Goldfish & prairies

The “goldfish room,” which figured so prominently in Edmund Fitch‘s claim of police torture in 1923,  also played a role when the police interrogated James Sweeney in 1921. Sweeney, along with Harry Bartlett and several others, had been arrested and convicted for bombing the Beehive Laundry Company during a labor dispute (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502 (1922)).

At trial, Sweeney testified he was interrogated at length by Chicago police officers at the detective bureau and at the state’s attorney’s office. After being held for more than a day at the Brighton Park police station, Sweeney was taken to police chief Fitzmorris’s office for an hour, and then to the state’s attorney’s office. He remained at the state’s attorney’s office for most of the night; he was interrogated there for roughly four hours by two assistant state’s attorneys, Charles Wharton and Milton Smith, and the chief of detectives, Michael Hughes. Then he was taken to a cell, where he stayed less than half an hour before three officers took him to chief Hughes’s office. As they escorted, the officers told Sweeney they were going to show him the goldfish (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511-512).

As the Illinois Supreme Court put it, “They showed him the goldfish, which was a beating.”

They dragged him around by his hair and started beating him with a rubber hose. He said that Chief Hughes beat him, and two or three other officers who he did not know by name; that [police sergeant] Egan was there at the time and used his fist; that he could recognize the other two officers and had seen one of them in the courtroom since the trial started, — that is, one beside Egan. He said they told him to come clean and tell everything he knew, and plenty besides, or be found out in some prairie (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511).

Still Sweeney did not confess, so they took him back to a cell for a while, then back to Hughes’s office, where he was beaten again. Then he went back to a cell, and then back to Hughes’s office a third time, where he was beaten once more. After the last beating, Sweeney confessed (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 512). Sweeney also testified that while he was in custody before his confession he had no time to sleep and was fed a single sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Sweeney’s attorney objected when the state tried to submit his confession into evidence at trial. During a hearing on whether the confession was voluntary, Sergeant Egan testified that he did not harm Sweeney or see anyone else do so. None of the other officers or state’s attorney’s testified. The trial judge, M. L. McKinley, held the confession was voluntary and admitted it into evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed.

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).