William Dever

Thirty-Fifth Mayor of the City of Chicago (1923-27)

Born in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1862, William E. Dever arrived in Chicago in August 1887.1 Reluctant to enter politics, Dever was coaxed into first running for public office in 1900, which he promptly lost. In 1902, however, he willingly ran for 17th Ward Alderman position - and held it for the next 8 years. Once in office, he fought for honest government, better schools, more parks and playgrounds, and bigger and better public works. In 1910, he was elected Judge of the County Circuit Court, serving in that position for 12 years.2

It has been said that Dever was simply the right man at the right time. Carrying with him a reputation for honesty, intelligence, and an articulate nature, Dever was chosen by the leaders of the Democrats in an attempt to unite the warring factions of their party. It turned out a wise choice on their part, with Dever’s ring thrown into the hat, the incumbent Thompson decided to bow out. In response, the Republicans put up Arthur Lueder.3

The 1923 race saw both candidates run as “reformers,” agreeing on most of the issues and leading to a rather uneventful campaign. In the end, however, Dever’s appeal crossed ethnic, factional, and party lines, bringing him the office by some 105,000 votes.4

Dever immediately set out to bring trust back to government. Among his attempts at reform were:

  • public schools - he created one of the brightest school boards in Chicago history
  • Law enforcement - successfully appoints a new chief of police to restore order and discipline
  • Public works - established Midway Airport and many other projects, all while watching spending5

Alongside these, he also worked on civil service and transit reforms.

At the time, prohibition was being widely ignored in Chicago, but as it was the law, Dever saw it as his duty to enforce it. Hundreds were arrested, breweries were destroyed, and by the end of 1923, Chicago was declared the driest big city in America. This was dubbed, “The Great Beer War,” and makes the Mayor into a national celebrity.6

Dever always contended that he was not a prohibitionist, but simply wanted to reinstate integrity to the law. This would be his turning point, ultimately leading to the downfall of his administration.

Due to the crackdown on booze, competition among bootleggers would lead to violent turf wars by early 1925.7 Before the crackdown, there was plenty to be made by all. Afterwards, competition would get cutthroat - literally.

The unity Dever brought to the Democrats began to break down as well - Dever’s transit plan fails by over 100,000 votes and his school board starts to fall apart. By 1926, Dever was actively campaigning against prohibition, but would continue to enforce the law until the end of his term.8

The 1927 election saw Dever against Thompson once again. Thompson, well known as a “wet” candidate, won by 83,000 votes in what became a very dirty campaign.9 After this loss, Dever retired from public life, dying just two years later.

  1. Schmidt, John R. “William E. Dever: A Chicago Political Fable.“ The Mayors - The Chicago Political Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. Paul M. Green, Melvin G. Holli. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pg. 82-3
  2. Schmidt, 83
  3. Schmidt, 86
  4. Schmidt, 87
  5. Schmidt, 88
  6. Schmidt, 89
  7. Schmidt, 90
  8. Schmidt, 93
  9. Schmidt, 95
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