Another claim involving the water cure arose in 1962. Alex Gordon, along with several other Black men, was arrested in Chicago and accused of kidnapping. Before trial, his attorney, James Montgomery, claimed that the officers in the detective division who interrogated Gordon tortured him in an effort to make him confess. Speaking for his client, Montgomery charged the police pointed a gun at him during interrogation, hung him from his wrists until his skin peeled, and held his head under water for long periods (Chicago Defender, March 3, 1962, p. 2; Chicago Defender, May 9, 1962, p. 5). Four men were indicted for the crime; three pled guilty and the fourth was found guilty of robbery. Gordon was not among them (Chicago Tribune, October 30, 1962, p. 4).
In the early evening of January 1, 1966, Chicago police officers arrested Fred Alexander and another man. The two, both of whom were Black, were taken to Area 1 headquarters.
At trial, Alexander testified that the officers cuffed him to a chair in the basement of the station and left him there for three hours. When they finally returned, the officers questioned Alexander about two recent robberies, one of which had involved the shooting of a bystander. Alexander testified that when he denied that he was involved, one of the officers hit him across the nose so hard he fell off the chair he was cuffed to. Then the officers kicked him and began to beat him with their fists and sticks. Alexander said that when he continued to deny that he was involved in the robberies, the officers took him to a nearby water fountain. There, they held his head under water three or four times.
At that point, Alexander confessed. Strangely, that confession was never reduced to writing. Instead, police officers testified about their memory of his oral confession at his trial. The only other evidence linking Alexander to the crimes was a gun that was found on the roof of Alexander’s apartment building. Other evidence presented at trial established that the gun, which was identified as the weapon used during the robberies, belonged to the man Alexander had been arrested with.
Alexander challenged his confession at his trial, arguing that it had been coerced by torture. To support his motion to suppress, he described his mistreatment at the hands of the police. He also offered testimony from the other man who had been arrested with him and a doctor from Provident Hospital, who treated him that evening. Both testified that they saw lacerations on Alexander’s face after his interrogation. The doctor also testified that he sutured a laceration on Alexander’s forehead. In addition, Alexander offered into evidence the “Inmate’s Record” that was prepared by an intake officer at Cook County Jail when Alexander was admitted following his interrogation. That official document recorded that at the time he was admitted to the jail Alexander had a cut on his left cheek and a “hemorrhage in the rt. eye–bad.”
The police officers who testified denied that anyone struck or otherwise abused Alexander. The judge, John Fitzgerald, who heard the case without a jury, denied the motion to suppress the confession. He found Alexander guilty and sentenced him to 1-5 years in prison.
On appeal, the First District Appellate Court reversed the verdict, relying on the “established rule that where an accused suffers injuries while in police custody, clear and convincing proof is required to establish that injuries are not the result of police brutality.” (Illinois v. Alexander, 96 Ill. App. 2d 113, 119-120 (1st Dist. 1968)). That court concluded that the police had failed to offer sufficient proof they had not caused Alexander’s injuries.
The image of a suspect being questioned under a bright, hot light is the stuff of film noir movies like Laura where the protagonist was questioned under the steady beam of bright lights in the interrogation room, screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, and even a Seinfeld episode.
But interrogation under blinding hot lights was not just a cinematic metaphor that became a joke, the Wickersham Commission reported that police in Memphis, Tennessee interrogated a reporter under bright lights in 1931 (Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 256). The practice seems to have been used in Chicago, as well, where Robert Nixon was not the only suspect in the years before World War II to claim he was interrogated under hot lights. Frank Kolesiak, suspected in an arson case, said he was interrogated under hot lights by a Fire Marshall in 1938 (Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1938). Two years later, Carl Ericsson said that the police officers at the East Chicago station shackled him to a chair and questioned him under bright, hot lights (Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1940).
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- After the state decided not to retry Wakat, he sued and won damages against the arresting officers in a federal civil rights case.
- 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 “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.
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).