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Throughout much of the last century,
murder lent a special meaning to the term "running for office" Spotlight on the past

by James L. Merriner
Illinois politics may be a sorry affair these days, but at least it’s relatively safe. No office-seeker has been gunned down in this state in recent decades. No official mired in public scandal has gotten buried in cement. Who says we ain’t got reform? As they face the indignities of the campaign trail this fall, candidates might consider this: Throughout much of the previous century, murder was an occupational hazard for Chicago-area pols who stepped too close, however innocently, to criminality. As recent as 1963, a Chicago alderman seeking re-election took four bullets in the head, and in 1992 a candidate for Congress alleges he was shot at — though that charge went unproven.

Everyone remembers the rat-a-tat-tat rubouts of rival gangsters during the Al Capone era, which has entered national mythology. Forgotten is that at least 12 political figures also were slain in a 40-year period. And not a single one of those killers was convicted.

The relative quietude with which political scandals break nowadays can be seen as a product of the eternal Chicago dynamic of corruption and reform. Assassinations roused reformers, who pushed public officials to convene grand juries, which accom-plished little and disbanded while officials carried on business as usual and reformers, growing weary, stepped offstage.

In time, though, reform crackdowns on organized crime halted at least its most lurid kinds of street-corner vio-lence. In terms of preventing gangland gunshots at politicians, reformers have won. Corruption, of course, persists.

Perhaps candidates in the November 7 elections should express silent thanks to Charles Gross, the politician who unwittingly provoked the most reform by getting himself killed. His death was exactly the kind of publicity Chicago hated because it followed the September 1950 murders of a former acting police chief and of a reformist lawyer just before a U.S. Senate com-mittee on organized crime opened hearings in the city.

Gross, acting Republican commit-teeman of the 31st Ward on Chicago’s West Side, was walking to a political meeting on February 6, 1952, when two men fired seven shotgun blasts. It happened outside a church, a scene familiar enough in a Chicago that has inspired scenes in Hollywood gangster movies.

Expressions of outrage ensued from the Chicago Crime Commission and Mayor Martin Kennelly, followed by an anti-crime rally of 600 business and civic leaders. The case was puzzling because Gross, a reformist business-man, did not seem important enough to kill. He was supposedly independent of the “West Side Bloc,” organized crime’s delegation in Springfield. Indeed, family members and friends had warned Gross to keep out of politics, and he had taken to carrying a handgun. Civic leaders, historically given to forming enumerated reform committees, organized a Committee of 19. Kennelly named the “Big Nine,” a city council panel, to investigate crime.

Just a year later, 21st Ward GOP committeeman candidate Celinus “Clem” Graver, a West Side Bloc member and state representative, waved to his wife as he nosed his car into the home garage. Three men emerged from a car and exchanged words with Graver, then all four drove off. He was never seen again.

The cases of Gross and Graver shamed even the Big Nine into doing something. Thirty-six “undesirable,” meaning mob-tied, Republican Cook County workers were fired. Eventually, the West Side Bloc faded away as different ethnic groups successively populated the West Side. Reformers often find that their efforts are secondary to societal trends.

In fact, the next political murder, in 1963, is remarkable in that it did not provoke reformist exertions. That the victim was an African American is perhaps not beside the point. Benjamin F. Lewis, alderman and committeeman of the West Side’s 24th Ward, was discovered, on the night he had won a primary election, murdered under the desk in his ward office. He had been handcuffed and shot. A cigarette had burned down to his ring finger.

There were no suspects, arrests or even much public uproar, but as with similar cases, plenty of grist for conspiracy theorists. Lewis was among the first blacks to move into Douglas Park, once a Jewish neighborhood that had hosted two Cook County Demo-cratic chairmen. Further, Lewis opposed both Mayor Richard J. Daley and black U.S. Rep. William Dawson. Dawson’s control of the black numbers

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racket had been taken over by Italian Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Of course, no evidence links Lewis' death to any of this. But who knows what forays Lewis might have tried into the numbers racket or the Democratic Machine? In any event, this was the last high-profile Chicago political killing.

The first major political assassi-nation in Chicago set the reformist hounds to baying. It happened in 1926 and was second only to the Gross murder in triggering reform results.

William H. McSwiggin was a 26-year-old star prose-cutor in the state's attorney's office, having sent seven criminals to Death Row in eight months. Leaving his mother's dinner table, saying he was going to play cards with friends, McSwiggin instead joined underworld pals at a saloon in Cicero during Prohibition. Twenty bullets hit him as he walked out that night. Two other men were killed and two were shot but lived. The evidence suggests the leading gunman was Capone, though as always he had arranged a reliable alibi. Six grand juries were empaneled but no indictments were issued.

Chicago was inured to gangsters killing gangsters, perhaps even grati-fied by the idea, but the murder of an assistant state's attorney in the illegal drinking company of hoodlums was something else.

Apparently, Capone had mistaken McSwiggin for his gangland competi-tor Earl "Hymie" Weiss. Later, the Capone mob, having improved in identifying targets, managed to kill Weiss. He died on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral, part of the corner-stone of which was defaced by bullets in the Hollywood scenario.

Two years later came a Chicago election so violent, with so many bombs (61) thrown, that it became known as the "Pineapple Primary." On March 21, 1928, 19th Ward Republican committeeman Guiseppe "Diamond Joe" Esposito, boule-vardier and bootlegger, was shot down on the sidewalk between two bodyguards in view of his wife and daughter. Esposito was a lieutenant of U.S. Sen. Charles S. Deneen, whose home was bombed the morning after Esposito's funeral. State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe said the explosion was staged by Deneen forces as a sympathy ploy. This sophistry turned the Chicago Crime Commission against Crowe.

It hardly mattered. After he voted on primary election day, April 10, black candidate Octavius C. Grandy, who was challenging the mob's candi-date for Republican committeeman of the "Bloody 20th" Ward, was chased in his car, curbed and shot. Four policemen and three mobsters were acquitted of the crime.

The McSwiggin killing and the "Pineapple Primary," followed by Capone's "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" of 1929, so inflamed the nation that reformers were even able to enlist President Herbert Hoover in trying to clean up Chicago.

But after Hoover was turned out by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Anton Cermak was fatally shot in the presi-dent- elect's company in Miami in 1933. Supposedly, the gunman aimed for FDR, but the rumor that his real target was Cermak, on orders of the mob, has never died. Cermak took two slugs in the chest, while Roosevelt was unharmed, indicating that the assassin's marksmanship was either very bad or very good.

A long string of politically inspired murders followed. On election eve, November 6, 1934, shotgun fire blast-ed the chandelier off the dining room ceiling of Republican candidate for Cook County assessor Alderman James C. Moreland while he was eating dinner at home. Late the next year, alderman, Republi-can committeeman and state Rep. Albert J. Prignano was shot to death in front of his wife, mother and 8-year-old son on his doorstep. The year after that, state Rep. John Bolton of the West Side Bloc was shotgunned while driving his car. In 1949, Cicero town-ship assessor and former assistant state's attorney Frank J. Christensen was shot to death outside his home. He was helping former village president John C. Stoffel try to stamp out the gambling racket. A short time later mobsters blocked Stoffel's car, but he managed to get away.

In light of this history, per-haps it is notable after all that no politician has recently taken a bul-let. Or maybe not. Times change and the forms of public corruption change. It has grown upscale, of late, white-collar and sophisticated. And it has lost much of its drama. In Chicago, the U.S. attorney has concentrated on small-fry miscreants, not more promi-nent figures, in various investigations of City Hall and Cook County scams. For a mere hoodlum to shoot a mere Chicago politician now would be considered so low-class.

James L. Merriner, former political editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, is the author of Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski's America, which was published last year by Southern Illinois University Press. He is writing Grafters and Goo Goos, a history of corruption and reform in Chicago, for SIU press.
Illustration by Mike Crame

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