Between 1871, the year of the Chicago Fire, and 1971, hundreds of people claimed they were tortured as part of a criminal investigation in Chicago. The recent history of torture in Chicago is well known, but the history of those older claims has been lost. That loss limits our understanding of more recent claims and our ability to adequately respond to them.
This blog is designed to help reclaim that lost history. It builds on my recent book, Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (NIU Press, 2016), expanding on that study to record the individual stories of the claims of torture and the people who made them.
Fifty-five years ago, in 1962, a trial based on civil rights claim filed by James and Flossie Monroe began in the federal district court in Chicago. The suit sought damages against five Chicago police officers: Lieutenant Frank Pape, Captain Howard Pierson, Sergeant Edward Cagney, and detectives John Bosquette and Edward Bray. At the end of the trial the jury awarded the Monroes $13,000, which would be worth just over $104,000 in 2017.
Although recognized as an important civil rights case, Monroe v. Pape should be remembered as a police torture claim as well.
The Chicago Tribune‘s estimate that 50 other suspects complained against John Shea before James Blake seems exaggerated, but Shea was accused of violence and intimidation quite a few times during his career in Chicago’s police department.
In 1878, a number of “well-known citizens” petitioned the mayor to discipline Shea for “grossly abusing” a suspect. The police department investigated, determined that the victim was a “notorious thief” who resisted arrest, and concluded that any violence by Shea was justified self-defense. Seven years later, in 1885, a butcher named Ellis claimed that Shea, Inspector John Bonfield, and patrolman Hawes assaulted him during a railroad strike. In 1886, Chat Smith, who was accused of abduction, testified at trial that Shea treated him brutally at the Central police station after his arrest. Shea denied “that he had done any harsh act, save to call Smith a scoundrel.”
A year later, the Chicago Inter-Ocean reported that Shea along with detective James Bonfield and sergeant Slayton put Henry McCabe, described as a vagrant sailor, through a “sweat-boxing” and “pumping” while they interrogated him about the death of a lawyer from Valparaiso, Indiana. At trial, McCabe claimed that he confessed only after Shea and the others gave him whisky until he was drunk. In November 1888, Shea “induced” William O’Rourke, one of three men on trial accused of stealing tools and materials from the Chicago & Alton Railway, to confess. At trial a few months later, Samuel Perry, one of the men arrested with O’Rourke, testified that he only confessed because Shea came into his cell and “struck me in the face. Then he hit me in the mouth with his clinched fist and knocked me down.” Perry said Shea told him “If you don’t say you took those things, I will half kill you.” When Perry refused to falsely admit that he took the items, Shea punched him in the face several times. Finally, Perry agreed to confess. Then Shea and another officer put a second prisoner in Perry’s cell, and told Perry that if he did not punch that prisoner “until he squealed,” he would punch Perry “worse than I did before.”
A year later, after police officer Fryer was murdered, Inspector Shea was assigned to subject two suspects, McGrath and Martell, to “the sweat-box process” to try to get them to confess to the crime. Sweating and pumping were not the only tools in Shea’s kit. In March 1895, the Chicago Inter-Ocean ran a front-page story reporting the Shea, along with several other officers, held a mock trial at the detective bureau to frighten Albert Vollant, a suspected pickpocket. The paper accused the officers of violating a state law that made it a crime to try a person without authority of law with the intent to intimidate (Section 163 of the Criminal Code of Illinois). But nothing happened.
That was the general pattern. Complaints did not harm Shea’s career. Over the course of his career, he was promoted to detective, chief of detectives, lieutenant, captain, and finally inspector.
Sources: ChicagoInter-Ocean,October 18, 1878, p. 6; Chicago Inter-Ocean, December 5, 1886, p. 6; Chicago Inter-Ocean, May 27, 1887, p. 6; Chicago Inter-Ocean, August 20, 1887, p. 7; Chicago Inter-Ocean, January 13, 1888, p.7; Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 28, 1888, p. 5; Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1889, p. 8; Chicago Inter-Ocean, August 11, 1889, p.2; Chicago Inter-Ocean, March 7, 1895, p.1.
On February 7, 1887, the Chicago Tribune published a chatty interview with James Blake, in custody as a suspect in a jewelry theft. The article opened with Blake asking the reporter if he’d ever gone through “the John D. Shea pumping machine.” When the reporter admitted he had not, Blake described his treatment at Chicago’s Twelfth Street police station:
First, Blake said, Shea took him to a small room off an office and closed the door. Then, after taking out his pistol and put it near to hand, Shea asked Blake if he had committed the jewelry theft. When Blake said no, Shea struck him behind his head so hard that Blake was sent reeling to his knees. Shea left the room briefly; when he returned he continued the violent interrogation. Each time Blake denied that he had been involved, Shea struck and kicked him. This went on, Blake told the friendly reporter, from 1:00 to 5:30 p.m. When Shea was done, Blake’s eyes were black and his lips so swollen he could barely drink water from a cup. Blake said he cried out in pain (a claim that was confirmed by another suspect in custody at the station), but neither Captain O’Donnell nor Detective James Bonfield, who were in the nearby office, interrupted the beating.
When the chief of police, Frederick Ebersold, cast doubt on Blake’s claims the next day, the Tribune became sarcastic. “As Shea has stated at least fifty times,” the paper mused in an editorial, “that he didn’t pound prisoners there must be something in his persistent denials.” The editorial went on,
The probabilities are that there is somebody very much resembling Shea hanging around the police headquarters who has the ugly habit of punching and choking prisoners, the result being to throw discredit on the bluff but not dangerous Lieutenant. If Lieut. Shea were wise he would hunt up this double of his and have him kept out of the Central Station.
The editorial closed with a note that two other officers who had been found guilty of beating another prisoner had just been released from jail. Superintendent Ebersold was still trying to decide, the paper reported, whether to allow the two officers back on the force.
Although grimly amusing, the newspaper’s sarcasm apparently was misplaced. Two days later, the Tribune retracted its earlier story. Faced with an internal report that set out denials by O’Donnell, Shea, and Bonfield, the paper concluded that Blake must have lied and apologized for publishing his claims. A week later, it printed a letter to the editor from Vere V. Hunt, who said he was Blake’s lawyer. Hunt reported that Blake had never told his lawyers that he had been beaten in the station.
With that, Blake’s claims against Lieutenant Shea disappeared. That did not, however, clear up the mystery of what had befallen all those other men that the Tribune reported had claimed they had been beaten and choked by someone who looked a lot like Lieutenant Shea.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1887, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1887, p. 7; Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1887, p. 8; Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1887, 10.
The United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), equated “confessions obtained by violence” (p. 286) with torture and declared that by either name the practice was unconstitutional. In Chambers v. Florida (1940) the Supreme Court held that in some instances it was torture to when psychological (or mental) pressure was used to obtain a confession.
The view that police torture only occurs during interrogation is fairly standard. In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (usually known as the Wickersham Commission) defined the third degree (which it used as a synonym for torture) as “the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person in order to obtain information about a crime” (Wickersham Commission, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 19). The Commission noted that police in Chicago engaged in “brutal arrests,” but did not include that violence in its analysis of police torture in the city. Courts typically draw a similar distinction between abusive arrests and torture during interrogation, though a few victims have successfully connected violence at the time of arrest and during interrogation into a single claim of torture.
In contrast, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture to include both acts that cause mental or physical pain to obtain information or when law enforcement or instances when government agents engage in the type of vigilante acts that Daniel LaChance aptly calls “street corner justice.” Article 1.1 of the Convention provides:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Two Chicago police detectives, Michael Neary and Michael Vaughn, were briefly suspended in 1919 after they arrested Keith Southern (Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1920, p. 13). Southern claimed that while investigating car thefts in November 1919, the two officers beat him at the detective bureau, breaking his ribs in the process (Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1919, p. 17; Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1920, p. A5).
Neary and Vaughn claimed that Southern’s ribs were broken when they had to subdue him to arrest him. Southern pressed charges, but in January 1920 the Civil Service Board dismissed his claims. “There is almost no evidence against Neary,” Captain Coffin, who served as president of the board explained. Coffin admitted that there was “some evidence” against Vaughn, “but it is not enough to sustain the charges”(Chicago Tribune, January 9, 1920).
In June 1927, John Kimball, the night manager at Chicago’s Newberry Hotel, charged that Lieutenant Leo Carr and several police officers at the Chicago Avenue station forced him to confess to stealing $100 from the hotel (Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1927, p. 20). Two weeks later, members of a criminal gang admitted to a burglaries, including the one Kimball had confessed to (Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1927).
But the police did not drop the charges against Kimball. Instead, as the Chicago Tribune noted, when Kimball was testifying before the grand jury to help indict members of the burglary gang, the case against him was set for a hearing before a Cook County judge. Since he missed the court date to provide evidence to the grand jury, his bond was forfeited and it was only after lawyers and his employer interceded that the charges against him were dropped (Chicago Tribune, July 2, 1927).
Confronted with Kimball’s claim that he falsely confessed after being beaten at the Chicago Avenue station, chief of police Michael Hughes reluctantly ordered an investigation. Yet Hughes’ condemnation of police misconduct lacked conviction. He did not approve, he said, of police officers mistreating “innocent citizens.” But he added, that was not the rule for everyone.
So long as I am chief of police in Chicago criminals aren’t going to be handled with gloves. That’s one thing you can be dead sure about” (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1927).
Hughes went on to complain about reformers, criminologists, social workers, and even the ungrateful people of Chicago, who criticized the hard working police, rather than the criminals. The police, he said, “were driving the crooks out of Chicago and we’re not being nice to them.” Rather than help the police, Hughes complained, the public criticized them (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1927).
The Chicago Tribune expressed some doubts about the distinctions Hughes drew. “There is pretty general acceptance of the theory,” the paper wrote in an editorial, “that the police must beat up a suspected man, if he has a criminal record, to get the facts out of him.” But, the paper went on, it “isn’t a very pretty theory and it doesn’t work so exceptionally well,” since those confessions were often thrown out in court. The paper went on, more pointedly
The fundamental law of the land is supposed to protect any one from cruel and unusual punishment, but that is merely highbrow stuff for the he-man chief” (Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1927, p. 10).
In 1913, William Kirk, a realtor, was arrested for driving with a missing tail light and taken to Chicago’s 22nd Street police station. While he waited for the paper work on his arrest to be processed, Kirk watched a police officer, later identified as Peter Bronson, bring a young man into the station. Bronson, the young man, and a second police officer, who was later identified as William Sammons, went into a nearby office and one of the officers shut the door. Within seconds, Kirk heard thuds and screams coming from behind the closed door. The noises continued for nearly ten minutes; they stopped only when the police lieutenant, Michael Morrissey, went into the office and, according to Kirk, told Bronson and Simmons to “Take that man to a cell if you want to do any beating” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).
Kirk, who said he followed Morrissey over to the office, looked in and saw the young man on his hands and knees while the two officers were kicking him (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).
The Chicago police department opened an investigation after Kirk filled a formal complaint about what he saw at the station. Captain Ryan, of the 22nd Street station, was ordered to prepare a report.
Predictably, there were two very different versions of what transpired.
The young man who was arrested, Fred Haas, a telegraph operator who worked for Armour & Company, claimed that he was arrested by Bronson at the corner of Clark and 18th streets. Haas said Bronson stopped him because he thought Haas was Robert Webb, a bandit wanted for murder, and then arrested him when he found Haas was carrying a billy club for protection. Haas also said that Bronson was drunk when he made the arrest. Haas’s account was corroborated by Joseph Schmidt, who was with him when he was arrested (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3). Charles Sullivan, the man who shared a cell with Haas the evening of his arrest, confirmed that Haas was in bad shape when he was taken to the cell: blood covered his face and his clothing was torn (Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1913, p. 6).
While the accounts offered by Haas and Schmidt suggested a mistaken arrest gone very much awry, the police story set out in Captain Ryan’s report on the case hinted at interracial, perhaps homosexual, vice. Officer Bronson told Ryan he arrested Haas, who was white and described in the press as “slim” and “rather weak physically,” at a “negro resort,” a euphemism for a gambling spot often frequented by prostitutes female or male. The resort, according to Bronson, was at 17th and Dearborn streets, at the edge of Chicago’s notorious Levee District (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3).
As one might expect, the police also denied beating Haas. Officer Bronson claimed that Haas had to be subdued after he resisted arrest, and then again at the station after Haas “became stubborn” when they tried to take him to the cell. But Bronson was sure that nothing else was done to Haas during his arrest or time at the station. (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7).
For some reason, Ryan did not interview either Lieutenant Morrissey or Officer Sammons for his report.
The story quickly became complicated: The Chicago Tribune asked why the police claimed that Haas was arrested for making a disturbance at a resort in an area that the police department claimed had been cleaned of vice. That paper (along with Haas’s attorney) also wondered why no “inmates” of the resort had been arrested with Haas (Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3; Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1913, p. 11). Meanwhile, Charles Thompson, alderman for the 25th Ward, demanded Chicago’s city council investigate the “torture chamber” methods used at the 22nd Street station. “The attack on young Haas was one of the more brutal affairs ever brought to my attention,” the alderman explained,
and it is nearly (sic) time that something be done to protect citizens from outrages of this kind. It is a disgrace to civilization and gives the city a bad name. It isn’t the first time I have heard of brutal police and their tactics. I will do everything in my power to oust men of this type” (Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1913, p. 2).
But then, after all the fury, very little happened. Haas pled guilty to carrying a concealed weapon (the billy club) and was fined $25 (Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1913, p. 12). And the alderman on the city council voted not to hold an investigation on police use of the use of the third degree. Twenty alderman voted in favor of holding an investigation; 35 voted against doing so (Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1913, p. 6).