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Chicago Election Violence


From the I.P.S.N. Archives - 1995 Chicago - the Way It Was
"A City that Was Never Legit!"


by Richard C. Lindberg

What is it about this town that makes it possible to reverse the course of a mighty river to benefit the public good, yet makes it impossible to run a peaceful city election free of scandal, vote fraud, and physical intimidation?

"Chicago is unique," lamented Professor Charles Merriam, an early loser in the battle for political reform in Chicago, "it is the only completely corrupt city in America!"

Chicago is a machine town. It's been that way since 1931 when Mayor Anton Cermak enlisted the support of an army of "wets" in a frontal assault against the citadel of Volstead - the Prohibition of liquor intoxicants. Before that the city was up for grabs - a toss up every two to four years, between Democratic grafters and Republican grafters for control of the Holy Trinity of Chicago politics: pork, privilege, and patronage.

Chicago has never been legit, its elections even less so.

Politics as it is played out along the shores of Lake Michigan, is an extension of sport - a timeless reflection of 19th century deal cutting and saloon democracy set against the rough backdrop of gambling dens, cigar stores, bawdy houses, and grog shops.

Until Cermak's time, there was not one monolithic "machine," but a collection of "mini-machines," controlled by strutting political factotums who liberally dispensed jobs and favors to their constituents in return for their unquestioned loyalty on election day. An alderman's "clout" depended on the ability of his political sachems to deliver the vote. In Chicago, it was never a question of winning or losing - the organization always won - it was pluralities that counted. Send a message on election day. Punish your enemy. Destroy him so he won't come back in two or four years to destroy you.

The end has always justified the means when it came to insuring a decisive victory in this often grim Darwinistic life and death struggle. Slander campaigns, brass knuckles; even murder became the preferred tactics when the usual methods of propaganda and "persuasion" failed.

Election-eve violence is most often associated with Al Capone and the terror campaign he waged against the political bosses of Cicero when he invaded that blue-collar factory town in 1923 after things became too "hot" for him in Chicago. Capone, was only a "piker." Violence and intimidation is the Chicago way, and its historical roots extend much further in time than the rollicking era of bathtub gin, and the "Big Fellow."

Minus the distractions of professional sports, television, and other 20th century diversions, Chicagoans were much more involved in the outcome of political elections in the last century than they are today. Social clubs were organized at the ward level to boost the campaign of a favorite son, or slate of candidates. The pageantry of torch-light rallies, colorful parades, and bombastic oratory set in smoke-filled meeting halls scattered across the city, provided an important sense of neighborhood identity and ethnic pride - the hopes, fears, and prejudices vested in the candidate fortunate enough to descend from the same dominant nationality found within the ward. When necessary a "Democratic Club," or a "Republican Club," would engage rival organizations representing other districts and ethnic groups in wild and woolly free-for-alls often settled by bricks, bats, and pavement stones.

The principal antagonists in the decades leading up to the Civil War pitted the Irish- Catholic Democrats opposed to Sunday saloon closing laws, against a blue-blood, native- born coalition of Anglo-Saxon Republicans unwavering in their support for "Free Soil," abolition, and Abe Lincoln.

Widespread "rioting and knockdowns" were reported in the predominantly Irish- Democratic 7th Ward in the final days of the March 2, 1857 mayoral election. "Republican election judges," snorted the Chicago Tribune, "managed to keep their positions at the poll, until about 3:00 in the afternoon when they were driven away by the Irish."

The Democrats of the "Bloody 7th" (a commonly applied designation for certain "troublesome" Chicago wards, as we shall see), were united against Republican "Long John" Wentworth, who campaigned on a platform steamed with anti-Irish, anti-Papal bigotry. His opponent, a political unknown named Carver, wasn't given much of a chance even with the head-thumping assistance of the 7th Ward regulars.

A Republican businessman named George Armour challenged the votes of some Irishmen who did not reside within ward boundaries. Armour was set upon by a crowd of poll-watching ruffians, kicked, beaten about the head, and dragged through the streets by the hair until his friends came to the rescue. Another Wentworth worker was not nearly so lucky. He was attacked, stabbed, and chased clear down to La Salle Street where he jumped onto a dangerously thin sheet of river ice to escape his pursuers.

The man escaped but not before one of the 7th Ward Irishers crashed through the ice and drowned in the bone-chilling waters of the Chicago River.

"The 7th Ward is bloody ground and a certain class of Irish seize the occasion, not only to exhibit the wildest passions but to endanger it to the shedding of blood and taking of life of honest citizens who are simply exercising their constitutional rights." -- Chicago Tribune, March, 1857.

Of course the opposition press, led by the Chicago Democrat took an entirely different view of the affray by accusing the Republicans of provoking the mass of simple, honest, working men.

Election chicanery and the head-knocking tactics of the "bummers" - men hired to descend on political gatherings of rival candidates for the sole purpose of creating a disruption (often culminating in fist fights, and blood letting), characterized mayoral and aldermanic elections through the 1870s and 1880s.

Unlike the lowly precinct worker of more recent times who rings doorbells and shoves campaign flyers into the mailbox to extol the virtues of "da wunnerful" mayor, the "bummers" served the ward organization in far more useful ways - direct participation in the electoral process.

"Bummers" became "repeaters" on election day by climbing into horse-drawn wagons and driving from polling place to polling place to vote as needed. "Besides repeating, the business of these gangs is to scare voters, and whenever the day is going against them, to attack and destroy the ballot boxes. They also hope in wards where they have large majorities to take possession of the polls in the morning and hold them by brute force all day, so that no decent man can cast his vote against them," noted one political observer on the eve of the November 1873 City Council elections.

Without the protection afforded by meaningful Civil Service laws (the first one was enacted in 1895), the mass of city workers, police, and firemen, who owed their jobs to the committeeman and alderman, were likely to be fired if the vote went against their candidate. In this climate of constant political upheaval, election fraud and intimidation against voters was far more prevalent in the last half of the 19th Century than today - startling, but true.

Civil Service reforms, and presumably a rising level of tolerance and understanding between peoples curtailed some of the more flagrant abuses of Chicago politics as the new century unfolded. The colorful, but mendacious "Gray Wolves" who populated the corridors of City Hall in the 1890s were subsidized by bribe money flowing in from the street car companies, saloon keepers, and gambling bosses. There is very little that can be said on behalf of the Gray Wolves, other than the fact that political assassination of an opponent - as a last resort - was foreign to their nature.

Election violence in this century involved not only competing ward organizations vying for control of a district, but more and more frequently, the candidates themselves. The tendency to settle philosophical differences with a gun that is symptomatic of urban America in the 1990s, had its origins in Chicago more than 70-years ago, when an unfrocked priest named Anthony D'Andrea led a revolt of his fellow Italians against the one-man rule of 19th Ward Alderman Johnny "de Pow" Powers - the "Prince of Boodlers."

Powers presided over his constituency like a medieval lord of the manor for more than 40 years. In 1921, the 19th exploded in violence after D'Andrea announced his intention to challenge Powers for his aldermanic seat. A wave of bombings, shootings and garrotings followed. Paul Labriolia, a bailiff in the Municipal Court and a political supporter of Powers was ambushed, and shot to death at Congress and Halsted Streets on March 8, 1921 by unseen members of the D'Andrea faction. His death was expected - he had been warned not once, but on countless occasions. "It seems impossible that things like these can occur in this age of civilization," sobbed Johnny Powers, who had attended thousands of funerals during his 40-year reign. "It is worse than the Middle Ages."

Powers defeated D'Andrea by a scant 381 votes. Three months later the unfrocked priest was found lying dead in the blood-soaked streets of the 19th Ward. He was shotgunned to death and the meaning of it was very clear to the fearful and cowering Italian push-cart immigrants making ends meet in the "Bloody 19th."

Chicago in the crazy 1920s. Prohibition spawned Al Capone, and the rise of his Republican protector, Mayor William Hale Thompson, a larcenous scoundrel who vowed to punch King George in the snoot if he dared set foot on American soil. "Big Bill" proudly affirmed his opposition to the Volstead Act. "While I'm wetter than the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!" he beamed.

Thompson was the embodiment of the "Whoopee Era" of Chicago politics - a thoroughly corrupted political windbag whose first official act of office was to declare Chicago "wide open" to bootleggers, gunmen, and vice peddlers who were eager to line his ward coffers with generous cash contributions before each election. It was estimated that Al Capone spent between $100,000 and $250,000 to finance Thompson's 1927 campaign.

Chicago braced for its wildest election yet. Seven members of the Chicago Police detective squad were armed with sub-machine guns, and 250 auto squads were deployed around the city to protect the polling places from Capone gunsels. Such elaborate precautions were hardly necessary however. Thompson's election was insured after the "Big Fella" sent word to the boys to lay low after receiving an urgent request from Frank Loesch of the Chicago Crime Commission who had appeared before Capone, hat in hand, to plead for peace.

The gloves came off a year later, when terror stalked the "Bloody 20th" Ward. City Collector Morris Eller had mounted a furious campaign to unseat Democratic Alderman Albert J. Prignano, praised for his "honesty and virtue" by the Municipal Voters League. The M.V.L. should have known better.

The Eller Gang included 16 political thugs loyal to Mayor Thompson. Eller and his boys were already under indictment for the abduction of a Democratic poll watcher stationed at Taylor and Halsted Streets. Add to this, an earlier murder indictment stemming from the 1928 shooting death of Octavus C. Granady, an African-American ward committeeman, you begin to see that these guys played for keeps.

Seven men, including four policemen stood trial for the Granady murder. All seven were acquitted.

"In the ‘jungle precincts' along the river and the old Illinois & Michigan Canal on the West Side and the South, gangland was mobilizing. Terrorism stalked the "Bloody 20th" and by word of mouth was carried on in Hyde Park, by what the anti-Thompsonites term as the racketeer overflow." -- Chicago Tribune, April 1929.

Al Prignano was a member of the notorious West Side Bloc - syndicate anointed legislators whose task was to circumvent the passage of anti-crime legislation in the law making sessions of the General Assembly.

"The Bloc's hold is so powerful that people are afraid to vote against it - on the rare occasions when they are given a chance." -- Chicago Daily News, 1963.

The West Side Bloc controlled the political destiny of the "River Wards" for nearly 40 years - spanning the end of Prohibition, the Depression Era, up through Watergate. And those, like Al Prignano, who were in league with gangsters in order to further their own political agenda often found themselves in the cross-fire of syndicate guns. Prignano doubled as 20th Ward Committeeman during his years as state legislator in the early 1930s. He was an amiable man, not so terribly bright, but his outgoing temperament and infectious charm appealed to West Side residents who chose to look past his shady dealings with bootleggers and gamblers.

Hours before the 1936 New Year rang in, Prignano was shot to death by killers unknown.

"The very manner of his death is a sermon for the voters of this city. Through the ghastliness of some of Prignano's associates, the question is brought up as to whether a man with these associations could ever be properly representative in public office of the decent citizenry of his community -- Chicago Herald & Examiner, January 1936.

The record, character, and conscience of some of Chicago's elected officials has often been ignored by party slatemakers in the interest of perpetuatuing a creaking, political system that traded favors and jobs for rubber-stamp endorsement of one-party rule in Cook County. During the heyday of the West Side Bloc, the "cloutsters" were Republican, then later, Democratic. The syndicate didn't pay much attention to party labels. It was the end result that counted.

Inevitably, the victims of this vicious gunplay were connected in some way to the West Side Bloc. The Bloc fought equally hard against politicians desirous of change, and former "friends" who renounced gang rule. In the case of William John Granata, the Republican candidate running for Circuit Court Clerk in the October 1948 election, it was never quite clear which of these two factions he belonged to.

Granata came from a political family. He was a product of the old 20th Ward until the boundaries were re-drawn and it became the 17th Ward. Later on he practiced law, while dabbling in the political affairs of the 27th Ward. His brother Peter Granata served served a Congressional term, and many more terms of office in the Illinois House. It was said of Peter that he was firmly aligned to the West Side Bloc of politicians and gangsters, and owed allegiance to this hoodlum establishment.

Bill Granata's first mistake was challenging State Representative James Adduci, a West Side gambler aligned to the Capone gang. Adduci did not cotton the motives of "reformers" - and when John Bolton, his 1936 Democratic opponent - was slain in gangland fashion, the police brought Adduci in for questioning. But that was as far as the investigation went.

Despite Governor Dwight Green's urgent warning to back away from Adduci for the "sake of party harmony," Bill Granata mounted three challenges to unseat the dangerous Second District Republican during the war years. His third foray into the murky electoral waters of the West Side proved fatal. The candidate was returning to his wife and 4-year-old son who resided in the Randolph Towers, a half-block from City Hall, following a day-long round of campaign rallies. An armed assailant wielding a meat cleaver crept up on Granata from behind as he entered the vestibule of his building. The streets were quiet and deserted - it was well past midnight, and there was no-one on the street to I.D. the killer.

Granata's skull was split open and his jugular vein severed. He was pronounced dead at Henrotin Hospital. Well wishers were stunned and appalled. In his pocket the police found a list of 13 Cook County Sheriff's deputies who had been "sponsored" by Granata for patronage jobs within that office. There were plenty of motives, but not a single clue. Granata, according to former police lieutenant William Drury, who covered the crime beat for the Chicago Herald & American, "...was ordered slain because he and his brother Rep. Peter C. Granata, had refused to trade votes they control on the West Side for the benefit of the Jake Guzik-Paul-Ricca-Al Capone mob."

Bill Drury, a highly decorated, but controversial detective whose methods were constantly questioned by his superiors, spilled mob secrets in the Chicago and Miami newspapers. There are those who believe that Drury's willingness to talk so freely about organized crime activity and suggest possible suspects and motives to the police ultimately cost him his life.

Drury's troubled police career ended in 1947 when Chief William Prendergast suspended him and his partner Tom Connelly, for bringing "false evidence" and for "coercing" two syndicate hoods into testifying about the 1946 syndicate murder of gambling boss James M. Ragen who owned the Continental Press, a nationwide distributor of race track information.

Four years passed. Drury made a name for himself outside Chicago with his breezy, fast-paced reportage of the Chicago underworld which the public devoured. Meanwhile, the federal government had begun to turn up the heat on the big city crime syndicates. And as the 1950 off-year elections drew closer, U.S. Senator Carey Estes Kefauver traversed the country conducting nationally televised hearings on the business of organized crime to spotlight this growing menace to the public safety. His motive was self-serving: Senator Kefauver wished to draw attention to himself in order to be in a position to snare the 1952 presidential nomination.

A few days before he was scheduled to appear before Kefauver's committee, Drury was shotgunned to death while backing his car into his garage in the 1800 block of Addison Street. Bill Drury's killers vanished into the night.

The same night Drury was gunned down, Attorney Marvin Bas, the Republican nominee for Circuit Court Clerk was murdered near his home at Orchard Street and North Avenue. Bas was another in a long line of public figures who was well acquainted with members of the Chicago "Outfit." He too had agreed to exchange information at election time. In this case, Bas intended to embarrass the Democratic candidate for Cook County Sheriff, Daniel "Tubbo" Gilbert, otherwise known as the "World's Richest Cop."

The gangland-style executions of Prignano, Granata, Drury, and Bas were attributed to the "Outfit" - and they were entered into the ledgers of the Chicago Crime Commission as officially unsolved gangland "hits." The number of such murders was fast approaching a thousand when these stories were first reported.

Even with the memories of the political assassinations of the 1960s blazed in our collective conscience, the cold-blooded murders of Chicago politicians and a highly- respected police detective still seems almost unimaginable, looking back on these events more than 40 years later.

Chicago in the 1950s. Quiet, but dangerously unsettled times of our recent history. The assassinations continued, and the Chicago Police Department seemed almost powerless to stop the bloodshed.

"They'll have to kill me to get me out!" exhorted 56-year-old Charles Gross, the Republican Committeeman from the 31st Ward who fought a long and losing battle against the West Side Bloc gangsters who had already left their muddied tracks in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 21st, 26th, 27th, and 28th Wards before targeting Gross' home base of operations. Gross was dropped in his tracks by seven shotgun blasts outside his Kedzie Avenue home on February 6, 1952, a-year-and-a-half after the unsolved Drury-Bas murders.

Austin Wyman of the Chicago Crime Commission promised an all-out fight to the finish against the syndicate controlled Bloc believed responsible for the recent wave of lawlessness. An investigating body known as the City Council Emergency Crime Commitee, or "Big Nine," was empowered to ferret out the root and branch of a recent police scandal involving a North Side captain accused of receiving payoffs from syndicate operatives, and the murder for hire schemes.

"Gangsters can't live in the midst of a truly aroused citizenry. The people are ready to fight. When the people fight there can be only one outcome. The gangsters go!" -- Chicago American, February 1952.

Gangland snickered. "Oh yeah? Says who?"

The syndicate was at the absolute threshold of its power - a far stronger entity than what it had been during the Capone bootleg days because of its ability to place candidates favorable to its interests in elective statewide offices. F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover refused to acknowledge the existence of a national crime cartel - his reluctant admission that crime was "organized" would finally come five years later, in 1957. The resources of the F.B.I. in the early to mid-1950s, were trained on domestic subversives - the illusory "communist conspiracy," leaving only the woefully outgunned Chicago Police Department and the civilian members of the Chicago Crime Commission to tackle the growing problems head on.

The most talked about political murder-mystery of the decade revolved around Clem Graver, a state representative and 21st Ward Republican Committeeman who was dragged from inside his garage on 976 W. 18th Street on June 11, 1953, by three men - while his wife Amelia helplessly watched from inside the house. A black 1950 Ford sedan, stolen from the South Side, sped away with Graver who was forcibly restrained in the back seat.

No ransom demand was ever made. Despite an intensive search of the rail yards, coal piles, and dead-end streets west of Halsted Street, Clem Graver was never seen again. Later on, after hopes for his safe return evaporated, allegations surfaced in the gossip columns concerning Graver's dealings with underworld figures. His brother-in-law, Harry Hochstein, was an acquaintance of mob boss Tony Accardo. Hochstein had been indicted with several of the leading syndicate luminaries back in 1943 for shaking down the movie industry moguls. No-one was surprised, Chicago being what it is.

The might of the resurgent Democratic machine - broken and misfiring before Mayor Richard J. Daley was swept into office in April 1955 - silenced the nefarious West Side Bloc for the time being. Daley defeated Robert Merriam, a 36-year-old idealistic war hero whose father labeled Chicago the "most corrupt city in America" nearly 40 years earlier when he too had experienced the pain of a stinging mayoral defeat. Daley won by a hefty 127,199 vote margin amid a thunderous Republican outcry that many Chicagoans casting votes in the hoodlum-controlled River Wards election were either dead, unknown, or had moved away. They were termed "ghost voters" and a familiar Chicago colloquialism was entered into the dictionary of Windy City slang.

Daley seemed to make good on his campaign pledge to make Chicago a "more beautiful place in which to live." The city was on the move with massive public works projects that diverted attention from the page one crime stories earlier in the decade. And for the next few years at least, there was peace in the River Wards and the squalid South Side ghetto neighborhoods where the African-American residents had lived in abject poverty and misery for so many years.

The city's last political assassination was perhaps its most notorious. In 1958, Ben Lewis became the first black alderman to represent the 24th Ward, a district that was 100% Jewish and Eastern European before World War II, and 90% African-American afterward. The 24th Ward had a history of drug trafficking, numbers running, and prostitution. Mobsters were believed to be the guiding force in the district. It was a malodorous mix of crime and crooked politics, to say the least.

Ben Lewis peddled insurance to the Douglas Park residents in direct defiance of the old-line ward boss Arthur X. Elrod, a former gambler, saloon keeper, and 24th Ward precinct captain, who enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the business up and down Roosevelt Road in those hustling, rag-picking days. Lewis desperately wanted to be his own man, but as long as Daley's organization controlled the ghetto vote, he had to take his marching orders from the party chieftains; Democratic chairman Jake Arvey and his point man Elrod; then Congressman William L. Dawson; and finally the Mayor himself.

Ben Lewis had just been returned to office by an overwhelming mandate of the voters in the aldermanic election when assassins burst into his office on Roosevelt Road late in the evening of February 28, 1963. Lewis was manacled to his chair and shot in the head three times - he still clutched a cigarette stub between his fingers when police surveyed the gruesome scene the next morning.

"The murder once again shows that the syndicate is very much alive in Chicago," commented Alderman John Hoellen of the 47th Ward, a pleasant, tree-lined neighborhood far removed from the ever present dangers of the West Side. Police Superintendent Orlando W. Wilson echoed the solemn promise of the Mayor by vowing to "apprehend and bring before the bar of justice the culprit who committed this dastardly crime."

A day, a week, and then a month passed. The dramatic but futile investigation yielded no suspects or clues. The Lewis killing, like the earlier murders of Prignano, Gross, Graver, Granata, and other lesser known figures, drifted off page one and into the Chicago Crime Commission files. The Lewis hit was the 977th unsolved gangland murder in Chicago since 1919.

A month later Daley was re-elected Mayor by 138,000 votes over Ben Adamowski who vainly tried to draw attention to a full plate of municipal problems. No-one in the media appeared willing to publicize Adamowski's concerns about de-segregating the public schools, the rising tide of crime, and stemming the violence of the omnipresent "Outfit." Daley was a popular, beloved mayor and the city was mesmerized by a necklace of new expressways, a lakefront exposition hall which lured added convention business to the Windy City, and the new University of Illinois campus which leveled acres of low income housing on the near West Side.

The Ben Lewis murder was forgotten about. Fortunately though, it closed out a shameful chapter of Chicago's checkered political history. Ahead lie the tumultuous 1960s, and a changing social agenda that brought with it changes that forever altered the political landscape in Northeast Illinois. Through the sheer size of their numbers, Chicago's black population eventually put an end to the iron-fisted boss rule of the West Side Bloc which had relied on intimidation and murder to re-inforce its edicts for more than 35 years.

Elected officials no longer became moving targets. Political assassinations in Chicago ended in the sixties when the federal government finally re-focused its efforts on incarcerating the gangsters and the City Hall "connection guys" whose ability to suborn politicians slowly began to wane. The "Operation Greylord" and "Gambat" investigations into First Ward corruption in the 1980s dealt a crippling blow to the last vestiges of the West Side Bloc rule.

Political corruption however, is axiomatic to the city and will likely continue in this election, and all the elections yet to come. Will Chicago ever be ready to reform? No, probably not, in the learned opinion of the late Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, the red-faced saloon- politician who ruled the 43rd Ward from his famous North Avenue watering hole for what seemed like a political eternity. When asked to expound on the true meaning of the "real" Chicago, "Paddy" cautioned against trying to analyze the city or its peculiar form of government, because in the end it means..."nuttin." "Nuttin' at all. Because all you get out of life is a few laughs."


 

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