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.