William T. Stead
  • William T. Stead

When big news happens, Chicago is no different from any other small town: it wants to hear about its own.

When the movie Titanic came out in 1997, Chicago’s skin in the game was Billy Zane, playing young Caledon “Cal” Hockley, as cold, smug, and self-absorbed a one-percenter as ever tested the outer limits of cliche. I’m wondering if Zane, whose assignment in the movie was to give Kate Winslet ample reason to flee to the arms of Leonardo DiCaprico, survived its recent conversion to 3D. Where would his character’s third dimension come from?

But when the actual Titanic went down in the Atlantic 100 years ago this Sunday, Chicago’s own was someone altogether different. William Thomas Stead, born in England in 1849, was a muckraking journalist who believed “the Press is the greatest agency for influencing public opinion in the world” and came to Chicago in 1893 to find out if this lofty credo could be applied even here. His stay resulted a year later in If Christ Came to Chicago, a shrewd, passionate, angry portrait of our city in the slough of the financial and spiritual despond that followed the 1993 world’s fair.