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).

Partial Vindication

In the fall of 1946, just a few months after the protest over the arrest and mistreatment of Hector Verburgh and Desore Smet, Chicago police arrested Leslie Wakat, twice.

The first time he was taken into custody, Wakat was arrested for “investigation” and held three days until a lawyer filed a petition for habeas corpus on his behalf. After a hearing, a judge ordered that Wakat be released. A few hours later, Wakat was arrested a second time, once again for investigation. After his second arrest, Wakat was taken to Chicago’s Town Hall police station in the Lake View neighborhood.

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Town Hall police station, Chicago (wikimedia.org)

During his second time in custody, the police kept Wakat from his lawyer.  On September 27, three days after he was taken into custody the second time, Wakat confessed to several burglaries. He was tried before a jury, convicted, and sentenced to 10-20 years for burglary based on his confession (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953)).

At trial, Wakat presented evidence that his confession was the result of sustained torture by officers at the Town Hall Station. He testified that after his rearrest he was taken to the scene of his supposed crimes where an officer named Peter Harlib twisted his handcuffed arm behind his back and struck him in the face. According to Wakat, when they returned to the Town Hall Station he was taken to the station gymnasium where several officers beat him with a stick, a sandbag, and blackjacks. After spending some time being interrogated in different offices in the building, Wakat was taken back to the gymnasium and beaten again. Wakat claimed that he lost consciousness during the second beating; the next morning he was shown confessions he was told he had signed the night before, although he had no recollection of doing so (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 612-613).

There was no question that Wakat was injured, severely, while he was in police custody. A doctor at the Cook County jail examined him when he was taken to the jail after being charged. That doctor recorded that Wakat had multiple bruises, a fracture of a bone in his right hand, and injuries to his left leg and knee. Wakat was hospitalized eleven days for his injuries (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 612). At trial, the police officers who testified all swore that no one had injured Wakat. Harlib explained that Wakat’s injuries arose when they both fell down the stairs at the station during a tussle after Wakat reached for Harlib’s gun (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 614).

At trial, the jurors apparently believed the police officers. But more than five years after his original trial, Wakat had his conviction overturned in a post-conviction hearing. At the hearing, Wakat presented evidence that raised questions about whether falling down the stairs would have caused his injuries. He also put on evidence that contradicted Harlib’s claims that he had been injured as well (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 614).The judge hearing the evidence concluded that Harlib’s claims were not believable and that Wakat’s confession had been obtained through torture. That decision was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953)).

Illinois decided not to retry him. Wakat then filed a civil rights claim against the officers in federal court, asserting that because

he had a criminal record he was arrested without a warrant and detained for 6 days without being charged with a crime; thus he was barred from the right to give bail. He was denied the privilege of seeing his attorney. His property and tools were taken from him without legal process. He was coerced by the application of brutal force to sign a confession which was later used in court to convict him, thus compelling him to give evidence against himself in a criminal case.

Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F.2d 59, 64 (7th Circ. 1958).

Wakat was awarded $15,000 (Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F.2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958)). A year later, the ACLU of Chicago discussed Wakat’s case in its report, Secret Detention by the Chicago Police (1959). The report also noted, pointedly, that “no disciplinary action has ever been taken against Harlib by his superiors” (p. 17).

 

Civil liberties and the third degree

The charge that the Chicago police hanged suspects from their wrists during interrogations was repeated during the investigation into the Suzanne Degnan murder, in 1946. Degnan, a six-year-old, went missing from her bedroom on Chicago’s north side in January 1946. The kidnapping case became a murder investigation when parts of her body were discovered in sewer pipes near her family’s home.

Chicago police detectives arrested a number of suspects. One, sixty-five-year-old Hector Verburgh, was the janitor in the Degnan’s building. Another, thirty-five-year-old Desore Smet, was the janitor for a building nearby. Verburgh’s wife was also taken into custody (New York Times, January 9, 1946, p. 1; New York Times, January 10, 1946, p. 42). The Verburghs and Smet were released without charging two days after their arrest, though Smet was arrested and then released a second time a few days (Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1946, p. 1).

On January 24, the Chicago Civil Liberties committee organized a community meeting to protest Verburgh and Smet’s treatment at the hands of the police. The 400 people who attended the event called on the police chief and the mayor to train police officers about the civil rights of suspects and dismiss those officers who used the third degree. The meeting also asked the FBI to investigate Verburgh and Smet’s claims they were subject to the third degree while being interrogated (Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1946, p. 5).

The Verburghs then sued. In their complaint, Hector Verburgh claimed that while he was in custody the police handcuffed his hands behind his back and then

by a rope or other device attached to the handcuffs behind his back, raised his body from the floor until his weight rested on his toes and shoulder sockets, causing intense pain and torture.

(Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1946, p. 4).

The Verburghs’ suit asked for $125,000; they settled their case for $20,000 (Chicago Tribune February 21, 1946, p.1). Smet, who had filed his own suit for $50,000 in damages, was paid just over $5000 in the settlement (Chicago Tribune August 17, 1946, p. 7).