Cleared by an internal investigation

On February 7, 1887, the Chicago Tribune published a chatty interview with James Blake, in custody as a suspect in a jewelry theft. The article opened with Blake asking the reporter if he’d ever gone through “the John D. Shea pumping machine.” When the reporter admitted he had not, Blake described his treatment at Chicago’s Twelfth Street police station:

First, Blake said, Shea took him to a small room off an office and closed the door. Then, after taking out his pistol and put it near to hand, Shea asked Blake if he had committed the jewelry theft. When Blake said no, Shea struck him behind his head so hard that Blake was sent reeling to his knees. Shea left the room briefly; when he returned he continued the violent interrogation. Each time Blake denied that he had been involved, Shea struck and kicked him. This went on, Blake told the friendly reporter, from 1:00 to 5:30 p.m. When Shea was done, Blake’s eyes were black and his lips so swollen he could barely drink water from a cup. Blake said he cried out in pain (a claim that was confirmed by another suspect in custody at the station), but neither Captain O’Donnell nor Detective James Bonfield, who were in the nearby office, interrupted the beating.

When the chief of police, Frederick Ebersold, cast doubt on Blake’s claims the next day, the Tribune became sarcastic. “As Shea has stated at least fifty times,” the paper mused in an editorial, “that he didn’t pound prisoners there must be something in his persistent denials.” The editorial went on,

The probabilities are that there is somebody very much resembling Shea hanging around the police headquarters who has the ugly habit of punching and choking prisoners, the result being to throw discredit on the bluff but not dangerous Lieutenant. If Lieut. Shea were wise he would hunt up this double of his and have him kept out of the Central Station.

The editorial closed with a note that two other officers who had been found guilty of beating another prisoner had just been released from jail. Superintendent Ebersold was still trying to decide, the paper reported, whether to allow the two officers back on the force.

Although grimly amusing, the newspaper’s sarcasm apparently was misplaced. Two days later, the Tribune retracted its earlier story. Faced with an internal report that set out denials by O’Donnell, Shea, and Bonfield, the paper concluded that Blake must have lied and apologized for publishing his claims. A week later, it printed a letter to the editor from Vere V. Hunt, who said he was Blake’s lawyer. Hunt reported that Blake had never told his lawyers that he had been beaten in the station.

With that, Blake’s claims against Lieutenant Shea disappeared. That did not, however, clear up the mystery of what had befallen all those other men that the Tribune reported had claimed they had been beaten and choked by someone who looked a lot like Lieutenant Shea.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1887, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1887, p. 7; Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1887, p. 8; Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1887, 10.

Police torture

What is police torture?

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), equated “confessions obtained by violence” (p. 286) with torture and declared that by either name the practice was unconstitutional. In Chambers v. Florida (1940) the Supreme Court held that in some instances it was torture to when psychological (or mental) pressure was used to obtain a confession.

The view that police torture only occurs during interrogation is fairly standard. In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (usually known as the Wickersham Commission) defined the third degree (which it used as a synonym for torture) as “the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person in order to obtain information about a crime” (Wickersham Commission, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 19). The Commission noted that police in Chicago engaged in “brutal arrests,” but did not include that violence in its analysis of police torture in the city. Courts typically draw a similar distinction between abusive arrests and torture during interrogation, though a few victims have successfully connected violence at the time of arrest and during interrogation into a single claim of torture.

In contrast, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture to include both acts that cause mental or physical pain to obtain information or when law enforcement or instances when government agents engage in the type of vigilante acts that Daniel LaChance aptly calls “street corner justice.” Article 1.1 of the Convention provides:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.