Saturday, September 5, 2009

Gangs of Chicago: Thomas "Buff" Higgins Leads the Wright Street Gang

By most accounts, 1893 was a banner year in Chicago. The World’s Fair exhibited the very best the city had to offer, including magnificent architecture, a harmonious blending of cultures, and a beautiful physical landscape, to millions of visitors. But in the shadow of the “white city” was a very dark city. Just a mile or two from the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan lay the Maxwell Street district, a neighborhood teeming with the most incorrigible criminals, young desperadoes scurrying through the filthy streets and rotting tenement buildings like vermin. Then as now, poverty and hopelessness bred desperation and hedonism, and young men with little to live for would die over even less. The most vicious of these men formed into street gangs which terrorized 14th Place, in those days known as either Wright Street). The leader of one of these gangs was Thomas “Buff” Higgins, who at age 23 was already a notorious figure and had been in and out of jail over 100 times. In the early morning of September 3, 1893, in a Peoria St. home, Higgins wrote the final chapter in his life in a frantic moment, igniting a city-wide debate on poverty, crime and punishment in Chicago.

“Buff” was a nickname, short for “Buffalo”, and possibly styled after the wild-west gunslinger star of countless dime novels, “Buffalo Bill”, whose human incarnation in William Cody had captivated Chicago in a series of performances at the World’s Fair that year. Born in Ireland in the early 1870s, Buff Higgins immigrated with his parents to Chicago at the age of 2. Like many of their countrymen, the Higgins settled in the Maxwell street district, where poor workingmen could afford a few square feet of space. Conditions in the neighborhood were poor, and it was no place to raise a family, but it beat starvation and religious strife in Ireland.

As a boy, Higgins attended the notorious Walsh School, which still exists today, where Irish schoolboys banded together against newer immigrant groups from Germany, Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European regions. Knives and even guns were commonplace in these schoolyard battles, and through them, Buff Higgins came to be an expert fighter; as the Tribune later described his upbringing, "Fighting came to him easily, and nature had given him a body well adapted for physical combat. Experience supplemented his natural ability as a fighter and it was not long before 'Buff' Higgins was a man to be feared by each and every one who happened to come into contact with him."

By age 14, Higgins had dropped out of school, and he descended into a life of crime, naturally falling in with some of the tough Irish street gangs that controlled 14th Place (then known as Wright St.), near the intersection of Sangamon Street, which was the location of so many battles with police that it became known as “Dead Man’s Corner”. Higgins’ first recorded arrest, at age 14, was for stealing grapes from a neighborhood fruit merchant. From that ignominious beginning, the following ten years saw Buff back in the city jail – or the “Bridewell”, as it was known – countless times for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, vagrancy, larceny, and assault. In 1891, Higgins was even implicated in the murder of a neighborhood laborer, George Scott, and the entire Wright Street Gang, in which he had become a chief member, was hauled into court.

Finally, in 1892, Higgins was sent to the state penitentiary at Joliet to serve a one-year prison sentence for robbery. When he finished his term in September, 1893, he returned to the neighborhood and shortly found himself in need of money. With two fellow members of his Wright Street Gang, Higgins planned a midnight robbery of an irresistible target.

(Pictured: Thomas "Buff" Higgins. The Tribune described him as "low browed and repulsive in features")

February of 1893 had seen the bankruptcy of one of the nation’s largest railroads, the Philadelphia and Reading, and other railroad companies were believed to be on the verge of collapse. Nowhere was the shock of these insolvencies greater than in Chicago, the heart of so many rail systems. In those days before federal deposit insurance, banks invested more conservatively, but were also more vulnerable to “runs” by depositors, who, hearing rumors of a bank collapse, all rushed to withdraw their savings, possibly exacerbating the feared collapse (see earlier posts here and here for more details on banking before FDIC).

Among those who withdrew their savings in cash during the “Panic of 1893”, as it was later called, was Mrs. Bridget McCooey, the wife of a Crane Bros. elevator factory laborer, and a resident of a hardscrabble working-class neighborhood west of the Loop, just north of “Bloody Maxwell”, where Higgins and company ran the streets. Mrs. McCooey withdrew the family’s life savings, around $400, and stored it in cash in their home at 153 Johnson St. (now 230 S. Peoria St., pictured above). Adjusting amounts for inflation over such long periods is difficult, since the quality and types of goods available for purchase have changed so tremendously (most people would rather have $1,000 to spend in the 2009 Best Buy catalog than $1,000 in the 1901 Sears catalog, even though the $1,000 in 1901 would in principle be “worth” much more than $1,000 in current dollars). Nevertheless, using ordinary measures of inflation, $400 in 1893 is the equivalent of around $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Perhaps Mrs. McCooey mentioned the withdrawal to a friend or neighbor, or perhaps a bank clerk had noted the unusually large withdrawal. In any case, word quickly spread around that a sizeable sum of cash was hidden somewhere in the McCooey home. Buff Higgins had found his target.

Around 2:00 a.m. on September 3, 1893, Higgins, joined by two fellow Wright Street Gang members, Harry “Sheeney Joe” Feinberg and Edward “Red” Gary, approached the McCooey home on Peoria St. The three men thoroughly rummaged through the home, overturning every cabinet and drawer, in search of the $400. Unknown to the robbers, Mrs. McCooey had decided a few days earlier that her bank was solvent, redepositing the cash they sought. Finally, there was only one place the trio had yet to look, the McCooeys' bedrooms.

Feinberg and Gary waited at the bedroom door, prepared for a quick getaway, while Higgins alone tiptoed into the bedroom of Bridget’s 42-year old husband, Peter. Higgins was opening a bureau drawer in the bedroom when he accidentally knocked over a chair, awakening the sleeping Mr. McCooey. What happened next would be replayed countless times in court. The Tribune describes the scene:
Springing to his elbow, half awake, [McCooey] was dazzled by the light of a lamp shining full in his eyes. The lamp was in the hands of a man who stood near the bed. Two other men were in the room near the door. A child would have known their errand -- robbery. As McCooey was in the very act of springing from his bed the man with the lamp flashed a revolver and fired. McCooey, checked in the midst of his spring, fell back beside his wife with a groan. The man with the pistol set the lamp on the floor and the three men ran out of the bedroom. Mrs. McCooey screamed her husband's name. He made no reply. She turned to him. His face and nightdress were covered with blood which was flowing from a wound in his left eye. Then she ran screaming from the house, crying: "Murder! They have killed my husband. Murder!"
A neighbor, awakened by Mrs. McCooey’s screams, ran the two blocks to the police station, and a squad of officers was sent out to search the slums for a killer. They knew it was more than likely that their murderer hailed from the Maxwell street district, so they began combing the streets around 14th Pl. and Sangamon carefully. At 5:00 a.m. four officers from the Maxwell Street Police Station were patrolling that infamous corner (another source says it was at 14th Place and Jefferson) when they heard a noise coming from the gutter below one of the vaulted sidewalks. The officers peered into the gutter and found Buff Higgins (apparently, Buff was one of the city’s clumsier criminals), lying on his back with revolver in hand.

Knowing Higgins had been released from Joliet just a few days earlier, and recognizing the robbery-gone-wrong as typical of the work of his ilk, the officers hauled Buff into the stationhouse for questioning. And it’s there that the writers of Higgins’ biography diverge regarding what happened next.

Under intense interrogation by police Captain Blettner, Higgins denied being a part of the crew that ransacked the McCooey home. Thinking he might react to the crime scene, officers brought Higgins back to the McCooey home, and had him face the forlorn family:
"Look at your work", scorned Capt. Blettner
"I did not do it, I do not know anything about it", replied Higgins, trembling.
Mrs. McCooey then rushed for Higgins, yelling "Is that the man who killed my husband? I shall kill him if he remains in my sight."

Officers subdued the distraught wife, but Higgins did not admit his guilt. Returning to the police station, however, under continued questioning, Higgins finally broke down and confessed, signing his name to a statement indicating he had committed the murder of Peter McCooey:
"I went in the house with two other men for the purpose of getting that $400 which I knew McCooey had. I was the first to go in, and the other two followed close behind. When we got inside we searched all the places where we thought the money might be, but we could not find it. I then went into the room where the man and his wife lay asleep and searched his clothes. There was only $1.65 in the pockets of his trousers. I was about to go out of the room when I made a noise which awoke the man. I saw him open his eyes and when he tried to get out of bed I fired the shot at him. I knew I hit him, because he groaned once and then all was still. The men with me heard the shot and jumped out of the window and ran away. I was not long in following, as I heard the man in the next room [a boarder at the McCooey home] getting out of bed. I went under the sidewalk at Jefferson and Fourteenth streets and staid there until the police arrested me."
Higgins’ own account of the confession, which he later gave in court, was quite different. In his version of the story, after returning from the McCooey home, the police stripped him naked and threw him into a basement cell at the stationhouse, where he remained for four days without food or drink. When he requested the presence of his attorney, A.J. Hanlon, the police refused. Finally, after four days, when Higgins was famished and devoid of all hope, the police captain appeared at his cell with a favorite Irish beverage, saying
"Buff, it is an outrage for you to be treated like this. You must be feeling pretty slim. Don't you want a bottle of whiskey?"
Higgins told the captain there was $0.50 in his clothes that he would happily trade for the liquor, and the captain complied, giving a bottle of whiskey to a man who hadn’t had a bite to eat in days. Buff Higgins was quickly in a state of delirious drunkenness. It was at this point, Higgins claimed, that the captain offered him his freedom. All he had to do was sign a statement declaring his innocence, and he would be free to go. Therefore, when the captain put a pen in Higgins’ hand, and pushed a sheet of paper in front of him, Buff was happy to sign, even though he was likely illiterate and had no attorney present.

In fact, the statement was a confession, and Buff Higgins had just signed away his life.
The police disputed this account, and claimed as evidence the fact that Higgins had similarly confessed to the coroner’s jury on the day after he signed his confession at the police station. But the Chicago police in those days were known for their brutal tactics, especially in crime-ridden immigrant wards like the Maxwell street district, so we cannot know for certain.

On November 29, 1893, just under three months after the crime took place, a jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder against Buff Higgins, and sentenced him to death. It was one of only three death sentences levied in Cook county that year. The others were against a Chinese laundryman, Junk Jack Lin, who allegedly murdered his cousin, and, far more famously, Patrick Prendergast, the assassin of Chicago mayor Carter Harrison. Prendergast was initially scheduled to meet the hangman’s noose on the same day as Higgins, March 23, 1894, a fact that sickened Higgins: Buff would be the first to admit he was a street gang member and a robber, but Prendergast was a lunatic. Higgins told a New York Times reporter, “When it comes my turn to shuffle off, I want Irish hemp and a green shroud [like Higgins, Prendergast was of Irish origin], but I draw the line on being compelled to pass out with Prendergast."

But Buff Higgins had one more ace up his sleeve. His attorney, A.J. Hanlon, petitioned the court for another trial based on new evidence, and on January 16, 1894, the court heard the motion. At this hearing, Higgins’ counsel placed into evidence the affidavit of one Joseph Kauper, an 18-year old neighbor of the McCooeys. Kauper’s affidavit indicated that he saw three men flee the McCooey home on the night of the crime, and that Buff Higgins was not one of them.

The prosecution in the case was stunned, but suspicious. Kauper was a dull boy (the Tribune indicated that “his answers to questions on the witness stand yesterday showed him to be dull of comprehension,” suggesting mild retardation), and why hadn’t he come forward with his story earlier? Under intense cross-examination at the hearing, Kauper broke down and admitted the affidavit was fraudulent. A friend of his, one Tim Collins, who was a politically-connected leader of a street-sweeping union, had apparently convinced him to sign the affidavit in order to “give Buff a lift”. Likely Higgins’ friends in the Wright Street Gang had put the screws to either Collins or Kauper -- or both -- to try to free Buff. But Kauper’s confession to perjury ended the last of Higgins’ hopes. "All right, I guess the jig's up with me now," he was heard to mutter in the courtroom after his motion for a new trial was denied.

Attorney Hanlon appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court for a stay of execution, which was denied on March 22. On hearing the news, the prisoner sighed,
Well, that's just what I expected. So my neck will crack Friday -- I'll hang. No use to tell me the Governor will interfere. Gov. Altgeld is out of the State. So is Lieut.-Gov. Gill, I understand...I haven't any money or influential friends behind me. Father Dore was with me this morning and gave me the consolation of the Catholic Church, of which I am a member.
In fact, Lieutenant Governor Joseph Gill did consider the case, but refused to interfere with the execution, and at noon on March 23, 1894, Buff Higgins was led onto the platform and a noose placed around his head. Prendergast’s execution had been stayed until July, so Higgins did receive one final wish, not to share the stage with the famed assassin.

Two Roman Catholic priests, including the aforementioned Father Dore, accompanied the Irishman in his last moments, placing a crucifix on his lips just before the hood was lowered over his head. The city’s newspapers delivered pages of purple prose describing the lurid death scene in the following day’s issue. Part of the Tribune’s description depicted the final moment for the terror of 14th Place: "Then there was a fall, as the rope stretched to its full tension with a sound like that from the heaviest string on the bass viol, 'Buff' Higgins had paid the penalty for murder."

Buff Higgins was only the third man executed in Cook County since the Haymarket defendants seven years earlier, but at least one hanging would take place every year in the county through the end of the decade. The rapidly-rising crime rates of the period inclined Chicagoans to take a sterner view regarding capital punishment. Perhaps the most remarkable fact of Higgins’ experience was the expediency with which his execution took place. Just three months passed between the crime and the conviction, and from thence it was less than another four months before all appeals were exhausted and the criminal was hanged. While capital punishment is still practiced in the U.S. today, the time between the crime and the execution typically stretches into decades. Even in Texas, the state where executions are most common, the average time between conviction and execution (not including time between the crime and the trial) is nearly 11 years. In California, the average prisoner under sentence of death waits 20 years before execution.

The last execution in Illinois took place in 1999. In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan (now federal inmate 16627-424) commuted the sentences of all prisoners then on death row after several were exonerated based on DNA evidence, suggesting widespread errors in policing and sentencing. Ryan’s successors in the governor’s office, Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn have maintained the moratorium.

Higgins' companions in the McCooey robbery eventually were caught. The police found Feinberg around the same time they arrested Higgins, while "Red" Gary managed to elude the law until 1895, when he was arrested for stealing the blanket off a horse. At his arraignment, he gave a false name, but an experienced detective recognized him. Both Feinberg and Gary served terms in jail for the robbery, and both continued criminal careers into the mid-1900s.

Peter McCooey’s home, pictured at the top of this post, is long gone, replaced by a condominium complex. The Maxwell Street slums where boys like Buff Higgins went bad is essentially gone, too, replaced largely by upscale condominiums and the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

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