Hidden History: the Million Dollar Vermin

Mon Apr 01, 2019

Artistic interpretation of the Chicago King of the Rats by Redbubble user Wootus


At this point in our history, I’m sure almost all of you are familiar with our founding story, Frank Gunsaulus and the Million Dollar Sermon. In 1890, Gunsaulus, a Chicago minister, delivered the namesake sermon to his congregation. If he had a million dollars, Gunsaulus said he would create a school where students of all backgrounds could be prepared to work as leaders of the changing industrial world. This sermon would inspire Industrialist Philip Danforth Armour, Sr. to give the initial $1 million to create the Armour Institute, which would later become the Illinois Institute of Technology.

At least, that’s the story we’ve all been told. However, recent archival rediscoveries have revealed a completely different version of our founding story: one that we’ve been mishearing this entire time. It was never a sermon after all but instead a Million Dollar Vermin that led to our founding. Therefore, it only seems proper that this week’s Hidden History be dedicated to the true story of Illinois Tech’s founding, as unseemly as it may initially seem.

The Chicago King of the Rats goes by many other titles, but his true name remains a historical mystery. All that is known about this figure are the folktales about the unlimited amounts of power he wielded as the absolute ruler of Chicago’s underworld.

Every mouse, rat, cockroach, and other supposedly “lower” lifeform lived in service of this absolute monarch. He had eyes, ears, and antennae on every square inch of the city, knowing all and seeing all. While the extent to which he exercised his power remains unknown, this most recent discovery within the Illinois Tech University Archives and Special Collections corroborates leading theories that the Chicago King of the Rats was secretly a leading philanthropist through the end of the 1800s, in our instance going by the name of Million Dollar Vermin.

While the true nature of his interactions with Gunsaulus remain shrouded in mystery, it is very likely that word of Gunsaulus’ beliefs somehow reached the monarch, who was so moved by the ideals presented that he immediately provided the million dollar donation necessary to fund the initial Armour Institute. How or why this donation ended up in the hands and name or Armour remains one of many secrets the Chicago King of the Rats will continue to hold.

Whatever his reasons are, if this story is true, then perhaps we can at least take something away about how forces we may never know anything about believe in the visions of our future, and we should strive to do everything we can to live up to their expectations. Maybe we don’t always know what created the opportunities before us, but we should still do our part to make their efforts worthwhile.



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 9