Posts Tagged 'Crime'

Chicago’s Crime of the Century (5-21-1924)

The Lindbergh Kidnapping . . . The O.J. Simpson Case . . . The Murder of Stanford White. . .

The 20th Century had an abundance of crimes that were labeled The Crime of the Century.  Chicago’s version took place on this date, 94 years ago.

Bobby Franks

Bobby Franks

Shortly after 5 in the afternoon, 13-year-old Bobby Franks left the Harvard School for Boys in the Kenwood neighborhood, and began walking the three blocks to his home.  He never got there.

The next morning Bobby’s wealthy parents received a ransom note.  But before any money could be paid, the boy’s body was discovered near Wolf Lake.

Teachers at the school were considered prime suspects.  Then police found a pair of eyeglasses near the crime scene.  The glasses were traced to 19-year-old neighbor Nathan Leopold.

Leopold said he must have lost the glasses while bird-watching.  On the night of the murder, he had been out with a friend, 18-year-old Richard Loeb.  Loeb was called in.  He supported Leopold’s story.

The police continued to question Leopold and Loeb separately.  Their alibis broke down.  They admitted they’d kidnapped Bobby Franks.  Leopold said that Loeb had done the actual killing.  Loeb claimed that Leopold had done it.

Leopold and Loeb were unlikely criminals.  They were wealthy.  They were intellectually brilliant.  But they also considered themselves superior to the common herd of humanity, above any arbitrary rules of conduct.  They had killed Bobby Franks because they wanted to commit “the perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb with Darrow in court

Leopold and Loeb with Darrow in court

The Leopold and Loeb families hired Clarence Darrow for the defense.  To avoid a jury trial, Darrow had his clients plead guilty.  Otherwise, he felt certain they would be hanged.

At the sentencing, Judge John Caverly heard Darrow’s arguments.  Darrow reminded the judge that Leopold and Loeb were legally minors.  They might be intellectuals, but they had diseased minds.  The murder had not been brutal.  And besides, capital punishment itself was brutal and uncivilized.

Judge Caverly

Judge Caverly

Darrow convinced the judge.  Leopold and Loeb were each sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks.  Added to that was a 99-year sentence for kidnapping.

The killers were sent to the state prison at Joliet.  Both of them used their time organizing a school for the other convicts.  In 1936 Richard Loeb was killed in a brawl with another inmate.

Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958.  He moved to Puerto Rico and worked in a hospital.  He died in 1971.

The best book on the Leopold-Loeb case is For the Thrill of It (2008) by Simon Baatz.  A somewhat fictionalized movie version of the story—using different names—is the 1959 feature Compulsion, starring Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles.




The End of Big Jim Colosimo (5-11-1920)

This was one historic day in the annals of Chicago gangland.  This was the day Big Jim Colosimo was killed.

Big Jim

Colosimo was a native of Calabria, in southern Italy.  He’d come to Chicago as a teenager in 1895, and at first was just another two-bit hustler hanging out on the 22nd Street Levee.  Then he grabbed for the gold.  He married one of the city’s leading madams.

Colosimo had a good head for business.  He expanded his wife’s operation until the couple was running dozens of brothels and gambling halls.  By 1910 he had also become a political power in the First Ward.

That year Big Jim opened a cafe at 2126 South Wabash Avenue.  Italian cuisine was considered exotic by mainstream American then—think Ethiopian food today—and Colosimo’s became a chic dining spot for the “best people.”  Visiting celebrities and knowledgeable tourists flocked to the place.

In the spring of 1920 Big Jim divorced his first wife and married a young singer.  A few weeks later, on May 11, he went to his cafe to wait for a delivery.  At about 5 in the afternoon one of the employees heard a shot.  The man followed the sound and found Colosimo lying dead.

Souvenir postcard from Colosimo’s

The police had two suspects, the dumped wife and the trophy wife.  Both women were cleared and dropped out of sight.  The killing was officially credited to that old standby, “person or persons unknown.”  Only later did the whole story emerge.

Johnny Torrio

Johnny Torrio was Colosimo’s chief lieutenant.  Prohibition was on the way, and Torrio knew there was a fortune to be made supplying liquor to thirsty citizens.  Big Jim balked at the idea.  He’d gained a certain measure of respectability, and didn’t want to rock the boat.

So Torrio decided that Big Jim had to go.  The identity of The Man Who Shot Big Jim Colosimo is still in dispute.  But many scholars say the deed was done by Torrio’s young friend from Brooklyn, Al Capone.

Torrio proved to be a visionary.  With Colosimo out of the way, bootlegging became big business.  And with the profits from that business, the mob entrepreneurs flourished and grew.

Colosimo’s Café endured some hard times after Big Jim’s death.  For awhile the business was shuttered.  A new owner took over in 1948, but couldn’t make a go of it.

Still, Chicagoans counted the café at 2126 South Wabash Avenue as one of the city’s historic sites.  When the building’s planned demolition was announced in 1958, the property was overrun by hundreds of souvenir hunters.


Your City Council at Work (2-19-1894)

Today Chicagoans were given a lesson on how their city council did business.  The story in the Chicago Record didn’t read like any civics textbook.

In 1894 Chicago had 35 wards, each represented by two aldermen.  The aldermen served two-year terms.  Their pay was $150 a year.

(That $150 is equivalent to about $3,700 today.  To convert 1894-dollars into 2018-dollars, multiply by 25.)


According to the Record, most of the aldermen could be bribed.  The paper did say there were some honest men in the council.  There had even been times when the honest aldermen were in the majority.  That was not the case in 1894.

Anybody who needed some kind of business permit had to pay bribes.  There was a definite price schedule.  If a coal company wanted to build a track-connection to a freight railroad, it cost $1,000.  For the same track, a brewery had to fork over $2,500—because a brewery made more money than a coal company. But the aldermen got their largest payoffs from granting city franchises.

A franchise was a legal monopoly.  They went to transit carriers or utilities.  Since any company that held a city franchise earned big bucks, the bribes were stupendous.  A few years before, when a certain railroad franchise was up for renewal, four aldermen had collected $25,000 each.

If you were going to pay bribes, you had to pay each alderman individually.  That way there were no witnesses.  Of course, with forty or so men in on the deal, that took some time and effort.


One businessman came up with a more efficient method.  He left packages of currency marked “$1,000” in the men’s washroom at City Hall.  Then, one by one, each alderman would come in to pick up his share of the loot.

The system worked until an innocent citizen wondered into the washroom.  The man found one of the discarded “$1,000” wrappers on the floor.  He chased down the alderman who had just left, gave the alderman the wrapper, and said “You lost something.”

The alderman laughed and said “Thank you.”  Then he tore up the evidence.

The Chicago Record expose gained considerable attention.  It also led to permanent reform.  From that day to this, there has never been another case of a Chicago alderman accepting a bribe in a public washroom.


The Yellow Kid Rides Again (1-25-1931)

Chicago’s most illustrious con man went through the indignity of a police lineup today.  The Yellow Kid didn’t like it.

Joseph Weil was born in Chicago in 1875.  At an early age he decided that honest work was beneath him.  He started his road to fame by peddling worthless patent medicines.

Yellow Kid Weil, 1931

He eventually worked his way up to the big time.  Weil was involved in land swindles, stock frauds, race-fixing, and other assorted ventures.  Along the way he acquired the nickname Yellow Kid, after a popular cartoon character.

Now, in 1931, he was in Chicago police custody.  Weil was charged with bilking a Michigan man out of $15,000 in a mining deal.  The cops were using the opportunity to parade the Kid through their daily lineup, to see if other victims might recognize him.

“And here, ladies and gentlemen, we have no less a distinguished personage than the Yellow Kid,” the officer in charge announced.

The Kid bowed.  Nobody in the audience had any charges to make.

Then the Kid went on the offensive.  “Sure, I am a con man—the best,” he said.  “But I’ve always taken from those who can afford the education.”  He claimed that he only cheated the dishonest rich.  He wasn’t one of those “smug hypocrites who rob the poor, then sit in church pews.”

Besides, the Chicago police were treating him shamefully.  Yesterday they had shipped him all the way to Rockford for a lineup there.  “They exhibited me to a farmer who lost two cases of eggs,” the Kid complained.  “The value was $8.50.  I have never been so humiliated.”

His discourse over, they took the Kid back to his cell.  His brother Ike arrived with a change of clothes.  Ike was a former court bailiff.

The Kid beat this particular rap.  He continued his career, with occasional interruptions for prison time, until old age caught up with him.  He died in a Chicago nursing home in 1976.  Paul Newman’s character in The Sting is based on Yellow Kid Weil.

Weil might have retired, but he never completely mellowed.  A Chicago reporter attended the Kid’s 99th birthday party in the nursing home.  There was cake, and singing, and much senior good fellowship.

When the party was over, and he thought nobody was watching, the Kid swiped the extra box of candles.


The Municipal Razor (1-15-1925)

Crime was on the minds of Chicagoans today.  And people were talking about the solution offered by a visiting French priest.

Chicago was earning a reputation as the wildest big city in the world.  Since 1920 robberies had gone up 35 percent, while the number of rapes, bombings, and arson cases was rising at an alarming rate.  In the past two years alone, murders had doubled.

Many blamed the crime problem on the Prohibition Act.  Alcoholic beverages had been banned in America, and bootlegging gangs were now in control of the liquor trade.  Violence was part of their business.  Everyday citizens were also losing respect for the law.

Still, Prohibition wasn’t going to be junked any time soon.  So what could be done about Chicago’s crime?  Abbe Ernest Dimnet had an answer.

Dimnet was the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  He was a respected French author whose books were becoming popular in English translation.  The abbe was stopping in Chicago on a lecture tour.

Mayor Lewis Shank of Indianapolis was also in town to give a speech to a business breakfast.  Shank had said the way to fix Chicago crime was to hire smarter policemen.  Dimnet thought that was only part of the cure.

“In France,” he said, “we would be horrified at such a crime wave that has deluged dry Chicago.”  Besides good police, the city needed good judges who were not afraid to enforce the law.  And there was one more thing.

Chicago needed a guillotine.


Dimnet admitted that executions were not exactly civilized.  “However,” he went on, “there is something in the utter finality of the descending blade of a guillotine that inspires a healthy respect for the law.”  This was a far better way to deal with criminals than putting them in prison.  Because of bleeding-heart reformers, many prisons had become as posh as a bachelor’s hotel.

To be an effective deterrent, Dimnet said that the executions must be public.  He thought the best location for the “municipal razor” would be in Grant Park.

Abbe Ernest Dimnet returned to Paris unharmed by his visit to Chicago.  A few years later he wrote a best-selling self-help book in English called The Art of Thinking.

Prohibition ended in 1933.  Chicago never did erect a guillotine in Grant Park.  Instead, the city used the site for Buckingham Fountain.


Best Wishes from Leo (12-29-1923)

Today some 160 Chicagoans received New Year’s greetings from Leo Koretz.  The cards were inscribed with verse:  “If I could be transported/ This moment to your door/ I’d bring you smiles by dozens/ And good wishes by the score/ –Leo Koretz”

Leo Koretz

Those 160 people certainly knew Leo Koretz.  He’d convinced them to invest $10 million to develop oil land in Panama, then disappeared with the money.  His plan turned out to be a giant con.

So where was Leo now?  The cards had been mailed in Chicago.  As it turned out, he was in Nova Scotia, living it up with assorted women.

Koretz was extradited, convicted of his swindle, and sentenced to state prison.  He told reporters he’d never serve his time.

Before he could be transferred from the county lockup, one of his lady friends brought him a five-pound box of chocolate.  Koretz ate it in one sitting and keeled over dead, as he’d planned.  He was a diabetic.


Deadly Medicine (9-29-1982)

It was a Wednesday.  In Elk Grove Village, a 12-year-old schoolgirl awoke with a sore throat.  She went to the medicine cabinet and took the appropriate pills.  A few minutes later, she collapsed.

The paramedics were called.  They came quickly, but could not save her.  The cause of death seemed to be a heart attack or a stroke.

An isolated tragedy.  And yet . . .

poison skull.jpg

In Arlington Heights that same morning, a 27-year-old postal worker died suddenly in his home.  Later in the day, family members gathered at the house to plan his funeral.  Within a short time, both the man’s brother and sister-in-law collapsed.  They also died.

Local authorities thought these deaths might have been caused by a gas leak.  Then it was discovered that all three people had taken Tylenol from the same bottle.  That morning, the Elk Grove Village girl had taken Tylenol for her sore throat.

The remaining Tylenol capsules in the Arlington Heights bottle were examined.  They contained cyanide.


Over the next few days, three other Tylenol deaths were reported, in Elmhurst, in Winfield, and in Old Town Chicago.  The tainted capsules had been manufactured in different places.  That could only mean that someone was going from store to store, sabotaging the medicine.

The public was warned not to use any Tylenol products.  Johnson & Johnson, the maker, halted production and issued a nationwide recall of 30 million bottles.  Since only capsules had been tainted, the company offered to replace them with solid tablets.

Meanwhile, federal and state law enforcement officials converged on Chicago.  Three more contaminated bottles turned up.  People were getting scared now.  Though only Tylenol had been tainted, sales of any kind of medicine plummeted.


On October 6, Johnson & Johnson received an unsigned letter claiming responsibility for the Tylenol murders.  The letter demanded that $1 million be deposited in a particular account at Continental Illinois Bank in Chicago.  Otherwise, the killing would resume.

James W. Lewis of New York City was soon arrested.  Federal authorities claimed he had written the letter to Johnson & Johnson.  Lewis said he was innocent.Lewis was convicted of attempted extortion on October 27, 1983.  He received a 20-year prison sentence for his crime.  After serving 13 years, he was paroled.

The seven Chicago Tylenol deaths led to stronger safety standards in drug production and packaging.  But thirty-five years later, the murders remain officially unsolved.