A disgrace to civilization

In 1913, William Kirk, a realtor, was arrested for driving with a missing tail light and taken to Chicago’s 22nd Street police station. While he waited for the paper work on his arrest to be processed, Kirk watched a police officer, later identified as Peter Bronson, bring a young man into the station. Bronson, the young man, and a second police officer, who was later identified as William Sammons, went into a nearby office and one of the officers shut the door. Within seconds, Kirk heard thuds and screams coming from behind the closed door. The noises continued for nearly ten minutes; they stopped only when the police lieutenant, Michael Morrissey, went into the office and, according to Kirk, told Bronson and Simmons to “Take that man to a cell if you want to do any beating” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).

Kirk, who said he followed Morrissey over to the office, looked in and saw the young man on his hands and knees while the two officers were kicking him (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).

The Chicago police department opened an investigation after Kirk filled a formal complaint about what he saw at the station. Captain Ryan, of the 22nd Street station, was ordered to prepare a report.

Predictably, there were two very different versions of what transpired.

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Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p. 7

The young man who was arrested, Fred Haas, a telegraph operator who worked for Armour & Company, claimed that he was arrested by Bronson at the corner of Clark and 18th streets. Haas said Bronson stopped him because he thought Haas was Robert Webb, a bandit wanted for murder, and then arrested him when he found Haas was carrying a billy club for protection. Haas also said that Bronson was drunk when he made the arrest. Haas’s account was corroborated by Joseph Schmidt, who was with him when he was arrested (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3). Charles Sullivan, the man who shared a cell with Haas the evening of his arrest, confirmed that Haas was in bad shape when he was taken to the cell: blood covered his face and his clothing was torn (Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1913, p. 6).

While the accounts offered by Haas and Schmidt suggested a mistaken arrest gone very much awry, the police story set out in Captain Ryan’s report on the case hinted at interracial, perhaps homosexual, vice. Officer Bronson told Ryan he arrested Haas, who was white and described in the press as “slim” and “rather weak physically,” at a “negro resort,” a euphemism for a gambling spot often frequented by prostitutes female or male. The resort, according to Bronson, was at 17th and Dearborn streets, at the edge of Chicago’s notorious Levee District (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3).

As one might expect, the police also denied beating Haas. Officer Bronson claimed that Haas had to be subdued after he resisted arrest, and then again at the station after Haas “became stubborn” when they tried to take him to the cell. But Bronson was sure that nothing else was done to Haas during his arrest or time at the station. (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7).

For some reason, Ryan did not interview either Lieutenant Morrissey or Officer Sammons for his report.

The story quickly became complicated: The Chicago Tribune asked why the police claimed that Haas was arrested for making a disturbance at a resort in an area that the police department claimed had been cleaned of vice. That paper (along with Haas’s attorney) also wondered why no “inmates” of the resort had been arrested with Haas (Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3; Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1913, p. 11). Meanwhile, Charles Thompson, alderman for the 25th Ward, demanded Chicago’s city council investigate the “torture chamber” methods used at the 22nd Street station. “The attack on young Haas was one of the more brutal affairs ever brought to my attention,” the alderman explained,

and it is nearly (sic) time that something be done to protect citizens from outrages of this kind. It is a disgrace to civilization and gives the city a bad name. It isn’t the first time I have heard of brutal police and their tactics. I will do everything in my power to oust men of this type” (Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1913, p. 2).

But then, after all the fury, very little happened. Haas pled guilty to carrying a concealed weapon (the billy club) and was fined $25 (Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1913, p. 12).  And the alderman on the city council voted not to hold an investigation on police use of the use of the third degree. Twenty alderman voted in favor of holding an investigation; 35 voted against doing so (Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1913, p. 6).

The Goldfish Room

Chicago police arrested Edmund Fitch, a composer who supported himself playing the organ at Chicago’s Stratford Theater, in January 1923 and charged him with car theft. Fitch quickly confessed, claiming (much to the amusement of local papers) that the thefts had been prompted by his love of beautiful women (Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1923, p. 10).

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Stratford Theater from cinematreasures.org

The amusement quickly ended. A day later Fitch appeared in front of the Chicago City Council, and told the alderman that he “confessed” only after police officers at the detective bureau beat him with a rubber hose. Fitch took off his shirt in the council chamber, revealing bruises and abrasions on his left side,  contusions on his face, and a left hand so swollen that he was unable to work (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1923, p. 7).

A representative from the police department auto unit tried to convince the alderman that Fitch had been injured before his arrest, and told the arresting officer that he had fallen off a park bench. Alderman were skeptical, and outraged. At the end of the hearing, the chief of police promised to let Fitch try to identify the officers who beat him. The Chicago Tribune quoted the chief as telling the city council that he was “not in favor of beating prisoners” and that he would do his “best to stop it” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1923, p. 7).

The next day, Fitch viewed a photo array and identified William Cox, a detective sergeant, as the man who beat him. Fitch also picked out several other officers who watched the beating. Fitch also described being told he was being taken to what the detectives called “the gold fish room” for his beating (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1923, 1). Cox and several other officers were quickly indicted and the city council unanimously passed a resolution directing the chief of police suspend

any officer or officers who may be indicted for cruelty to any prisoner or prisoners

before they were tried. The resolution also demanded that the police department engage in a complete investigation into charges of police cruelty (Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1923, p. 3).

The police department promptly suspended Cox and the other two officers that Fitch had identified. The three were released on bond (Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1923, p.3; Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1923, p. 14). But outrage about the incident quickly was overwhelmed by political bickering at the city council (Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1923, 2). By November 1923, Cox was back on the job and involved in the investigation into the murder of Edward Lehman during a robbery (Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1923, 1).