An Accidental Anarchist
How the Killing of a Humble Jewish Immigrant by Chicago's Chief of Police Exposed the Conflict Between Law & Order and Civil Rights in Early 20th-Century America
By Walter Roth, Joe Kraus
Rudi Publishing Copyright © 1998 Rudi Publishing
All rights reserved.
Two Cities Called Chicago
March 2, 1908
Chicago started the twentieth century as two different cities. There was the Chicago that had flowered in the wake of the great fire in 1871. Its citizens were the prosperous merchants, bankers, industrialists, and politicians who had shaped the business district and fashionable lakeshore neighborhoods and who held unchallenged political power. They established most of Chicago's newspapers, bankrolled construction of the city's great buildings and industries, and laid out the basic blueprint that has directed Chicago's growth ever since. Most of them were born in the United States, and many had moved to Chicago from other parts of the country. They tried to make Chicago and its government in their image — a blend of East Coast dignity and Puritanism with a frontier consciousness — and, for a time perhaps, they succeeded.
The other Chicago was the city Carl Sandburg would celebrate. Its citizens were the many impoverished laborers and newly arrived immigrants who toiled in railroad depots, shipyards, and factories. Those thousands, added to by the relentless stream of immigrants, made up the bulk of the city's population. When fortunate, they lived in the less densely populated areas of the city. When less fortunate, they squeezed themselves into the ghettos and row houses of downtown and the west side of the Chicago River. Although their individual names are remembered less frequently than the gentry's, they too took part in shaping Chicago. They are the ones who eventually developed the many neighborhoods for which the city is known. They are the ones whose labor built the canals, roads, and buildings. And they are the ones who, through their unions and organizations, gave part of their image to the city: the tough, blue collar, big shouldered identity by which Chicago is still known.
By 1908, the city abounded in contrasts that reflected the coming together of the two Chicagos. Along the lakeshore it had its many new buildings, new auditorium, museums, palatial homes, and elevated train system. Just inland were the slums, full of the gambling, drinking, and prostitution for which the city was equally well known. Its downtown Loop area was one of the world's great markets, but less than a mile west across the river was such poverty that Jane Addams located her Hull House settlement there. As close as the two Chicagos were geographically, they were inhabited by widely disparate societies. On March 2, 1908, the two Chicagos collided in an unprecedented way. That morning, the city brought together — for one fatal, mysterious moment — Lazarus Averbuch and George Shippy.
Chicago didn't give a young man like Lazarus Averbuch many choices, not that he could have anticipated many. He was nineteen years old and had never been free of oppression. He grew up in Kishinev, Russia, where he was a Jewish subject of the capricious government of Czar Nicholas II. In 1905, he and his family survived the Kishinev pogrom, a vicious attack on the Jewish community of that city in which hundreds were killed or wounded. The Averbuch family fled to Czernowitz, Bukovina, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but looked ultimately to the United States as the place to build their lives. In Austria, Lazarus worked as a bookkeeper and studied when he had time. When he reached Chicago in late 1907, he was fluent in several languages and at least partially literate in English. As one of many Jewish immigrants pouring into the country at the time, though, he would find little use for what education he had been able to give himself.
He settled on the west side of Chicago, in the Jewish ghetto, with his sister Olga. Her small apartment at 218 Washburne Avenue was home not just to the two siblings, but also to Rose Stern, Olga's friend and a subtenant. They probably paid between $6 and $10 a month in rent, a sizable amount considering Olga earned only about $40 a month and her brother little more than $30. Olga, two years older than her brother, had been in the city for nearly eighteen months and had begun to know her way. She had lived for some time at the Miriam Club, a school for young Jewish immigrant girls, where she was taught some English and given help settling in the new country. By the time Lazarus arrived, Olga was working as a self-described "sewing woman" in what we would today call a sweatshop. She claimed to be saving almost $15 a month and had achieved a kind of stability in her new life in Chicago.
Their apartment building, a two-story frame house, was typical of the area around Twelfth and Halsted streets at that time. They were close to the Maxwell Street market, where Jews and other immigrant groups sold everything from fresh foods to trinkets to rags and bottles. During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, over 50,000 Jews moved into the area, and the number was increasing as the twentieth century began. The neighborhood was the sort of place where only children could be counted on to know English. Yiddish was spoken everywhere, as were the many other languages of the varying eastern and southern European countries from which the immigrants had come. It was possible here, and indeed common, to wear "old country" clothing. There were synagogues and kosher food stores all around, so it was possible to live without ever needing to leave the area.
Lazarus Averbuch had hoped to find work as a bookkeeper in the city. He had done such work in Austria and had a reputation as being at least a solid student. He worked instead for a brief time in Tony Rubovitz's book bindery on Plymouth Place before going to work for W. H. Eichengreen as an egg packer at 183 South Water Street. Neither position satisfied him, however. He worked long hours at hard, physical work and then, in the evenings, attended the Jewish Training School at 12th and Jefferson. He earned less than his sister, which seemed to have troubled him.
Averbuch was hardly alone in his difficulty with finding satisfying work. Chicago was still feeling the effects of the depression of 1907. Such periodic economic breakdowns were common in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, but the 1907 depression was the most severe between the depressions of the middle 1880s and early 1890s and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Chicago, which had seen tremendous growth in the years immediately preceding this recent downturn, was especially hard hit. Its many new and itinerant workers found likely sources of jobs drying up even as immigrants continued pouring into the city. Unprecedented numbers of unemployed people swelled the city and created what seemed to be a near-crisis situation.
Averbuch's dreams were undoubtedly the dreams of most immigrants. According to his sister, the two of them were saving what they could in order to pay for passage to Chicago for their parents and some of their siblings still in Czernowitz. According to some of his friends, Lazarus thought about leaving Chicago in search of a place with greater opportunities for him. At the Jewish Training School, he may well have heard about Abraham Levy's plan to help young Jewish immigrants get started as farmers in central Iowa. He might also have heard the common rumors that there were opportunities to be had farther west, as far as California. How far he went with any of his plans is impossible to determine, but it is clear he was a man readying himself for something on the morning he set out to see George Shippy.
Chief of Police George Shippy was one of Chicago's most prominent figures. His world had originally been civic service, but he had risen to such an important post that he stood, by 1908, on equal footing with commercial and political leaders. Newspapers mentioned him regularly, and he basked in his reputation as a hardline law-and-order administrator. In his home at 21 North Lincoln Place — an old, prestigious northside area — he employed a live-in maid and a chauffeur. He was captain not simply to the police department but also, it seemed, to his family. Both his daughter Georgetta and his niece Georgina were named in his honor, and his son Harry, a student at Culver Academy, showed every indication of following in his footsteps.
Although Shippy had certainly never known the poverty Averbuch had, he had not always been so secure. His father was of Irish descent, had come to Chicago from New York in the early 1840s, and had embarked on a twenty-year career with the police department, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant. Shippy himself began his career with the Chicago fire department. He was a large, strong man who, early in his career, won notoriety for his efficiency and toughness. In one incident he survived an accident that threw him off his hook and ladder truck and killed his partner. He left the fire department before long and, following three years in private life, joined the police force. Although he resigned from the force a few years later and went into business for himself, he rejoined it again in the middle 1890s. In 1907, Fred Busse, the newly elected mayor, selected Shippy for the top position.
From early in his career, Shippy seems to have been earmarked as someone who could handle the difficult political assignments. One of his first responsibilities was to stand security for former State's Attorney J. S. Grinnell, who was receiving death threats from anarchists outraged at his zealous prosecution of the men eventually executed for incendiary remarks that allegedly caused the bombing at Haymarket Square. Shippy served briefly as police captain at the opening of the World's Fair in 1893 and then directed a special mayoral escort squad on the occasion of a Spanish princess's visit later that year. The latter assignment was made more difficult by the concern that anarchists worldwide were committed to killing leaders of every sort. Those concerns were heightened by the subsequent assassinations of President McKinley in 1901, King Carlos of Portugal early in 1908, and numerous high-ranking officials of Czarist Russia throughout the early 1900s. In 1900, Shippy was assigned to assist in suppressing labor disturbances in Chicago.
Whatever his political feelings were before his experiences on the police force, Shippy was a hardened foe of labor and social unrest by the time he became "the Chief." He had no patience for demonstrations growing out of the lot of the poor. There wasn't room in his Chicago for radical agitation. As he put it at one point, "Social settlements are first cousins to the anarchists." So saying, he implicated not just Jane Addams, but even such a mainstream political figure as Judge Julian Mack.
By 1908, Chicago was the capital of American radicalism. As the site of the Haymarket Square protest in 1886, it was confirmed as the headquarters of anarchism in the United States. The monument erected at Forest Park Cemetery, where the executed Haymarket anarchists were interred, served as a rallying shrine to the movement. Moreover, the bitter labor dispute against the Pullman Company in 1894 had established Chicago as a focal point in labor's efforts to organize workers in large cities. By the time Shippy became police chief in 1907, Chicago had one of the largest unemployed populations of any city in the country. With the huge influx of European immigrants, many bringing the radical teachings of such thinkers as Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, Chicago proved to be a breeding ground for much of the activity Shippy abhorred.
Some kind of conflict between Shippy and groups supporting such causes was inevitable. On January 23, 1908, Ben Reitman, a physician and sometime self-professed hobo, led a "march of the unemployed" down LaSalle Street to the Board of Trade Building, the center of grain trading in the country. Subsequent police reports attempted to place Lazarus Averbuch at the march, but whether he was actually there is impossible to determine. The demonstration attracted several hundred participants, despite Shippy's threats that he would stop such a demonstration by force if necessary. By the day's end, Shippy had followed through with his threat. The march was dispersed and Reitman was clubbed and arrested. Shippy told the newspapers he was sorry the event had given so much attention to the labor movement, "but I did not intend to allow any anarchist gathering. I took the precautions I did merely to be sure of preventing anything worse occurring." There would not be, he made clear, any second Haymarket incident while he was in charge.
Shippy's concerns as chief of police were not limited to radicals, however. Soon after his appointment, Chicago experienced its first criminal gang war. Although the conflict paled in comparison to the bloodshed that took place twenty years later when Prohibition and bootlegging held sway in Chicago, the war between rival gamblers Mont Tennes and James O'Leary set new standards for criminal violence at the time. At the turn of the century, Chicago gambling was controlled, essentially, by three rings: Tennes's to the north, and O'Leary's to the south; and, in the Loop, gamblers paid protection to First Ward committee member Mike "Hinky-Dink" Kenna and his cohorts. Through a series of Byzantine alliances and deceptions, Tennes came to be the dominant gambling chief as well as controller of the wire service that provided racetrack results to gambling joints across the city. O'Leary retaliated by bombing the home of a Tennes lieutenant. Before long, the gangs were exchanging bombs at a rate that terrorized the city.
Shippy had begun his tenure with a wave of crackdowns on gambling sites and a widely cited declaration that he would stop gambling or "run all of the gamblers out of the city." His men went so far as to close down, temporarily, one of Tennes's chief houses and arrest two of his henchmen. Those men, however, never went to trial, and the gambling houses recovered immediately and continued in full swing. By the time of the bombings in the early months of 1908, Shippy had grown curiously inactive. Maintaining, despite the evidence of the bombing war, that he had defeated gambling in the city, he said, "It looks as if there was a big gamblers' war on in Chicago. I still maintain, however, that there is no gambling worthy of the name in existence here at the present time."
Explanation for that inaction probably went, according to reports collected by State's Attorney John J. Healy, beyond Shippy and on to Mayor Busse. Even before the turn of the century, Chicago had developed notoriety for its political corruption. The criminals and organizations that controlled gambling and prostitution soon came to control city government: it seemed to be a Chicago tradition. Kenna had been rumored to hand-pick mayors for over twenty years, and there was little reason to think criminal influence in government had diminished. By the beginning of 1908, Healy had put together an array of evidence that Shippy and Busse were somehow involved in protecting Tennes's ring.
On the morning of March 2, 1908, Shippy was a man with many concerns. Between his dealings with left-wing agitators, his underworld connections, and the impending investigation, he must have worried whether he could survive the political storm gathering around him. If he were to become a liability to Mayor Busse, he would lose his job. If he crossed some of these forces, he could lose even more. He would say later that he feared someone might be bold enough to come after him; bold enough, perhaps, to attack him in his own home.
When Lazarus Averbuch left his west side ghetto home that morning, he traveled into the other Chicago, a place where he was alien. His dark hair and clothing immediately labeled him as a foreigner. If he had occasion to speak, his accent would have betrayed him as well. He would have had difficulty reading the Chicago Tribune, a paper already making much of the differences between "immigrant races." An article in the paper a day earlier offered a chart describing the various noses of Chicago. "Chicago's typical nose," it declared, is "inclined to be Roman, especially in the average, young businessman; [it] has traces of the classic Greek and Hebrew, but Roman predominates, indicat[ing] hustle and combativeness." Of the handful of major Chicago figures whose noses the accompanying article singled out, it declared of Chief Shippy's nose that it was "Roman, pronounced, combative." Of a "Hebrew or Aquiline" nose (like Averbuch's) it wrote, "Generally a commercial nose; indicates suspicion, power of adaptation to surroundings and ability to look out for No. 1 in financial matters."
Averbuch's trip from Washburne Avenue to Lincoln Place could not have been an easy one, though some people stated that he made the same trip a day earlier, on Sunday, but had returned because no one was home at Shippy's house. He had to transfer from one streetcar to another on a bitterly cold, wintery day. He had to pass through areas that must have been unfamiliar to him. He probably had to pay a five cent fare, a not inconsiderable sum for someone trying to save every penny. And it probably took him a full hour and a half to complete the trip. Eventually, however, he stood before Chief Shippy's door and rang. (Continues...)
Excerpted from An Accidental Anarchist by Walter Roth, Joe Kraus. Copyright © 1998 Rudi Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Rudi Publishing.
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