,” Dailing said. “The idea of corrupt people enriching themselves off of the public dollar wasn’t just historical. It was real and it was absolutely terrifying.”
Dailing makes it clear that he doesn’t want to spend much time bitching about Trump; after all, it’s a Chicago corruption tour, not a Trump roast. Throughout the tour, his focus remains on the city, and it goes deeper than many of his attendees often expect.
“I always joke that I lure them in with promises of wacky Blagojevich stories, and leave them with civics,” Dailing muses. “I like when people leave the tour a little discomforted, because people always come in expecting Blago and stories of 1920s governors, but the real damage is done in the completely legal stuff, the real damage is done with gerrymandering and redlining, the real damage is done with public housing. People didn’t just come here and decide to segregate themselves.”
Bringing this information to the public requires lots of research. Dailing rummaged through newspaper clips from the mid-20th century and scoured online databases for stories on the double-dealing behind and within many of Chicago’s landmarks, perpetrated by the city’s own elected officials. The tour includes updates on 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran’s 2016 indictment for stealing charitable contributions and 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke’s shady deals with the Vienna Beef company, as well as any new developments on other pending cases.
If there are two things Dailing knows about the city of Chicago, it’s where to find its most fascinating landmarks and where to dig up the dark history of corruption each has to offer
A Rockford native, Dailing found his first job in Chicago on
Shoreline Wendella’s riverboat tours. Following a bumpy career path in journalism—one that included stints at the Kane County Chronicle, the Aurora Beacon News, and at Patch.com’s Tinley Park affiliate—Dailing worked as a freelance journalist, and when he wasn’t writing, he was enjoying his half pastime, half occupation of guiding riverboat tours.
It was during this period that Dailing first toyed with the idea of combining his two passions. “I returned to doing boat tours with Shoreline, and I realized how much I missed it,” said Dailing. “I liked doing tours and I knew all of this political stuff from being a reporter and I wanted to figure out a way to combine them. From there I came up with the idea.”
Now Dailing has settled into his position as editor at Chicago Lawyer magazine, and his Chicago Corruption Walking Tours are heading into their third year of operation.
The ultimate goal of the tours, in Dailing’s own words is to “give people a look at the vanished stories that people in power tried very hard to make sure we never knew.” It is for this reason that budding Chicago digital media platform the Triibe was selected through a Twitter poll as the beneficiary of half of all gratuities earned throughout this year’s tours. The Triibe has made stories that fit this description their business by focusing their content on a mission to shift the narrative around Chicago’s black communities.
“Very smart, very powerful people have tried very hard to make sure we do not know a single one of these stories,” Dailing said. ‘I want people to always be vigilant, I want them to feel like they can do something.’
Tickets to tours, one a mile and the other two and a quarter miles, are on sale on Dabble, and more information is available on Dailing’s blog, 1001 Chicago Afternoons. Dailing wants these tours to be an empowering experience for citizens. As he puts it, “I’d be lying if I promised that if you pay attention to this all corruption will vanish, but I’d also be lying if I left people despondent, feeling like it’s too much to handle. I’m just trying to keep it always hopeful.”