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This week in history: Malcolm X assassinated + Upton Sinclair gets White House invite

Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s singed, heroic and occasionally merry history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history: Malcolm X assassinated
Portrait of human rights activist Malcolm X reading stories about himself in a pile of newspapers, circa 1963. | Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Portrait of human rights activist Malcolm X reading stories about himself in a pile of newspapers, circa 1963. | Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Malcolm X may not have been a Chicagoan, but given his ties to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which was based on the South Side, he passed through the city often enough.
The fiery speaker and activist was assassinated by several rival Black Muslim members in a crowded ballroom during an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965. The next day, the Chicago Daily News devoted most of its front page to coverage of his death.
The paper tapped Milt Freudenheim, a staff writer and national correspondent for the Daily News who likely lived in New York City, to write the main story.
It’s not clear how many times Freudenheim interviewed Malcolm, but his article hints at more than one meeting.
Strange Chicago
Just because Chicago was once a swamp, doesn’t mean it’s the ideal place to raise alligators — especially large ones.
Not every Chicagoan understands this.
On Feb. 24, 1890, Congress voted to give Chicago the go-ahead to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1982. Chicagoans across the city celebrated, and reporters at the Chicago Daily News fanned out to get reactions.
One reporter on North Halsted Street caught up with one Henry Pesch, who said he was excited for the World’s Fair because he planned to exhibit his alligator.
Yep, the man had an alligator in the city, a 6-foot-2-inch-long gator he said he caught in what was known as the West End of New Orleans, the reporter wrote.
Pesch’s gator was kept “in harness, strong straps circling its nose and body; but it is frisky enough to make spectators keep their distance even under restraint.”
Anyone who wanted to check out the gator before the fair could head to Pesch’s place at 67 N. Halsted St. Admission was free.
Pesch’s alligator wouldn’t be the last gator in the city. Here’s a quick look at other Windy City alligators not living at Lincoln Park Zoo. And in case you were wondering, yes, Chance the Snapper is living his very best life.
Snapshot
Chicago’s City Hall was officially dedicated on Feb. 27, 1911. Architectural firm Holabird & Roche designed the building, located at 121 N. LaSalle St., in the classical revival style. The west side of the building serves as the seat of power for Chicago while the east side houses several Cook County offices.
Take a look back through these Chicago Daily News photographs and watch construction workers building City Hall reach for the sky:
This 1909 shot shows the building's foundation. Smoke can be seen billowing out of two chimneys. From the Sun-Times archives.
This 1909 shot shows the building's foundation. Smoke can be seen billowing out of two chimneys. From the Sun-Times archives.
A ceremony in 1909 marked the laying of the cornerstone of City Hall. From the Sun-Times archives.
A ceremony in 1909 marked the laying of the cornerstone of City Hall. From the Sun-Times archives.
Almost finished! This 1910 photograph shows City Hall near completion. From the Sun-Times archive.
Almost finished! This 1910 photograph shows City Hall near completion. From the Sun-Times archive.
For a full rundown of the many buildings that have been called City Hall in Chicago’s history, check out this handy guide from Chicago Architecture.
The stacks
It’s usually a big honor when the president of the United States reads your book and wants to meet you. When President Theodore Roosevelt invited Upton Sinclair, whose book “The Jungle” had stunned and grossed out readers, for a luncheon at the White House in April 1906 to discuss the book, the journalist likely felt honored, but also surprised.
Published Feb. 26, 1906, “The Jungle” documented the terrible conditions of the Union Stockyards in Chicago. “Muckraker” journalist Sinclair interviewed employees and witnessed the abhorrent conditions, including allegations that rat and human carcasses found their way into sausage casings.
But those descriptions made up a small part of the book. Most of it was dedicated to denouncing corruption in Chicago and capitalistic societies in general. The book heavily supported socialism, with its main character adopting its philosophies at the end of the novel, so it may have surprised Sinclair that Roosevelt would have been supportive of a pro-socialism book.
Turns out, Roosevelt did have ulterior motives for the luncheon.
“Author Sinclair’s sensational statements [regarding government corruption and collusion with packers] came to the notice of the president and he quietly started an investigation” before calling the author to lunch, the Chicago Daily News reported on April 10.
Roosevelt’s investigators, which the paper pointed out were “scientifically trained men,” visited the Union Stockyards and reported that “Sinclair had pictured conditions which do not exist.”
Knowing this, Roosevelt invited Sinclair to lunch and “calmly interrogated the author about his book and learned to some extent how certain conditions described therein came to the notice of the writer,” the paper reported. The author did not know about the investigation, but the paper said its scientific men failed “to verify a single important statement made in the book.”
Whoever blabbed to Roosevelt jumped the gun — by a lot. Investigators did complete a survey of the stockyards, but they found conditions nearly identical to what Sinclair described in his book.
Though Sinclair hoped to turn more people on to socialism, he actually sparked a movement to clean up the meatpacking industry.
On May 21, the Chicago Daily News published a front-page story announcing that an Indiana senator introduced a “drastic meat-inspection bill” requiring government inspectors to certify meat slaughtered or produced in the United States.
“The bill is the outcome of ‘The Jungle,’ a book written by Upton Sinclair on conditions at the Chicago stockyards, which was grilled in high government quarters and the writer classed with the ‘muck rakers,’” the report said.
Roosevelt, it was understood, “will send in a message urging its passage.”
“The Jungle” made a massive impact when it was published. Read more about it here (if you have the stomach for it).
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
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