William E. Dever, Class of 1890

Former mayor of Chicago

William E. DeverWilliam Dever was originally from Massachusetts, where he entered his family’s tanning business when he was fifteen. When his wife spotted an ad stating that leather tanners could make good money in Chicago in 1887, he headed west. He got a job at a leather tannery on Goose Island and began taking law courses at the Chicago College of Law, eventually graduating in 1890. After practicing law for ten years, he ran unsuccessfully for alderman of the 17th Ward in 1900. Two years later, he ran again and won. In 1910, he was elected to his first term as judge and was re-elected in 1916 and 1922.

Dever ran for mayor of Chicago in 1923 after the Democratic party boss determined that he had the  best chance of defeating the incumbent William “Big Bill” Thompson.  Thompson eventually withdrew and Dever won easily. During his term in office, Dever launched a massive public works program, building bridges, widening streets, sprucing up parks and constructing new schools. He oversaw the completion of Wacker Drive, the extension of Ogden Avenue, the straightening of the Chicago River and the building of Chicago’s first airport, the Municipal Airport. Most impressively, most of these projects came in on-time, within budget and without a hint of scandal.

Dever fought against corruption and enforced prohibition, ordering a massive crackdown on bootleggers that became known as the “Beer War.”  Word spread throughout the country and Dever was soon the second-most photographed man in the country behind President Calvin Coolidge. But as Dever’s popularity grew nationally, it declined at home. When he ran for re-election in 1927, he was soundly defeated by Big Bill Thompson, making him the last Democratic mayor of Chicago to lose.

After his brief career in politics, Dever served as vice president of Bank of America before passing away from cancer in 1929.

For more information on William Dever, read this profile by John Schmidt for WBEZ Chicago.

Read William Dever's Inaugural Mayoral address here.