Fifty-five years ago, in 1962, a trial based on civil rights claim filed by James and Flossie Monroe began in the federal district court in Chicago. The suit sought damages against five Chicago police officers: Lieutenant Frank Pape, Captain Howard Pierson, Sergeant Edward Cagney, and detectives John Bosquette and Edward Bray. At the end of the trial the jury awarded the Monroes $13,000, which would be worth just over $104,000 in 2017.
Although recognized as an important civil rights case, Monroe v. Pape should be remembered as a police torture claim as well.
In late summer 1902, a range of people from judges to civic leaders to everyday citizens spoke out against use of the sweatbox in Chicago. Their reaction was prompted by stories of Oscar Thompson’s treatment at the hands of Chicago’s police (Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1902, p. 1;Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1902, p. A2).
What was the sweatbox? It was not so much a thing as a process. According to the Chicago Tribune, Thompson was questioned by police for more than a week, some days for several hours on end. During that period, he was yelled at, lied to, and kept from friends, family or legal help. At least once, police deliberately kept him awake all night to try to exhaust him to the point he would talk (Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1902, p.1).
Thompson was arrested so that he could be questioned about the brutal murder of Annie Bartholin. But Thompson was not the suspect; police thought Mrs. Bartholin’s son William had killed her and his fiancé, Minnie Mitchell. Thompson, who had boarded with the Bartholin family for more than twenty years, was just being questioned as a witness. And questioned he was. Over the next several days, as some police officers continued the search for William Batholin, Inspector Hunt and others subjected Thompson to the “severe ordeal of questioning” that prompted public ire (Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1902, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1902, p.1).
But while Jane Addams, several criminal court judges, and other Chicagoans were quoted in articles deploring police use of sweatbox methods, Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Jr., was not persuaded. On the contrary, the Tribune quoted him as saying:
I think the main thing for the police to do is arrest offenders against the law. I suppose in using the sweatbox method of getting confessions, our police are using the methods and precedents established here and in other large cities (Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1902, p. A2).
Chicago’s police chief, Francis O’Neill, tried to offer reassurance. “Do you know what Chicago police do in questioning a suspect?” he asked.
They take him into a pleasant room and sit about and ask questions. It’s the same thing that the state’s attorney does, only he puts sharper points on his questions than we can. It’s exceedingly pleasant and if it is not a sociable affair, that is the fault of the prisoner, and not the police (Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1902, p. 36).
But even though O’Neill said he was not “in favor of torture,” he admitted that sometimes the police were “justified in stretching the law to its limit” in particularly serious cases. “While the police sometimes may not keep wholly within the law in these matters,” he added, “they aim to do so, and when they do stretch the law at times, then it must be remembered they do so in good cause. And we have the color of authority, also,” he added, returning to his earlier point, “because the methods we use in questioning prisoners are also used by the state’s attorney” (Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1902, p. 36).
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 YorkTimes, 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).