Claims of coerced confessions, 1885

In May 1885, more than ten Italians were taken into custody by the Chicago police on suspicion of having murdered Filippo Caruso, a fellow immigrant. The men were held incommunicado for days; at least one, Andrea Russo, was in custody from May 2 through May 12 (New York Times, May 12, 1885, pg. 1) . While they were custody, several of the men were transferred from police station to station, apparently to conceal their whereabouts from friends and family. One, Augustino Gelardi, was subjected to what the Chicago Herald described as “a steady pumping” (Chicago Herald,  May 10, 1885, pg. 9). Another, Giovanni Azari, claimed at trial that he was “shaken up” by an officer during an interrogation (Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1885, 3; Chicago Times, June 28, 1885, pg. 14). During the investigation, one officer justified police treatment of the suspects on the ground nothing else would work with “lower class Italians” (Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1885, pg. 8).

Russo was ultimately released, but five other Italians were charged with the crime after they confessed to the police. Three of the men, Gelardi, Azzari, and Ignazio Silvestri, were convicted based on those confessions. At their trial, the judge refused to believe Azari’s claim that his confession had been coerced by the police (Chicago Times, June 28, 1885, 14). The judge apparently also paid no heed to the evidence that all the men had been held in custody and incommunicado for at least five days. None of the men could afford to appeal; all three were hanged November 14, 1885 (Chicago Daily News, November 15, 1885, pg. 13).

Reclaiming a Lost History

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.