Related claims

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: Chicago Inter-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.

 

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.

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).