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Context: The industrial city and the police
A job on the police force offered many advantages: relatively good pay, a pension, and a degree of official authority. But joining the police force required an alliance of political bigwigs and patrons. Aldermen, magistrates, other politicians; businessmen: getting a job on the force had less to do with "merit" and more do do with "friendships." Once on the force, a policeman had to take care to avoid offending those who got him his job. The cartoon below describes a scenario O'Neill complained about frequently in his memoir.
In this cartoon the Chicago Daily News suggested O'Neill sheltered the big gamblers while arresting the small:
Being a cop also put you at odds with your community in complicated ways. Irish immigrants were heavily involved in organized labor: O'Neill often led squads of police that broke up strikes or clubbed down men he conveniently termed "anarchists." In the Pullman strike of 1894, one of the largest and most significant labor actions in American history, O'Neill actively worked to help stockyards corporations break the strike. Strikers and their families, many of whom were Irish, would not have seen O'Neill as their friend.
O'Neill's last act as Chief involved the 1905 Teamster's strike, in which O'Neill brought in African American temporary deputies as strikebreakers. The move led to both criticism and praise. This racist cartoon from John McCutcheon denounces the idea,
While in this clipping an officer resigns rather than protect "negro strikebreakers."
The InterOcean on the other hand offered a more favorable depiction, below of O'Neill as the agent of law and order
Chicago's only African American newspaper at the time, the Broad Ax, praised O'Neill for upholding the rights of African Americans
During O'Neill's career Chicago grew with astonishing speed, and that growth both strengthened and lessened ethnic ties. He came in 1871 to a city of about 300, 000 people. By the time he retired in 1905 he was helping to administer a city of two million. Much of the city operated via ethnic allegiance and outright bribery. Reformers--and O'Neill--wondered if there might be better ways to run a city. Could you systematize and rationalize management, and hiring? Could you do away with cronyism? The general trend of American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was towards rationalization: standardization, record keeping, systematic administration. O'Neill, a literate and well-educated man, was part of that movement, but at the same time his career as both a cop and a collector depended on cronyism
As chief of police he issued annual reports of his activities. Those reports detail the vast number of tasks the police had to accomplish: not just managing crime, but taking the injured to hospitals, sheltering the homeless, rounding up stray dogs, photographing criminals and keeping careful statistics on their backgrounds and the nature of their crimes. Below are two pages from O'Neill's annual reports.
O'Neill's interest in Irish music came out of the dynamic world of industrial, multicultural Chicago. In the streets he could hear music from every county in Ireland; but beyond that he worked every day with not just Irish people, as the statistics on "nativity" above show. His project of collecting music evolved along with the new techniques of surveillance and control that characterized the modern city. The multicultural character of urban life highlighted the distinctiveness of Irish music; but O'Neill's daily life and career required strategic alliances that had nothing at all to do with Irishness. "I’ve been an Irishman by birth all my life,” he told reporters, but “I am an American in all my sentiments.”
As captain, in 1896, O'Neil got into a street fight with a drunken alderman, Joseph Lammers, who had inadevertentley knocked him down. O'Neill subdued Lammers and packed him off to jail, but assaulting an alderman was a grave offense and O'Neill knew it could easily have cost him his job. The story was front page news. But newspapers reported that city elites, “professors of the Chicago University, Judges of the courts, bankers and packers have written him commending him for his action, and wishing him good luck at the trial,” and Lammers was found guilty of assault and fined ten dollars. The outcome, taking place well after O’Neill’s service to the “packers” in the Pullman strike, shows that O’Neill had found a way to escape both ethnic tribalism and the political power of Aldermen: his reputation with city elites saved his skin, not his Irish community.
O'Neill had many enemies but as he rose through the police ranks he formed a community of people who shared his interest in Irish music. By the late 1890s, when he had made Captain, he had enough money, authority and influence to begin systematically collecting Irish tunes. He said may times that only "the authority of the badge" allowed him to compile his extraordinary collections of Irish music.