BENJAMIN MARSHALL THOMAS 1872-1927
Coming of age in a boom town! From the ashes of the Great Chicago fire through the roaring '20's
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The history of the man reflects the history of his city and of its times
1870s-1920s | Chicago, Illinois
In the years between the Great Fire and the First World War, Chicago became a great industrial power and had its period of greatest sustained growth. It was the "shock city" of its day. People came from around the world to see the emerging metropolis of the future. The price of land was nearly astronomical. In 1880 a quarter acre was valued at $130,000, in 1890 at $900,000.
Descendants of Pennsylvania loyalists in the American Revolution, Ben and his parents, William Henry and Caroline Clarke Thomas, immigrated to Chicago in 1876 from Barrie, Ontario where Ben was born. The family included his brothers, William F., David Randolph, John Howard, Wallace Henry and his sisters, Mary Ann, Caroline and Isabella. La Grange was their first home in Cook County but William was already engaged in real estate in Chicago as the city rebuilt after the fire of 1871. William made a fortune in this pursuit. His son, John Howard, followed this career as well, but as in so many other instances, the great holdings had to be sold during the depression to pay the taxes.
After 1880, the Thomas family moved to Chicago to 59 University Place, on the first site of the University of Chicago. Ben's siblings, Ruth Ann Thomas Gaines, and his brother, George Garfield Thomas, were born here.
He graduated from South Division High School in 1890 and Kent College of Law in 1896, in what was to be its fourth graduating class. He was a member of the Chicago Athletic Association and the Hamilton Club. The Tribune described him as a well-known lawyer. The attached newspaper articles will tell his story with the game of football and with the practice of the law--would it have been the same in any other place or time? Or was it just the man?
South Division High School opened in 1875 at 26th and Wabash on Chicago's South Side. It was active in sports, and was a charter member of the Cook County League in 1890 with football and indoor baseball. Ben tried to play in the fall 1890 season with the school, however, it was discovered that he was no longer enrolled there because he had graduated. This was the first mention of him and of his football talents in the Chicago Tribune. Ben was a star football player at the time the sport was beginning to gain popularity.
According to the chronology of the sport's history, Lake View beat South Division in 1885 in what is considered the first-known football game between two Illinois high schools—this would have been Ben's first year in high school. The Cook County High School League, which started during 1889-90 which would have been Ben's last year. In 1905, it was decided to close South Division and reopen it as Wendell Phillips High School, which it remains today—Ben's children attended this school in the 1910s.
At this time there were very few regulations about who played for which team. In the Tribune he is mentioned as having played for Northwestern and Univ. of Michigan but there is no mention of his having graduated from either school or even being enrolled in either school. It seems that a player could belong to more than one team at a time.
The Tribune also tells stories of his playing for athletic clubs--Chicago Athletic Association, Illinois Cyclists, and Bankers Athletic Association. He loved the games so much he would do almost anything to be able to play. His position was left guard and his nickname was "Big Ben"; described as being muscular and weighing 210 pounds.
He married Alice Ethyl Lupton, daughter of John and Annie Pillar Lupton in 1899. They lived at 2839 Groveland Ave. when Benjamin Wallace Thomas was born in 1900. . In the 1870s Groveland Park, 33rd Place and S. Cottage Grove were part of a large post Civil War, post Fire development on the 60 acre Stephen Douglas lakefront estate. Near it is the Stephen Douglas Monument State Park.
Their other children were Winnibelle and Jack. Alice and Jack died in 1909 from lack of medical treatment for religious reasons. He raised young Ben and Winnibelle with the help of his maiden sisters. Alice, Jack and Benjamin M. are buried in Oakwoods Cemetery along with Ben's parents and older brothers--all of whom died from complications of diabetes.. At the time of his death he was living at 645 Woodland Park, Chicago.
Ben was an attorney who practiced with his brothers, William F. and David R and also worked as an assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois. He may have been a municipal court Judge. He was considered one of the city's outstanding attorneys. However, he was disbarred for a year because he kept $17.42 that he had collected for a client. He claimed this was because he was ill. He was reinstated because basically he had a good reputation. He was also sued for keeping what was a client's $1000 bond as his fees. He won the suit.
Tribune articles paint a picture of a very colorful attorney. He apparently did not limit his athletic undertakings to football, because in 1919 he played in a benefit baseball game on the same team as Clarence Darrow. When the city's noted attorney play the municipal judges.
BMT & Football
1888--1900 | Chicago
The attached articles reveal how Ben’s Thomas’ coming of age parallels that of the game of American football’s maturation. At the same time Chicago was booming(1880-1900), interest in college football expanded greatly In 1879, the University of Michiganbecame the first school west of Pennsylvania to establish a college football team. Other Midwestern schools soon followed including Northwestern University. The nation's first college football league known as the Western Conference, a precursor to the Big Ten, was founded in 1895. The origin of professional football can be traced back to 1892, with William Heffelfinger's $500 contract to play in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
Ben played high school football in Chicago just at the time high schools were beginning to play in leagues. He played for Michigan and Northwestern (whether he was a student at either institution is unknown). He joined any athletic club in the Chicago area to play. He would jump from team to team—was this just because he was "spirited" or because it was all in an evolutionary stage with no rules. The rules did come into being which caused Ben and others to be expelled from the CAA in 1896 for travelling to Pittsburgh to play for a fee. There were charges of professionalism abounding regarding players who called themselves amateurs. It is hard to know whether Ben’s behavior was unusual or just the norm given the time and the place. It appears to be analogous to much of the unfettered growth and expansion in which he lived.
BMT and the Bar
1896-1927 | Chicago
From colorful language to client's fiance creating courtroom scenes to disbarment to holding the position of assistant attorney general to judgeship to playing charity baseball games with Clarence Darrow, the attached articles tell the story of one man's law career at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reading the artilces also gives a wonderful sense of the essence of Chicago from boom town to "shock city" of the western World. It was a city eptomized by violent contrasts just as Ben Thomas' legal journey was marked by so many seeming contradictions.