Monday, April 27, 2009

Colosimo and Mushmouth Work Side by Side in the Levee

Number 239 Twenty-second street (now numbered 41 W. 22nd) was a virtual who's who of the underworld in the first decade of the 1900s, an interracial mixing of Chicago's once and future vice kings in the midst of the Levee.

The building appears to have housed a first-floor saloon, with various gambling, billiards and off-track betting operations on the second floor. It was on the second floor that "Big Jim" Colosimo, future titan of the Levee and founder of the Chicago Outfit later run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, founded his first establishment, the Colosimo Billiard and Pool Room Parlor, sometime about 1904. The Parlor was connected by telephone, a sure sign in those days that a horse racing handbook was operating within, as race information needed to be distributed quickly to bookmakers (see, e.g., the Mont Tennes operations).

(pictured: James "Big Jim" Colosimo)

In his authoritative volume on Colosimo, Arthur Bilek claims that Big Jim hired two of his brothers-in-law, Joseph and John Moresco, to work at the Parlor (this was before Colosimo divorced his first wife, Victoria, for a new love interest), and that these two eventually took over the business while Colosimo concerned himself with his Cafe and various brothels.

The second floor was also the site of the Frontenac Club, a joint operation between three of the city's top gambling lords: policy (lotto) king John "Mushmouth" Johnson, dice-man Bill Lewis, and Tom McGinnis, who was at times an independent bookmaker and at other times associated with the Mont Tennes and Jim O'Leary syndicates. The Club opened May 1, 1906. Notably, though Johnson and Lewis were black, the Frontenac Club catered exclusively to white customers of means (a gambler had to flash at least $10 -- roughly a week's wages for a typical laborer -- in cash at the door to be admitted). The name of the Club evoked 17th Century Quebecois leader and Indian fighter Count Frontenac, and so symbolized old world wealth and aristocracy in a city short on both. Reports at the time indicated the Frontenac Club turned profits of $200 per day (nearly $5,000 in 2008 dollars), which was split in thirds between the owners.

The building's popularity among the Levee's elite kings of vice may have been due to its central location. 22nd and Dearborn was ground zero for the red light district, and some of the better establishments, catering to a higher class of sinner, such as the Everleigh Club, were just across the street.

After Mushmouth Johnson died in 1907, it's not clear what became of the Club. A report in 1908 indicates the police raided operations on the second floor of the building and discovered a big craps game run by Bill Lewis, with mostly black players, a fact which suggests the Frontenac had either closed or changed substantially in character, although it's possible the Lewis game took place in a separate room.

That the building was still a major gambling resort in 1909 is certain from the fact that it suffered a dynamite attack in the Gamblers' War that year. The owner of the first floor saloon, old-time Satan's Mile barkeep John Morris, claimed there was no gambling currently in the buildilng (highly unlikely), though he admitted the second floor housed poker rooms at some time in the past.

As late as 1920, Colosimo's old billiards room, apparently consolidated by Bill Lewis, was still in operation. After the closure of the Levee in the mid-1910s, most of the big names in vice had moved either into the suburbs or further south (for instance, Lewis was by that time headquartering at a notorious mixed-race craps game on 35th street), but many gambling and vice resorts were still operating surreptitiously at that date.

The buildling was demolished in the mid-1950s as the entire Levee district was slowly redeveloped by the Chicago Housing Authority for low-income residences. The CHA's headquarters building between 1961 and 1974 was located on the southwest corner of Dearborn and 22nd (by then renamed Cermak Rd.), right where the Colosimo-Johnson building once stood. Ironically, the CHA left in 1974 citing crime in the nearby Ickes and Hilliard projects they managed. Robert Loeffley, information director for the public housing agency, told reporters
Because the present office location is in the midst of a string of public housing developments, people have the idea, whether it's true or not, that the neighborhood is unsafe.
The site is now part of the campus of the "National Teacher's [sic] Academy," a public magnet school opened in 2002.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mont Tennes, King of Gamblers

"The complete life story of one man, were it known in every detail, would disclose practically all there is to know about syndicated gambling as a phase of organized crime in Chicago in the last quarter century. That man is Mont Tennes."
So declared the Illinois Crime Survey of 1929. The man who stood at the center of Chicago gambling during the first quarter of the 20th century, and who developed a sporting news service that eventually monopolized horse racing operations throughout North America, lived here, in the mansion at 632 W. Belden Ave. (or before the 1909 street renumbering, 404 Belden) during the height of his power.

Jacob Tennes was born in Chicago in 1873 to a large family with five brothers and two sisters. He was nicknamed "Mont" by his mother at a young age, and that became the only name by which the city's King of Gamblers was ever known to be called. Even as a boy, he was known to be an expert at dice and other games, and before his 20th birthday he began running his first handbook operation. His gambling expertise provided the start-up capital he used to open the Tennes Billiard Hall on Lincoln Ave., near Wrightwood Ave., which he operated along with his brothers. There he sponsored pool tournaments, in which he himself was frequently the victor.

Over the next few years, Tennes gained interest in a number of other handbooks operating on the Northside, and in 1900, he began opening saloons, including one inside the Billiard Hall on Lincoln.

By 1901, Tennes' name was already well known among anti-gambling advocates, and a crusade against saloons on N. Clark St. in River North focused primarily on Tennes-owned saloons. The Tribune reported that “residents of the neighborhood allege that the district fast is approaching the condition that existed in the levee” (probably a reference to Custom House Place, the city's biggest red light district at the time).

The newspaper described the operations at what was at the time Tennes' biggest gambling outfit at 143 Clark (now in the 600 block, where the "Rock & Roll" McDonalds sits today), where a ragtime piano player began vamping behind the bar every day after 2:00 p.m.:
On a cigar stand in front of the main room is posted a racing form, which is eagerly studied by those who enter. The ticker is behind a thin partition and the bookmaker gets information of track and odds over the telephone. The results are announced at the bar and down-stairs in the bowling alley, where many men gather....Everyone seems to have the utmost faith in the bookmaker, and gains and losses are taken from his report without a word. The book has been successful, it is believed, for ‘killings’ [large winnings by the house] are rare in Tennes’ place.
Remarkably, women were among the major clients of Tennes' gambling houses, though they rarely entered the saloons, cigar shops, and even cash register shops that fronted his operations, choosing instead to call in their bets or give them to one of a team of employees who traveled around the city, taking wagers in the morning at homes and stores on races taking place in the afternoon, and settling accounts from the previous day's races.

(Pictured: Mont Tennes)

The increased interest in horse racing during the early part of the century created a business opportunity for gambling entrepreneurs, who previously focused on cards or games like roulette and faro. At the same time, off-track betting presented a serious technological problem: how to acquire quick and accurate results from the races, as the house stands to lose substantial sums if gamblers learn the outcome first. Managing and monopolizing the supply of information on tack conditions, odds, scratches, and race results became Mont Tennes' life work.

Starting in 1904, Tennes began operating clearinghouses where national racing information was received by telegraph, then dispersed to handbooks throughout the city by telephone. The first of these, opened in league with other major gambling figures including Tom McGinnis and "Big Jim" O'Leary, was a little cottage in Dunning at Irving Park Rd. and Narragansett, just outside Chicago city limits, where suspicious neighbors noticed two telegraph lines leading in through a kitchen window.

The photo below shows a forest of telephones in one of Tennes' later clearing houses at 123 Clark St. (now 550 N. Clark).

In order to operate such a large and complex operation, Tennes required implicit protection from police raids, which he obtained throughout his career with payoffs from beat cops all the way up to the chief of police. As early as 1902, he was a notorious source of graft:
Frequenters of the place say Tennes has a pull which is strong enough to keep his handbook running in spite of the strong opposition of many people in the vicinity. The East Chicago Avenue Police Station is four blocks away, but Captain Revere’s policemen pay no attention to the poolroom. While strangers have some difficulty in placing money with the bookmaker, there is no great attempt at secrecy, and the betting goes on while chance customers come and go at the bar.
Politicians, however, must satisfy their constituents if they want to keep their jobs, and so in 1903, Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., declared open "war" on Chicago's handbooks, forcing the hand of the police. He revoked the saloon licenses of all the city's top gamblers, including Bob Motts, Andy Craig, Mushmouth Johnson, Alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, and above all, Mont Tennes.

Thus began a complex and protracted political battle between Tennes, the police force which wanted his graft, the Mayor, and citizens. In league with the police, Tennes publicly declared that, due to Mayor Harrison's order, he was finished with the gambling business, and he sold his saloon license to a "M. A. Jockum," who was actually an associate, allowing Tennes to remain in control of his bars and handbooks. At the same time, he paid the police to focus on raiding the books of his business rivals. This latter practice was one Tennes continued to employ throughout his career as he attempted to monopolize gambling in the city. At the December First Ward Ball, an annual saturnalian party and underworld soiree thrown by Aldermen Kenna and John J. Coughlin, Tennes' men handed out over $2,500 to the various politicans to help turn down the heat on his operations.

Besides the police and city politicians, Tennes also faced continuous trouble from rival gamblers. While his original 1904 clearinghouse in Dunning was a partnership with Jim O'Leary, the two fell out in 1906 over the latter's success in operating the City of Traverse, a gambling boat that operated outside police jurisdiction, four miles offshore on Lake Michigan.

In retaliation, Tennes threatened to start his own gambling cruise operation, the City of Midland, unless his rivals cut him in on the deal. When they refused, he sent a tug boat out to shadow the Traverse, and when it turned on its wireless service to begin receiving racing news for the sports aboard, Tennes' tugboat blasted hits fog horn, thinking this could disrupt the transmissions. Instead, the trick only caused those on shore to believe the City of Traverse was on fire, sending panic throughout the city.

Some reports claim that O'Leary and his associates finally did cut Tennes in as an investor in the City of Traverse later in 1906, ending the feud. But this theory is belied by the fact that the following three years witnessed constant dynamite bombings of rival gamblers' homes and businesses in what the media dubbed the "Gamblers' War".

The Gamblers' War started in June of 1907 when Mont Tennes was physically attacked on the street near his home by a man whom police initially believed to be a disgruntled loser at one of Tennes' resorts. Tennes, however, was convinced O'Leary was behind the attack in retaliation for Tennes' efforts to have O'Leary's Northwest Indiana gambling houses raided by police.

In any case, the home of "Blind John" Condon, who had previously worked with Tennes, but was also an associate of O'Leary's, was bombed on July 9, 1907. Two weeks later on July 25, Tennes' home on Belden Ave. (pictured above) was bombed, creating a gaping hole in the alley behind the house. A month later, O'Leary's resort on S. Halsted was bombed, and on August 19, the Tennes home was again victimized. This time, the bomb landed in the front yard, blowing out all the windows of the house, plus those of his neighbors, several of whom announced plans to move away. Tennes himself sent his wife and children to live out in the country for the next few months.

In all, over 30 bombs exploded at the homes and businesses of the city's major gambling kings over the next three years. The police claimed the bombings were the result of a blackmailing scheme run by a mysterious gang known as "Smith & Jones":
The Chicago dynamiters who blew up gambling places for blackmail did business under the name “Smith & Jones”. That is, when they wanted a gambler to put them in the payroll the gambler would receive a mysterious telephone call telling him to see Smith & Jones. The gamblers all knew what that meant and that they would be dynamited if they did not see Smith & Jones.
The police never offered any evidence of such a scheme, and were never able to arrest Smith or Jones. A more likely cause for the bombings was Mont Tennes' attempts to monopolize the flow of race information into the city.

At the beginning of 1907, Tennes was paying $300 each day to the Payne News Service of Cincinnati, which telegraphed race information from throughout the U.S. and Canada to Tennes' Chicago clearinghouse, which was then in suburban Forest Park, which then conveyed the information to subscribers in the city by secret telephone lines known only to the Chicago Telephone Company. The Payne service had taken control over the race wires after the Western Union company had ceased the business in 1904 under pressure from an anti-gambling shareholder.

Tennes disliked paying such high prices to Payne, and the final straw took place in 1907 when an error in odds reporting by the service on a horse named Grenesque at Fort Erie ended up costing him thousands of dollars. He decided to start his own rival wire service and to drive Payne out of business nationwide.

Tennes hired agents to attend races throughout the country, who would report back to an operator nearby with a telegraph key. Often race track operators wanted nothing to do with Tennes' agents, and removed them from the premises. In such cases, Tennes' men found their way onto the tops of nearby buildings and used telescopes to observe action on the turf. In one interesting case where the racing action couldn't be seen from any nearby building, a woman was sent into the track to observe; she would periodically excuse herself from the action to a spot where she could be seen applying makeup, touching her nose, eyes, and ears in a specified order that indicated the winners of the race to a telegraph operator observing her nearby.

Tennes insisted that all Chicago handbooks use his new General News Bureau service and discontinue any subscription to Payne. Those that refused were either bombed or raided by police friendly to Tennes. Tennes also took the fight against Payne beyond Chicago. He sold his sporting news services in cities across the country, including San Francisco, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Detroit, and New Orleans. Finally, the Kentucky home of John A. Payne, proprietor of the Payne News Service, was bombed, and the latter gave in, selling out his interest to the Tennes' General News Bureau in 1909, when the flow of bombs in the Gamblers' War finally slowed.

In 1911, Mont Tennes again came to public notice when he was sued by a former gambler-turned-reformer named Harry Brolaski, and a disgruntled General News Bureau business partner, Tim Murphy. Allegations that Tennes was at the head of a national gambling syndicate with 800 clients nationwide and $500,000 per day in revenue inflamed public opinion, and in September of that year, the Tribune published a scathing editorial accusing the chief of police, John McWeeny, of accepting graft. When the paper's reporters confronted McWeeny the next day, the Chief was nonchalant. After reading a copy of the editorial given him by the reporters, he was dismissive.
“That’s just a rehash,” was his comment. “It has been said before.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Let them fight it out among themselves,” the chief said calmly.

“Then you are not interested in what Tim Murphy and Mont Tennes are doing?”

“I don’t know Tim Murphy. He may be a myth for all I know.”

“Mont Tennes is not a myth.”

“No,” the chief admitted. “I have met people who knew Mont Tennes.”

“Are you going to question Tim Murphy or Mont Tennes?”

“Who is the complainant against them?” the chief said bluntly.

“Call the Tribune complainant. It has printed columns about the methods of Murphy and Tennes and the gamblers’ war.”

The chief sighed.
McWeeny insisted, disingenously, "There is no gambling in Chicago and the police do not 'tip off' raids," despite the obvious fact that handbooks were rampant in the city, and the police did tip off their raids in return for Tennes' payoffs. The matter finally ended when Tennes paid off Tim Murphy as well, and the latter wrote letters to the court and the attorneys general of three states swearing off his earlier charges.

Mont Tennes continued to monopolize racing information in Chicago and throughout the country for the next decade. Though the handbooks he operated were constantly raided and he served as a political punching-bag for every mayor and congressman seeking the law-and-order vote, he never served a day in prison, always hiding behind a defense that he was simply a newspaper man, conveying sports information around the country.

In 1916, Federal appeals court judge and future baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis even launched a personal investigation of Tennes' operations, in which it was revealed that his operations netted $75,000 each year, of which 90% went to Mont Tennes personally. Tennes hired superstar attorney Clarence Darrow (of "Scopes Monkey Trial" fame), and eventually Landis' inquiry ended with the conclusion that interstate transmission of gambling information wasn't illegal under federal statues, and actual gambling was a local phenomenon and so not under a federal court's jurisdiction.

One of the few times Mont Tennes lost a substantial bet was during the famous 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, in which Chicago White Sox players allegedly threw the World Series in league with a group of New York gamblers. Tennes later claimed he knew the fix was in, but put up $80,000 on his home team anyway. As a Northsider, Tennes really should have only bet on the Cubs.

When reformer "Decent" William Dever was elected Mayor of Chicago in 1924, a 51 year-old Tennes decided to get out of the business of operating handbooks and focus exclusively on his news service. A few years later, noting the violent tendencies of Al Capone and other Chicago gangsters, who increasingly were expressing interest in the sporting news business, Tennes sold the General News Bureau in 1927, with a 50% interest going to media mogul Moe Annenberg, founder of the Daily Racing Form.

In retirement, Mont Tennes devoted himself to his progeny, his golf, and his charity work. When he died on August 6, 1941, his heirs received a $5 million estate which provided for a $2,000 monthly lifetime income for his wife, Ida, $700 monthly to each of his four children, and $200 monthly for each grandchild. One of the Tennes boys, Ray, ran a Ford dealership, while another, Horace, became a champion motorboat racer.

He also established a $1,000,000 trust fund, which donated to Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Masonic charities, and ordered $10,000 annually to support a new "character home" for wayward boys, Camp Honor.

The General News Bureau was run by Moe Annenberg together with a Capone associate, James Ragen, until the latter went to prison in 1939 (Ragen was murdered by Capone hitmen in 1946). Afterwards, the Bureau was reorganized and rechristened as the Continental Press Service, and eventually passed into the control of Moe's son Walter Annenberg, who used the money from his news empire, which included Continental Press, to fund journalism schools at the University of Southern California and the University of Pennsylvania.

Tennes' mansion at 632 W. Belden, which was built in 1885, still stands today.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Estelle Carey, Gangster Girlfriend, Murdered

On the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1943, residents of a quiet courtyard building in Lakeview at 512 W. Addison (pictured above) smelled smoke coming from the third-floor apartment where two female roommates, Estelle Carey and Maxine Buturff, lived. When firemen arrived on the scene, they were shocked to find Miss Carey dead, the victim of a brutal and bloody struggle involving a bread knife, rolling pin, iron, and a 10-inch blackjack club. Still alive after the beating, she had finally been doused in inflammable liquid and set afire. Who was Estelle Carey and why did she meet such a violent end?

Estelle Evelyn Smith was born in 1909 on Chicago’s northwest side. Her father died when she was two-and-a-half, and her destitute mother sent her to an orphanage, from which she did not return until 1916, when her mother remarried and took the name Carey. She attended school sporadically at Harriet Beecher Stowe school in Humboldt Park, finally dropping out to take work in a silk thread factory. Miss Carey was exceptionally beautiful, and she did modeling work on the side, before she became a telephone operator and then a waitress at a Northside restaurant. It was while working there that her life took a turn into the underworld.

(pictured: Estelle Carey)

Nicholas Deani Circella, often known as Nick Circella or Nick Dean, had come to the U.S. in 1902, and by the 1930s, was a nightclub owner associated with the Outfit, the group of criminals who inherited Al Capone’s organization. He was impressed with Carey’s beauty and offered her a raise to work in one of his clubs as a dice girl. She accepted and was installed at the Colony Club, 744 N. Rush St., where she specialized in “26”. In the game of 26, a pretty girl rolled a series of 10 dice; if the sum of the dice came to 26, the player won a free drink on the house.

Carey became very popular at the club, and when a high roller showed up, she was often called into work to assist. Not all of the dice games she ran were mere bar diversions like 26, though. One inveterate gambler at the club, who went by the name “Spinach,” claimed she had bilked him for $800 with a die which had the one-spot replaced by an extra five-spot. Other Colony regulars noted that Carey was especially skilled at switching dice with hidden loaded dice.

It was at one of Circella’s other clubs, the 100 Club on Superior, that a drunken Willie Bioff and George Browne stumbled into one night after extorting $20,000 from the Balaban and Katz theater chain, following up on the labor racketeering scheme begun by Tommy Maloy (who had, in turn, worked his way up in the Mossy Enright organization). When Browne spilled the beans about the scheme at the 100 Club, Nick Dean found out about it, and shared this priceless information with the Outfit brass. Together, Bioff, Browne, and Circella, with the backing of the Outfit’s muscle, went on to bilk millions from the major Hollywood studios.

Plenty of that money wound up in Estelle Carey’s closet, as Circella bought expensive jewelry and fur coats by the dozen for his girlfriend and employee. Police who searched Carey’s apartment after her murder said she owned no dress worth less than $150, the equivalent of $1,800 in today’s terms.

When Bioff got greedy, he and Browne and came under investigation and eventual indictment in 1941 by the IRS, and Nick Circella was sought as material witness. It was at this point that Circella and Carey fled into hiding together, with Carey dying her blonde hair black as a disguise. In May of that year, the Colony Club, run in absentia by one of Circella’s associates, was padlocked by Chicago police after evidence surfaced that more serious gambling than the 26 games took place behind the scenes there.

Circella was eventually apprehended in March, 1942, and sent to prison for six years.

Almost a year later, Estelle Carey was living in a quiet corner of Lakeview at 512 W. Addison, her hair now dyed red. On the day of Feb. 2, 1943, Carey’s roommate had left for work at 8:00 a.m., and nothing seemed amiss. At 1:00 that afternoon, Carey was having a conversation with her cousin on the telephone when the doorbell rang and her dog began barking. “The door bell’s ringing. I’ll have to go. Call me back in an hour,” she told her cousin.

She opened the door, recognizing her visitor, and invited him in. She went into the kitchen and poured powdered cocoa into two cups, following it with hot milk. When she had filled the first cup halfway, her visitor attacked her.

When Estelle Carey’s cousin called back at 2:30 p.m., there was no answer. About that time, Mrs. Jessie Lovrein, who lived in the ground-floor apartment below, saw a large man in a gray tweed overcoat descending the back stairs of the building, carrying with him two fur coats, turned inside out. Shortly after, the neighbors smelled smoke, and the fire department discovered the bloody scene just after 3:00.

Police immediately suspected a mob connection. Although the code of conduct among the Outfit prohibited violence towards wives and girlfriends, the Bioff-Browne incident threatened to take down the entire criminal organization, so desperation might have meant breaking the code. Virtually every known Outfit associate, including Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo, Sam Battaglia, Marshall Caifano, and others were questioned about the murder, but no leads panned out.

The police also considered other theories. When Circella’s wife, Ernestine, was questioned, she said

Yes, I knew her and I knew Nick was cheating, but I didn't know with whom. Show people are generally cheating on one another, but I wouldn't let it break up my home.

Did Estelle Carey know too much about the Hollywood extortion case, and was she killed to keep her quiet? Or was her death a powerful reminder to Circella, imprisoned at the time, about the dangers of turning state’s witness against his Outfit overlords? Or was her killer a disgruntled loser in one of the Colony Club’s gambling games? Was Estelle Carey killed by a jealous beau (of which she had many), or the wife or girlfriend of one of those beaus? Carey had been the “other woman” in a bruising 1938 divorce case involving a leading Chicago businessman, Earl Weymer, and Weymer admitted seeing Carey for dinner the three days before her death. Or was it all just a fur coat robbery gone wrong?

In favor of the last possibility, Carey’s death took place in the midst of a string of fur coat robberies on the Northside that year (14 during the previous four months, in which over 50 coats had been taken). When Carey’s roommate arrived home, she led police to a hidden compartment of a shoe bag, where Carey kept her most valuable jewelry. Had Estelle Carey refused to tell her attacker where the jewels were? But what kind of robber carries a can of gasoline with him, in case he needs to burn his victim? And why would Carey have let a stranger into her home and served him hot cocoa?

On Feb. 8, police arrested Thomas Stapleton at his home in the Commonwealth Hotel. A clerk in a Northside drug store, he was known to have frequented the Colony Club, and was a known thief and robber. Mrs. Lovrein identified him as the man who left with the coats. But the police never found the coats and Mrs. Lovrein did not get an especially good look at the man, so Stapleton was released a month later.

The police captain investigating the crime, William Drury, saw the case going cold. When one of his officers brought in a fresh clue, he saw an opportunity. Shortly after the murder, two girls at the old Immaculata High School on Irving Park Rd. saw a man sitting at a bus stop at the corner of Irving Park and Sheridan, holding two fur coats. The man took the Sheridan bus south to the Drake Hotel on Michigan Ave., where he egressed, leaving one of the coats on the seat. A passenger noticed and called to the man, who returned to take his coat.

Some time after Carey’s murder, one of the girls happened to mention this incident to her father, who was a police officer under Drury's command. At the time, Drury was in the middle of a bitter personal feud with a minor Outfit crook, Charles Fischetti, who was a cousin to Al Capone. Drury knew the Outfit had to have been involved in Carey’s murder somehow, and he saw the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: solve the Carey case, and take down Fischetti.

He arrested Fischetti, and brought the two girls into the station. "I want you to identify this man as the man you saw carrying the coats," he told them. But the girls insisted Fischetti was not the man. Drury tried again, to no avail, only serving to upset one of the girls, who complained to her police officer father.

Drury got his comeuppance for framing Fischetti a few years later, in 1950, when he was gunned down in the garage behind his home, most likely by his enemies in the mob.

After Nick Circella got out of prison, the government began proceedings to deport him, and in 1955, Circella boarded a steamer for Argentina, and was never heard from in the U.S. again, although his brother August Circella, remained in Chicago as a burlesque theater operator through the 1970s.

The murder of Estelle Carey has never been solved.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Harry Cullett Bribes Morals Squad Inspector Dannenberg

In early 1914, Second Deputy Superintendent Funkhouser and his Morals Inspection Bureau squad leader, William Dannenberg, were finally cleaning up Chicago's famed segregated vice district, the Levee. Between December of 1913 and February, 1914, Dannenberg's squad had made over 1,000 arrests and shut down scores of brothels, saloons, and call flats in the area surrounding 22nd and Dearborn. The leaders of the vice gangs who ran the Levee knew something had to be done. Their first approach was to bribe Dannenberg into keeping the heat off, and on February 26, 1914, their man, "Chicken" Harry Cullett, met Dannenberg in front of MacLean's Central Drug Store at 1000 W. Wilson (site pictured above), to hand over the money.

The Morals squad was created in 1913 during a reorganization of the Chicago Police Department ordered by Mayor Carter Harrison, on the recommendation of the Civil Service Commission, which had led a major investigation of vice conditions in 1911 and 1912. The Commission's report detailed what almost everyone knew -- that the 22nd street police station, which held jurisdiction over the Levee district, was completely corrupt. The captain and all of the officers of the station were under direct orders from First Ward aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin to turn a blind eye to disorderly conditions in the district, in return for political patronage. So long as the 22nd street cops were in charge, the Levee would never close.

In order to break the hold of Kenna and Coughlin, Mayor Harrison created the special position of Second Deputy Superintendent, and appointed the thoroughly uncorruptible Maj. Metellium Funkhouser to the post. Funkhouser, in turn, created a citywide agency, the Morals Inspection Bureau, which would have authority to raid vice resorts when the 22nd street station police would not. Funkhouser appointed Inspector William Dannenberg to lead the Morals squad; Dannenberg was a vice veteran, having played a prominent role in the Maurice van Bever white slavery case in which van Bever was sent to prison, opening up a role in the Colosimo organization for Johnny Torrio.

(pictured: Inspector William C. Dannenberg)

Despite antagonism from the 22nd street station police, Dannenberg's men began closing the Levee district, ending the era of tolerated segregated vice in Chicago. Their raids put hundreds of prostitutes and their handlers in jail, and profits for the major vice rings plummeted. On January 8, 1914, the Morals squad shut down the Rhinegold Cafe, a saloon and house of ill-repute operated by the King of vice, "Big Jim" Colosimo.

Soon after, Colosimo called a meeting of major underworld figures at his Cafe to discuss strategy. Besides Colosimo, those present included Johnny Torrio, "Polak Ben" Zellen, owner of the Vestibule, an infamous resort that later was the site of an organized labor hit by "Mossy" Enright, "Beck" Moriarty, who owned a saloon at Harrison and State Streets, and the Marshall Brothers -- Joe and Bill -- who ran a call hotel at 21st and State. It was decided that a bribery attempt would be the first option, and if that failed, then violence. Even the possibility of murdering Inspector Dannenberg came up.

The man selected to approach Dannenberg with the money was a crooked cop from the 22nd street station named Harry Cullett. Cullett had been on the force for over a decade and had consistently been involved in high-profile cases, including a white slavery/murder case in 1910 and another case involving an international ring of thieves operating through the U.S. Navy. It was his fellow officers who gave him the playful nickname "Chicken Harry". In September 1913, Cullett left the police force after accusations of corruption surfaced, but he was still well-known and liked in the Department.

After leaving the police force, Cullett joined a private detective agency, the American Secret Service Bureau. From his days in the 22nd street station, he would have been familiar with the major characters of the Levee, and he apparently was willing to help them in their time of need.

(pictured: "Chicken" Harry Cullett)

On January 31, 1914, Cullett left a telephone message at the home of Dannenberg's second-in-command, Assistant Inspector for Moral Conditions Edward Altz, asking to meet that evening. At 7:00, Cullett and Altz met face-to-face at Perkins' Saloon at Monroe and Clark Streets. Cullett informed Altz that 11 Levee saloon-keepers were willing to put up $200 each in order to stop the raids on their establishments. As Dannenberg later described the deal,
To lull the public mind I was to raid a list of "fall houses," with which they provided me. Each night the divekeepers agreed to give me the name of a house to raid. From it I was to take two girls. The other places were to be immune.
Cullett asked Altz to liaise with Dannenberg to find out his attitude toward the possible deal.

The following Monday, February 2, Altz informed Dannenberg about the meeting, and Dannenberg immediately contacted his superior, Maj. Funkhouser. Dannenberg asked Funkhouser for permission to play along with the bribery scheme in order to find out who was behind it, and Maj. Funkhouser assented.

It is impressive that Dannenberg was able to so quickly pass up Cullett's offer. $2,200 in 1914 would be roughly the equivalent of $48,900 worth of purchasing power in 2008. Essentially, Dannenberg gave up a $586,000 per year salary in order to enforce the law. The bribe was probably five or ten times Dannenberg's official salary at the time.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1914, Cullett and Dannenberg met face-to-face for the first time, in the corridor outside the Morals squad leader's office at City Hall. The two ducked into a quiet room nearby, where Cullett laid out his plan directly to Inspector Dannenberg. The $2,200 was only a start: brothel owners who opened resorts in the future would also add to the payoffs. The revenue potential was endless. Dannenberg agreed to the plan, and Cullett said he would get in touch when the financial arrangements were in order.

It seems the vice kings of the Levee might have gotten cold feet, for during several subsequent meetings in the mezzanine of the Hotel Sherman, Cullett had to admit he had been unable to procure the agreed-upon sums. However, finally, on February 26, everyone was convinced that Dannenberg was ready to go on the take, and a meeting at Sheridan and Wilson was planned where Cullett would hand over a $500 down payment on the first month's payoff.

Before the designated meeting time, Inspector Dannenberg was thoroughly searched by four of his men to insure he had no money on his person before leaving, and two Chicago Tribune reporters were tipped off to the story. At 8:40 p.m. on Feb. 26, Dannenberg arrived at MacLean's Central Drug Store at 1000 W. Wilson Ave. to await the arrival of Cullett. His fellow officers and the reporters hid nearby in doors and entryways.

Five minutes later, a taxicab dropped off Harry Cullett on the opposite corner. Cullett told the driver to run the meter and wait for him, while he walked briskly across the street to where Dannenberg was standing in front of the drug store window. He touched the Inspector on the shoulder, and the two began walking north on Sheridan Rd. up to Leland Ave. Then they walked back towards Wilson. Four times, Cullett led Dannenberg back and forth on the block, checking to be sure no one was following or watching. Finally, Cullett and Dannenberg darted across Sheridan to an alley behind the Grasmere hotel across the street from the drug store.

Cullett handed the money over to Dannenberg, and the two reappeared and walked back toward the corner of Sheridan and Wilson. When they reached the corner, Dannenberg removed his hat, a predetermined signal, which brought the four Morals squad officers out into the street, surrounding the pair.

"What the hell?" gasped Cullett. "I don't know what this means."

What it meant was that Cullett was under arrest for bribery. A phone call was immediately put in to Maj. Funkhouser, informing him of the successful operation, and a press conference revealed the details of the scheme to the public.

Cullett posted $2,000 bail, and a trial date was set, but never came. With the support of his detective agency, as well as Aldermen Kenna and Coughlin, Cullett's attorneys successfully made the argument that since the ordinance that created Dannenberg's office did not fully specify the duties of the Morals Inspection Bureau, he was not amenable to bribery under the statute.

Cullett never served a jail term for his role in the scheme, nor were his financial backers prosecuted. Nevertheless, Dannenberg kept up the heat on the Levee, and kept it closed tight throughout 1914.

It appears that Harry Cullett continued in private detective work, and in that, he was joined in 1915 by Inspector Dannenberg himself. The latter became one of the nation's most famous "private dicks", making his name in divorce and election fraud cases until his death in 1955.

The Central Drug store at Sheridan and Wilson changed hands several times, becoming a Liggett's, then a Ford Hopkins, then a Rex-All Drug, until it was demolished in the 1960s. The location is now a McDonald's restaurant.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Black Jack" John Bonfield

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.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The 10 Cent Killing

The Vice Lords were founded as a street gang in the late 1950s, and rose quickly to become the dominant power in the Westside Lawndale neighborhood, a position they largely continue to hold today. They first came to public notice, however, with a senseless murder in the evening of August 12, 1961.

The Vice Lords of that period were hardly organized criminals. While the gang later grew into an organized corporate group focused on the drug trade, the original Vice Lords, who patrolled the area between Roosevelt and Cermak roads, and between Central Park Ave. and Pulaski, were primarily alienated youths seeking status among their peers. There was some violence in the frequent battles over territory and control with other, rival, Westside gangs such as the Imperials or the Egyptian Cobras, but deaths were not common. Most Chicagoans saw the Vice Lords as akin to the Jets and the Sharks, the fictional gangs of West Side Story, and until a late night in August, 1961, they might have been basically correct.

Just after midnight on Saturday, August 12, Chrispulo Mangaser, a 56 year-old maintenance man at a Southside printing plant was returning home after work. When he arrived at his home, 1811 S. Lawndale, pictured above, he encountered Chester “Fools” Solomon, a 17 year-old member of the “Midget” Vice Lords.

The Midgets were the youngest group of Vice Lords, ranging in age between 12 and 17. A group of about 15 of the juvenile gangsters, including Solomon, had been hanging out on Lawndale St. that afternoon. They had met up earlier that evening at the corner of 16th and Lawndale, and were searching the neighborhood for members of the rival Cobras gang. Seeing the old man returning from work, Solomon turned to his fellows and said, “I will get me some money.” He then ran across the street and asked Mangaser for a dime.

“Who do you think I am, your father?” replied Mangaser. The words sealed his fate.

(Pictured: Chrispulo Mangaser)

Under later questioning by the police, Solomon admitted that he then turned and put his fist into Mangaser’s body, dropping him to the ground. Other gang members, who had watched the scene either from the other side of the street, or from a van one of the members owned, jumped into the fight, kicking and beating Mangaser violently. One of the boys, 15 year-old Larry Richardson, carried an umbrella, and he allegedly used it to rain blows upon his victim, cracking his skull. When Mangaser became unconscious, the group ripped his trousers and emptied the pockets, making off with $25, which they split between them, although Solomon, who had started the fight, only got $0.30 of the loot.

Mangaser bled on the street until police arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital, where he fell into a coma and died the next day from his injuries. The media dubbed the killing the “10c murder” after Chester Solomon’s insolent demand from his victim, and the entire city was shocked at the cheapness and senselessness of the crime.

A passer-by who had witnessed the beating told police that the attacker wore a long trenchcoat, a garment that was Solomon’s trademark. The police picked Chester Solomon up and, they later claimed, questioned him for only about fifteen minutes. Officers noticed immediately that Solomon could not hide a bandaged and broken wrist which had not been properly set, which they took as clear evidence of his part in the crime. They then left Solomon alone with his thoughts while they left to apprehend two other known Midget Vice Lords, including the umbrella-wielding Larry Richardson and another 15 year-old, Alfred “Brains” Johnson. When the police returned to question Solomon further, he was ready to talk. Solomon signed a full confession to the murder of Chrispulo Mangaser which also implicated Richardson and Johnson. For their part, the latter two admitted they received part of the $25 taken from the victim, but refused to admit they were involved in the beating itself.

On November 28, 1961, eight Midget Vice Lords went on trial for the murder, including Chester Solomon, Larry Richardson and Alfred Johnson, plus five others who were believed to have been part of the team that beat Mangaser senseless. Charges against another five also believed to be at the scene were dropped for insufficient evidence. Solomon’s signed confession was the core of the state’s case. However, a bit of sloppy record-keeping almost ended the entire trial when the police admitted they had thrown out the original copy of the confession, and could only produce a photocopy. Solomon also claimed he had been questioned for hours under duress by the police, and allowed no food, water, or sleep before signing the statement, a claim the police contradicted in their testimony. In the end, the only saving grace for the police was that, three hours after the police had quizzed Solomon, an assistant state’s attorney had followed up briefly, and Solomon had signed one other critical statement during that interrogation, which had been preserved.

After a two-week trial, Chester Solomon was sentenced to 40 years. Richards and Johnson each received 25 years, and two other Vice Lords received the minimum sentence for murder, 14 years. Three others were acquitted for lack of evidence that they took part in either the beating or the loot. As the sentences were read, only Alfred Johnson winced and bowed his head. The others just stared straight ahead.

Mangaser's home, in front of which he suffered the beating that took his life, is no longer standing, replaced by an empty lot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Iroquois Theater Disaster

December 30, 1903 was another cold Chicago day, but many city residents were enjoying vacation days between Christmas and New Years, and the streets of the Loop district were bustling with shoppers and pleasure-seekers. Children were out of school for the holidays, and large parties of mothers, aunts, and sisters from throughout the city and suburbs were followed here and there by troupes of rosy-cheeked babes. And what more perfect entertainment for the afternoon than a matinee show at the theater? Nearly two thousand crowded in for a hilarious musical comedy on stage at the city's newest and grandest venue, the fabulous Iroquois. Not one of them expected to be party to the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history, which would cast a pallor over the jolly new year and reveal the complete incompetence of the city's government, not to mention the theater management.

Before the Great Fire of 1871, Randolph St. had been the home of gamblers; after the fire, it was rebuilt as a theater district, and the Iroquois was designed to offer the grandest stage in the city. The facade of the building was designed in the modern French style of polished granite and Bedford stone, giving the impression of a Roman temple. In those days of few alternate modes of entertainment, room for 1,800 seats filled the grand auditorium, with two full balconies. The decorating of the 60-foot tall foyer was a rich auburn, reflected in the upholstery covering each of the extra-plush seats.

The buliding was scheduled for completion in time for the holiday season, when theater attendance spiked, but a major spat between two unions during the Summer of 1903 delayed the construction efforts of the George A. Fuller Company, in charge of erecting the building. The dispute centered on so-called "false work," pieces of the building used during the construction stage, but which would be dismantled after completion. At the Iroquois work-site, a wooden arch was to be constructed which would hold up the roof until all the concrete columns could be completed and bear the load. Carpenters were hired to build the arch, but the bricklayers who performed most of the work in the building would not let them into the site; consequently, the carpenters walked off the job.

The dispute dragged on for weeks, causing delays insufferable to the owners of the theater, who saw the hopes of meeting their financial goals at Christmas dashed. When the dispute was finally cleared, the order was given to finish the building post-haste, sparing any detail that could be taken up after the new year.

As the building's architect, Benjamin H. Marshall, architect, would later say, "[t]he house was put up hastily, and some things were left undone that should not have been. But we must all learn."

Opening night was November 23, 1903. The first show in the new theater was to be the hit musical comedy, "Mr. Blue Beard," which had played to boffo returns on Broadway earlier in the year at the old Knickerbocker Theater at 38th Street. The show's star, one of the top actors of his generation and a future vaudeville legend, Eddie Foy, was enticed to come with the show to Chicago for the Christmas season.
Chicagoans marveled at the fantastic theater their town now boasted, as grand as any in New York. The Tribune's critic, W. L. Hubbard, wrote the following encomium:
A playhouse so splendid in its every appointment, so beautiful in its every part, so magnificent and yet so comfortable, Chicago has heretofore not been able to call its own....The Iroquois is certainly unrivaled in perfection among the regular amusement places of the West, and it is doubtful if the East can boast more than one or two houses that are its equal. The enterprise which made the erection of the new theater possible has given the Chicago playgoers a virtual temple of beauty - a place where the nobelest and highest in dramatic art could fittingly find a worth home.
Hubbard was particularly enthused about the beautiful curtains in the theater, about which there would later be endless discussion:
A curtain of deep red velour is used between scenes, a brilliantly colored autumn landscape decorates the act drop, and a woodland scene is on the fireproof curtain. All in all, a theater of surpassing beauty, comfort, and completeness.
The show itself was not, apparently, anything to write home about, consisting of fantastical characters and tropes of adventure that tired even 1903 audiences. Again, critic Hubbard summarizes the plot best:
Of story there is little or none - nobody expected there would be any, and nobody cared because there was none. There is the usual loving couple who have hard times getting their love affairs to running smoothly, there is the usual wicked persecutor of the maiden in this enamored couple - in this case, he is Mr. Blue Beard - and there is, of course, the regulation good fairy and the magic horn which comes to the hero's aid when matters get a bit too complicated. The music of the piece is hopelessly common....
The acting, while not inspired, would have been amusing to children and those seeking a few laughs. Eddie Foy who, dressed in drag, played the love interest female lead "Sister Anne", was especially singled out by critics for his comic skills, but all 350 members of the cast were given rave reviews.
(Pictured: Eddie Foy as "Sister Anne" in Mr. Blue Beard)

The combination of the theater's grandness and the charm of the show's actors led to many sell-outs, including the one on December 30. 1,606 seats were sold for the performance, plus another 234 tickets for standing room only, leaving the auditorium absolutely filled, with attendees sitting in the aisles and in doorways, craning their necks to see the stage. With children on vacation from school, it is estimated that around 90% of the audience were women and children.

The matinee show was going well, and everyone was having a good time. At 3:00 came the finale of the first act, the "moonlight" scene, in which an octet sang a loving ballad, "In the pale moonlight." In his dressing room under the stage, Eddie Foy was reapplying his makeup for his appearance in the next scene, which involved an "aerial ballet," in which "fairies" hung on wires would float out over the heads of the audience.

As the octet began to sing, a stage hand, William McMullen, at stage right, spun the spotlight onto the singers, intending to mimic the effect of moonlight intended in the scene. The state of stage lighting was not what it is today, and the old-fashioned calcium light frequently spun off hot carbon flakes. Moreover, there were heavy electrical wires connected in various ways to keep them from hanging down in front of the stage, and one of these wires was loose. One way or another, however, the light came too close to the edge of one of the red velour curtains framing the stage, starting a small fire.

"Put the fire out" McMullen said to his assistant nearby.

The assistant began clapping the curtain between his hands to starve it of oxygen. "Put it out! Put it out!" McMullen demanded.

"I am! I am!" responded the assistant. But he wasn't. He couldn't clap fast enough and the curtains, made of thin and painted material, conducted the fire upwards and away from the beam on which the two stood.

From below, one of the other stage hands noticed the burn: "Look at that fire! Can't you see that you're on fire up there! Put it out!"

"Damn it, I am trying to," said McMullen's assistant. But it was too late, and McMullen knew it. He called out to the stage hand controlling the curtains to drop the fireproof asbestos curtain.
The asbestos curtain, upon which much of the post-fire inquiry would center, was intended to separate the stage, where most of the inflammable materials (wood, paint, scenery) were, from the audience, shielding them from the fire, and allowing for calm, orderly escape.

By this time, the singing on stage had stopped and the audience sat frozen in their seats, not certain what to do. Bits of flame were dropping on the stage and smoke was filling the top of the theater. The fireproof curtain, which was supposed to drop within 60 seconds, began to lower. On stage right, the curtain fell as expected, coming within a few feet of the floor. On the other side, however, the curtain hung up on a lighting apparatus that protruded from the proscenium arch. The apparatus had been used in the previous scene, and was supposed to be withdrawn during the moonlight scene, but the assistant stage manager in charge of its operation, William Plunkett, had failed to do so, only cutting the current to the light. The failure of the curtain to fall completely left an enormous hole between the stage, which was now on fire, and the audience.

Down in his dressing room, Eddie Foy had heard loud noises coming from the stage which he realized were not part of the show. Running up to the stage, he saw the fire and found his 6 year-old boy, Bryan, in the wings. He put Bryan's safety in one of the actors' hands, and walked out to the footlights, where he addressed the increasingly agitated crowd. Women were fainting, and some murmurs of panic were washing over the audience.

"Keep very quiet. It is all right. Don'tget excited and don't stampede. It is all right," Foy announced in measured tones. Then he turned down to the orchestra pit.

"Start an overture! Start anything. For God's sake, play, play, play, and keep on playing." The bandleader sat there, white as a ghost, but kept beating his baton in the air. As the orchestra played, Foy kept reminding the audience, "Go out slowly."

Much of the floor audience obeyed Foy's words, walking back towards the entrance on Randolph where they had entered. Those in the balconies had a more difficult time, with narrow winding staircases and long aisles keeping many stuck in their seats. Panic started to grow as smoke increasingly filtered downward toward the audience.

Back on stage, as Foy continued urging calm, behind him, a theater employee opened the back stage doors into the alley behind the theater. Nearby, wiser stage hands and cast members were aghast: "My God, man, what do you mean by opening those doors? This draft is as strong as a gale and the fire will be on top of the audience in a minute."

An effort was made to close the doors, but in a panic the chorus girls made a mad rush for the exit and crowded the entrance. Opening the stage doors sealed the fates of most of those on the balcony, who by this time were rushing over each other to escape. Some had jumped off the balcony to the main floor. Others had headed for the fire escape doors from the balcony, which were either either difficult to open or locked, and when they did open, there was a three-foot drop from the door to the fire escape. Those who first got through the door missed the drop and fell; the next through the door tripped over them and several fell over the side of the fire escape to the ground sixty feet below.

Others found their way to a fire escape door from which they were able to crawl across into the the old Tremont House, which at the time was the Northwestern University dental school. Painters in the University building placed wooden planks across the gap, and twelve escaped this way, teetering precariously far above the alley below to safety.

With the stage doors open, Foy felt a cold rush of wind at his back. The fire, which was primarily confined to the stage at that point, was pushed by the draft out under the partially-open asbestor curtain into the auditorium. At this point, the fire and smoke should have been drawn up into the ventilators in the roof, but construction on these had not been completed and they were locked shut. Instead, then, an enormous fireball blew up to the balcony, killing hundreds on contact. The lights went out, and at the last possible moment, Eddie Foy rushed out into the alley, possibly one of the last to escape from the theater.

By 3:30, the fire department had arrived on scene, and in an hour had the fire under control. The building itself was little damaged, though the stage was destroyed and much of the upholstery from the seats gone. The gruesome and pitiful scenes that took place in that theater after the lights went out none will ever know, but those who saw the balcony afterwards were speechless.

Bishop Samuel Fallows of St. Paul's Reformed Episcopal church joined in the afternoon volunteer team which helped carry out the dead and injured. He noted, "The sight when I reached the balconies was pitiful beyond description....I saw the great battlefields of the Civil War, but they were as nothing to this."

As police and firemen began removing the dead from the building, news of the disaster spread across the city, and those who believed their loved ones might have been at the show rushed to the scene. A bereaved crowd began to build, and as soon as a wagon pulled up to the entrance to cart away victims, the crowd pressed to the door to see the bodies taken out. The city's fleet of patrol wagons and ambulances was not enough, so private wagons from State street retail shops were pressed into service to carry off the dead. Morgues between North Ave. and 22nd St. were filled up with victims.

Policemen had to use clubs to force their way among hundreds of frenzied, frightened men who had sent wives and children to the theater. One cried incoherently to a policeman as he pushed toward the theater, "Of course they got out. Of course they got out. They got out, didn't they? My wife and daughter. They got out, didn't they?"

"Yes, they got out, there are not many dead" said the tired policeman, shoving the man back.

That was not true. In the space of only 15 minutes between 3:15 and 3:30, 571 had been killed. Another 30 died later of injuries. The Iroquois had become the worst single disaster in U.S. history up to that time, and remains to this day the worst single-building fire.

In the immediate shock from the disaster, other theaters closed (probably no one would have attended anyway), and striking workers made amends with employers. Sunday services across the city filled with mourners looking for solace from the terrible fire. But, as the days past, private introspection turned into public finger-pointing. "Who is to blame?" came the call from all quarters.

The Iroqouis management saw it coming. The day after the fire, a large placard was placed in the hotel where many of the employees were staying, telling them to prepare their trunks to leave town quickly if need be.

City council, the county coroner's office, and a special grand jury all investigated the disaster. What they discovered was a trail of incompentence and criminal negligence that led from the Iroqouis stage all the way up to the Mayor's office.

First, the theater management. The building was rushed to completion and major safety features were neglected. The fireproof curtain, which burned up in the fire, was found to have been made of cheap material. The ventilation system in the roof was incomplete. The exits were not clearly marked, and many were covered with decorative curtains, obscuring them from the panicked crowds. There was no sprinkler system installed, as required by city regulation. No fire drill had been run, and no one had briefed the ushers on what to do if a fire were to start. Too many tickets had been sold, and the theater was overfilled. Many of the exits were either locked or covered by iron bars. Other exits were unlocked, but employed an unusual type of doorknob which was difficult to operate. The fire escapes were not level with the balcony doors. The stairways between the balcony and the main floor were twisted and difficult to navigate.

Next, the city building inspection department. An inspection of the Iroquois not one week before the fire had turned up nothing of note. The inspectors had accepted complimentary tickets to events while acting as public safety administrators. Major defects had been overlooked. Inspectors were underpaid and understaffed.

Then, the theater employees. In their rush to escape, they had opened the stage doors, creating the gust of wind that killed most of those seated in the balcony. The operator of the lighting apparatus on whch the asbestos curtain had hung up was neglected to retract the apparatus, and was not at his post to do so when the fire started. Only the company clown, Eddie Foy, performed nobly.

Finally, city government. Mayor Carter Harrison had received a report in November, a month before the Iroquois fire, that fire regulations in Chicago theaters were going unobeyed. The report stated that not one theater in the city was in compliance. The Mayor was more concerned about the political fallout that would ensure from the theater workers' unions who supported his candidacy if the regulations were enforced, than he was about public safety. Hence, he merely passed the report on to the city council. The Aldermen ignored the report.

Twelve theater employees were arrested for manslaughter due to criminal negligence on the day following the fire, and over time, another thirty, including the theater managers were brought to jail. The city's building inspector, the fire marshal, and even Mayor Harrison were also charged. In the end, however, none were ever prosecuted. Within a few weeks, the public eye had moved on, leaving only the families of the victims to seek retribution, which they never received in any measure.

Two days after the fire, all theaters across the city were closed by order of the Mayor until full inspections could be made. This caused the theater workers' unions to bring pressure on the city government to finish the inquiry and be done with the issue quickly. Actors and stage hands showed up at city council meetings, hissing and booing the Mayor. This added to the political pressure for a "return to normalcy". Demands for new, tougher, regulations (presumably to be enforced by the same incompetent government, though) were satisfied with a new fire code (as had been the case with earlier fires).

The theater building itself had survived the fire, and after the stage was rebuilt, it reopened under new management to vaudeville performances. Renamed the Colonial Theater in 1905, it remained one of the top venues in the city, bringing major Broadway shows including the Ziegfield Follies to town in between vaudeville revues. In 1924, the Colonial was demolished to make way for the United Masonic Temple Building, which included its own theater, the Oriental.
The Oriental played host to top national touring shows between the 1930 and early 1950s. Its last live show was a performance by Gene Autry in 1952. Deterioration in the economic fortunes of the Loop district meant that many of the big theaters fell into disuse, and between the 1950s and 1980s, the Oriental showed primarily movies, with an occasional exception, such as a Stevie Wonder performance in 1971.

By the late 1970s, the Oriental specialized in showing particularly violent films, attended mostly by street toughs. In 1980, after a shooting in front of the theater, police rounded up 75 members of two rival gangs at a subsequent showing. The Oriental was shuttered in 1981, and remained closed until 1998, when the repopulation and gentrification of the Loop was sufficient to bring theater-goers back to the city. The Oriental recently finished a four year run of the hit Broadway production Wicked, and is about to open a revival of A Chorus Line.

After testifying before the various Iroquois investigatory committees and being widely lauded as a hero who saved many more from dying at the theater, Eddie Foy went on to a career as one of the top vaudeville performers, and occasionally performing on Broadway. His vaudville act included his seven children, the "Seven Little Foys." The family story was dramatized in a movie by the same name, in which Bob Hope played Eddie Foy. Several of the Foy children had acting careers on television and film, as well as the legitimate stage. The youngest, Irving, passed on in 2003.