Inspector John A. Bonfield was Chicago’s most famous police officer in the 1880s and 1890s. He brought new technology and greater brutality to the Chicago Police Department, along the way becoming a bugbear for labor and a cause célèbre for the Right. At the peak of his career, he was Inspector at the Desplaines street stationhouse, located at Desplaines and W. Court Place, one block south of Randolph (location pictured above).
John Bonfield was born at New Brunswick in 1836, and came to Chicago as a child in 1843. At age 22, he found work as a railroad engineer on the Ohio & Mississippi line, operating a run between Cincinnati and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the Ohio & Mississippi line was the target of the first American train robberies, perpetrated by the Reno Gang in Southern Indiana. After three of the Reno boys were lynched, their father became a drunken terror in that region, and eventually was nearly as despised as his children. That’s why the locals cheered and treated Bonfield like a hero when Old Man Reno wandered drunkenly into the way of his oncoming train.
Perhaps it was this popularity that led President U.S. Grant to appoint Bonfield to a position as a government customs officer in Chicago, where he remained until 1875. After leaving government work, Bonfield opened grocery and fertilizer businesses, both of which failed in short order. Thus, penniless and out of work, he jumped at the opportunity to join the city’s police department in 1878.
In 1880, Chicago had a population of just over 500,000, and in that year there were 190 officers available for night duty, and 76 available for daylight work. Each officer covered a very broad area, and a resident who needed police assistance could wait for over an hour before seeing an officer face-to-face. It was in this year that Detective Bonfield, with two other officers, invented and implemented the first electric police communication system. The system worked through small wooden boxes affixed to telegraph poles on street corners all over the city. Keys to the boxes were furnished to “respectable citizens upon application at the station.”
If police assistance was needed, one would only need to locate someone with a key, who could open the box and pull a lever, which sent a signal through electrical wires to the local station, summoning three policemen and a wagon in less than four minutes. The key, once turned in the box, could not be removed except by use of another key, held only by police officers – an attempt to reduce the number of false alarms.
The success of the boxes was repeated with similar systems in cities throughout the world, and John Bonfield became a local celebrity and a symbol of law and order. Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who became a close friend of Bonfield, appointed him lieutenant at the 12th Street station, and then Captain at Chicago Central Station, and finally Inspector at the Desplaines Street station.
Bonfield’s reputation for police brutality was first made during the January, 1886 west side street car riots. Workers in the Madison streetcar line were on strike that month (the streetcars were run by private companies), and public opinion was strongly on the side of the workers. When the streetcar company employed replacement “scabs” to operate the lines, striking workers physically threatened the replacements and refused to let the cars run. Bonfield led a phalanx of police officers lining both sides of Madison street to allow the cars through. When threatened, Bonfield told his men to use their police clubs freely (Bonfield himself led the effort) and scores of cracked skulls resulted. It was this incident, plus Bonfield’s personal motto, “The club today saves the bullet tomorrow,” that generated for him the sobriquet “Black Jack” Bonfield.
More famous even than his role in the street car riot was his crucial part in the Haymarket massacre of May, 1886. Bonfield was already despised by the Left, but after Haymarket, he became one of its all-time most hated enemies.
The incendiary language of Chicago’s anarchists had aroused the antipathy of many of the city’s residents, and much of that language was directed pointedly at the police, who were blamed for siding with management in battles with labor, such as in the streetcar dispute. With the general unrest surrounding efforts to enforce the eight-hour workday in May, 1886, Inspector Bonfield kept a close eye on the activities of anarchists. It was Bonfield who led a troop of police to settle a street battle between striking workers and scabs at the McCormick Reaper Works on May 3. During that clash, two workers were shot by police, and August Spies, a leading anarchist, was present at the event. Upset at the violence, Spies spent that evening in his office at the anarchist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung, writing the famous “Revenge” circular, which led to the meeting in Haymarket Square.
While Spies and fellow anarchist Albert Parsons spoke to the crowd near Haymarket, Inspector Bonfield remained at the Desplaines Street Station just one block south, the location of which is pictured above. With him were six companies of officers, constituted of 176 men, of which 50 were tasked with blending into the crowd, taking note of the speeches, and reporting back every fifteen minutes to Bonfield.
Spies, Parsons, and the third speaker, Samuel Fielden, spoke in terms common for socialist meetings, with plenty of language comparing wages with slavery, the failure of capitalism, the evils of the gilded age, and the need for laborers to unite. While the crowds were smaller than expected (only around 2,000 attended) due to poor weather and rumors of violence, Spies, Parsons, and Fielden made the best of it. As Fielden began to wrap up his speech, he spoke of resisting the law:
A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four millions. You have nothing more to do with the law except to lay hands on it and throttle it until it makes its last kick...Keep your eye upon it, throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything to can to wound it -- to impede its progress.When Fielden spoke of “throttling” the law, one of Bonfield’s men ran back to the station house and repeated the quip to the Inspector. While Fielden was probably speaking metaphorically of the "law" of capitalism or economics, Bonfield perceived a direct threat to the police. He gathered his troop, and marched up Desplaines street to where Fielden was wrapping up his speech:
He that has to obey the will of another is a slave. Can we do anything except by the strong arm of resistance?...I have some resistance in me; I know that you have, too; you have been robbed and you will be starved into a worse condition....Upon the arrival of the police, Fielden broke off his speech, and all eyes turned to Bonfield. “In the name of the people of the State of Illinois, quietly and peaceably disperse,” he announced.
Fielden replied “We are peaceable,” and at that moment, the fatal dynamite bomb was thrown. The police began firing their pistols into the crowd, causing a frightening stampede and riot. In the chaos, seven police officers were killed (though only one directly by the bomb itself), 11 were permanently disabled, 12 were injured so severely that they never returned to duty, and another 39 were injured but were able to work again. The seven dead officers were: Matthias J. Degan, George Miller, John J. Barrett, Timothy Flavihan, Michael Sheehan, Nels Hansen, and Thomas Redden.
In the “red scare” following the Haymarket massacre, Bonfield was hailed as a hero, an ideal police officer, although another view is that it was his rash and needless actions that led to the bloodshed. Nevertheless, on the one-year anniversary of the massacre, the conservative Tribune wrote of Bonfield:
That day -- May 4, 1886, when the city seemed in the utmost peril, the entire police force of 1,000 men recognized the force and courage of their inspector, who directed the movements of the officers to the smallest detail. Where other men seemed paralyzed and powerless to act, John Bonfield held his nerve, and with unaffected coolness laid out for the men their plan of action. That night, and a few hours before the Haymarket tragedy, Inspector Bonfield assembled four companies of police in the squad-room of the Desplaines Street Station. A mob of anarchists and their followers were listening to the incendiary speeches of Spies, Parsons, Fielden and others, but a stone's throw from where the police were drawn up in line of battle. Messengers came and went each moment informing Inspector Bonfield of the utterances of the mob's leaders. When word came that they had advised revenge and urged riot and slaughter John Bonfield, at the head of his men, marched to the scene. What followed is now a matter of history.While beloved by the Right, Bonfield was utterly despised by the Left. He was frequently a target of assassination attempts, including a bombing attempt by John Hronek in 1888. When Hronek was caught and sentenced to 12 years in prison, the increasingly xenophobic Tribune wrote of the predominantly-German socialists, "The hand of the law is tightening its clutch upon the cowardly Bohemian dynamite conspirators."
Labor activists were thrilled then, at the spectacular charges of the Democrat-leaning Chicago Times, which in January, 1889, published a front-page article accusing Bonfield and two fellow officers of stealing property from prisoners and selling it for profit. Specifically, the paper accused Bonfield of selling the personal affects of one of the Haymarket defendants, Louis Lingg. Lingg was perhaps the least liked of all those who went on trial for Haymarket; even his fellow defendants thought him a sociopath. When Lingg committed suicide in prison by biting down on a lit stick of dynamite days before his scheduled hanging, Bonfield purportedly appropriated his clothes and other effects, hiding them at a fellow officer’s ex-wife’s house until they could be fenced.
Bonfield, naturally, blamed his political enemies for the scandal:
Does it not seem a trifle strange that the three men most prominent in securing the conviction of the Anarchists should be the victims of this scurrilous attack? The "Reds" plotted to blow us skywards with dynamite. They failed, and some of their number will spend a good portion of their lives in Joliet. Now they are trying to ruin us.He sued the Times for libel, but the damage was already done, and Bonfield could no longer effectively police the streets. Mayor John Roche suspended him from duty after he refused to step down, and with that indignity, John Bonfield swore off the Chicago police for the rest of his life. Upon hearing of his departure, Lucy Parsons, Albert’s wife, who had continued as an anarchist leader, rejoiced:
Mrs. Parsons while addressing an Anarchist meeting in Waverly Hall last night was interrupted by the announcement of Inspector Bonfield and Capt. Schaack's suspension. Mrs. Parsons was wild with joy and the Anarchists in the room cheered.After leaving the police force, Bonfield capitalized on his famous name by opening a detective agency. Note the prominent references to the Haymarket Massacre in the text of the advertisement below.
The Bonfield agency’s most famous case took the Inspector and 20 of his crack detectives to Salt Lake City, where the Mormon “People’s Party” had controlled state government for over 40 years, but were threatened in the 1890 election by a non-Mormon Liberal party. The Mormons accused the Liberals of fraud in voter registration, and hired Bonfield’s men to keep watch over the election. Despite his best efforts, however, the Liberal party won. The ironic Tribune headline the next day was “Babylon is Fallen!”.
With the Salt Lake City debacle behind him, Bonfield returned to Chicago, where he became a conservative cause célèbre. His name was constantly rumored as an appointment for Chief of Police, a political token politicians used to signify their support for “law and order”. But Bonfield was Shermanesque, refusing to return to the Department which had shunned him (though the charges leveled by the Times were never disproved – Bonfield’s libel case was dismissed).
The old Inspector’s popularity never waned, though, and in 1893, Bonfield was appointed to head the special service police force keeping order at the World’s Fair in Jackson Park. Bonfield announced a plan, in common with the “internationalist” flavor of the Fair, to bring together the 400 greatest police officers from every city in the world to keep the peace.
The special force received mixed reviews. Early on, there were few arrests and many pickpockets, and there were persistent rumors that Bonfield was up to his old tricks, using his position to enrich himself with stolen goods, and of course, the city’s most sinister murderer, who lured unknown scores to their deaths during the Fair, went unapprehended. But by the end of the Fair, with the general goodwill associated with the event’s acknowledged success, Bonfield
was generally cheered.
John Bonfield died at Chicago in 1898. The old Desplaines Street police house has been replaced by an upscale condominium complex.