Bright lights, big lies

In 1938, Robert Nixon was arrested in Chicago for the murder of Florence Johnson, the white wife of a Chicago firefighter. Nixon, who was black, was ultimately convicted of Johnson’s murder, chiefly on the basis of his own confession.

At trial, and then on appeal, Nixon and his attorneys claimed that Nixon had been tortured into confessing. Nixon claimed that detectives at police headquarters at 11th and State had beaten him while he hung by his cuffed wrists, threatened to drop him from a open window, and questioned him in a fifth floor room under very hot lights.

Continue reading Bright lights, big lies

Occasional victories

Many of the people who claimed they were tortured by police between 1871 and 1971 were unable to convince jurors or judges at their trials of the truth of their claims. Once convicted, most could not afford to bring an appeal, and few of those who could appeal were able to convince the appellate judges to reverse their convictions.  But every so often, a person who claimed to have been tortured into confessing to a crime in Chicago did win.

In September 1946, Leslie Wakat was arrested by Chicago police officers at the Town Hall police station on suspicion of being involved in an arson and burglary at the Lakeview Tool and Die Company in Chicago.

At trial, Wakat and his attorneys tried to keep his confession out of evidence on the ground that he had been tortured into confessing. In his testimony, Wakat described abuse that went on for several hours: He said he was taken to the scene of the time by several officers, and while there had his handcuffed arms twisted behind his back by Officer Harlib and hit in the face several times. Once back at the Town Hall station, he was beaten for half an hour by several officers using a blackjack, a sandbag, and a stick. Then, after a brief period in several other offices in the station, he was taken back to the first room, and beaten until he lost consciousness. He claimed that officers  revived him with whisky and, while he was intoxicated, had him sign a statement. At trial, the officers (and attorneys) present during Wakat’s interrogations denied that anyone beat him. One officer, Suckow, testified at trial that Wakat fell down the stairs; another officer, Harlib, testified that he and Wakat both fell down a flight of stairs as a result of a scuffle at the station. At trial, the jury did not believe Wakat; he was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.

Though it took more than a decade, Wakat ultimately managed to convince four different courts to listen to and accept his claims.

  1. Several years after his conviction, Wakat filled a post conviction petition before Judge Graber of the Cook County courts. In his petition, Wakat asked to have his conviction overturned because his constitutional rights were violated when the police coerced his confession and because police offered perjured testimony at his trial. After a hearing, Judge Graber ruled for Wakat and ordered the state to give him a new trial.
  2.  That decision was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953),  in an opinion written by Justice Walter V. Schaefer. Justice Schaefer noted that “there is neither doubt nor denial that [Wakat] sustained serious injuries while in police custody after his arrest.” (p. XX). Schaefer pointed to the testimony of a county jail physician, who saw Wakat on September 27, three days after his arrest, and described Wakat as having bruises, a broken hand, and injuries to his leg and knee. Wakat had to be hospitalized for more than ten days for those injuries.
  3. After the state decided not to retry Wakat, he sued and won damages against the arresting officers in a federal civil rights case.
  4. That verdict was affirmed on appeal by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F. 2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958).

A year later, the ACLU of Illinois published a booklet called Secret Detention by the Chicago Police (1959). Wakat’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chicago police was one of the subjects of that study.

 

The stomach pump, continued

The “so-called stomach pump” that O’Neill referred to, was not the familiar process (also know as gastric lavage) used on people who ingest poison or overdose. Rather, it was a form of torture known more frequently as the water cure.

Police at the turn of the century actually used several techniques that were known as the water cure: Sometimes, officers dumped a bucket of cold water on a suspect or prisoner. A matron at the Deplaines Avenue police station was charged with doing this to two people in custody in June 1903. First, she poured six buckets of cold water on an elderly woman, then, when another, male prisoner protested, she poured another bucket full of water on his. The matron was brought before the police board on charges of misconduct; it is unclear whether she was actually punished (Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1903, p. 8). Other times, officers turned a hose on their victim, as the police in Evanston did in 1904 (Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1904, p. 14).

Pumping was something else entirely. It involved pouring water, using a hose, funnel, tube, or water faucet, down a person’s throat (through either the mouth or nostrils) at a steady rate. The procedure distended the person’s stomach, usually causing such severe cramps and pain that the person agreed to confess (Peters, Torture, p. 167). Taken too far, it could lead to water intoxication or death.

The practice had been used during the Spanish Inquisition (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, 279-280). It was revived during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was used by the United States Army against insurgents (McCoy, Policing America’s Empire, p. 89). In his study of modern torture, Darius Rejali speculated that U. S. troops learned about the water cure from Filipinos, who had learned it during Spanish colonial rule (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, 279-280).

Other evidence suggests the lessons could have been learned closer to home. During the hearing at the court martial for Major Edwin Glenn, who was later found guilty of using the water cure on Filipinos and suspended for a month as punishment, defense lawyers argued that the water cure was not that bad. As proof, they noted that police departments in the United States used it on suspects (Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1902, pg. 16). Glenn’s lawyers were, however, prevented from offering evidence that the New York City police department used the water cure on suspects in the 1890s (New York Times, June 11, 1902, p. 1).

If New York was using the water cure in the 1890s, the Chicago police department may have been using it earlier and continued to use it longer. One paper reported that at least one of the suspects arrested in Chicago’s Trunk Murder case in the 1880s was subjected to a “steady pumping” by police to try to get him to confess (Chicago Herald, May 10, 1885, p. 9). In 1907, during a debate in the Illinois General Assembly over a bill intended to set limits on police interrogation techniques, Representative B.M. Chiperfield said that he had heard complaints that police in Illinois major cities, which obviously included Chicago, inserted hoses into prisoner’s mouths and then turned on the water pressure to force people to confess (Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1907, pg. 6). Notwithstanding Chipperfield’s concern, the bill did not pass.

“‘The stomach pump’ as it is sometimes called”

A few hours before dawn in late August, 1903, three masked men entered the Chicago City railroad car barn at 61st and State in Chicago. They demanded the crew open the safe and turn over its contents; when the men refused, the robbers opened fire. The three rail employees at the barn, J.B. Johnson, Frank Stewart, and William Edmonds, were all wounded. Johnson and Stewart died not long after the attack. Their assailants escaped with several thousand dollars in cash (Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1903, p. 1).

For the next several months, as police searched for the men who became known as the car barn bandits, other crimes were laid at their door. Finally, in late November, the police arrested four men and charged them with the car barn murders, the killing of a police officer, and other crimes. Although the police had initially claimed that the car barn robbery was the work of experienced criminals, the four arrested, Gustav Marx, Harvey Van Dine, Peter Neidermeier, and Emil Roeski, were so young that most news accounts called them boys (New York Times, December 1, 1903, p. 6).

Three of them, Marx, Neidermeier, and Van Dine, were put on trial for the murder of Frank Stewart in January and February 1904; the fourth, Roeski, was tried a few months later. At the end of the first trial, all three of the defendants were found guilty, and each was sentenced to death (New York Times, March 13, 1904, p. 10). They were hanged in late April (New York Times, April 22, 1904, p. 3). Roeski subsequently was found guilty of the murder of Otto Bauder. Although he also was sentenced to death, Roeski’s sentence ultimately was commuted to life imprisonment.

Those convictions rested on a series of confessions, most notably the confessions of Gustav Marx. In November, Marx was arrested after shooting officer Quinn in a saloon. Quinn’s partner, William Blaul, shot Marx, hitting him in the shoulder and hip, and then took him into custody. At the Sheffield Avenue station, Marx confessed and implicated the others in the car barn robbery , several saloon holdups, and the murders of six men: Otto Bauder, murdered during one saloon hold up; Adolph Johnson and B. C. Gross, murdered in a second saloon holdup; James Johnson and Francis Stewart, murdered during the car barn robbery; and detective John Quinn, murdered while trying to arrest Marx. In addition, Marx confessed to wounding two other employees at the car barn, Henry Biehl and William Edmond; Peter Gorski, shot during one of the saloon robberies, and T. W. Lathrop, shot during a robbery at another car barn in July (Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1903, p. 1). When they heard of his arrest, his companions fled the city. They were arrested several days later after a desperate shoot out in northwest Indiana. Detective Driscoll was killed during the gun fight.

It seemed to be a successful prosecution of some remarkably vicious young men. But in a special section of his annual report for 1903, Francis O’Neill, the General Superintendent of the Chicago Police, made it clear the process of bringing the young men to justice was a complicated one. Marx, he explained, had to be subjected to “a rigid examination” by Assistant Chief Schuettler and others at the Sheffield station. That examination lasted Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, when “late at night” Marx finally broke down and confessed that he was involved in several murders, including the car barn killings. O’Neill went on:

Right here I wish to remark that there are carping critics of this department who maintain that to ‘sweat’ or persistently interrogate a prisoner is barbarous and that such a practice should be abolished. All I care to say in reply is, that if ‘the stomach pump,’ as it is sometimes called, had not been applied to Marx he never would have confessed to complicity I the raid on the car barn; neither would he have ‘squealed’ on his accomplices in that and several other crimes. 1903 Report of the General Superintendent of Police of the City of Chicago (p. 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).

Reclaiming a Lost History

Between 1871, the year of the Chicago Fire, and 1971, hundreds of people claimed they were tortured as part of a criminal investigation in Chicago. The recent history of torture in Chicago is well known, but the history of those older claims has been lost. That loss limits our understanding of more recent claims and our ability to adequately respond to them.

This blog is designed to help reclaim that lost history. It builds on my recent book, Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (NIU Press, 2016), expanding on that study to record the individual stories of the claims of torture and the people who made them.