Cleared by an internal investigation

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.

Published by

erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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