Sweatbox Methods

Report of the General Superintendent of Police of the City of Ch
Francis O’Neill, Chicago police  (from chicagology.com)

In late summer 1902, a range of people from judges to civic leaders to everyday citizens spoke out against use of the sweatbox in Chicago. Their reaction was prompted by stories of Oscar Thompson’s treatment at the hands of Chicago’s police (Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1902, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1902, p. A2).

What was the sweatbox? It was not so much a thing as a process. According to the Chicago Tribune, Thompson was questioned by police for more than a week, some days for several hours on end. During that period, he was yelled at, lied to, and kept from friends, family or legal help. At least once, police deliberately kept him awake all night to try to exhaust him to the point he would talk (Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1902, p.1).

Thompson was arrested so that he could be questioned about the brutal murder of Annie Bartholin. But Thompson was not the suspect; police thought Mrs. Bartholin’s son William had killed her and his fiancé, Minnie Mitchell.  Thompson, who had boarded with the Bartholin family for more than twenty years, was just being questioned as a witness. And questioned he was. Over the next several days, as some police officers continued the search for William Batholin,  Inspector Hunt and others subjected Thompson to the “severe ordeal of questioning” that prompted public ire (Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1902, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1902, p.1).

But while Jane Addams, several criminal court judges, and other Chicagoans were quoted in articles deploring police use of sweatbox methods, Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Jr., was not persuaded. On the contrary, the Tribune quoted him as saying:

I think the main thing for the police to do is arrest offenders against the law. I suppose in using the sweatbox method of getting confessions, our police are using the methods and precedents established here and in other large cities (Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1902, p. A2).

Chicago’s police chief, Francis O’Neill, tried to offer reassurance. “Do you know what Chicago police do in questioning a suspect?” he asked.

They take him into a pleasant room and sit about and ask questions. It’s the same thing that the state’s attorney does, only he puts sharper points on his questions than we can. It’s exceedingly pleasant and if it is not a sociable affair, that is the fault of the prisoner, and not the police (Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1902, p. 36).

But even though O’Neill said he was not “in favor of torture,” he admitted that sometimes the police were “justified in stretching the law to its limit” in particularly serious cases. “While the police sometimes may not keep wholly within the law in these matters,” he added, “they aim to do so, and when they do stretch the law at times, then it must be remembered they do so in good cause. And we have the color of authority, also,” he added, returning to his earlier point, “because the methods we use in questioning prisoners are also used by the state’s attorney” (Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1902, p. 36).

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erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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