TBT: A corruption buster undone by scandal

Governor Green (back, left), Col. McCormick (back, right), and U.S. Senator
Brooks (front, left) leave the State House on Republican Day at the Illinois
State Fair. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
Illinois’ most famous criminal carried out a reign of violence and terror that gripped Chicago for years during Prohibition. Al Capone’s legend grew with each headline-grabbing murder, and his exploits remain well known today thanks to a series of movies and TV shows. While prosecutors could never definitively pin most of the murders or the bootlegging on him, they did finally trip him up over unpaid taxes on his ill-gotten gains.

It was an IRS attorney named Dwight H. Green who got the tax evasion indictment and eventual conviction that sent Al Capone to prison. Green became famous as a crime fighter, and less than a decade later was taking the oath of office as the 30th Governor of Illinois. But halfway through his second term in Springfield, a deadly scandal within his own administration would come to light and cut short his career at the moment it seemed destined for new heights.

Dwight Green was born in 1897 in Indiana, the last Illinois governor born in the 19th century. He attended Wabash College for two years, but quit in 1917 to join the Army for World War I. Green became an aviator and flight trainer. He trained other Army pilots at a base in California. After the war, he went back to school, first at Stanford and then at the University of Chicago, where he also completed a law degree.

He appealed to U.S. Senator and former Governor Charles Deneen for assistance with a job in Washington, and Deneen helped him acquire a position as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service. He initially worked in Washington, but then relocated back to Illinois with his wife Mabel and their two daughters. He arrived back in Chicago at the height of Capone’s reign, and quickly drew attention from the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, George E.Q. Johnson, who was looking to prosecute Capone and other gangsters who were terrorizing the city.

Green was the only attorney in the office who was a tax specialist. When the Capone indictment for tax evasion was handed down, it would be Green who was charged with leading the presentation to the jury, while other lawyers handled other parts of the case. Capone was ultimately convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison. The Chicago organized crime syndicate faded into the background in what prosecutors and politicians declared a major victory.

As a reward for his successful prosecution of the man branded “Public Enemy Number One” Green was nominated to be the next U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois. The Senate never acted on the nomination, but Green held the office in an acting capacity for three years, leading other public corruption prosecutions. In 1939, Green won the nomination for Mayor of Chicago, besting former Mayor Big Bill Thompson, who had been tied to the Capone organization a decade before. However, Green could not overcome the powerful machine of incumbent Mayor Edward Kelly, and he was defeated.

His second chance came in 1940. Building on the good showing he had made in Chicago the year before, Green combined a message of fighting corruption with a good Republican year statewide to get himself elected Governor.

Things started off well. The economy was clawing its way out of the Great Depression, and Green was able to cut sales taxes in his first year. That year he signed legislation creating the Public Aid Commission to replace the temporary Emergency Relief Commission that had been put in place during the early years of the Depression to administer aid programs within the state.

Governor Green sits with former Governor Lowden who was
the honorary chairman of the State Council of Defense.
When America was brought into World War II at the end of Green’s first year in office, he threw himself into the war effort: creating a State Council of Defense, leading war bond drives and promoting civil defense measures. He walked a fine line between supporting the war effort and criticizing some of President Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic priorities. As Illinois veterans began returning from the front, Green signed legislation creating the Illinois Veterans Commission, which in 1976 became the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

Green worked well with Chicago city officials, including his former nemesis, Mayor Kelly. Green and Kelly worked out a compromise on the decades-long dispute over transit in the city. They worked together to establish the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and create a joint state-local board to oversee it. Their cooperation also laid the groundwork for Chicago’s development as an airline hub later in the century. Green and Kelly instituted a new era of cooperation between Democrat mayors and Republican governors.

Entering his second term just as World War II was coming to an end, Green pursued an ambitious road-building program. Thousands of miles of highway were authorized and built throughout the state, and some of the initial plans for what would become Illinois’ portion of the Interstate highway system began to be put together. In his second term, Green signed Illinois’ first billion-dollar budget, which included a soldiers’ bonus for those returning from World War II. In 1947 he celebrated his 50th birthday in the Governor’s office with a giant cake shaped like the Capitol building.

The Green family in 1941. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

It was beginning to look like 1948 would be a great year for Green: with his popularity seemingly very high and an almost certain loser from the other party; Harry Truman; in the White House, this looked like a chance to move up. Green’s name began to be circulated for Vice President.

On March 25, 1947, everything changed.

That afternoon, smoke was seen billowing out of the Centralia Coal Company’s Mine Number 5 in Southern Illinois. Five hundred feet underground, a spark had ignited coal dust which had built up in the mine, and the resulting fire had been catastrophic. Rescuers and family members of the miners rushed to the mine to help, or to wait for news. Hours went by, while some survivors emerged. But many more did not. By the time it was all over, 111 miners had been killed.

Illustration from the final report of the
Cantralia Mine Explosion of 1947.
Over the next few days and weeks, the last of the bodies were recovered from the mine and more funerals were held. At the same time, troubling information about the mine was becoming public knowledge. A week before the explosion, a mine inspector named Driscoll Scanlan had warned that the mine was unsafe. It was not the first warning Scanlan had issued, nor was he the only one speaking out. A year earlier, four miners had written to Green about conditions in the mine, including the phrase “please save our lives,” in their letter. Three of the four miners who signed the letter were among the dead.

Scanlan’s boss, Department of Mines and Minerals Director Robert Medill, did not act on the inspector’s warning. A few days before the explosion, Medill’s name had appeared in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article which reported that the director had been soliciting campaign contributions from the mine owners. The mine owners were fined $1000 for their role in the disaster. Medill resigned one week after the explosion.

Green was never implicated in the matter, but the stain of corruption by his subordinates was indelibly placed upon his administration. He went to the next year’s convention with his hopes for the Vice Presidency still intact, but the nod went to California Governor Earl Warren instead. Green returned to Illinois to fight for a third term against a surprisingly strong challenge from a first-time candidate named Adlai Stevenson.

That fall, Truman carried Illinois on the way to a second term, and Stevenson; who included the mine disaster in his overall theme of mismanagement by the incumbent; swept Green out of office as well. In his second term, Truman would sign historic mine-safety legislation inspired in part by the Centralia tragedy, but not before an even deadlier explosion struck a mine near West Frankfort, Illinois.

Dwight Green returned to Chicago where he practiced law for another ten years until his death from lung cancer in 1958. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago.