The country seems especially divided over the 2016 race for president. But there was a time in Illinois history when division led to bloodshed over political campaigns.
Essay — Exercising your right to vote on Election Day and campaigning for your preferred candidates are usually safe, low-risk endeavors. But in the first half of the 20th Century it wasn’t always peaceful. Politicians were threatened, bombs were thrown and gunshots fired. In Chicago and in other rough towns, some candidates and their supporters fought with their fists, and then with guns and bombs. In some elections, even before the votes were tallied, the political combatants were counted among the wounded and the dead.
In the second half of the century, violence occasionally erupted during election season, although it was less deadly and much less frequent.
This month, watching a Secret Service agent attack a photographer at a Donald Trump rally and seeing Trump order protesters forcefully removed from an assembly, makes one think that the political violence of our past, isn’t past. It’s just around the corner or quietly festering under the surface.
Jac Charlier got a reminder of that on one Thursday afternoon early last month. Charlier, a criminal justice consultant and community activist, is running in the Democratic primary for State Representative in the 15th Legislative District on the far northwest side of Chicago. His opponent is Chicago Democratic Rep. John D’Amico.
At 12:45 p.m., a Chicago Department of Water Management van with two city workers inside pulled up and parked in front of Charlier’s campaign office. “I was immediately suspicious,” Charlier said in a phone interview, not only because, the workers were staring menacingly at his office but also because his opponent has a second government job as district superintendent for the Water Management Department.
Concerned for the safety of two female volunteers who were with him and wanting to document the encounter, Charlier began taking photos of the van and its occupants. Then, he says, one of the workers yelled, “That’s how guys get hurt.”
Charlier said he went into the office to call the police and was soon followed by one of the guys from the van who held the office door open and briefly stepped inside intending, apparently, to intimidate the two volunteers. Later Charlier filed complaints with the F.B.I. and the Chicago Inspector General. The IG’s office, Charlier said, should be especially concerned because two city employees on city time and using a city vehicle, were engaged in brutish political activity, which was very likely illegal.
D’Amico’s campaign denied any involvement in the incident. He told DNAinfo Chicago that he “would never condone the kind of behavior alleged by my opponent.” The city says the workers were in the area servicing water meters and denies the confrontation was politically motivated. “They had no idea it was Charlier’s headquarters, and they got a little defensive when they were questioned,” said Gary Litherland, a city spokesman. “These crews go through bad neighborhoods. Sometimes they have to watch their backs.”
Certainly by Chicago’s historical standards, the encounter reported by Charlier doesn’t rank very high on the intimidation-and-violence scale. He said he felt threatened as did his volunteers. And, he believed the threats were designed to discourage him and his workers from campaigning enthusiastically. Activists, who know some history, also know that something much more serious could have happened that Thursday.
One of the more violent episodes in the history of Chicago’s political campaigns was described by James L. Merriner in his provocative 2004 book, Grafters and Goo Goos. Merriner writes:
“In the primary of February 1921, bombs were exploded successively at meetings of people supporting Anthony D’Andrea, a nonpartisan opponent of Ald. Johnny Powers; at the home of a man whose son-in-law worked for D’Andrea, and finally at the headquarters of the candidate himself. These detonations might have been recriminatory. Powers’s home had been bombed months earlier, after which he posted a constant armed guard. In March, two supporters of Powers were killed. In May, D’Andrea was ambushed and killed with a shotgun.”
Seven years later in the run-up to the 1928 Republican Primary, a shooting and bombing war, dubbed the Pineapple Primary, broke out between an insurgent Republican faction, thought to be reformers, and Mayor Big Bill Thompson’s corrupt team, which was funded by gangster Al Capone.
An explosion rocked the home of Mayor Thompson’s city comptroller, and then a bomb hit the home of the commissioner of public service. These were followed by the bombing of a funeral home operated by a former prosecutor and an apartment building owned by the state’s attorney’s secretary.
A detailed and colorful account of the Pineapple Primary appears in author Jonathan Eig’s 2010 book, Get Capone. Eig explains that pineapple was a common slang term for the small grenade-like bombs that were deployed in the attack in 1928 on the powerful Thompson regime.
In response, Thompson’s people delivered a career-ending political threat to Diamond Joe Esposito, a restaurant owner who had been persuaded to run against Thompson’s guy for 19th Ward Republican committeeman. They first told Esposito to get out of the race. Then, Eig writes, he received a phone call, “Get out of town or get killed.” Political and business pressure kept Esposito in the race. One evening after walking and chatting with neighbors, Esposito approached his home and was cut down by a shotgun blast. Then a second shot finished the job. Two days later a witness to the shooting was shot three times in the back of the head.
The insurgent “reformers” had some victories in the Republican Pineapple Primary including the defeat of the pro-Thompson state’s attorney and the unseating of Thompson in his re-election bid for ward committeeman. However, Big Bill continued to serve as mayor until the end of his term in 1931.
Fallout from the primary, as told by Merriner, included the “indictment of 20 persons for assault, kidnapping, and conspiracy to murder, along with routine charges of vote fraud.” Sixteen defendants were convicted including a state senator and nine other office holders.
The general election, though, was clean and peaceful, and the credit for that should go Al Capone, according to a 2011 news feature. Chicago Tribune reporters Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer wrote that “After the bloody primary, Chicago Crime Commission founder Frank Loesch visited Capone and demanded he stop the violence. Capone’s response? “‘All right. I’ll have the cops send over squad cars the night before the election and jug all the hoodlums and keep ‘em in the cooler until the polls close.’”
Today, these Prohibition-Era political killings sound very familiar to the news coming out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Middle Eastern hot spots in the 21st Century have a few similarities to Chicago in the late 1920s. The political fights are deadly, and to quote Jonathan Eig on the 1928 primary, “the lines between the parties — between the good guys and the bad guys — had been hopelessly tangled.”
After Prohibition was repealed and Capone left the scene, election-related violence subsided but did not completely disappear.
In 1947, on the day he filed for the first time to run for alderman of the 47th Ward, John J. Hoellen walked to his car in front of his home. He was greeted by a shotgun blast that tore off a section of his overcoat. He wasn’t hurt, and he survived to win the election. Hoellen, a Republican, was re-elected six times and served until 1975.
In the following two years, there were additional political murders. A candidate for clerk of the circuit court was hacked to death and, in Cicero, the township assessor was shot to death outside his home.
One of the most mysterious political murders was that of Benjamin Lewis, an African-American Democratic committeeman of Chicago’s 24th Ward. The day after Lewis easily won his first election as alderman, he was found dead in his west side office, handcuffed to a chair and shot three times in the head. Lewis’ office was in the Lawndale community, which had changed from 100 percent Jewish to 90 percent black. According to Robert M. Lombardo, an associate professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago, Lewis had “attempted to ease out white precinct captains and had been talking about taking a larger share of the ward’s gambling money. In his book Organized Crime in Chicago, Lombardo wrote that Lewis also was supporting a popular betting policy wheel’s efforts to remain independent of crime syndicate control.
Unfortunately, political thuggery continued in Chicago.
On November 1, 1982, the day before Election Day, Chicago Democratic Rep. Arthur Turner and two of his campaign workers were hanging campaign signs when they were approached by aides to Ald. William Carothers. The aides drew guns and threatened to beat them if they continued their campaign work. Turner and his crew were confronted again later that day by the same men who physically attacked them. One of Turner’s aides suffered broken bones and severe injuries to the side of his head. In 1984, the attackers were acquitted of the beating charges but Turner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. A year later a federal judge ordered Ald. Carothers and two of his sons to pay $152,000 to Turner and his aides for threatening and beating up a political opponent and his allies.
On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1983, Chicago was caught up in a racially tense political campaign for mayor between Harold Washington, an African-American congressman, and Bernard Epton, a white Republican state representative from Chicago. A month earlier, Washington defeated incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley in a hard fought primary battle for the Democratic nomination. Both Byrne and Daley were white, and both had deep roots in the city’s Democratic Machine. Many of Chicago’s white political leaders quickly endorsed Epton in an effort to thwart the election of a Black mayor.
On that Sunday a week before the election, Washington — after previously securing an invitation from the pastor — showed up to attend Mass at St. Pascal Catholic Church on the city’s northwest side. He was accompanied by former Vice President Walter Mondale and a large contingent of local and national media reporters. Washington arrived late and was greeted outside the church by an angry jeering mob of hundreds of white protestors telling him to go away. “Washington, you got no business in my church,” one of the protestors yelled.
According to one report, the congressman briefly entered the church but quickly left because the service was well underway and the noise from outside was disruptive. Police had to clear a path so Washington could get to his car.
A priest from St. Pascal told news reporters that he only recognized one or two of the protestors as St. Pascal parishioners. On Monday, in the Chicago Tribune’s front-page story, the protestors were described as heckling and jeering Epton supporters. The news media described the St. Pascal protest as an ugly racial incident that might have spun out of control. But there were no reports of punches thrown or other violence. However, with previous political violence still lodged in the collective memory, such events if witnessed by the news media, are likely to garner considerable public attention.
One of the more inventive uses of election-day intimidation and threats of violence was recalled by Oak Park-based election lawyer Richard Means. In a telephone interview, Means described a tactic used by campaign aides for 26th Ward Aldermanic candidate Manuel Torres in a special election in 1986 against first-time candidate, Luis Gutierrez.
Means, who lived in Chicago in 1986, said that on Election Day, Torres campaign workers would go to the precincts where Gutierrez, who was backed by Harold Washington, was heavily favored. The Torres workers would taunt and intimidate the Gutierrez workers and cause a ruckus. They would draw a crowd of onlookers and try to make the hubbub last as long as they could. The police would be called. When the officers arrived they observed campaign workers milling around, not physically fighting, but arguing loudly. The police would make no arrests. The Torres workers would leave and go to another precinct.
Means said the Torres team aimed to create a scene so voters would turn away from the polling place rather than walk past or around a loud, obnoxious gaggle of ruffians. The tactic was cleverly designed to suppress those who might vote for Gutierrez. And, it may have worked initially. On March 18, Gutierrez beat Torres by 20 votes. However a third candidate received 20 write-in votes, causing Gutierrez’s tally to fall just short of the 50 percent plus one that he needed to win. In a run-off, Gutierrez beat Torres by 1,000 votes. Gutierrez served six years in Chicago’s City Council and went on to be elected 11 times as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Torres’ supporters may have stopped short of physical altercations that time, but Gutierrez was the victim of an earlier violent attack, which he believes was tied to politics. In 1984, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window of his home in the middle of the night. The Gutierrez family was able to get out of the house to safety. No suspects were ever charged with the crime. Gutierrez has said in interviews with the media that he might have been targeted because he disregarded instructions from local Democratic Party leaders and backed Washington over Epton in the mayoral race the previous year.
So, as many candidates and campaign managers have learned, sticks and stones can break your bones. So too can guns and bombs. They also learned that words can hurt, especially threats of violence, either direct or implied. Those words can discourage candidates and campaign workers and frighten voters.
That’s why even in the 21st Century, smart campaigns keep handy the telephone numbers of their local police, the county state’s attorney, and the nearest U.S. attorney.
Thomas J. Gradel is a freelance writer and co-author with Dick Simpson of Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality, published in 2015 by the University of Illinois Press. Previously Gradel was a political media consultant for candidates, labor unions and nonprofit organizations. He is a member of the National Writers Union.