Goldfish & prairies

The “goldfish room,” which figured so prominently in Edmund Fitch‘s claim of police torture in 1923,  also played a role when the police interrogated James Sweeney in 1921. Sweeney, along with Harry Bartlett and several others, had been arrested and convicted for bombing the Beehive Laundry Company during a labor dispute (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502 (1922)).

At trial, Sweeney testified he was interrogated at length by Chicago police officers at the detective bureau and at the state’s attorney’s office. After being held for more than a day at the Brighton Park police station, Sweeney was taken to police chief Fitzmorris’s office for an hour, and then to the state’s attorney’s office. He remained at the state’s attorney’s office for most of the night; he was interrogated there for roughly four hours by two assistant state’s attorneys, Charles Wharton and Milton Smith, and the chief of detectives, Michael Hughes. Then he was taken to a cell, where he stayed less than half an hour before three officers took him to chief Hughes’s office. As they escorted, the officers told Sweeney they were going to show him the goldfish (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511-512).

As the Illinois Supreme Court put it, “They showed him the goldfish, which was a beating.”

They dragged him around by his hair and started beating him with a rubber hose. He said that Chief Hughes beat him, and two or three other officers who he did not know by name; that [police sergeant] Egan was there at the time and used his fist; that he could recognize the other two officers and had seen one of them in the courtroom since the trial started, — that is, one beside Egan. He said they told him to come clean and tell everything he knew, and plenty besides, or be found out in some prairie (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511).

Still Sweeney did not confess, so they took him back to a cell for a while, then back to Hughes’s office, where he was beaten again. Then he went back to a cell, and then back to Hughes’s office a third time, where he was beaten once more. After the last beating, Sweeney confessed (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 512). Sweeney also testified that while he was in custody before his confession he had no time to sleep and was fed a single sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Sweeney’s attorney objected when the state tried to submit his confession into evidence at trial. During a hearing on whether the confession was voluntary, Sergeant Egan testified that he did not harm Sweeney or see anyone else do so. None of the other officers or state’s attorney’s testified. The trial judge, M. L. McKinley, held the confession was voluntary and admitted it into evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed.

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erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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