Doughboy monument, Morton Grove, Illinois

By John Ruberry

This week marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I, then known as the Great War. Much of Europe had been engaged in widespread slaughter since 1914 when Congress, at the request of President Woodrow Wilson, voted to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

After the armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918, America was a transformed nation.

The war caused an American agricultural expressed a boom. Obliteration of farms and a lack of manpower in Europe created a huge demand American grain. After the war rural America was hit with an economic downturn that ran contrast to the robust industrial expansion in cities like Detroit–and many farms were foreclosed. Bold farmers who borrowed money to plant crops in marginally arable areas such as the Great Plains first endured falling commodity prices and then the Dust Bowl of the 1930s–and of course, foreclosures.

While the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North may have begun a few years before the declaration of war, the demand for factory workers in northern cities clearly hastened it. Black soldiers fought the Germans in France–and like all American soldiers they were celebrated as heroes by the grateful French and Belgians. When these black troops returned home, they discovered that white American racial prejudices remained, perhaps they were even worse than before the war. A series a race riots swept America in 1919, known as Red Summer. The deadliest riot occurred in Chicago, with 38 fatalities. It began after an African-American man floating on a railroad tie on Lake Michigan unwittingly drifted into a white section of a segregated beach.

Victory Monument honoring African-American World War I soldiers, Chicago.

These riots were a precursor of the urban unrest of the 1960s.

While it’s now considered impolite to ask a person their ethnic background, especially if you don’t know that person well, it wasn’t in the 1970s and 1980s, at least in the Chicago area, where I grew up. For instance, one of my neighbors from my youth had an Anglo last name. But that name was changed, I was told, in 1917, from a German one when their grandparents had to close their business and move to a different part of Chicago because they feared for their lives after being victims of anti-German violence. Thousands of others–maybe tens-of-thousands of others–also changed their surnames and cut ties to their pasts. I know about a dozen people whose ancestors dropped their German last names during that time and picked ones that were more “American sounding.”

If you take one of those Anscestry.com DNA tests and you surprisingly find German blood in your veins, it could because you unlocked a Great War family secret.

During the war many German-Americans were jailed on flimsy evidence as America, for a while, forgot it was a free country. And that’s not all. Irrational fears of communism after the Russian Revolution, itself a result of World War I, brought about the civil rights abuses of the Red Scare of 1917-1920. Wilson, a progressive Democrat, signed the Sedition Act of 1918 into law, which made criticism of the war or the nation illegal. In response to all of this madness, the far-left American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920.

Later that year Americans overwhelmingly elected Republican Warren G. Harding as president. He promised a “return to normalcy.”

John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

Germans in the United States in the early part of the 20th century were stereotypically viewed as beer guzzlers and saloon owners. The Prohibition movement was already strong when the war began–but the progressive teetotalers preyed upon this new bigotry as they sealed their deal with the passage of the 18th Amendment two months after the end of hostilities. Speakeasies replaced bars–and jazz music, often performed by black musicians who were part of the Great Migration–was the music of choice in many of these illegal establishments. This was not a return to normalcy–it was a new normal.

Europe never completely recovered from World War I–America was the world’s most powerful nation after the armistice was signed.

And it still is.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.


By John Ruberry

Most of the main characters in Hell on Wheels, my last Netflix binge-watching adventure, were shaped, and scarred, by the American Civil War.

In this BBC 2 television show, Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham, England beginning in 1919, World War I casts its shadow over the lead characters.

Three seasons have been released so far. The action–and the violence–is centered upon the Anglo-Gypsy Shelby family, led by Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a decorated Great War tunneller who returns home a new man–and a better suited one to run the family business, Shelby Brothers, Ltd, a bookmaking operation set in the grimy and noisy Small Heath section of Birmingham. But the gang is generally called the Peaky Blinders by members and their enemies. His oldest brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is clearly more psychologically damaged from the war than Tommy, but he’s better suited to serve as the enforcer for the family. “I think, Arthur. That’s what I do,” Tommy explains to him. “I think. So that you don’t have to.” Third son John (Joe Cole), another World War I veteran, is also employed in the muscle side of the operation, while Finn, the youngest Shelby, is only 11-years-old when the series begins.

Tommy has a sister, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle), who is married to communist agitator. But she’s still loyal to the family.

While the Shelby men were fighting in France–the family business was run by Elizabeth “Aunt Polly” Gray (Helen McCrory), a kind of a Rosie the Riveter of the underworld. Tommy quickly takes over from Polly, who serves as his senior advisor. Like Edward G. Robinson’s legendary Rico character in Little Caesar, Tommy becomes a small-time-hood-makes-good-by-being-bad by playing one gang faction against the other, first in Birmingham then in London, while largely ignoring Aunt Polly’s warnings.

When the Peaky Blinders stumble upon a large machine gun shipment in an otherwise routine heist, that gets the attention of Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman in the first season, Richard McCabe in the second), who dispatches Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) from Belfast to find the machine guns. Those guns give Tommy power and respect–and enemies. Not only do Churchill and Campbell want those weapons, but so does the Irish Republican Army.

Campbell sends in an Irish domestic spy, Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), to work at the neighborhood pub owned by Arthur, appropriately named The Garrison. She quickly becomes its de facto manager.

In season three, which is set in 1924, Tommy, at Churchill’s request, gets involved in another armaments caper, this time with members of the Whites faction who haven’t ascertained that the Communists have won the Russian Civil War. Arthur warns Tommy to stay out of “this Russian business.” It’s too bad the script writers didn’t take their own creation’s advice. As was the case with season four of Sherlock, what follows is a collection of tangled and confusing plot lines. Possibly realizing their mistake, the writers include quite a bit of gratuitous nudity to accompany the Russian adventure, including a bizarre orgy scene which does nothing to advance the storyline.

On the other hand, the Russian diversion is loosely based on a 1924 scandal that brought down Great Britain’s first socialist-led government.

At least two more seasons are coming.

The cinematography of Peaky Blinders is masterful. Imagine Tim Burton creating a remake of The Untouchables television show and setting it in 1920s Birmingham. And this is an ugly Birmingham. J.R.R Tolkien lived in the city before the Great War and his reaction against it was his creation of Mordor for The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Eye of Sauron looked upon that evil realm–the sparks and the ashes of the foundries oversee the Midlands metropolis here. And the industrial roar is always there too.

Blogger in his flat cap

Without getting into spoilers it’s a challenge to bring a description of Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons into this review, but his portrayal by Tom Hardy is too good to overlook.

Oh, the name. Peaky Blinders? There was a Birmingham gang by the same name who gained that moniker because its members supposedly sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. And in fights the hoodlums went for the eyes.

And finally, the music deserves special mention too. Anachronistic goth rock dominates, the unofficial theme song is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand.” You’ll find selections from PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes too.

And Johnny Cash sings “Danny Boy.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Ruberry Black Sox
Ruberry in June with man in 1919 White Sox uniform

By John Ruberry

As this decade winds down you can look for many 100th anniversary articles. They’ll be a huge uptick of them next year to mark the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, followed by more on the armistice that concluded “the war to end all wars” in 1918. The execution of the czar and his family, as well as the fall of the Houses of Hohenzollern and Habsburg also occurred that year, events all directly related to World War I.

In 2019 baseball fans will mark 100 years since the Black Sox Scandal, when eight Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to throw, that is, purposely lose the 1919 World Series.

“It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway remarked about the scandal in The Great Gatsby.

That one man, although given a fictionalized name in Gatbsy, was Arnold Rothstein, the mastermind of the scandal, although one of the few things that historians agree upon is that its genesis came from Charles “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman for the 1919 South Siders.

What does the First World War have to do with Major League Baseball’s most notorious scandal. Plenty. In his book The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball, Charles Fountain looks back at “the war to end all wars” and goes back much further.

Comiskey statue, US Cellular Field
Comiskey statue, US
Cellular Field

The most famous member of the Black Sox of course was the illiterate–but, as Fountain explains, in no way dumb, left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson. During the Great War Jackson was one of the baseball players who avoided military service by joining a defense industry factory baseball team where he made perhaps the same, if not more money than he did playing for owner Charles Comiskey’s White Sox. In recreating the setting of early 20th-century baseball, Fountain, a Northeastern University journalism professor, shows that there was plenty of money “out there” for players, as a third circuit, the Federal League, proved in 1914 and 1915 by luring players from the established National and American leagues with more lucrative contracts.

Another way to collect extra cash was to throw games, and Fountain spends an entire chapter on the now largely forgotten Hal Chase, a talented first baseman who was the first homegrown star of the New York Yankees, whom he dubs “the Prince of Fixers.”

There was more gambling cash involved in baseball than ever during World War I, as President Woodrow Wilson’s “work or fight” labor policy inadvertently led to the closing of most horse racing tracks for the duration of the conflict. Money for wagering wasn’t just going to idly sit in gamblers’ wallets until the war ended. While some minor baseball leagues suspended play during the war, the big leagues, despite shortened seasons in 1918 and 1919, were still in business. And so were the gamblers. The war, and Wilson, upset the economic balance of the underworld.

After the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series, or after the South Siders lost it, and despite an investigation by Comiskey that seemed to suggest some White Sox players weren’t playing, as how it was said back then, on-the-square, it would take an unrelated gambling incident for the scandal to break wide open in the final week of the 1920 season, as the White Sox were in a heated pennant race that they would lose to the Cleveland Indians. The fixers almost got away with it. As the eight Black Sox players were exposed, Fountain details the playing out of a longstanding feud between Comiskey and American League president Ban Johnson, one that nearly put the junior circuit out of business with the creation of a new 12-team National League. Of course the two-league majors survived, ruled by a man seemingly removed from the Old Testament, federal Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

John "Lee" Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven
John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

As White Sox left the ranks of baseball’s elite in 1920, modern baseball, the post-dead ball era, began. No one knew it at the time, but the Golden Age of Sports, led by the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth, had also arrived. Comiskey, who died in 1931, never put another contending team on the field, and the White Sox wouldn’t return to the Fall Classic until 1959–and the South Siders wouldn’t win it all until 2005. But the owner nicknamed “the Old Roman” was still able to cash in on the rollicking Roaring Twenties party; Comiskey Park was expanded in 1927, largely because of Ruth’s transformation of baseball.

Comiskey is treated somewhat sympathetically here, as someone who is more frugal than stingy.

Fountain’s effort succeeds not only as a baseball book but as an historical work. Which means you don’t have to be a fan of the national pastime to enjoy it.

John Ruberry, a lifelong White Sox fan, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.