This article originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of playboy magazine.
The handwriting is impeccable, the sentences are short and to the point. For 60 years, from 1870 to 1930, Chicago bureaucrats entered the names and details of more than 11,000 “homicides and important events” into five notebooks.
February 23, 1877. Anderson, Gris: Col’d waiter, shot in fight in saloon of Mathias Walsh, Clark and Van Buren, by John Keat, a junk dealer.
July 4, 1879. Anderson, Robert: 18 years old, killed with blow of baseball bat, 211 W. Polk St., by John McQuade, who escaped.
Men killed each other with guns, knives, razors, pails, blackjacks, shovels, fists and pool cues.
December 3, 1882. Allen, Bill, alias Joe Dehman: Notorious colored criminal and murderer of Clarence E. White, shot dead by Sergeant John Wheeler.
So begin the ledgers of death. No one knows why the records were kept, or why the practice stopped in 1930. Dottie Hopkins of the Illinois State Archives carefully restored the fragile pages; now they are treasured by historians and devotees of homicide. Last fall the Northwestern University School of Law hosted a conference, “Learning From the Past, Living in the Present: Patterns in Chicago Homicides, 1870–1930.”
The patterns are there. Prior to 1900, almost a quarter of Chicago homicides occurred in saloons. Men killed each other with guns, knives, blackjacks, brass knuckles, straight razors, bowling pins, hatchets, axes, billiard balls and cue sticks, bricks, stones, whipstocks, beer mallets and pails, meat cleavers, hair clippers, garden shears, shovels and fists. Men quarreled over cards, payment for drinks or undue attention paid to wives, daughters and girlfriends. For scholars trying to date the birth of America’s gun culture, the archives are no help. Jeffrey Adler, associate professor of history and criminology at the University of Florida, examined the ledgers and says guns were used in 65 percent of the killings between 1870 and 1920. In the late 19th century the incidence of gun use in other cities was about 30 percent.
Like Cain and Abel, Chicagoans used whatever was at hand. The ledgers record this fight: October 24, 1907. Anderson, Nelson: Cut to pieces by Metropolitan train. Dennis Scanlon held for manslaughter. Scanlon, who is blind, is alleged to have pushed Anderson, who is also blind, from the station platform.
There were quarrels that stemmed from pop culture: John Casey, 24, had his throat cut by his brother in an argument over a Graphophone. And there were murders motivated by the most ancient of cultures: In 1899 Peter Dykstra, age five, had his throat cut with a corn knife by his father, Abel Dykstra, who said, “The Lord demanded it as a sacrifice.”
The ledger entries note bombs allegedly planted by the Industrial Workers of the World, scabs and strikebreakers felled by bullets and bricks, and innocent bystanders killed when labor disputes turned violent:
July 9, 1894. Bach, Martha: Fatally shot, 61st St. and Western Ave. during railroad strike riot. Bullet fired at or by strikers.
February 16, 1903. Gates, Samuel: Commission merchant, died from assault committed Feb. 12 at freight house by union teamster, name unknown. Gates drove a wagon of Peter Fox Sons Co. to the depot for a case of eggs, and the man who assaulted him disputed his right to drive a team.
The labor wars are far enough in the past that we have forgotten when Americans killed for jobs. To the modern eye the archives portray a world of armed shopkeepers willing to kill burglars and chicken thieves, of bartenders willing to kill over a disputed bill. Most were acquitted, as were the scores of police who killed suspects allegedly trying to resist arrest or evade pursuit. A teenage boy, one of about six playing dice in a vacant store, was the victim of an “accidental discharge of gun in hand of Officer Charles Miller, who was exonerated by the coroner.” George Fleming, age 22, was fatally stabbed on August 5, 1919 with “a bayonet attached to rifle in hands of Private Edgar Mohan of the Illinois Reserve Militia, on duty in riot zone.” The ledgers also devote pages to policemen who were murdered in the line of duty, but none as violent as this: October 3, 1903. Ahoy, George A.: Chief of police, Morgan Park, cut to death with knives by Negroes. Six arrests.
The historians who attended the Northwestern conference looked for early signs of modern problems. A panel asked, “Has the proportion of spousal murders changed? What were the characteristics of domestic violence before it was called domestic violence?”
The ledgers rarely record ongoing abuse (save those cases where sons killed their fathers while defending their mothers). The more usual pattern was murder-suicide, endgames bereft of detail: 1903. Mrs. Emma Arutman: Throat cut with razor by husband who attempted suicide in same manner. Or this one: July 6, 1927. Goeschel, Elaine, age three: Throat slashed with butcher knife in the hands of her father, Wm. Goeschel, who during a violent domestic quarrel attempted to exterminate the whole family. His own attempt at suicide was not successful and on 7/21/27 he was held by the coroner.
Husbands killed wives with swords, with fire, with guns and with poison, then took their own lives.
Adler summarized the killings with a paper titled “If We Can’t Live in Peace, We Might as Well Die.”
Women were also capable of homicide, though their choice of weapons was different. In entry after entry, we read variations of this: June 10, 1917. Jaros, John, age 48: Shot to death at home, 4162 Ogden Ave., by his wife, Annie, who then committed suicide by gas asphyxiation, which also killed her two-year-old baby, Mamie.
November 10, 1915. Boedecker, Walter, age six: Found asphyxiated in bed with mother, Margaret, who had turned on gas with suicidal intent.
The women who chose gas turned the domestic sphere into a still life. The sense of hopelessness permeates each page. Under the letter U are the unknown victims. The ledger lists the bodies of newborns found in trash cans, cement mixers, ash bins, toilets in department stores, infants strangled with ribbons, stabbed with hatpins, wrapped in newspaper, swaddled in gunnysacks, dismembered and burned. The entries are as shocking as those in today’s headlines. By the Twenties, lawmakers had come up with a charge, “criminal neglect at birth,” although offenders were seldom apprehended. Mothers did not just kill newborns. Crawford, Elenore May, nine years, drowned in bathtub by her mother, who is thought to be insane.
Some scholars say the domestic homicides were caused by tensions between the sexes, by men unable to deal with the emergence of the modern woman. There is evidence that women who sought new roles met resistance: November 21, 1920. Smith, Earl, age 33: Shot to death in saloon at 60th and Halsted Sts. at 11 P.M. while dancing with a woman, by John Hunt who had, just half an hour previous, fatally shot Walter Meyers, whom he had found in company of this woman in another saloon.
There are remarkably few examples of sexual homicide, what we know as rape-murder. Some scholars say this reflects a gentleman’s agreement not to mention lurid details, but the records contain moments of horror. A woman’s nude body—minus hands, feet and head—was found in a sewer. The body of a boy turns up—Bobby Franks, the victim of Leopold and Loeb’s exercise in death.
Far more often, women were the victims of a specific act: April 6, 1917. Gennaro, Antonia, age 27: Died from an abortion at home, 902 Cambridge Ave., said abortion performed by Minnie Miller, who on 4/16 was held by the coroner. Women died from “illegal operations” and “criminal abortions” performed by midwives, doctors and unknown parties. For decades, the entries end with the citation “No bill,” indicating the abortionist was not prosecuted, that a grand jury had not held him or her liable for the death. At the turn of the century, abortionists advertised in Chicago papers. In 1904 the Chicago Medical Society established the Committee on Criminal Abortion. A year later the Chicago Tribune stopped accepting ads. By the Twenties, the ledger begins to record successful prosecutions against abortionists.
The ledgers chronicle the attempt by the justice system to deal with deaths that the public considered wrong but that did not fit the easy patterns of murder. Entries note a 1917 death that resulted from injection of drugs and a 1919 death caused by wood alcohol poisoning.
The ledgers also record all deaths inflicted by motorcycle and automobile, labeling them manslaughters. Rare at first, by 1920 vehicular fatalities were almost as common as homicides. Indeed, it took only two volumes to record every death from 1870 to 1920. It takes three volumes to list the deaths that occurred between 1920 and 1930. Part of this is accounted for by population: Between 1870 and 1930 Chicago grew from a city of 300,000 to a metropolis of 3.3 million. But a large part is attributable to America’s reckless love of speed. In a disconcerting number of entries, the drivers left the scenes.
Flipping through the archives, one can follow the evolution of professional murder. An unknown gunman used a rifle with a silencer to kill a target, another assailant went around with a sawed-off shotgun, scattering victims to the wind. The automobile began to appear in the entries as a weapon or site for homicide: Victims were pushed out of roaring vehicles, or shot and dumped. After Al Capone arrived in Chicago, drive-by shootings were almost common. The tommy gun makes its appearance in 1925 and achieves immortality in the entries for February 14, 1929:
Schwimmer, Reinhardt, age 29: One of the seven Moran gangsters who were lined up facing a brick wall and mowed down with machine guns and shotguns at a garage at 2122 N. Clark St., at 10:40 A.M. When the killers left, two of them had their hands in the air and two followed, pointing the machine guns at their backs. They all got into an auto disguised as a police squad car and escaped.
October 23, 1930. Aiello, Joseph, age 39: Italian, married, gang leader and partner of Bugs Moran, was riddled with machine-gun bullets in front of 205 N. Kolmar Ave., when he left the home of Pasquale Prestigiocomo, alias Presto, to enter a cab. The fire was opened up on him from a machine-gun nest in a flat across the street, 202 Kolman Ave., and when he attempted to escape to the rear of the Presto home, he was felled from fire from a second nest.
The ledgers also record lesser-known events. In July 1919, Chicago was swept with three days of riots that left 38 dead:
Hardy, B.J. Fatally assaulted July 28th at 46th St. and Cottage Grove Ave. after being taken off a streetcar by a mob of white rioters.
Otterson, William, age 35: Fatally injured July 28 at 35th and Wabash Ave., when struck by a brick thrown by one of a mob of colored rioters.
Ordman, Berger, age 21: Fatally shot July 29 by Samuel Johnson, who fired a rifle from porch of his home into a mob of white men, fearing violence to himself and family.
The incident that began this bloodshed is chilling:
Eugene Williams, colored, age 17. Drowned at 29th St. Beach due to exhaustion on account of being unable to come to land due to throwing of stones during riot between whites and Negroes over use of said beach. This case was the direct cause of the race riots. George Stauber, one of the rioters who was accused of having thrown a stone which supposedly struck the deceased and caused his drowning, was indicted on charge of manslaughter. Acquitted.
The scholars who met at Northwestern asked, “What do these cases tell us about the nature of homicide over time? Who kills whom under what circumstances, and what has changed?”
Perhaps more to the point: What hasn’t changed?