Saturday, August 29, 2009

Death in the Barber's Chair: The Rise and Fall of Sam Amatuna

Unione Siciliana president Mike Merlo had kept the peace between rival alcohol-production organizations in Prohibition-era Chicago through his death in 1924. Over the next year, the violent war between the “Bloody” Genna brothers, operators of a gigantic dispersed distilling operation in Little Italy, and the Northside Gang headed by Dion O’Banion, heated up, and news of assassinations filled the city’s newspapers. Into this tinderbox stepped the dapper Don of the Maxwell Street district, Salvatore Samuzzo Amatuna (frequently known as Sam or even “Samoots”). As head of the powerful Unione, the young Amatuna struck a pose as a political kingmaker and gadabout in the Sicilian community, but he couldn’t bring peace to the underworld, and the bloody beer wars escalated until they claimed Amatuna himself as a victim, as he sat in a barbershop here, at 804 W. Roosevelt Rd.

Amatuna was born in the seafaring town of Pozzallo, Sicily, at the far south end of that island, in 1899. As a teenager, he found his way to Chicago, settling in the “Little Italy” district along Maxwell Street in the early 1910s. Like many young Sicilians in the neighborhood at the time, he found his calling in politics, providing the street-level muscle in the increasingly violent war over the aldermanic seat in the 19th ward, which included Little Italy. John Powers had held the seat since 1888, when the 19th was predominantly populated by Irish, but by the 1910s, Powers was presiding over an increasingly-Italian ward, and the new immigrants had their own rising political stars, including “Diamond Joe” Esposito and former Roman Catholic priest and convicted counterfeiter, Anthony D’Andrea.

D’Andrea ran against Powers’ right-hand man, James Bowler in the aldermanic election of 1916 (in those days, each ward had two aldermen), and the race was close, despite pre-election revelations about D’Andrea’s criminal past. Not all Italians in the 19th supported D’Andrea, however; Powers had made a career out of incorporating potential Italian rivals into his organization over the years. In fact, one of Bowler’s chief political advisors was a Sicilian, Frank Lombardi.

Nothing irked D’Andrea’s supporters more than the defection of Lombardi and other fellow countrymen – Italians constituted a substantial majority in the ward by that time, and easily could have elected one of their own, had they united behind D’Andrea. Just days before the election, Lombardi met two friends in a saloon on Taylor street. As the trio raised their glasses in a traditional Sicilian toast, one of the “friends” drew a .38 caliber revolver from his hip pocket and shot Lombardi dead.

The police advanced the theory that Lombardi was the victim of a “Black Hand” extortion scheme, a common occurrence among well-heeled Italians of the era, but Lombardi’s wife and just about everyone else blamed supporters of D’Andrea. The accusations among those in the know in Little Italy led directly to a hot-headed 17-year old from Sicily, Sam Amatuna.
Amatuna was questioned in Lombardi’s death, but with little evidence and most eyewitnesses unable to “remember” the scene accurately, no charges were ever filed. The murder may even have been counterproductive, as it revived voters’ recollections of D’Andrea’s sordid past, and
James Bowler won the election of 1916.

Regardless of his real guilt or innocence, Amatuna’s reputation as a man to be feared on Maxwell Street was established. Through his connections in D’Andrea’s organization, he also became a close ally of the Genna brothers, especially the toughest and most violent of that clan, Angelo. Both Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna were fearsome characters in the district, but unlike Genna, Amatuna was able to separate business from social concerns, and when not cracking skulls for D’Andrea, he was widely known for his generosity and sunny personality, even gaining the moniker of “Smilin’ Sammy Samoots” in some quarters.

But behind the smile remained a man talented with a gun, and one fearless in using it for his own advancement. As one friend told reporters later, "Sure, if he wanted a guy knocked off, he'd have him knocked off, 'what the hell?' But he was a good guy just the same."

(Pictured: Sam "Samoots" Amatuna)

In 1921, D’Andrea again ran for alderman, this time directly challenging the incumbent Powers. Once again, D’Andrea relied on the force and violence doled out by toughs like Amatuna to help get out the vote, and once again, Italians supporting Powers were a major target (for his part, Powers was never afraid of dirty political tricks either). During May of that year, Paul Labriola and Harry Raimondi, lieutenants in the Powers organization, both met their ends at the hands of a five-man assassin crew, widely believed to have been headed by Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna. Genna was arrested and put on trial, but walked when the prosecution’s lead witness changed his story on the last day before the jury convened.

Again, D’Andrea was unable to capture a seat on the city council, losing the election by 435 votes. Shortly after the election, D’Andrea was murdered, and the Genna brothers took over his organization, turning it from a political enterprise to a criminal one. With their base of Sicilian supporters, they produced massive quantities of (rot-gut) liquor in small stills in basement apartments throughout Little Italy, in the process becoming the key part in the supply chain that ended in the blind pigs and speakeasies run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. The Gennas employed Amatuna as the enforcer for their network of family-run microbreweries. It was “Smilin’ Sammy” who visited those who failed to meet their promised quotas of booze, and few suppliers fell behind the production schedule twice.

Violent and superstitious, the Gennas began butting heads with rival booze gangs, especially the Northside gang, run by the equally-superstitious singing-waiter-turned-florist, Dion O’Banion. O’Banion’s reckless hijacking of Genna deliveries, plus his general disrespect for his Italian competitors, made the blood of Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna boil. The only factor keeping O’Banion from meeting the same fate as Lombardi, Labriola, and Raimondi, was the word of Mike Merlo, chief of the most powerful Sicilian social and political organization in the city, the Unione Siciliana.

But Merlo’s days were numbered. In 1924, he died of natural causes, and a few days later, O’Banion was dead in his floral shop, shot dead by three men, believed to include the Gennas' masterful assassins Scalisi and Anselmi, plus a third man, who the police believed to be either Angelo Genna or New York-based Unione president, Frankie Yale. When the police brought Yale in for questioning, it was Sam Amatuna who provided an alibi – Amatuna and Yale had been dining at the Palmer House hotel at the time, he claimed. No one was ever charged with the crime.

With the mediating influence of Merlo gone, the bullets flew in Chicago, and in the coming months, three Genna brothers met the same fate as O’Banion. Johnny Torrio was nearly assassinated as well, and he and the remaining Gennas fled the city.

Into the consequent void of power in Little Italy stepped Sam Amatuna. After Angelo’s death, he took two bodyguards and walked into the headquarters of the Unione Siciliana, informing everyone that he was now president. In his attempt at changing from a mere street tough to a powerful political force, he began acting the part of neighborhood Don, dressing in snappy clothes (it was said he owned 200 embroidered silk shirts – the newspapers repeatedly referred to him as the “Beau Brummel of Little Italy”) and buying haircuts and shaves for the teenagers hanging around the barbershop whenever he went in for a trim.

But make no mistake – under the silk shirt beat the cold heart of a killer. A story frequently passed around about Amatuna said that when a certain dry cleaners damaged his clothes, the enraged dandy retaliated by ripping out the stairs connecting the laundry from the street, and put a bullet through the head of the proprietor’s horse.

With the wealth he had amassed from his work with the Gennas, Sam Amatnua purchased a jazz club, the Bluebird Cafe, at Halsted and Taylor, for $40,0000, where he himself often performed, gaining a reputation as an excellent singer and violinist. He also acquired a beautiful home on Lexington Ave., near Damen Ave. (the street has since been vacated in that block). And most important of all, he was engaged to wed Miss Rose Pecaroro, sister to Mike Merlo’s widow. The marriage would make Amatuna peerless as a Sicilian community leader.

It was on a visit to the barber that Sam Amatuna met his end. On the evening of November 11, 1925, Amatuna walked into his favorite local barbershop at 804 W. Roosevelt Rd. He and Pecaroro were to see the opera Aida at 8:00 that evening at the Auditorium building on S. Michigan Ave. Isidor Paul, who had owned and operated the barbershop since 1918, threw a hot towel over Amatuna’s face and sharpened his razor. By coincidence, Amatuna was without his usual bodyguards that evening, and as a show of power, he never carried a gun personally any more.

At that moment, two olive-skinned men, one short and one tall, walked into the shop and drew guns. Paul screamed, and Amatuna jumped out of the barber’s chair, hiding behind it. The Tribune describes what happened next:
Two men walked in as he left the chair in which he had been shaved and massaged in preparation for an evening at the opera, and without waiting opened fire. Eight times their weapons cracked. One bullet took effect and Amatuna dropped: the others went wild as barbers and customers fell to the floor or ran for cover. Then the attackers backed out, ran to a car parked at the curb and escaped.
Two friends helped the bleeding Amatuna into a taxicab. Their first destination was not the hospital, but a cigar shop owned by Amatuna, around the corner at Taylor and Halsted Streets. There, Amatuna briefly met with his brother, Luigi, who had recently arrived from Sicily, likely informing him of the names of his attackers. From there, the trio left for the hospital.

For two days, doctors at Jefferson Park Hospital tried to revive Amatuna, but to no avail. With her planned elaborate wedding just weeks away, his bride was doubly stricken, and Amatuna agreed to a bedside ceremony in case he was unable to recover. With the physicians’ negative prognoses in mind, a priest was called and the arrangements made for just such an event. But before the ceremony could take place, Amatuna fell unconscious, and died at 2:00 a.m. on November 13.

As was customary for gangsters in his time, Amatuna’s funeral was lavish. At his fiancée, Rose Pecaroro’s home on the North side, $20,000 in flowers filled the home, the yard, and several neighbor’s yards. The casket was made of silver and cost a reputed $10,000. The funeral procession to Mt. Carmel cemetery, where Amatuna’s body was held in a vault for several days before being shipped back to Sicily, stretched for over a mile, snaking through the city past his home, his businesses, and stopping at the barbershop where he died – a visible indication of future retribution. At the gravesite, Luigi Amatuna threw himself on the coffin, beating his fists on it and swearing an oath of revenge in his native tongue.

(Pictured: The scene outside Amatuna fiancee, Rose Pecaroro's home, where Amatuna's funeral procession began)

Indeed, the bloodshed was far from over. Within a week, both of Amatuna’s absent bodyguards were killed – one of them on the way home from the funeral ceremony. Next in line for the presidency of the Unione Siciliana was Tony Lombardo, Al Capone’s personal friend. Lombardo was assassinated in the middle of the day at Madison and Dearborn Streets in the loop. The three succeeding Unione presidents, Pasqualino Lolordo, Joseph Giunta, and Joe Aiello met similar fates. The bloodshed of the 1920s sealed Chicago’s worldwide reputation as the country’s crime capital.

Who killed “Samoots”? The chief theory is that his death was merely another part of the spiraling bloodshed between the Genna-Torrio-Capone organization and the Northside gang. Most historians believe that Amatuna’s assassins were Vincent “Schemer” Drucci, one of the leaders of the Northside group, and Jim Doherty, a key member of the allied Westside O’Donnell gang. It appears Al Capone blamed Drucci and Doherty. A few months later, when Doherty and Assistant State’s Attorney William McSwiggin were seen drinking and gambling in Cicero at the Pony Inn, Capone ordered a hit on crew, in which McSwiggin died, a major factor in turning public opinion against Capone and raising his profile with Chicago police.

An plausibly, though less likely alternative theory is that Amatuna had fallen out with the Gennas in the months before his death, and that Capone ordered his murder in order to make way for his friend, Lombardo, to control the Unione and the Genna distillery network. In Chicago’s gangland, today’s allies frequently became tomorrow’s enemies, and vice-versa.

The barbershop where Amatuna met his fate continued in operation, run by Isidor Paul, until his retirement in 1956. Today, like much of the old Little Italy neighborhood, the building is gone, razed to make way for the facilities of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Until recently, the site was a baseball field for the UIC team, but is currently marked for the construction of a new condominium complex, Roosevelt Square.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church

A previous post discussing the history of the Blackstone Rangers street gang during the 1960s and early 1970s illustrated the perverted genius of gang founder and leader, Jeff Fort, in subverting social and community organizations to help cartelize criminal activities in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

One of the earliest of these efforts was a close relationship with Ed Woods, extension director of the Woodlawn Chicago Boys Club. Together with Fort and gang co-founder Eugene Hairston, Woods searched for a space where the gang could create a supervised teen hang-out. They found their first location here, at Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 6401 S. Kenwood Ave. The lot where the church edifice once stood is now an empty lot.

The early 1960s were a time of increasing racial strife in Woodlawn. For the past decade, the neighborhood, which was previously majority-white, had seen an influx of black residents from residential areas to the west, plus additional black immigration from southern states. “White flight” out of the neighborhood was increasing rapidly, and the economic prospects for Woodlawn seemed poor. In 1964, median family income in Woodlawn was $4,199 (roughly $30,000 in 2008 dollars) – not poverty-level, but well below the city average, and on a downward trend.

Hyde Park, just to the north of Woodlawn across 60th Street, remained primarily white, as students and faculty from the University of Chicago dominated the housing market there. Hyde Park residents were increasingly concerned about the changing nature of Woodlawn (as well as Kenwood to the north and Washington Park to the west), and the University feared a growing inability to attract students from wealthy families into the city if conditions in the neighborhoods surrounding it did not improve.

Thus, the U of C began floating ideas about building a “south campus” between 60th and 61st Streets, and sought city support for a massive urban renewal campaign intended to demolish much of the decaying housing stock between 60th and 63rd. The effort would have undoubtedly improved the condition of these blocks, but understandably, the program also raised the ire of some poor residents of Woodlawn, who feared losing their homes. Into this political minefield stepped the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization headed by the famed radical, Saul Alinsky, “to unite dispossessed peoples into power groups”. The IAF worked with the pastors of two Woodlawn churches, Rev. Charles T. Leber of First Presbyterian, the oldest congregation in the city, and Rev. Arthur Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God at 63rd and Kimbark, to found the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.) (after the new group proved not to be temporary – it still exists today – it was renamed “The” Woodlawn Organization, keeping the same initials).

T.W.O. spearheaded the opposition to the U of C south campus plans, and also began attempting to consolidate power in Woodlawn, promoting itself as the singular representative of the community. T.W.O. organized “rent strikes” against slum building landlords, picketed in front of the homes of school principals who they accused of facilitating back-door segregation, and attempted to change the zoning laws to rid 63rd street of saloons.

Given that T.W.O. was founded by church leaders, it is unsurprising that the Greater Woodlawn Pastors’ Alliance held a membership position in the organization. Nevertheless, not all Woodlawn-area churchmen supported the group’s efforts and radical political positions. Associate pastor Otto Sotnak at Woodlawn Immanuel Lutheran Church criticized Alinsky’s role in T.W.O., arguing that black residents saw him as patronizing and an interference. He described Alinsky’s IAF as “an agency whose organizing tactics are based on the cultivation of fear, hatred, and useful antagonism.” Along with five other Woodlawn pastors, he resigned from T.W.O. because, as he wrote to me in recent correspondence, “we realized the philosophy of the organization was essentially totalitarian, and therefore our ideas didn't matter.”

Woodlawn Immanuel was founded in 1899 with 25 members, styling itself as “Immanuel English Evangelical Lutheran Church”. At that time, most Lutheran services were confined to the historically-Germanic north side, but, as the new church’s name suggested, it offered services on the south side in English. The original meeting place was at 43rd St. and S. Champlain Ave, and the church built its first edifice at that site in 1903. In 1917, the Lutheran General Synod (forerunner of the modern United Lutheran Church) was seeking an opportunity to build a congregation close to the University of Chicago, in order to support Lutheran students at that institution. Immanuel English Evangelical answered the call in 1921, and moved to Woodlawn, meeting at the Masonic Temple at 64th St. and University Ave. for three years while a new edifice at 6401 S. Kenwood was under construction. At that time (also the congregation’s 25th anniversary), the church added “Woodlawn” to its name.

(Pictured: Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church)

The church that had begun with 25 members grew quickly under the skilled ministry of Rev. Dr. Clarence E. Paulus, who had found his way to the congregation as a guest minister in 1914, and remained at the church until 1951. By 1948, when the church paid off its debt for the building in a “mortgage burning ceremony,” the membership stood near 750. The church served the community continuously in those years, offering its sanctuary for use by Boy and Girl Scout groups, women’s clubs, youth groups, and other civic organizations. In 1960, the church offered free polio innoculations for Woodlawn residents.

As the neighborhood changed during the 1950s and 1960s, Woodlawn Immanuel responded to residents’ concerns regarding crime. Already by 1952, crime in the neighborhood was serious enough to warrant a mass meeting of neighborhood groups at the church to discuss the problem. At that meeting, Woodlawn Immanuel’s new pastor, Rev. Carl H. Berhenke (who had recently succeeded Rev. Paulus) argued that the solution to growing street crime was to “help the people to realize they are not standing alone in their demand for a good, clean, and decent community, and that by working together we can bring it about.”

Woodlawn Immanuel and T.W.O. were not the only organizations growing in size during the early 1960s. Juvenile delinquents Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston founded the Blackstone Rangers in the late 1950s, and by the summer of 1963, their control over the streets of eastern Woodlawn was complete, with purse snatchings, robberies, fights, and bloody turf wars with the Cobras, Disciples, and other gangs becoming increasingly commonplace.

Ed Woods, extension director of the Woodlawn Chicago Boys’ Club, worked assiduously to develop a rapport with Fort and Hairston, and in 1964, fearing another vicious summer, he approached Rev. Sotnak at Immanuel Lutheran about opening a youth center at the church where gang members could play basketball, pool, car games, ping pong, and checkers under adult supervision. In an email to me regarding a previous post, Rev. Sotnak described the origins of the Rangers’ hang-out at Immanuel Lutheran:
In the summers of 1963, -64 and -65, gang activity had become a growing threat to residents and business people in South Chicago, which included Englewood and Woodlawn. I remember a block club meeting held in our church basement when we invited a youth officer from the Woodlawn Police Station to speak to us. Afterward, he begged me to do anything I could to get those “kids” off the street.

By coincidence Ed Woods, who was director of a detached worker program at the Chicago Woodlawn Boy's Club, stopped at my office to ask if they could use our church facilities to open a center for the Blackstone Rangers, since the Boy's Club building was in rival gang turf at that time, and the Rangers wouldn't go there. I agreed, and that was how my church and I got involved.

We had about a dozen gang members the first night we opened. After that we had over 100, and the number grew ever larger after that. The Chicago Woodlawn Boy's Club got funding to hire detached workers to mingle with the gang members, gain their confidence and encourage them to leave the gang and either get into school or some kind of legitimate career that, "Put money in their pockets," since most of the gang members, given a choice, would rather not hustle.

We had several success stories. One gang member said he always wanted to be a chef. Mr. Woods found him a job at Passavant Hospital in the kitchen. To the best of my knowledge, the fellow left the gang, at least for a time. However, we learned that leaving any gang is difficult. It's like going AWOL from the army.
Employment was a key part of the program. At the time of his work with Rev. Sotnak and Immanuel Lutheran, Ed Woods told reporters, “In the past, social workers were sent here when trouble was brewing,” but argued that employment would provide a more permanent solution to the gang problem: “If a man has pride it can make him a king, and a job can give the boy the necessary pride.” Jeff Fort himself found himself employed through Woods’ efforts, earning $1.25 per hour.

In 1965, Rev. Sotnak left Woodlawn Immanuel, and the collaboration with Woods and the Rangers ended. As Rev. Sotnak described it to me,
In 1965, I left Chicago and moved to Minneapolis, where I became pastor of Lake of the Isles Luth. Church. That summer was also a long hot summer on the streets of Woodlawn. Pastor John Fry became pastor of First Presbyterian Church at 64th. & Kimbark. The interim pastor at Woodlawn-Immanuel was afraid to get involved with the gang, so Pastor Fry invited the gang to use his church facilities (just a block west of Woodlawn-Immanuel).
First Presbyterian’s previous pastor had been a founder and charter member of T.W.O., so when the Rangers moved their headquarters, they also came into contact with T.W.O. leadership. By 1967, T.W.O. was working together with the Rangers in running a federally-funded job training program, in which the gang leadership (most of whom were high school drop-outs) would administer classes in reading and arithmetic. As preposterous as it may sound today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported the effort to the tune of nearly $1 million between June, 1967 and June, 1968. Like Rev. Sotnak, Rev. Fry, the EEOC, and the community of Woodlawn were facing desperate problems of poverty, crime, and racial strife, and they were willing to adopt unconventional approaches where traditional ones had failed.

The relationship between the Rangers, T.W.O., and First Presbyterian can only be described as a total debacle. The police accused Rev. Fry at First Presbyterian of not only offering space to the Rangers, but actively participating in and supporting their criminality, blessing their attempts at extortion, and passing information about “hits” between gang members. The gang-operated training centers turned out to be a complete farce, with a Chicago Tribune investigation revealing that eight of the program’s top administrators, including Fort and Hairston, were either awaiting trial (for crimes including rape and murder) or had lengthy rap sheets. Police surveillance of the “classes” found no textbooks, rulers, paper or lectures, but dice-throwing, sleeping, and discussions focused on women and sports. The only books available were of the comic variety.

For their part, T.W.O. blamed the bad publicity the programs received on Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, they claimed, despised T.W.O. for the fact that the job training programs they and the Rangers administered were the only government monies in Chicago not directly under city control.

Nevertheless, between June, 1967, and June, 1968, when the EEOC chose not to renew T.W.O.’s grants, two program trainees and one instructor had been charged with murder, three other staff members were arrested for assault and robbery of a youth who had refused to join the program, and one teenager was shot during a class. A subsequent congressional investigation found that the Blackstone Rangers had demanded kickbacks of nearly 50% of the federal checks that students in the program received. Gang leader Jeff Fort eventually went to prison for three years starting in 1972 for his role in defrauding the government.

Perhaps, given his experiences with T.W.O. and the Blackstone Rangers, Rev. Sotnak could have predicted some of these problems. In a speech to a church group shortly after he left Woodlawn Immanuel, he called claims that T.W.O. was improving conditions in the neighborhood “absolutely pathetic”. In recent correspondence, he wrote to me, “As I see it, Mr. Woods and the Chicago Boy's Club completely lost control of the Blackstone Rangers in the summer of 1965. Given the duplicity of the gang's leadership, it was an inevitable development.”

Woodlawn Immanuel Lutheran Church closed in 1973. By that point, the neighborhood had completely changed from the one in which the church had been built in 1924, and there were other Lutheran congregations in Hyde Park and elsewhere that could serve the University community. The edifice at 64th and Kenwood was sold to a Baptist congregation, which worshipped there for a decade, until the building was destroyed. It remains an empty lot today.

The Woodlawn neighborhood continued to deteriorate into slum conditions in the 1970s and 1980s; however, over the last fifteen years, real estate values have improved substantially and crime has declined. The green line elevated tracks, which once darkened 63rd street, were demolished in 1996, and the street which once primarily served as a one-stop shop for liquor, drugs, and prostitutes, is now overwhelmingly empty lots. Since 2001, University of Chicago police have extended their patrols down to 64th St., and the area between 60th and 63rd is increasingly populated again by University students and faculty. Many beautiful and expensive new homes and townhome complexes have been constructed where the dilapidated buildings the U of C once sought to demolish once stood. The recent recession notwithstanding, continued gentrification in Woodlawn seems likely.

It is difficult to imagine a similarly close relationship developing today between street gangs and community and church leaders. Partially that is due to the increasing violence of gangs and their role in retailing crack and other illegal drugs. It is also a reflection of the differences between that time and ours. Then, rioting in ghetto neighborhoods threatened to destroy the city, and radicalism bordered on revolution. As Rev. Sotnak wrote in recent correspondence:
Would I do what I did again? I probably would. Just because life is fraught with danger doesn't mean one should shrink from it. "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead."

I suppose those of us who tried to "straighten-out" gang members were naive, but we were also desperate. Someone ought to do something, so we did what we could. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Politics is the application of proximate solutions to insoluble problems."

Those were indeed the days.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Leona Garrity's Brothel

In 1905, Mr. and Mrs. Lemuel E. Schlotter moved into a large home in the north shore village of Glencoe. He was a jeweler, and she appeared to be the scion of a wealthy family, though the family background was never fully clarified to the neighbors. Over the next year-and-a-half, the Schlotters and their 15-year old son, George, developed social ties among the moneyed clans of that suburb, and Mrs. Schlotter was well-known in the ladies’ clubs and community organizations. But on June 5, 1907, the truth finally came out. The Schlotter family wealth did not derive from Lemuel’s jewelry business, nor was it inherited from some patrician ancestor; it was the underworld that funded the big house on Green Bay Road. And Mrs. Schlotter was not a society woman, but a sex trafficker, with a vicious trade in young girls.

The spring of 1907 in Chicago portended a vigorous mayoral contest between the incumbent Democrat, Edward Dunne, and his Republican challenger, Fred Busse. Dunne’s administration was hopelessly corrupt, and the Tribune, the Daily News, and other Chicago broadsheets repeatedly hammered readers with stories of open vice conditions in the city. In February, a county grand jury returned a set of indictments against a wide range of underworld figures, including gambling king Mont Tennes and saloon-keeper and red-light district political figure, Andy Craig. The jury’s scathing pronouncements indicated that the police and politicians were doing little or nothing to “keep the lid on” vice in Chicago. Disorderly houses in the south side Levee district and west side slums advertised with partially or fully-nude women in the windows, handbooks offered sports gambling to women and children, and saloons remained open far past the city’s 1:00 a.m. “last call”.

John M. Collins, the Chief of Police, played dumb to reporters in an act that fooled no one:
There is exceedingly little gambling in Chicago now…as to saloons, there may be a few in the levee district where women come in, drink a glass of beer with a man, and perhaps do a little soliciting…If any saloons were keeping open after 1 o’clock my men would know it.
When public ire over vice conditions in the city bubbled over, Collins could always make a show of reassigning a few officers from this station to that one and busting a few high-profile resorts with newspapermen looking on until the uproar passed. But in the end, city Aldermen had almost full control over the appointment of police captains in their wards, and the political connections of some aldermen with the underworld meant that these periodic police “reforms” usually amounted to little.

However, Busse was running on a strong campaign to clean up the city and eliminate city hall corruption, and there was a palpable sense that public opinion was moving in his direction. In league with Mayor Dunne, Chief Collins ordered officers out to all the resorts in the skid row districts of Chicago. Get campaign contributions, he told them; if they won’t pay, make life difficult for them. And if you see any Fred Busse placards posted in or around your beat, make sure they find their way to the incinerator post haste.

Despite these desperate efforts, election day, April 4, 1907, saw Busse trounce Dunne, and after his inauguration, one of Mayor Busse’s first acts was to replace Chief Collins with his own man, George Shippy. In June, Chief Shippy ordered police into all of the city’s cheap brothels, looking for “white slaves”.

The concept of white slavery had been a bugbear for anti-crime and temperance groups since the 1890s, but the mid-1900s saw the concept gain widespread publicity. Black slavery, the rhetoric went, had disappeared with the Civil War, but now an even more vile form of human bondage was being practiced in the nation’s large cities. Teenage girls, some as young as 13, were being lured away from their homes by young men promising marriage or helpful girlfriends with news of profitable employment prospects. Once away from their families, the ingénues were taken to dance halls or saloons, frequently drugged, and then taken advantage of by their male companions. When these girls regained consciousness, they realized their honor and social reputations were gone, and with no way of going home, they submitted to a life of permanent prostitution. Houses of ill-repute throughout Chicago, it is said, were filled with these unwilling inmates, who though they saw scores of clients per week, had their wages garnished to an extreme degree by their keepers, never allowing them enough to pay for a train ticket home.

Or so the story went. No doubt some instances of white slavery existed, but in many other cases, it frequently turned out that the girls had left unhappy homes and willingly entered the sex trade. Prostitution, as much misery as it caused its purveyors, was better than the other options available to some women, including abusive family situations, impoverishment, imprisonment, or starvation. Nevertheless, as 1907 began, white slavery already had a hold on the popular imagination, and Chief Shippy’s investigations would propel it into a national obsession.

The most prominent white slave case in Chicago that year was the Mona Marshall case, which I have already discussed here. But another story that received similar coverage opened on June 5, when a grand jury handed down an indictment for harboring a 15-year old girl in a disreputable house against one Leona Garrity, the owner of record for the flophouse at 75 Peoria street (pictured above, now numbered 14 S. Peoria), and Bessie Lee, the keeper of the house. The near west side at that time (and for many decades after) was a skid row where thrills came cheap: gentlemen callers paid $0.50 for the privilege of time with Garrity’s girls.

That there were call flats on the west side surprised no one, even ones that housed young girls. What was surprising, and what made the her trial the talk of the town that summer, was that the true identity of Leona Garrity was none other than Mrs. Lemuel E. Schlotter, the society maven of Glencoe. Twice a week, Mrs. Schlotter would board the train into Chicago, slip into the west side, and collect her profits from Ms. Lee before returning to the north shore. Stories like these are irresistible in the press, because they implicitly ask: "could your next-door neighbor also be a sex trafficker?"

After the indictment was made public, the Schlotter family began receiving anonymous letters, undoubtedly from her neighbors, kindly suggesting that her continued presence in Glencoe was besmirching the village's good name. On June 21, 1907, Mrs. Schlotter (Garrity), out on bail, took the hint.
Mrs. Schlotter, who has been keeping up appearances in Glencoe while at the same time proprietor of the Peoria street resort, came to Chicago in the morning and sold the furniture of her suburban residence to a second hand dealer. Then she returned, discharged her Japanese servant, packed her own belongings, and departed.
It would be difficult to believe that Mrs. Schlotter’s dark secret was completely unknown to her husband, but regardless, the marriage appeared to be over, as Mr. Schlotter and their son, George, decamped for California while his wife remained in Chicago to face trial and possible imprisonment.

(Pictured: the Schlotter residence in suburban Glencoe)

Glencoe in those days was the residence of many of Illinois’ wealthiest families, as it still is today. The most serious crime most village residents had witnessed was speeding. The “hobby” of automobile driving was new at the time, and Sheridan Rd. north of Evanston was a popular place for drivers to prove the mettle of their machines, which could often reach speeds in excess of 20 mph – considered extremely dangerous in a world unaccustomed to motor vehicles. Glencoe residents erected the first speed bumps seen on Northern Illinois roads, and turned their operation into the town’s chief amusement, as described in an August, 1908 article:
Amid the gleeful cheers of hundreds of Glencoe residents, scores of automobilists yesterday jolted and jarred over the first of the “bumps” erected by order of the authorities of the suburb as a check to “scorching.” Then many of them were arrested and fines shaken out of their pocketbooks.

The first of the “bumps” completed was across Sheridan road at Central avenue [now Beach Rd., just south of Dundee Rd.], and here the crowds gathered at noon and spent the afternoon and evening enjoying the result of the jolting on the speeding autoists. Although the obstruction is only a few inches high, the effect was plainly apparent, and many automobile caps, goggles, and hairpins were gathered up by the Glencoeites as souvenirs.

It was a gala day in the suburb. As each automobile approached the “bump” the crowd cheered and asked the occupants how they liked the experience. Although severely jolted, the autoists took the jeering good naturedly and waved their hands to the spectators.
The story of Leona Garrity did not fit in this world. The trial of Ms. "Garrity" and Bessie Lee began on July 8, 1907. Clifford Roe, an assistant state’s attorney who made a career out of prosecuting white slave cases in Chicago, described the two women vividly:
Hers [Garrity's] was not a vicious face. Her eyes were large and they looked at one openly and almost frankly. In a public place she would have been taken for a quiet matron, with love for her neighbors and scorn for acts that were immoral. She was dressed in a tailor-made suit of blue; her hat was modestly trimmed. No one would take her for an outcast who buys and sells girls. Bessie Lee, who sat beside her, looked the part of a procuress. She was thin lipped, cold featured, with a complexion the color of a faded straw hat, and eyes that were black enough to spot the wings of a crow. She flashed them too as she almost couched in the big armchair given her by the bailiff. In her countenance was written the story of days spent in sorrow and nights in utter shame.
On July 13, the underage girl in question, 15-year old Miss Belle Winters, was scheduled to testify against her slavers. Her story, while plausible, was hardly an open-and-shut case of malfeasance. She told investigators that a few months earlier, she and a school friend had run away from her South Shore home near 71st and Greenwood Ave., and boarded a lake boat bound for Benton Harbor, Michigan. While on the boat, she was befriended by a young man who gave his name as Harry Mansfield. Mansfield, she said, had convinced her to return to Chicago with him, but then had delivered her, in return for payment from Bessie Lee, to Schlotter’s brothel, where she was a prisoner to her keepers, under threat of violence.

The fact that she admitted running away from home, and that neither “Harry Mansfield” nor the young friend Miss Winters claimed had accompanied her on the boat, were ever found, casts a shadow of fabulousness over the story, and indeed, at trial, Schlotter and Lee’s counsel claimed that Winters had entered employment willingly and prevaricated about her age.

But by July, the public was in no mood for excuses on the issue of white slavery, and Schlotter and Lee faced the imminent prospect of lock-up at Joliet. Likely it was Schlotter who decided to make one last attempt to silence the state's chief witness. During the trial, Belle Winters was under the protection and purview of a minder from the state’s attorney’s office – likely, they realized Miss Winters’ potential to again run away from home, as well as her precarious status as a witness against a wealthy and desperate defendant. The day before her testimony, Winters and her guardian, a Mrs. Amigh, made a visit to Marshall Field’s downtown. When Mrs. Amigh turned away for a moment, Belle disappeared, and before the two found each other, a man approached the young girl, telling her he was from the State’s Attorney’s office, and that she was needed at trial immediately.

She went with him, but before reaching court, he suggested they duck into a nearby saloon for a quick drink. Realizing this was highly suspicious behavior for court-appointed personnel, she pulled away from her would-be kidnapper and ran through the streets of Chicago, finally begging her way onto a street car headed towards her family home, where the police caught up with her.

The next day, Belle Winters testified in open court against “Leona Garrity” and Bessie Lee, and her words clinched the case. On July 17, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against both women, and after appeals were exhausted, Mrs. Schlotter was sentenced to serve 1-5 years at Joliet in May, 1908. Bessie Lee, who had always argued that she was merely a pawn in Mrs. Schlotter’s sex trafficking ring, had her sentence commuted, and in December of 1908, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the trial court verdict, making her a free woman.

I have found no record, in census or newspaper records, of Mrs. Schlotter or her family after the events of 1907. Her brothel on Peoria street was torn down in 1914 and replaced with a cheap lodging house for seasonal laborers and others with no other place to stay. Rates were 5-10c per night, with a 9c dinner available, and all guests were required to bathe before bed – a rare practice among such flops which was intended to prevent the spread of lice and disease. The house was the first of the Dawes Hotels, which later opened similar establishments in other cities, begun by Evanston resident and future U.S. Vice-President, Charles Dawes, in honor of his son, Rufus, who had drowned in a swimming accident in 1912.

The Dawes Hotel building continued serving the tough streets of the near west side into the 1970s, when it also housed an alcohol treatment center known as Haymarket House. As the neighborhood gentrified in the 1980s and 1990s, most of the old housing stock was removed, including the Dawes Hotel. On the site where Leona Garrity’s brothel once stood is today a condominium building (pictured at the top of this post).

Despite his initial attempts to find and prosecute white slavers, police Chief Shippy was ultimately no more successful in curbing vice in Chicago than his predecessor, Chief Collins. With his health fading, Shippy resigned his post in 1909. Nevertheless, the public clamor against vice was unstoppable, and the era of segregated vice (red light districts) ended in Chicago in the 1910s. Based largely on evidence introduced in white slave cases in Chicago – especially the Mona Marshall trial – the U.S. Congress passed the Mann Act (originally known as the White Slave Act) in 1910, which made it a federal crime to transport women across state lines for sexual purposes. Today the Mann Act is best known as a standard for prosecuting immoral – though not coercive – behavior, including African-American boxer Jack Johnson’s interracial affairs and marriage, and Charlie Chaplin’s supposed paternity of an out-of-wedlock child (and his left-wing politics).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aiello & Co. Bakery

Joe Aiello had broken troth with his former business partner, Antonio Lombardo, and was actively scheming to kill Lombardo and his colleague in crime, Al Capone. On May, 28, 1927, Aiello’s bakery, located here at 473 W. Division St., took the brunt of Lombardo and Capone’s ire when it was riddled with over 200 machine gun bullets from in a gangland drive-by shooting.

Giuseppe Aiello, known as “Joe”, was born in 1890 in Sicily, into a very large family. Most accounts claim he was the oldest of seven brothers, but others indicate up to ten Aiello brothers, plus an unknown number of cousins, uncles, and nephews. Most of the family emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 1900s, including Joe, who arrived at New York in 1907, then moved west to Chicago shortly after.

Food was the family business, and Joe operated first as a cheese-maker and grocer in the Little Sicily enclave on the near North side (also known as “Little Hell” for the poverty and violence that infested its streets). With his brothers, he also opened a wholesale bakery specializing in supersized wedding cakes and Italian breads, Aiello & Co., at 473 W. Division, near the corner of Clybourn Ave. He also held part ownership in a candy shop near Oak St. and Cleveland Ave. (then known as Milton St.), the original “Death Corner,” a popular Black Hand meeting (and “disposal”) ground.

At the onset of the 1920s, the Aiello clan was already prominent in the Sicilian-American community. National alcohol prohibition raised their profile further. During Prohibition, grocers played a particularly important role in the production of bootleg alcohol, since they could purchase and store large quantities of important distilling ingredients, such as sugar and grapes, without arousing the suspicions of police. Joe Aiello used his position as one of the neighborhood’s top grocers to become deeply involved in the business of illicit booze.

He joined forces with another prominent Sicilian grocer, Antonio Lombardo, and the two opened an import business on Randolph Street and purchased property on the west side at Kinzie and Halsted for an even larger operation. At the time, Lombardo was also president of the Unione Siciliana, the primary Italian organization in Chicago, a position that made him the most respected man in the immigrant community, and a political “fixer” with connections in city government and law enforcement. The Unione was a key element in organizing the massive, dispersed network of tiny home distilleries that supplied the low-quality liquor that was eventually retailed through Al Capone’s syndicate.

(Pictured: Giuseppe "Joe" Aiello)

Together with Lombardo and Capone, Joe Aiello ruled Chicago’s illegal alcohol trade into early 1926. The decline and fall of their fellow Sicilian booze entrepreneurs, the “Terrible Genna” brothers, in 1925 gave Aiello and Lombardo an even more important role to play in this business. But Aiello was too ambitious to be just one important part of the machine. He needed to control it all. He was especially jealous of Lombardo’s position at the Unione and the respect it earned him among their countrymen. And he despised Capone, a non-Sicilian he considered untrustworthy and undeserving of his wealth. Aiello’s constant attempts to control more of the alcohol syndicate eventually led to a break with Lombardo in 1926, and an all-out war for the control of the Unione and the Little Sicily neighborhood.

Aiello began working closely with the Northside Gang run by George “Bugs” Moran and Jack Zuta, while Lombardo remained close with Capone. Both Lombardo and Aiello keenly courted Sicilian grocers, demanding their loyalty and supply capacity. For his part, Aiello openly put price tags on the heads of Lombardo and Capone, offering up to $50,000 each to a series of hitmen in return for their lives.

In one important case, Aiello made a $35,000 deal with a cook at the “Little Italy” restaurant, located at 22nd and Cicero Ave., in the suburb of Cicero, to spice Capone and Lombardo’s soup bowls with prussic acid. The cook wisely decided against fulfilling the task and confessed the deal to Capone.

Other Aiello family members were also involved in warfare with Capone and Lombardo. Tony Aiello, Joe’s brother, was positively identified by a boy eyewitness as the murderer of Antonio “The Cavalier” Spano, a Capone associate operating out of Chicago Heights, who met his end just a block away from the Aiello brothers’ bakery on Division St. Tony managed to beat the rap despite the witness’ identification.

(Pictured: Tony Aiello)

Joe Aiello also attempted to hijack the Unione from outside, sending a gaggle of his brothers and nephews to St. Louis in an attempt to build a rival organization that he could eventually bring to Chicago. Their attempts to consolidate power in that city led to a dozen murders in 1927, including the deaths of two Aiello brothers while sitting in a restaurant in Springfield, Illinois.

Lombardo and Capone realized that Aiello would stop at nothing to gain control of the Unione and the alcohol business in Chicago. On the evening of May 28, 1927, just after nightfall, a curtained touring car filled with four Capone gangsters cruised past the Aiello bakery on Division St., produced machine guns, and carpeted the building from side to side with a tremendous fusillade. By the end of it, over 200 bullets had lodged in the roof, floor, and walls.

At the time, Joe was in the bakery with his brothers, Dominic and Tony, along with two employees. Tony was hit in the neck, and dropped to the floor screaming “I’m dead,” while one of the employees was also shot in the side. Dominic and Joe were upstairs and managed to dodge
the bullets. As soon as their assailants departed, Joe and Dominic helped Tony out of the building and into surgery under the care of a friendly family physician (Tony survived). By the time the police arrived, only one employee remained in the bakery to tell the tale. Officers were unsurprised to find that Aiello & Co. was one of the city’s most well-armed cupcake retailers – a case filled with shotguns was discovered in a back room.

(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery, facing the mirrored back wall, which was shattered by bullets)

One Joseph Paglisia was arrested for the crime a few days later, as he was spotted driving through Little Sicily with a Florida license in a car similar to that from which the bombardment of the Aiello bakery had originated. It was a custom with the Capone organization for particularly spectacular hits to be performed by gunmen imported from outside Chicago. Nevertheless, the police were unable to find any further evidence against Paglisia, and he was released. No one else was ever fingered for the crime.

The attack at Aiello & Co. raised the stakes in the feud over the Unione, and that summer, nine Italian grocers were found dead, likely caught in the war between Aiello and Lombardo. Aiello also stepped up his attempts to kill Lombardo. Instead of attempting to procure a hit, he decided to organize one himself. Police discovered machine gun nests across the street from Lombardo’s home on W. Washington Blvd. (an event that caused Lombardo to move his family out to Cicero), and across the street from Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna’s cigar shop on S. Clark St., a common meeting place for Capone and Lombardo.

In retaliation, Aiello and his Northside Gang allies saw bombs explode at several of the businesses, including a brothel located at Adams and Halsted – Capone territory – and a disorderly hotel at Madison and Western. The violence in the city produced by the feud in late 1927 was tremendous. The police organized roving groups of officers, armed with automatic weapons and with orders to kill on sight any known gangsters. Chief of Detectives William O’Connor (who took over that position after Michael Hughes was demoted for being too chummy with gangland figures), took an especially hard line on crime:
The machine gun is a much better weapon than the law to fight gangsters with. If we would hold more murder trials in the street rather than trust timorous juries to convict killers, Chicago would not now be facing a gang crisis.
1927 also saw Joe and Dominic Aiello build a beautiful new home for themselves and their wives, far from the Little Sicily slums where they grew up, in Rogers’ Park, overlooking Indian Boundary Park. That building, 2553 W. Lunt Ave., is still there, though it has since been
subdivided into flats.

(Pictured: 2553 W. Lunt Ave., as it stands today (above), and in 1930 (beneath). During the 1920s, this was the home of Joe and Dominic Aiello. The building appears to have changed little over the past 80 years, although the landscaping has improved).

In January, 1928, the Aiello bakery was again targeted. This time, it appears that Dominic was the target of an assassination plot. On the evening of Jan. 5, two men, armed with pistols and shotguns, walked into the building on W. Division, expecting to see Dominic at his usual post. In fact, Dominic had left the business at 4:00 that afternoon, but one of the bakers was still there, and began walking towards the door to greet them. Suddenly, the two opened fire, pouring all of their ammunition into the walls and ceiling, particularly the place where Dominic usually stood. They took no consideration of the baker, who was now cowering behind a glass case, though in full sight. Having emptied their guns, the men dropped their weapons and left the building as quickly as they had arrived. Likely they did not know that, while Dominic had left for the day, his wife, Grace, and their three children were just in the adjoining room. All escaped injury.

(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery after the Jan., 1928 shootout there. Arrows point to bullet holes in the walls and ceiling)

The summer of 1928 saw continued warfare between Aiello and Lombardo. In June, the bullet-riddled corpses of two Capone henchmen, John Oliveri and Joseph Salamone, were discovered at Death Corner, a half-block from the Aiello confectionary on Oak St. A month later, one of Aiello’s bodyguards, Anthony “Tough Tony” Califura, met his end in a drive-by shooting at North Ave. and Wells St. Four days later, an Aiello uncle was murdered in his Little Sicily grocery store, just south of Death Corner.

Finally, on September 7, 1928, Antonio Lombardo was murdered in broad daylight near the corner of Dearborn and Madison, in the full view of thousands of pedestrians. His killers escaped, but no one doubted that the Aiellos were behind the hit.

After the death of Lombardo, Joe Aiello saw an opportunity to finally gain control of the Unione Siciliana, but Capone and other allies managed to install Pasqualino Lolordo, a Lombardo associate, as president instead. To Joe Aiello, this simply meant one more bullet was needed, and in January, 1929, Lolordo was killed by three assailants while sharing drinks at his North Ave. apartment. At police headquarters, Mrs. Lolordo, who was preparing dinner in the adjoining kitchen at the time of the murder, was shown a photo lineup of potential assassins. She screamed when she saw Joe Aiello’s picture. While he was likely not one of the actual assassins (later evidence suggested the three assailants were Northside Gang members Frank and Peter Gusenberg, plus James Clark – all three later died in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), there was no doubt that Joe Aiello had organized the hit.

Finally, in 1929 and early 1930, most sources indicate that Joe Aiello finally did fulfill his long-time dream of becoming Unione Siciliana president. During this time, Al Capone was incarcerated in Philadelphia on weapons violations charges (he likely entered prison under his own volition as a way to protect himself from the spiraling violence on the streets of Chicago). For his part, Aiello spent much of his term as president hiding out in Northwest Indiana, a fugitive from police who wanted him for questioning regarding the Lolordo murder.

By late 1930, Aiello had returned to Chicago, but so had Capone, and old rivalries die hard. Joe Aiello was killed in an ambush on the far west side, near the Cicero border, on October 23 of that year. The rest of the Aiello family remained active in the underworld, eventually mending fences with the remnant of Capone’s organization, the Outfit, in the 1930s. In New York, the Aiellos are associated with the Bonanno organization, one of the “Five Families” in that city.

The old Aiello bakery remained in the family into the 1940s, serving as the headquarters for the San Giuseppi di Bagheria society, an Italian community organization focused on Bagherian immigrants (the locale in Sicily where the Aiellos originated). The building was destroyed in the early 1950s to make way for the Cabrini housing projects. In the 1990s, most of the major Cabrini-Green projects were razed, and replaced by upscale condominiums and mixed-income public housing. Where Aiello & Co. once baked wedding cakes and planned a takeover of Chicago’s bootlegging industry, a condominium building has recently been constructed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Publicity This Week

A few days ago, I was interviewed in Chicago Journal, a neighborhood paper serving the Near West and Near South sides. You can read the interview here.

I will also be on the radio program "Outside the Loop" this Friday on WLUW, 88.7 FM. The program starts at 6:00 p.m., though I'm not sure what time my segment will air.

August Spies' Home

August Vincent Theodore Spies, father of American anarchism, hanged for his role in the Haymarket riot, lived here in Wicker Park, at 154 Potomac Ave. (now 2132 W. Potomac).

Born the oldest of five children in a middle-class family in Friedewalde, Prussia (now Germany) in 1855, August Spies’ [pronounced Speeze] childhood was a happy one. As a teenager, he attended college in Kassel, training to be a forest ranger like his father. However, Spies’ life changed course in 1872 after the death of his father. Without the family breadwinner, Spies was forced to drop out of school, and he decided to seek his fortune in the United States. He arrived at New York later in 1872, where he apprenticed to an upholsterer for a few months. From New York, he traveled to Chicago, finding work in an umbrella and parasol factory on the west side, near Madison and Halsted.

He was a hard worker and was more entrepreneurial than most of his fellow immigrants, so much so that by 1876, he was able to open his own upholstery shop before his 21st birthday. The shop was a success and Spies was soon earning enough to bring his family from Germany to Chicago, including his three brothers, Christian, Ferdinand, and Henry, plus his mother and sister. The entire family resided at the home on Potomac.

(Pictured: August Spies)

While the American Dream was a reality for August Spies, he was haunted by the terrible conditions in which the poorest Chicagoans, including many immigrants, lived. Sensitive souls of the 1870s were burdened with the knowledge that, throughout the city, multiple families piled into tiny, dilapidated flats in slums overrun with vermin and other pests, and without access to proper cleaning or bathing facilities. Even for those who escaped the worst conditions, hours were long – a typical worker spent 10 hours per day, six days per week on the job – and work was tedious and repetitive (surfing the web and chatting around the water cooler were unheard of in the workplace of 1880). From this hard life, socialism promised better wages, reduced hours, and less division of labor, meaning more variety in tasks on the job.

Spies first heard of socialism about 1875, and began studying the works of Karl Marx and whatever other literature he could get his hands on. He was immediately attracted to the philosophy, and his adherence was strengthened by the injustices he perceived during the nationwide strike of 1877, in which police and private militias dispersed demonstrators through extreme force and brutality. Like other socialists at the time, he felt the primary means by which workers could even the odds against the political power of the wealthy was by arming themselves, and so he joined the burgeoning Luhr-und-Wehr Verein, a group of labor militants who were expected to be the first line of attack during the expected socialist revolution.

During the late 1870s, Spies came to be well-known in Chicago’s radical circles. He was an excellent orator and an even better writer. He never minced words, and was willing to confront and challenge unfriendly audiences. In an address to a meeting of Congregational ministers, who had invited him to speak on the subject of socialism, he mocked the attempts of Christianity to help the poor with its “little prayer book,” and insisted that only socialism could truly improve society. When one of the ministers replied, “So your remedy would be violence?”, Spies responded
Remedy? Well, I should like it better if it could be done without violence; but you, gentlemen, and the class you represent, take care that it cannot be accomplished otherwise….Besides, what does it matter if some thousands, or even tens of thousands, of drones are removed during the coming struggle? These are the very ones who yearly destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of proletarians – a fact which you don’t seem to know.
Spies was growing increasingly radical, even relative to other socialists. The final straw was in 1880 when Spies ran for the office of west side tax collector under the banner of the Socialist Labor Party. After losing the race, he rejected the power of the ballot to change society and turned fully towards anarchism. That same year, he left his work as an upholsterer to become the full-time business manager for the German radical daily publication, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung. His influence was immediately felt, as the publication began taking a radical turn from socialism to anarchy. Spies’ radicalism was eventually too much for the publication’s editor, Paul Grauttkau, who remained a moderate socialist and left the paper in 1884, after which time, Spies became editor-in-chief.

Through Spies’ tireless work, often amounting up to 16 hours per day, the Arbeiter-Zeitung’s circulation grew, reaching a peak of 20,000 by 1886. At the time, Chicago’s entire population was only 500,000, most of whom did not speak German, the language in which the newspaper was printed. Chicago also became the center for anarchist activity in the United States, led largely by August Spies. The first national anarchist assembly was held in Chicago in 1881, with Spies as the secretary of the congress. While sparsely attended and largely unsuccessful, that event’s promise was fulfilled in a similar conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1883. Spies was also the secretary of the Pittsburgh Congress, where the delegates championed the “Chicago idea,” namely that anarchists should both promote armed insurrection and support trade unions as an organizing idea of society. Spies was crucial in founding the first American anarchist organization, the International Working People’s Association, and in drafting the Pittsburgh Manifesto, which included the following six aims of anarchism:
1. Destruction of the existing class rule, by all means
2. Establishment of a free society based upon co-operative organization of production
3. Free exchange of equivalent products by and between the productive organizations without commerce and profit-mongery
4. Organization of education on a secular, scientific and equal basis for both sexes
5. Equal rights for all without distinction of sex or race
6. Regulation of all public affairs by free contracts between the autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting on a federalistic basis
While equal rights and widespread education are understandable and laudable goals, the antagonism of anarchists against profit is both puzzling and self-defeating. Profits, after all, serve as signals for where resources should be directed. When the demand for steel increases, profits of steel producers rise, which incentivizes these firms to increase production and signals others to consider entering the steel industry. These reactions allow the increased demand to be met. Without profit, there is no means by which firms know what to produce, how much to produce, or what production technologies to employ. Instead, these decisions tend to be made politically, with tyranny a frequent result. Nothing could be more crucial for individual autonomy and freedom, those keynotes of anarchism, than profit.

The “International”, as the new party was known, quickly dwarfed the less-radical Socialist Labor Party, largely as a result of August Spies’ persistence and hard work. At its pre-Haymarket height, the International claimed 5,000 members nationwide. The success may have gone to his head. In January, 1886, a Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed the 31-year old anarchist leader. In the interview, Spies indicated that the revolution was nigh. As evidence of the strength of the movement, he even gave the reporter an empty dynamite shell casing, saying “Take it to your boss and tell him we have nine thousand more like it – only loaded” (dynamite was an obsession for many anarchists in those days).

It was a statement that struck fear into Chicagoans and hatred for these violent men who sought the overthrow of the government and their way of life. Spies would live to regret saying it when he sat in jail accused of murder by dynamite after the Haymarket riot.

Throughout the spring of 1886, Spies was particularly active, nearly exhausting himself in support of the movement for an eight-hour workday (see the discussion of that movement here). May 1 was the designated day on which workers would walk off the job unless the demand for reduced hours was met, and many expected May 1, 1886 to be the start of a great conflagration between capital and labor which would dwarf the violence of the 1877 railroad strike. The Chicago Mail editorialized
There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two sneaking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named [Albert] Parsons [another anarchist leader]. The other is named Spies. Should trouble come they would be the first to skulk away from the scene of danger, the first to attempt to shield their worthless carcasses from harm, the first to shirk responsibility….Parsons and Spies have been engaged for the past six months in perfecting arrangements for precipitating a riot today. They have taken advantage of the excitement attending the eight-hour movement to bring about a series of strikes and to work injury to capital and honest labor in every possible way….Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur!
Instead, however, May 1 passed with a tense quiet in Chicago, as did May 2. On the afternoon May 3, Spies was invited to speak to a meeting of the lumber-shovers' union on 22nd and Blue Island Ave. During the meeting, violence between striking workers and “scabs” broke out nearby at the McCormick Reaper Works at Blue Island and Western Ave., and a confrontation with police led to the deaths of two workers. Spies witnessed the aftermath of the violence, and enraged, rushed back to his office at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, where he penned a circular that inspired the Haymarket meeting the following day.

At the Haymarket Square rally on the evening of May 4, 1886, Spies was scheduled to speak second. He and his brother left their home in Wicker Park and walked down Milwaukee Ave. towards the Haymarket, at Randolph and Desplaines Streets. When they arrived around 8:15 p.m., they found the meeting, which had been scheduled to begin at 7:30, was missing its initial speaker (Albert Parsons). With the crowd thinning, the weather worsening, and the evening growing later, Spies moved the group around the corner onto Desplaines Street, and stood atop a nearby wagon, addressing the crowd in English. He was followed by two other speakers. Near the end of the third lecture, given by Samuel Fielden, Inspector Jack “Black Jack” Bonfield and the Desplaines St. police arrived on the scene, gave the order to disperse, and at that moment, the fatal bomb was thrown. At trial, two witnesses would claim that, during the subsequent speeches, Spies had met the bombthrower in Crane’s Alley, handing him the famous weapon which he later used to wreck havoc. At the time the bomb was thrown, Spies was climbing down from the wagon, responding to the police order. During the riot, he was very nearly killed, but was saved by his brother Henry, who shoved a rifle barrel aimed at Spies out of the way. Spies managed to escape to Zepf’s saloon, and then found his way home.

After the riot, Spies was the first of the Haymarket defendants to be arrested by police. At 9:00 a.m. on May 5, Captain Bonfield arrived at the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and arrested both August Spies and his brother Christopher, who also worked at the paper. In their search of the offices, the police uncovered a cache of dynamite, supposedly in a closet adjacent to Spies’ office. It was nothing like the 9,000 shells Spies had claimed to control, but its existence convicted him in the public eye. The “red scare” that followed the Haymarket riot, plus the natural dislike and suspicion many Chicagoans felt for German immigrants in their city, led to a show trial and conviction of Spies and his fellow defendants for murder, although Spies was demonstrably not the bomb-thrower, and the testimony that indicated he brought the bomb to the event was contradicted by several other witnesses.

Every day during the period of their appeals after the trial, newspapers reported on the condition of Spies and the other defendants in prison. One humorous take in the Tribune described a fretful Spies:
Two men were pacing up and down the corridor, a guard on either side. They kept their eyes on the ground and said never a word. They were August Spies and his brother, Anarchists by profession and fools by nature. They were pale, and wore that frightened, expectant look that one often sees on the face of a married man riding home on the owl-car.
Another day’s commentary provided an interview with the supposedly forlorn prisoner, in which he seemed to be in good spirits, though apparently without a sufficient quantity of "spirits": "We live like princes here in jail. The only drawback to life in this bastille is that it is impossible to get anything to drink!"

Besides the usual family visitors, Spies had a large number of female attendants. As a single man and a martyr for his cause, he was irresistible to some. Spies was also known to be quite handsome, with bright blue eyes, a light brown moustache, waxed at the tips, and always in peak physical condition. During the trial, the newspapers said the 31-year old Spies appeared no older than 26.

A particularly frequent visitor was an attractive 20-year old scion to a wealthy family, Nina Van Zandt. She had met August Spies a few years earlier, when he kindly published a classified lost-and-found ad in the Arbeiter-Zeitung after Van Zandt’s beloved poodle went missing. They reconnected during the trial, and Nina Van Zandt attended court every day. During Spies’ time in prison, she visited on every occasion possible, but was limited in her access to Spies since she was not an immediate family member.

Spies and Van Zandt, who had fallen deeply in love, decided to remedy that problem by marrying. When word got out of the proposed jailhouse wedding, the city was in an uproar. Van Zandt’s parents strenuously opposed the marriage, but to no avail. Public comment was uniformly negative, and not a little condescending towards the would-be fiancée. Typical was a damning letter in the Tribune, which stated
What is to be thought of a woman who is willing to bear children to a convict and send their innocent little souls into the world bearing the mark of Cain on their brows as their very birthright?
Van Zandt was an instant celebrity. She was even portrayed for tourists as a wax sculpture in several dime museums in the city. When the prison warden objected to the marriage plans, the wedding was performed by proxy, with Henry Spies taking the vows for his brother. Despite the questionable legal status of this marriage, Van Zandt took Spies’ last name (which she kept for the rest of her life), and remained married to him until his execution date.

(Pictured: Nina Van Zandt)

August Spies initially signed his name to a letter requesting clemency from the Governor – a request that likely would have been accepted – but then immediately withdrew his signature, refusing to admit guilt or to shame his fellow anarchists. He was hanged with four other Haymarket defendants, who constituted the core leadership of the anarchist movement, on November 11, 1887. Anarchism in the U.S. was never again so prominent.

Nina Van Zandt remained active in the anarchist movement. She remarried in 1895, then divorced this second husband in 1903. She operated a boarding house on Halsted St., near Adams St., until her death in 1936. In her will, she left most of her small possessions, around $3,000 worth, to the care of her eight dogs and one cat.

August Spies’ Wicker Park home is still standing.