March 7, 2013
The assassinated Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died 80 years ago this week, is often portrayed by official histories as just an innocent victim of bad luck and bad aim.
But Chicagoans don't believe in coincidences, not even us chumbolones, especially when coincidences involve Chicago politics and the Chicago Outfit.
"It is interesting, is it not?" asked Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, dean of the Chicago City Council and a guest Wednesday on the WLS-AM talk show I co-host with Lauren Cohn. "There was no mention of that historic event of eight decades ago in this morning's papers."
Burke is the council historian. When it comes to Chicago politics, he knows where the bodies are buried. And he believes — as do I — that the Outfit killed Cermak to send a message.
Many historians say that a crazed and short-statured anti-capitalist assassin from Italy stood on a wobbly chair, aimed at President Franklin Roosevelt in Miami and missed, hitting Cermak.
"Well, maybe the chumbolones, John, believe this was not a Chicago mob hit," Burke said. "But most people who've examined the facts surrounding it would believe that Anton Cermak met his untimely demise at the hands of Frank Nitti and the Chicago mob."
Burke reminds us that Cermak's hand-picked police bodyguards tried to murder mob kingpin Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti. They shot Nitti three times, but failed to kill him. And a few months later in Miami, on Feb. 15, 1933, while standing some distance from Roosevelt, Cermak was gunned down. Cermak died of his wounds March 6.
A mere 14 days after Cermak's death, gunman Giuseppe Zangara, "the man with the burning eyes," was executed in the arms of "Old Sparky," the famed electric chair of the Florida State Prison at Raiford.
Fourteen days? If that isn't swift justice the Chicago Way, what is?
"It's not a well-known story," Burke said. "It begins, of course, with the election of Anton Cermak as mayor of Chicago in 1931. He defeated 'Big Bill' Thompson, the last Republican mayor to serve the city of Chicago."
Thompson was a walking political cartoon, a boob, a tool of the blustery Al Capone and Capone's right-hand man — the real boss — the silent Paul "The Waiter" Ricca.
Thompson once threatened to punch the king of England in the nose, but he took orders from the Outfit the way a dog takes biscuits. He detested immigrants, particularly Bohemians, Poles, Greeks, Jews and Italians (at least those who didn't give him orders).
Cermak, a Bohemian immigrant, appealed to these factions belittled by Thompson. "Pushcart Tony" Cermak wasn't some mouse, but a tough guy in his own right, widely considered to have made his pile of cash as a bootlegger. He also had amazing leadership skills, able to tame what I've long called the city of tribes.
He organized the warring immigrants into the Chicago Democratic machine. As he did, Roosevelt was playing politics in the big cities, trying to reshape Democratic politics in his image.
The fictional mayor played by Kelsey Grammer in the Starz network's now-canceled "Boss" also talked of the tribes of Chicago. In one scene, he stood on the roof of City Hall, delivering an awesome, almost Shakespearean soliloquy.
But what the fictional mayor and the Cermak-as-accidental-victim histories ignore is the name of Chicago police Detective Harry Lang.
"After Cermak became mayor he inherited a police security detail," Burke said. "And not very long into his term, on Dec. 19, 1932, two Chicago police sergeants (detectives at the time) assigned to Cermak's personal security detail barged into Room 554 at 221 N. LaSalle St. in Chicago's downtown. One of those police sergeants, Lang, shot Frank Nitti in cold blood, wounding him three times."
By then, Capone was in federal prison. Nitti was the new frontman. Ricca, as always, stood in the shadows.
Lang and Sgt. Harry Miller believed they were conducting a preemptive hit to protect Cermak. But they made two mistakes. They shot but didn't kill Nitti.
"The second mistake," said Burke, "as they were walking into the building, they waved to a uniformed Chicago police officer who was directing traffic out on LaSalle Street and had that officer, (Chris) Callahan, come with them to the office."
They shot Nitti in the back, neck and chest. Lang suffered a flesh wound, though Callahan later testified that Lang shot himself in the arm to make it look like self-defense.
"He must have shot himself," Callahan testified.
Lang was later indicted, but the charges disappeared after Cermak's death. Nitti failed to show up in court, and according to "The Outfit" by Gus Russo, Lang warned, "I will blow the lid off Chicago politics and wreck the Democratic Party if I have to serve one day in jail."
After Cermak was shot in Miami, the papers made it look like he heroically took a bullet for the president. Chicago mourned and the City Council renamed 22nd Street as Cermak Road. It is said that Ricca would drive along Cermak and laugh, riding from the Outfit headquarters at the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue to the Outfit's Cicero stronghold.
After Cermak, no Chicago mayor ever dared publicly condemn Outfit politicians, or their messenger boys, or their trucking companies, or Outfit judges or Outfit cops.
As it was then, it remains the Chicago Way.
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