John Peter Altgeld Monument, 1915
South of West Diversey Parkway and east of North Cannon Drive
John Peter Altgeld (1847-1902) was a German immigrant who grew up in Ohio and was the first foreign-born man to be elected as Illinois governor. During his career as a lawyer, judge and politician, Altgeld maintained his dedication to democratic principles and played a role in Progressive social reforms involving workplace safety and child labor laws. He served as governor from 1893-1897 but his political career was, effectively, destroyed by his decision, in 1893, to grant absolute pardon to three imprisoned defendants from the Haymarket Affair of 1886. He cited the lack of evidence and the unfairness of the trail but was vilified in many quarters of the city and was not re-elected.
A decade would pass before public sentiment in Chicago shifted toward Altgeld, following re-assessments of his life and contributions, as well as the popularity of a 1913 Vachel Lindsay poem, “The Eagle That Is Forgotten,” dedicated to Altgeld. The Illinois legislature appointed a committee in 1913 and appropriated $25,000 for a monument dedicated to the former governor. All of the 40 submissions to the design competition were rejected and the project was awarded to Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor who was influenced by the work of Auguste Rodin during his studies in Paris. Borglum designed a group composition, with Altgeld standing above a crouching family, meant to represent “labor.” Altgeld’s outstretched hands may be read as an appeal for mercy and a gently protective gesture, but some complained that he was not “monumental” enough and that it insulted labor by placing the figures in a servile position.
The bronze statue was ready for unveiling on Labor Day of 1915 and Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson settled any controversy by disbanding the committee and stating that “the statue looks good to me and the committee doesn’t.”
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