By the end of May, 1934, John Dillinger was hiding out in Chicago. Having robbed innumerable banks and broken out of jails twice during the last 12 months, he had become an internationally-known superstar criminal. Besides local and state authorities, almost the entirety of the newly-formed Division of Investigation (later, the FBI) was involved in efforts to hunt him down, dead or alive (but better dead). As “Public Enemy #1”, it was increasingly difficult to find friendly (or unsuspecting) help in evading the law. Dillinger knew he couldn’t continue dodging J. Edgar Hoover’s agents forever; drastic measures were necessary. The great bank robber’s most desperate attempt to evade capture took place here, at 2509 N. Crawford Ave. (now Pulaski Rd.), where he went under the knife to permanently change the face everyone in America now recognized.
January of 1934 saw most of the Dillinger gang wintering in Tuscon, Arizona, on the lam from a serious bank job in East Chicago, Indiana, where Dillinger himself is believed to have killed a police officer. Caught by local police, the famous criminal was extradited to Indiana and placed in jail at Crown Point, Indiana. It was there that he first hired Louis P. Piquett, a Chicago attorney known for close ties to the Chicago mob organization known as the “Outfit,” the remainder of Al Capone’s organization. Probably Piquett’s name was familiar among the crowd Dillinger ran with, or it may be that Piquett offered his services at a cut rate for this high-profile defense. Other have suggested that Dillinger was in some loose way connected with the Outfit, and may have met Piquett previously.
In any case, Piquett, who had no formal legal training but had passed the Illinois bar, became Dillinger’s counsel and best source of assistance after he broke out of Crown Point in March, 1934. Piquett’s presence may have been what drew Dillinger back to Chicago, instead of hiding out in his native Indiana or escaping into the Far West. Piquett’s law office on Wacker Drive was a common meeting place for the Dillinger Gang, although Piquett always denied that Dillinger hid out there while a fugitive.
It was Piquett and his co-counsel, Arthur O’Leary, who connected Dillinger with the makeshift operating room on Crawford Ave. In April, Piquett approached a low-level crook and bar owner, James “Cabaret” Probasco, about finding trained surgeons willing to perform the operation. Probasco, then in his 60s, had been a boxer and a liveryman in his youth and was trained in veterinary science. He had also been a major part of a serious diamond theft ring in the 1920s, serving as the main “fence” for stolen jewels. In 1924, his own wife, Clara, had testified against him to police, probably because her husband’s partner-in-crime was also his mistress, Florence. Despite Clara’s testimony, the case against Probasco fizzled thanks to the work of his attorney Louis Piquett, and he walked on charges of possession and sale of stolen property. Divorcing Clara, he remarried Florence, and went into the tavern business, opening up shop in Rogers’ Park, on Howard St. near Rogers Ave.
When Piquett approached Probasco about helping his new client, John Dillinger, dollar signs flashed in Probasco’s eyes. He told Piquett he could find the surgical talent and the location, but for a high price, $5,000 (over $80,000 in today’s dollars). It took some convincing by O’Leary, but Dillinger finally agreed to the proposal, and went to work in early May, robbing banks to “earn” the fee.
To perform the surgery, Probasco looked for men with medical training, but who were also acquainted with the underworld. In Dr. William Loeser, he found his man. Loeser, a German immigrant, had trained at Northwestern University and ran a successful surgical practice until his arrest for violation of the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act of 1914, the first federal law restricting the manufacture and sale of cocaine and heroin in the U.S. Dr. Loeser was paroled in 1932, at which point he fled to Mexico, where he developed a technique to remove fingerprints, becoming his own first patient for the procedure, which involved acid treatment.
To assist Dr. Loeser, Probasco found another surgeon, Dr. Harold Cassidy, who had a less shady past, but who was unable to pass up the opportunity to make a quick buck. Probasco promised $1,700 to Dr. Loeser and $1,200 to Dr. Cassidy. All that was left was to find an operating room. Legitimate hospitals were obviously out of the question, and neither of the two doctors was willing to use his own offices. Instead, Probasco opted for the least expensive option – his own apartment at 2509 N. Crawford Ave. Probasco’s wife and former jewel thief, Florence, had died young the year before, and he was currently living with a girlfriend, Margaret Doyle, but he felt she could be misled about the operation. So, on the evening of May 27, John Dillinger arrived at Probasco’s home and prepared for surgery the next day. Dillinger handed Probasco $3,000 in cash up front, with the remaining $2,000 to be paid after the operation.
The following evening, Piquett’s assistant Arthur O’Leary picked up the two doctors, and drove them to Probasco’s home, where they instructed Dillinger to remove his shirt and lie down in the bedroom. Dr. Loeser offered Dillinger the option of a local or a general anesthetic, and Dillinger chose the latter. While Loeser washed his hands in an adjoining bathroom, Dr. Cassidy administered the ether. Suddenly, Dr. Cassidy began yelling for help. Returning to the bedroom, Loeser saw that Dillinger had received too much anesthetic too quickly, and was choking on his own tongue. Quickly, Loeser located his forecepts and freed the blocked airways, saving Dillinger’s life.
But after that experience, Dillinger decided on the local anesthetic, which meant he was largely awake and in excruciating pain, for most of the procedure. For several hours, the two doctors removed a mole from his forehead, a dimple from his cheek, and changed shape of face, smoothing out the famous cleft in his chin, and erasing the seams in his cheeks using implanted kangaroo tendons. They also employed Loeser’s acid method to burn out his fingerprints.
(Pictured: Probasco's home at 2509 N. Crawford Ave. (now Pulaski Rd.) with a crowd of curiosity-seekers outside after Dillinger's death).
With the surgery a success, Dillinger returned to Probasco’s home on June 3, this time bringing with him a fellow gang member, Homer Van Meter, who also went under Drs. Loeser and Cassidy’s knives. Over time, however, Dillinger became unsatisfied with the operation. The science of plastic surgery was still in its infancy, the two doctors were not leading experts, and the circumstances under which they operated were primitive. Thus, Dillinger was still completely recognizable. After his death at the hands of Division of Investigation and East Chicago police officers (see this post for further details), an autopsy found identifying traces of his fingerprints remained, despite Dr. Loeser’s best efforts.
Anna Sage, the famed “woman in red” (she actually wore orange and white, but appeared to be in red under the glare of the Biograph Theater marquee) who turned in Dillinger to the feds, was most likely also the source of their information about James Probasco. A few days after Dillinger’s death on July 22, 1934, J. Edgar Hoover’s men picked up Probasco and took him for questioning to their offices on the 19th floor of the Banker’s Building at Clark and Adams streets. In a search of his apartment, agents found the evidence of the surgery: sleeping potions, acids, gauze, surgical scissors, and cotton were still in the medicine cabinet (likely, Probasco expected more work from other members of the Dillinger Gang).
Agents no doubt questioned Probasco intensely for hours, seeking information on Dillinger companions such as Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson, who were still at large. On July 24, lead investigator Melvin Purvis left Chicago for Washington to brief J. Edgar Hoover about Dillinger’s death and the continued investigations, leaving agent Samuel Crowley in charge of the work in Chicago. Crowley was known as a tougher interrogator than Purvis, and was willing to bend the rules (or worse) to get information out of suspects. In a case a year earlier, agents in the very same room where Probasco was being held, had dangled a mob suspect out the window by his ankles, 19 floors off the ground, in an attempt to make him talk.
In any case, July 26, 1934 saw James Probasco under questioning at the Bankers’ Building, and mysteriously, just a few minutes after agents left him alone in the interrogation room, Probasco stepped up from a chair to the window sill in the room, three feet off the ground, and leapt out the window, falling to his death on the pavement below. Because of the reputation of his interrogators, there has always been a strong suspicion that Probasco did not defenestrate willingly – at worst, Probasco would have faced no more than 30 months in jail for harboring Dillinger, hardly a sentence worth dying over – but the coroner’s jury ultimately ruled the death a suicide. At the time of his death, Probasco held over $72,000 in life insurance policies, with his sister the chief beneficiary, but almost all of the payout was void in the case of suicide.
Nevertheless, the feds apparently got enough information to locate Dr. Loeser, who turned state’s witness against Dr. Cassidy and attorney Louis Piquette. Piquett went on trial in a widely covered case for harboring a fugitive – Dillinger – but was ultimately found not guilty. Unfazed, prosecutors immediately put Piquett on trial for harboring Homer van Meter, using Piquett’s testimony at the Dillinger trial to trap him into contradictions on the stand. In 1936, Piquett was found guilty and sentenced to two years in federal prison. He was also fined $10,000 and disbarred in Illinois. In 1950, President Harry S Truman pardoned Piquett, and he applied for reinstatement to the bar, but died before a decision was made in 1951.
As a reward for his part in the prosecution of Piquett, Dr. Loeser was sentenced to only one day in prison for his crime. However, he also had to serve 18 additional months for leaving the country after his parole in the narcotics case. Dr. Cassidy received only probation, and served honorably in the army medical corps during World War II; however, after the war, however, he had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide in 1946.
Probasco’s apartment building at 2509 N. Crawford was demolished, and an extension was built from the building next door into the lot, numbered 2511 N. Pulaski. Even the name of the street has changed; within Chicago city limits, Crawford is now known as Pulaski Rd. The story of the name change is an interesting one.
On October 1, 1933, while Dillinger was languishing in jail in Lima, Ohio (from which he would soon be freed at the hands of his gang), Cook County civil service commissioner and former president of the Polish Women’s Alliance of America, Miss A. Emily Napieralski, appeared before Mayor Edward J. Kelly, petitioning him to support a change in name for Crawford Ave. to recognize the bravery of Polish general and American Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. Poles have a long history in Chicago -- Napieralski’s family had arrived as pioneers in the 1830s – and the 1930s saw their political influence growing. Miss Napieralski told the Tribune,
My purpose is to bring about a closer brotherhood of man. Count Pulaski came to America and offered his services to George Washington. In giving distinguished service in the revolutionary war he lifted himself above any particular nationality, and his name should be remembered by all.Neither Mayor Kelly nor the city aldermen wanted to be seen as anti-Polish, so there was strong support on the city council for the proposal. Understandably and unsurprisingly, however, businesses along Crawford Ave. were nearly uniformly opposed. They had spent heavily advertising their addresses, investments which would be lost if the name change was granted. Some businesses, such as Crawford Laundry and Crawford Grill, would clearly face serious problems.
Also opposed were grandchildren of Peter Crawford, the pioneer Chicago farmer for whom the street was named. Crawford had arrived in Chicago in 1844, and, for $15/acre, purchased the plot of land now bounded by Pulaski Rd., Kostner Rd., Cermak Rd., and 26th Street; his farmhouse home was at what is now 2230 S. Pulaski Rd. Crawford was one of the founders of the township of Cicero in 1857, and as early as 1863, the dirt path abutting the east side of his property, connecting Ogden and Archer Aves., was known as Crawford Ave. Chicago city street signs indicating the name of the street were posted in 1913. At the 1933 meeting of the city council where the name change was under consideration, Crawford’s grandchildren, John H. Crawford and Nettie Ferenson appeared, along with Chicago Historical Society leader Edward P. Brennan, who argued
“We have no Bowling Green, as has New York, no Commons, as has Boston; no Independence Hall, as has Philadelphia. All of our landmarks were wiped out by the fire. All we have left of historical significance is names, and the Historical Society is opposing the wiping out of the names of the families which helped build Chicago.”Nevertheless, in December, 1933, the city council approved the name change to Pulaski Rd. by a vote of 34-12, rejecting compromises offered by the Crawford business group, such as renaming Augusta Blvd. in honor of Pulaski. You might expect that the business group would be bitter over the loss, but you probably wouldn’t expect them to wage an intense fight over the street’s name for the next 18 years, which in fact they did.
The Crawford business owners first took the city to court, arguing that over 75% of the owners of property along the street opposed the name change, and that the council’s actions flew in the face of Illinois’ home-rule precedent, by which decisions were localized to the greatest degree possible. The group won a temporary injunction in January, 1934, but an appeals court eventually sided with the city, and “Pulaski Rd.” street signs began to be erected in the summer of 1934. Most of these were immediately stolen by upset property owners.
The Crawford business group did not give up so easily, however. For three years, they continuously lobbied state lawmakers in Springfield, and in 1937, they got their wish: a state law was passed indicating that if the deed-holders of 60% of the frontage on any street petitioned city government to change the name of that street, their petition would be granted.
Polish groups that supported Pulaski Road immediately saw the implications and devised an ingenious solution. They found a tiny one-block street, Haussen Court, on the north side, where the majority of the property owners were of Polish descent, and petitioned the city to change the name of that street to Crawford. In doing so, they would effectively block any attempt to revert Pulaski Rd. to the name Crawford, since that would cause duplication in street names.
Mrs. Eda Haussen Bartels, an elderly lady who lived on one corner of Haussen Ct., and after whose father, pioneer farmer Fred Haussen, the street was named, was blindsided by the new plan and vigorously opposed it. The following year, in 1938, she passed away, and her physician loudly told the newspapers that her death “probably” resulted from worry about the name of her street.
The city corporation counsel took both petitions – for changing Pulaski back to Crawford, and for changing Haussen to Crawford – under advisement, and undertook a painstaking and lengthy survey of property on both streets to learn the precise boundaries of each owner’s lot. In 1939, the city announced the failure of both petitions. Pulaski Rd. had 147,207 feet of frontage within Chicago city limits, and the Crawford business group’s petition was short by 9,727 feet. Similarly, the Haussen Ct. petition would require 1,264 feet of frontage to pass, but was short by 90 feet.
The Crawford business group immediately went back to work, and managed to find additional Pulaski Rd. frontage property owners, more than enough to push them over the 60% mark, but the city refused to accept the supplementary petition, causing a return to court for all parties.
During this time, most Chicagoans continued to refer to Pulaski Rd. as Crawford Ave., despite the change. In 1944, a streetcar conductor who called out “Crawford” was attacked by a Polish rider, Michael Orzschkwsk, who grabbed him by the collar and threw him to the ground, yelling invective in Polish (a sympathetic court fined Orzschkwsk $1 and ordered him to pay the conductor’s tailoring bill).
The advent of World War II put the Crawford-Pulaski debate on hold for a few years. Nevertheless, the animosity between the groups was never far below the surface. A rather nasty 1945 letter to the editor in the Tribune, signed “Old Timer,” was symptomatic:
The wailing that is going on among the Polish groups of Chicago with regard to the establishment of the Curzon line as the eastern boundary of Poland arouses little sympathy among thousands of Chicago people who recall that these same Poles have made no move to restore Crawford avenue to the American public since they unlawfully annexed it in 1933 and changed its name to Pulaski road.In 1950, the Crawford business group again sued the city, indicating they had a petition signed by owners of 60.4% of all the owners of Pulaski Rd. frontage supporting a return to the Crawford name. They asked the court to force the city to follow the 1937 state law. In 1951, Superior Court judge John Sbarbaro did just that, and so, after 18 years, Pulaski Rd. became once again Crawford Ave.
An intense battle between the two sides then took place, with Polish groups who supported the Pulaski name attempting to lure or threaten Crawford Ave. business owners to withdraw their names from the petition. The petitioners responded by pressuring these property owners to remain on the petition. Several petition signers filed withdrawals, and then withdrawals-of-withdrawals over the next year.
However, the return to Crawford Ave. was short-lived. On appeal in November, 1952, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the 1937 state law creating the 60% margin for a street name change was unconstitutional, reversing Sbarbaro’s ruling, and handing the property right to street names back to the city council, which swiftly ordered Crawford Ave. to once again become Pulaski Rd., the name it holds to this day. Outside of the city limits, however, such as in Lincolnwood and Skokie, the continuation of Pulaski Rd. is still marked as Crawford Ave.