Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ragen's Colts

Frank M. Ragen, neighborhood leader and future City Commissioner, founded the Morgan Athletic Club in the Stockyards neighborhood in 1900. By 1912, the group had taken on the honorary name "Ragen's Colts," and numbered in membership nearly 3,000. The Colts were partly a baseball team and partly a violent gang during their existence, and their original headquarters were here, at 5528 S. Halsted (later they moved to a new clubhouse at 52nd and Halsted). Both locations are now empty lots.

The Colts were one of a number of Southside athletic clubs, with membership drawn primarily from the Irish Catholic families who once populated the Bridgeport and Stockyards neighborhoods along Halsted St. Members played in recreational amateur leagues against other, similar, baseball teams across the city. Football was also popular, and a group of Ragen's Colts formed the original nucleus of the professional Chicago Cardinals, who later became the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals, and even later, the Arizona Cardinals.

The Colts' parties were legendary for their lasciviousness. At the 1918 New Years' bash, the Juvenile Protective Association attended, and was astonished at what they saw. The Tribune reported:
"The vilest dance ever attended by our officers," is one expression in the report, with the information that "startling indecencies, gross misconduct, wholesale intoxication, and general violation of city ordinances were found on a greatly enlarged scale." "About 2 o'clock a young girl of 19, helplessly drunk, was carried by her intoxicated companions to the center of the hall, where the burden became too great, and she was unceremoniously dumped on the floor, in view of the crowd. When men and women from the Juvenile Protective association carried her to a corner and placed her on chairs where she would be comfortable and inconspicuous, they were brutally assaulted by two plain clothes men.
Similarly, of a 1915 dance party, the Association declared:
"No Roman saturnalia could have been wilder than that dance," said one of the club women. "We thought we had improved conditions a little, but a glimpse at the revel of the 'Ragen Colts' showed how mistaken we were."
Ragen's Colts were also self-styled vigilante protectors of their neighborhood. Their slogan, "Hit me, and you hit 3,000," encapsulated their purpose. As an example, in 1922, an outsider was spotted ogling a 16 year-old girl in the neighborhood. When her mother left the house to run an errand, she came across two Colts and told them about the creep. They promptly found him and killed him on the street.

This kind of justice also extended to their Irish heritage. When Eli Erickson, an anti-Papist activist, came to Rogers' Park to give a speech denouncing the Knights of Columbus, a group of Colts made the trek across town to attend and disrupt his speech by throwing chairs at Erickson as soon as he took the stage. In another instance, an effigy of a Klu Klux Klansman was publicly burned at Colts' headquarters, again because of the Klan's anti-Catholic stance.

Despite their opposition to the Klan, Ragen's Colts were also central to the worst race riots Chicago has ever seen. Before 1910, most African-Americans in Chicago lived in the "Black Belt," a de facto segregated strip of blocks on either side of State St., beginning south of 22nd. The "Great Migration" of southern blacks fleeing Jim Crow (and the boll weevil) into the industrial cities of the north, including Chicago, began in the years following 1910, and created pressure to extend the Black Belt west toward the Stockyards -- Colts' territory. The Colts, along with other Irish gangs, engaged in years of petty terrorism against blacks intended to maintain the racial integrity of their neighborhood.

The worst conflagration occurred during the Summer of 1919. The trouble started on the afternoon of July 27, 1919, when a 17 year-old African-American boy playing on a raft in Lake Michigan near 26th St. accidentally floated into a white-only beach area. Toughs on the beach began throwing rocks at the boy, who consequently drowned. Onlookers ran to find police, but Officer Daniel Callahan refused to take action against the killers, a fact that enraged the black community, who massed for a protest at 29th and Cottage Grove Ave.

The incident was just what the Colts and other white gangs had been waiting for: an opportunity to start an all-out race riot. At the Stockyards, the Colts waited for black workers to leave their jobs in the slaughterhouses, then beat them with wooden clubs, iron pipes, and hammers, killing several. Other group of rioters stormed streetcars carrying blacks through white neighborhoods, dragging riders off and pummeling them to death on the street. In retaliation, a black mob at 36th and State stoned a white peddler, pulling him off his cart and stabbing him in full view of hundreds of onlookers. Black gangs began attacking any whites they came across throughout the city.

For the next several days, teams of marauding white teenagers drove through the Black Belt, firing weapons at anyone they saw on the street, and attempting to avoid return sniper fire. In another incident, a group of Chicago police, attacked by a black man armed with a brick, fired into a crowd of nearly 1,500 blacks gathered at 35th and Wabash, killing several.

The violence began to creep northward, nearly to the Loop, and the threat of citywide destruction was very real. Racially motivated murders on the North and West sides of the city took place on the 29th. Finally, on July 30, Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson requested the Illinois state militia step in, and simultaneously ordered the (temporary) closure of the Colts' headquarters. 6,200 guardsmen entered the Black Belt and finally restored order. By this time, 23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, with hundreds more injured. None of the Colts (or any other white gang members) were arrested for their role in the riot.

The Colts continued terrorizing Chicago's African-American population on a smaller scale for another eight years. In 1926, a group of Colts lured a black man behind their headquarters with an offer of free drinks, then stabbed and shot him dead. The following day's Tribune headline is surely a classic: "Four Morons Kill Negro at Ragen Colts' Hangout"

Ragen's Colts were disbanded in 1927. By that time, the "athletic" aspect of the club had shriveled, and the criminal element dominated. A number of members were heavily involved in the underground liquor trade, and had associated themselves with the Torrio/Capone syndicate. They served primarily as street-level enforcers for beer-running operations, a position that lead to frequent conflicts with competing liquor operations. In 1925, two Colts and gangsters, Edward Harmening and "Dynamite Joe" Brooks, were killed by the rival McErlane-Saltis gang, shot dead in their car at 71st and Marquette.

The area where the Colts' headquarters once stood is now a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

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