Famous People of Chicago Books – Free Illinois Biography Books

“Planting the Prairies: John Kennicott and Horticultural Advocacy in Nineteenth-Century Illinois”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 13, No. 1, 2006, pp 2-6

Lyon-Jenness, Cheryl
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

John A. Kennicott was a medical doctor, originally from upstate New York, who moved his family to Cook County, Ill in 1836. While supporting his family with his medical practice in the early 1840s, he planted the first commercial nursery in the area. He became increasingly interested in botany, and was a cofounder of the Illinois State Agricultural Society. His sons were also involved in the nursery, and one of them, Robert Kennicott, would become a renowned naturalist. – Wikipedia

Kennicott, John (1835-1866)

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“Eight Weeks on a St. Clair County Farm in 1851: Letters by a Young German”

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol 75, No. 3, Autumn 1982, pp 162-178

Trautmann, Frederic, ed.
Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society

Kohler, Carl (?-1890)

The Soup has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago: A Memoir of One Family’s Journey through History

Leonard, Joanne Rose
Bantam 2000

Our lives are made rich by those who came before us. Like ingredients in a long-simmering soup, they flavor who we are and what we do. In this beautiful, haunting, and larger-than-life memoir, one woman shares with us the humor, heartbreak, and triumph of her Jewish ancestry, to comfort and strengthen us all, whatever our faith.
At home in her Pennsylvania kitchen, Joann Leonard makes soup. In her grandfather’s pot, she improvises, using her great-grandmother’s unwritten recipe. As she does, amid the fragrant steam rising from the pot comes a stream of memories, half-told tales, and departed ancestors asking that their stories be told.
In a nation where most people’s roots lie in faraway lands, The Soup Has Many Eyes is a rich, poetic, deeply satisfying testament to the importance of family bonds, spiritual insight, and–most of all–the miracle that happens when we invite the past into our lives.

Leonard, Joanne Rose (1944-2019)

Books and articles on Abraham Lincoln

Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work

Casson, Herbert N.
McClurg 1909

“Cyrus Hall McCormick was an American inventor and businessman who founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which later became part of the International Harvester Company in 1902. From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, he and many members of his family became prominent residents of Chicago. Numerous prizes and medals were awarded McCormick for his reaper, which reduced human labor on farms while increasing productivity. The French government named McCormick an Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 1851, and he was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1878 “as having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man.” -Wikipedia

McCormick, Cyrus Hall (1809-1884)

“Free Frank and New Philadelphia: Slave and Freedman, Frontiersman and Illinois Town Founder”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 15, No. 2, 2009, pp 37-41

Walker, Juliet E. K.
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Free Frank McWorter was an American slave who bought his own freedom and in 1836 founded the town of New Philadelphia in Illinois; he was the first African American to found a town in the United States. The New Philadelphia Town Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009.

McWorter, Free Frank (1777-1854)

“Eva C. Monroe: Social Welfare Reformer and Advocate for Children”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 10, No. 1, 2003, pp 13-16

Hendricks, Wanda A.
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Eva C. Monroe was an African American, born in a small Illinois town. As a young woman she moved to Springfield, where she worked at a sanitarium and then as a probation officer. In the latter job she worked with courts to rescue children from the corrections system (prison). In the 1890s she was working to organize African American women to work on social reform, and also established an orphanage. Throughout the remainder of her career she played a prominent role in both in developing social reform organizations and in establishing group homes for orphans and other African Americans in need of assistance.

Monroe, Eva C. (1868-1950)

Online Collections of Vintage Photos & Images Worldwide

Eliot Ness: The Real Story

Heimel, Paul W.
Cumberland House 2000

Eliot Ness was “the man most often associated with bringing down the notorious Chicago crime boss, Al Capone. . . The Ness that Paul Heimel uncovered was more – and less – than the mythical Untouchable who single-handedly cleaned up Chicago. Eliot Ness was fallible, frustrated, and a victim of his own success. . . The Eliot Ness revealed here is fully human, a driven overachiever, a man in search of recognition, and a tragic figure.” – Book cover

Ness, Eliot (1903-1957)

After Capone: The Life and World of Chicago Mob Boss Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti

Eghigian, Mars
Cumberland House 2006

After Capone is the first book-length work to present the complete, never-before-told story of Frank “the Enforcer”Nitti–born Francesco Raffele Nitto–the driving force behind the Chicago mob’s operations in the years that followed Al Capone’s imprisonment. Beginning with Nitti’s Italian origins, Mars Eghigian traces the Enforcer’s entry into and subsequent rise inside Chicago’s underworld, his near-fatal shooting by city detectives, his strange death, and the ultimate downfall of all who were associated with him.
Based on years of research and supported by original sources from state and federal archives, After Capone is the definitive reference on Nitti’s violent life and times. The result is a comprehensive and arousing portrait of the cunning mob boss, his life experiences, the people around him, and organized crime in Chicago in the post-Capone era.

Nitti, Francesco Raffaele (1886-1943)

Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago

O’Neill, Francis
Northwestern University 2008

This remarkable memoir of immigration and assimilation provides a rare view of urban life in Chicago in the late 1800s by a newcomer to the city and the Midwest, and the nation as well. Francis O’Neill left Ireland in 1865. After five years traveling the world as a sailor, he and his family settled in Chicago just shortly before the Great Fire of 1871.
As O’Neill looked back on his life, writing in Chicago at the age of 83, he could give first-hand accounts of Pullman strike of 1894, the railway strike of 1903, and the packinghouse strike of 1904.
O’Neill’s story offers perspective on the inner workings of the police department at the turn of the twentieth century. His memoir also brings to life the challenges involved in succeeding in a new land, providing for his family, and integrating into a new culture. Francis O’Neill serves as a fine documentarian of the Irish immigrant experience in Chicago.

O’Neill, Francis (1848-1936)

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Antoine Ouilmette; a resident of Chicago A.D. 1790-1826. The first settler of Evanston and Wilmette (1826-1838) …

with a brief history of his family and the Ouilmette Reservation

Grover, Frank R.
Evanston, ILL: Evanston Historical Society. 1908

Ouilmette was a French trader with a Pottawatomie wife. The Ouilmette Reservation was a large tract of land he owned on the shores of Lake Michigan where Evanston and Wilmette are now located. Ouilmette was likely one of the first three or four white settlers in the Chicago area.

Ouilmette, Antoine(1760-1841)

Books and articles on Local, City, and County History in Illinois

Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS

Paper, Lewis J.
St. Martin’s 1987

The vivid and fascinating biography of one of this century’s most powerful men: the founder of CBS, William Paley.
“A portrait of an American businessman and his leadership of an enterprise that has transformed national life”.–Publishers Weekly.

Paley, William Samuel (1901-1990)

Forty Years of Pioneer life: Memoir of John Mason Peck D.D….

edited from his Journals and Correspondence by Rufus Babcock

Peck, John Mason
Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society 1864

John Mason Peck (1789-1858) was a Baptist missionary on the Illinois frontier who evangelized; established numerous churches, Sunday schools and Bible societies; and established institutions for training preachers and teachers. The editor wrote that he drew upon fifty years of Peck’s collected correspondence (1808 -1858) as well as 53 volumes of his journals to write this memoir.

Peck, John Mason (1789-1858)

General histories and works that don’t fit the descriptions for other pages are in The History of Illinois

Paul Powell of Illinois: A Lifelong Democrat

Hartley, Robert E.
Southern Illinois University 1999

Paul Powell emerged from the hill country of southern Illinois to serve in state government from 1935 until his death in 1970. His political tenure included three terms as Speaker of the Illinois House, four terms as minority leader, and two terms as secretary of state. The sponsor of hundreds of bills, he worked tirelessly for his constituents in southern Illinois. He also worked tirelessly to promote his own interests.
In this first political biography of Powell, Robert E. Hartley follows the money. He tells how this man of humble origins and meager means amassed a world-class political and financial base. Part of that story is the disclosure of a personal fortune that boggled minds, including the unbelievable yarn of the $800,000 cash found in the hotel room following Powell’s death.
Following Powell’s story, Hartley takes us deep into the Illinois political world of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, a time when politicians were on an “honor system” regarding their financial holdings. This was before disclosure of political contributions, before computer records, and before public meetings laws.

Powell, Paul (1902-1970)

Ronald Reagan

Walsh, Kenneth T.
Park Lane 1997

Building on exclusive interviews and access to major figures of the Reagan era such as Michael Deaver and Mikhail Gorbachev, Kenneth Walsh, longtime White House correspondent of U.S. News and World Report, shows us a more complex and compelling man than either end of the political spectrum would have us believe – an arch-conservative with roots in FDR’s New Deal; a divorce who rarely saw his own children, yet lectured America on family values; a rabid hater of Communism who once belonged to leftist Hollywood organizations and later brokered peace with the Soviet Union. Though Reagan regularly blurred reality and fiction to create what he – and so many millions of Americans – wished to be true, his motivations were not always political, and here you will learn what drove Ronald Reagan from a small flat in Tampico, Illinois, to the White House, and what obstacles he overcame to get there.

Reagan, Ronald Wilson (1911-2004)

My Own Times, Embracing also the History of my Life

Reynolds, John
Belleville, Ill. 1855

At 600 pages, this book is unusually long and informative for a pioneer memoir. The author, son of Irish immigrants, was taken to frontier Tennessee as a baby in 1788, and then the family moved to Kaskaskia, Illinois in 1800. The narrative combines memoirs of Reynold’s personal life and public service career (including a term as Governor of Illinois and seven years in the U.S. House of Representatives) with historical background for the region. Very substantial parts of the book are devoted to State government, state political issues and campaigns, and the Black Hawk War.

Reynolds, John (1788-1865)

Books and articles on Native American tribes in historic Illinois

Looking Back: An Autobiography

Richardson, Merrick Abner
Chicago: Richardson 1917

A privately printed volume by a Chicago businessman.

Richardson, Merrick Abner (1841-1927)

Recollections of Frontier Life

Roe, Elizabeth
Rockford, IL: Gazette Pub. House 1885

Contents:-My Childhood -The Garden and the Gardener -Earliest Recollections of Methodism and its Influence on Me -Religious Resolutions and How they were Prosecuted -Recollections of Early Married Life -Doctor’s Adventure on the Farm -Removal to Rock River – Progress of Methodism -Recollections of Methodism in Chicago -Recollections of Payne’s Point -Recollections of Rockford and our new Home on the Prairie -Visit to Nebraska -Death of Dr. John Roe

Roe, Elizabeth Ann Lyon (1805-1887)

On the Illinois Frontier: Dr. Hiram Rutherford, 1840-1848

Rutherford, Hiram
Southern Illinois University 1981

These letters and papers present the saga of a pioneer doctor who migrated to Illinois, made house calls on horseback, har­bored a slave family in violation of Illinois’ Black Laws, and, when hauled into court, sought legal counsel from a friend, Abraham Lincoln, only to learn that Lincoln was already in the pay of the slave owner.
The first selection of this book contains a series of person­al letters, mostly to John Bowman, Dr. Rutherford’s future brother-in-law, in Pennsylvania. Rutherford describes life in Illi­nois in the 1840s in vivid enough detail to make it real for Bowman—and the contemporary reader.

Rutherford, Hiram (1815-1900)

Carl Sandburg: A Biography

Niven, Penelope
Scribner’s Sons 1991

“Carl Sandburg was an American poet, writer, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as “a major figure in contemporary literature”, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed “unrivaled appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life” – Wikipedia

Sandburg, Carl August (1878-1967)

Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in the Mississippi Valley

Spencer, John W.
Davenport: Griggs 1872

Spencer moved to the Illinois frontier in 1820 from Vermont as a young man. This 70-page book is mainly a series of anecdotes about the early days there.

Spencer, John W. (1801-1878)

Books and articles on Religion in historic Illinois

A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois

Tillson, Christiana H.
Chicago: Donnelley. 1919

As a young woman, Mrs. Tillson moved with her husband from Massachusetts to southern Illinois in 1822. In the 1870s she wrote this private memoir about the journey to Illinois and her first few years on the frontier for the benefit of her youngest daughter. The book is notable for its literate, detailed account. The editor, from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, added extensive notes.
Some of the topics covered in this volume are:

Anti-slavery issue, Baptists in Illinois, Pioneer in Vandalia James Black, pioneer Jesse Buzan, early settlers in Chicago, visit to Cincinnati, Ewardsville Land Office, Military Bounty Lands, Methodists in Illinois, Dr. Horation Newhall, pioneer Judge Hiram Rountree, pioneer Col. Israel Seward, pioneer Milton Shurtleff, pioneer Warren Hooper, Commodore Yoakum, pioneer Joel Wright, pioneer Eleazar Townsend, Vandalia.

Tillson, Christiana Holmes (1798-1872)

Petticoat Surgeon

Van Hoosen, Bertha
Chicago: Peoples Book Club 1947

Autobiography. The author graduated from the University of Michigan Medical school in 1892 and spent her medical career in Chicago. She gradually became an outspoken feminist who opposed the medical establishment’s discriminatory treatment of women, becoming in 1915 the first president of the American Medical Women’s Association.

Van Hoosen, Bertha (1863-1952)

Books and articles about everyday life, women, ethnic groups, social issues etc. at Topics in the social history of Illinois

“Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 3, No. 1, 1996, pp 30-32

Hendricks, Wanda A., Jones, Paullette Pennington, and Taylor, Careda Rolland
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, more commonly known as Ida B. Wells, was an African-American investigative journalist, educator, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence. – Wikipedia

Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell (Ida B. Wells) (1862-1931)

Frances Willard: Her Life and Work

Strachey, Ray
London: Unwin 1912

Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was an American educator, temperance reformer, and women’s suffragist. Willard became the national president of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879, and remained president until her death in 1898. Her influence continued in the next decades, as the Eighteenth (Prohibition) and Nineteenth (Women Suffrage) Amendments to the United States Constitution were adopted.

Willard, Frances Elizabeth Caroline (1839-1898)

The Life of Frances E. Willard

Gordon, Anna Adams
Evanston: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union 1921

See the description for the other entry for Frances Willard on this web page.

Willard, Frances Elizabeth Caroline (1839-1898)

Collective Biographies

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940

Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress

This collection of life histories consists of approximately 2,900 documents, compiled and transcribed by more than 300 writers from 24 states, working on the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program that was part of the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1940. Typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, the documents vary in form from narratives to dialogues to reports to case histories. They chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience.

The United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men; Illinois Volume

Chicago: American Biographical Publishing Company 1883

Contains over 800 pages of biographies.

See the list of resources on this website for: Genealogy & Local History Research

Who’s Who in Illinois

A biographical dictionary of leading men and women of the commonwealth

Biographical Press
Chicago: Larkin, Roosevelt & Larkin 1947

This is Volume 1, which contains names A-Z. It is not clear if further volumes were published. The index is at the front.

Books and articles on War in historic Illinois

“Women Making a Difference: Ira Craddock, Adelaide Johnson & Laura Dainty Pelham”

Illinois History Teacher Vol 4, No. 1, 1997, pp 22-28

Burton, Shirley J.
Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Who’s Who in Illinois: Women, Makers of History

Gilman, Agness Geneva and Gilman, Gertrude Marcelle
Chicago: Eclectic 1927

More than Petticoats. Remarkable Illinois Women

Henderson, Lyndee Jobe
TwoDot 2007

More than Petticoats: Remarkable Illinois Women chronicles the stories of twelve Illinois women who lived in the era of True Womanhood and dedicated themselves to charity toward family and strangers. Unwittingly, these women forged a legacy that expanded well beyond Illinois’ borders.
From First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s devotion to country to ballroom dancer Irene Castle’s fight for animal rights, the women of Illinois acted with progressive vision.
Meet the wife of the Mormon Prophet, Emma Hale Smith, who challenged ideology; Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, the model of usefulness; Myra Bradwell, considered America’s first woman lawyer; and African American entrepreneur Annie Minerva Malone, who built a beauty empire.
Born before the dawn of the twentieth century, the women herein paved the way for future generations. Author Lyndee Jobe Henderson presents absorbing biographies filled with rarely published details.

Chicago Lives: Men and Women who Shaped our City

Janega, James, ed.
Triumph 2006

A unique journey through the 20th century in Chicago, this work reveals the characters whose lives put an indelible stamp on the city. Some were famous, like Richard J. Daley and Harold Washington, while others were infamous or unacknowledged, living fascinating lives that helped shape the city while remaining anonymous at the same time like, such as Emma Schweer, who is believed to have been America’s oldest elected office holder; Zofia Kuklo, a shy church-going, Polish immigrant grandmother who hid Jewish individuals from the Nazis during World War II; and James Tuach MacKenzie, the dashing and charismatic former drum major and band manager of the Stock Yard Kilty Band, among the most prominent of Chicago’s many pipe bands. In “Chicago Lives” readers explore the struggles of immigrants, the innovation of architects and artists, the dedication of activists and city officials, and the actions of Chicagoan’s whose feats were never recorded by history books, until now.

The Book of Chicagoans

A biographical dictionary of leading living men and women of the city of Chicago

Marquis, Albert Nelson
Chicago: Marquis 1917

The Women of Illinois

McCormick, Henry
Bloomington: 1913

Chapter headings are:

– The Pioneer Women of Illinois – Mrs. Le Compt – Mrs. John Edgar – Mrs. Robert Morrison – Mrs. Mary A. Bickerdyke – Mrs. Mary A. Livermore- – Frances E. Willard – Jane Addams – Mrs. Lida Brown McMurry – Mrs. Letitia Green Stevenson – Marie Eugenia Von Elsner (Litta) – The Women of Today

Selected Podcasts & Media about Events & Issues in the 21st Century

People to See: An Anecdotal History of Chicago’s Makers & Breakers

Nash, Jay Robert
New Century 1981

“People to See is an irreverent and revealing portrait of the merchant princes and magnates Marshall Field, William Randolph Hearst, P.K. Wrigley, George Pullman; crime kings Roger Plant, Al Capone, Arnold Rothestein, who fixed the 1919 World Series and “Shoeless Hoe” Jackson who played it that way; Richard J. Daley and the long line of his predecessors who insisted Chicago was not ready for reform; the proud pioneers of journalism and literature, Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellwo, Gwendolyn Brooks; and the rich heritage of Chicago sports. This is social history dominated by vivid personalities–regal and raffish characters with a talent for making out, moving up, and having their own way.” -Publisher. Chicago (Ill.) — Social life and customs — Biography.

Giants Gone: Men Who Made Chicago

Poole, Ernest
Whittlesey House 1943

Chicago Portraits: Biographies of 250 Famous Chicagoans

Sawyers, June Skinner
Loyola University 1991

Historical sketches of prominent figures from Chicago’s past, either born and bred there or born and raised elsewhere but associated with the city. A sampling, just from last names beginning with the letter “A”, yields Jane Addams, George Ade, Nelson Algren, Saul Alinsky, John Peter Altgeld, Sherwood Anderson, Louie Armstrong, and Jacob Arvey.

Library of American Lives: Illinois Edition 1950, Vol 1

Vol 2

Thompson, Charles M.
Historical Record Association 1950

“A source edition recording the recent and contemporary history of the State through the medium of the life histories of its most constructive members, and chronicling the backgrounds and activities of its prominent families and personages with emphasis on their accomplishments in making Illinois one of the great American commonwealths.”

Men of Illinois

Witherspoon, Halliday
Chicago: Witherspoon 1902?

Mainly a directory of men in business, for the benefit of newspapermen around the state. The index is arranged by occupation.

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