A Star with a Storied Past

February 26th, 2013by Naomi BlumbergFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions

On Friday, March 8, a spectacular artifact goes on display in the lobby of the Museum: a solid gold, diamond-studded alderman’s star that belonged to Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna. The bedazzled star came to the Museum in 2012, bringing with it a fascinating history.

Hinky Dink’s alderman’s star, 1897
Gift of Ruth McCormick Tankersley, ICHi-67241

Hinky Dink received the gold star from his constituents in 1897 after winning the race for alderman of the First Ward on Chicago’s South Side. Nicknamed because of his diminutive height—only five feet one—Hinky Dink had a strong political following, particularly among the proprietors of vice in the city’s Levee District, where one could find saloons, brothels, dancehalls, and nightclubs. To run this part of town, Hinky Dink and his co-alderman John Coughlin cultivated relationships with their neighbors, who reciprocated by keeping them in office. Hinky Dink ran his own saloon, the Workingman’s Exchange, and let the beer run freely—or at least at a reduced cost—into the steins of his supporters.

Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, 1923
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0075583

Map of the Levee District, 1910

Given the operation the aldermen were running, it is not surprising that they received luxurious gifts from their supporters. The reverse of Hinky Dink’s star is engraved: Presented to Michael Kenna by his friends and admirers of the First Ward. April 22, 1897, Chicago, ILL. He accepted it at a banquet saying, “My aim in life has been to do what is right; to labor with earnestness, to win on my merits. My efforts have met with success, and in this grand souvenir I recognize my crown of victory.”

The back of Hinky Dink’s alderman’s star, 1897

Hinky Dink amassed a huge wealth of money and luxuries throughout his life in politics. Upon his death in 1946, he left a large estate to his relatives. The safety deposit boxes were opened and the keepsakes and money, divvied up. Some of the items were auctioned off in 1947, including the diamond-studded star, which was sold to the American Diamond Syndicate. At some point in the 1950s, Mrs. Ruth “Bazy” Tankersley acquired it.

Tankersley, a native Chicagoan, was living in Peru, Illinois, and enjoyed riding around the countryside to visit small towns. She happened upon a “hock” shop, as she called it, which carried all kinds of unusual antiques. She would visit frequently and became friendly with the owner. One day, he showed her an array of items he was saving to exhibit in a museum he hoped to open. Among the collection was the Kenna star, and it wasn’t for sale.

After moving to Washington, DC, Tankersley learned that the shop owner had been murdered and his store robbed. She wrote a note of condolence to his widow, who replied that her husband had said that if anything were to happen to him, the Kenna star should go to Ruth Tankersley. Upon receiving the star, Tankersley had it appraised and sent the shop owner’s widow the value. She held onto it until this past year, when she donated it to the Chicago History Museum. Ruth Tankersley passed away at her home in Tuscon on February 5, 2013. She was 91.

This alderman’s star has an amazingly storied past, not only in the part it played in Chicago history, but as an artifact that went on to have a remarkable life beyond that of its original owner. We are thrilled to have it in our collection and to share it with our visitors.

> Learn more about the era of “Hinky Dink” and “Bathhouse John”

> Discover the city’s vice districts

> Read Ruth Tankersley’s obituary from the Washington Post

> Experience Unexpected Chicago

> Support the collection

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