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This week in history: Frederick Douglass drops truth bombs + St. Valentine's Day massacre

Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s fair-going, headline-grabbing and often shock-inducing history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history: Frederick Douglass drops truth bombs at the Palmer House
American orator, editor, author, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) edits a journal at his desk, late 1870s. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American orator, editor, author, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) edits a journal at his desk, late 1870s. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Few Americans accomplished as much in their lifetimes as Frederick Douglass. In his 77 years on earth, Douglass — who died Feb. 20, 1895 — escaped slavery, won his freedom, published several newspapers, advised presidents and became one of the most well-known speakers of his time.
In 1892, Douglass arrived in Chicago to serve as the World’s Fair commissioner for Haiti’s exhibition, having previously served as a diplomat there. While he was in town to tour the fairgrounds on May 7, the abolitionist stopped by the Palmer House for an interview on a subject that had made the front page of the Chicago Daily News that day.
The headline of the story, “Negroes may use bombs,” almost certainly raised eyebrows, but Douglass was responding to the rash of lynchings in the South, the same atrocities that Chicago reporter Ida B. Wells covered in “Southern Horrors,” published the same year.
To protect themselves from lynchings, Black southerners “will become chemists and learn how to manufacturer bombs and dynamite,” Douglass predicted.
Though Douglass is best known as an abolitionist and suffragist, he was also a prohibitionist. Read more about the Black prohibitionist movement and Douglass’ role within it here. Douglass was able to escape north with the help of his future wife, Anna Murray Douglass. Learn more about her here.
Past present
A group of men reenact the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which left seven men dead on Feb. 14, 1929. In this photo, taken the same year as the massacre, Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, Cook Country coroner, can be seen standing next to the men holding the guns. From the Sun-Times archive.
A group of men reenact the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which left seven men dead on Feb. 14, 1929. In this photo, taken the same year as the massacre, Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, Cook Country coroner, can be seen standing next to the men holding the guns. From the Sun-Times archive.
Ask just about any Chicagoan about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — the brutal slaying of seven men, most of them gangsters including the notorious brothers Frank and Peter Gusenberg, on Feb. 14, 1929, in a Lakeview garage — and they’ll likely tell you that the man responsible for their deaths was Al Capone.
But was he?
Writer Jonathan Eig doesn’t think so. His book, “Get Capone,” lays out a theory that the massacre was a revenge killing for the death of a police officer’s son.
Here, Eig explains his theory, how he uncovered it and why Capone couldn’t be responsible for one of the city’s most famous crimes:
When you first started researching your book, what was your view of the massacre? Did you believe Capone was involved or were you already skeptical?
I came into it assuming that Capone was responsible or at least that his men were responsible and that it was somehow tied into the Chicago gang wars. I just assumed that that was the case, and to be honest, I really looked forward to writing that when I got to it.
There are certain things when you start writing a book you look forward to — these pivotal moments — and I assumed that the Valentine’s Day Massacre would be the climax, the turning point moment, of Capone’s life. And it was the turning point of his life in some ways, but it was a bit of an anti-climax when I got to it and discovered that he wasn’t involved or at least didn’t seem to be involved.
Explain your theory.
There was a news story about a new clue in the Valentine’s Day Massacre that emerged a few years later in 1935, and when the news story appeared, a guy named Frank Farrell wrote a letter to the FBI, saying, “Hey I know what happened there.”
And in this letter, he laid out this theory that I believe is the most compelling theory to explain the Valentine’s Day Massacre. It’s still just a theory, but there’s no reason why this guy writes a letter to the FBI other than to share information. He had no incentive to do this. He’s not trying to get anybody arrested. He’s not trying to earn any favors as far as we can tell.
Farrell says he was working as an investigator in Illinois at the time, and he got information about what really happened at the Valentine’s Day Massacre. He says this guy named Billy Davern Jr. got into a fight in a bar with the Gusenberg boys, and he got shot in the stomach, dumped on the street and taken to the hospital where he survived for a couple of weeks. While he was in the hospital, he told his cousin that the Gusenberg boys did this.
His cousin was a guy named William “Three-Fingered” White, who was a notorious criminal. What Farrell says is that White went after the Gusenberg boys. That’s the simple version of the story.
Now the guy that was shot in the stomach, Billy Davern, was a firefighter and the son of a cop. So what this letter says is that the police covered it up because this was a revenge killing for the death of a cop’s kid, and the cops might have even helped White commit this crime. They may have loaned him a police car. They may have loaned him some police uniforms because the people who went into the garage and killed these guys on Valentine’s Day, some of them were dressed as cops. One eyewitness said that the driver of this car, she noticed, had missing fingers on his right hand. Is it possible that that’s William “Three Finger” White? Could be. At the time, it was somewhat more common to have missing fingers because people worked in factories, but even so, it’s a pretty strong coincidence that she sees one of the perps and mentions that he was missing some fingers on his hand.
It’s not a perfect theory. White was supposed to be in jail at the time of the massacre, but this letter actually addresses that point and says he was able to bribe his way out of jail. That’s certainly believable given the state of law enforcement at the time. Bribes were common, and jails were often revolving doors.
The theory goes that White gets a pass from jail, dresses up as a cop, calls the Gusenberg boys and says, “Hey, I got a job. I’m coming over.” That’s why they’re not expecting any trouble because they think they’re going to get in on this job with White. They’re going to dress as cops, and they’re going to go rob some people. They see the cops come in. They don’t worry about it, they don’t draw their guns, and then, White lines them up against the wall and shoots them dead.
One of the Gusenberg brothers survived a little while. When the real police got there and found these bodies in the garage, Frank G was still alive on the floor gushing blood. When the real cops found them, he said to them, “Cops did it.”
How did you put this theory together?
I found this letter in the FBI archives. As far as I can tell, it had not been seen before by other writers or researchers.
Of course, I assumed that the letter was probably malarky, and I began checking to see if any of the facts in the letter lined up. Was there someone named Billy Davern in Chicago? Was he a firefighter? Was he shot? All of that came back yes. I was able to find newspaper accounts of the shooting. Did he have a cousin named William White? Yes. Was Billy Davern’s father a police officer? Yes.
So a lot of the facts in this letter checked out. Suddenly, I know I’m at least not dealing with a crank. He could be wrong. He could be dead wrong. But he knew a lot of factual information.
I tried to find the ancestors of Farrell to learn more about him, and I could not.
In the early days of the investigation, Capone wasn’t much of a suspect. What changed that?
It was an important moment for Capone because the federal government got involved in trying to crack down on all this crime, in part because the Valentine’s Day Massacre was so horrifying. It was national news. The pictures were all over the newspapers. As a result of this, Herbert Hoover, the newly elected president, really decided to go after Capone. It played a big part in why the feds worked so hard to put him away. Of course, they couldn’t prove that he had anything to do with the Valentine’s Day Massacre, so they put him away on income tax charges.
Then later when people start making TV shows and movies about Capone, the Valentine’s Day Massacre becomes a key part of those TV shows and movies, and Capone is the perp. He’s the guy ordering the hit.
What’s wrong with the theory that Capone was connected to the massacre?
First of all, Capone himself was not there. He had an airtight alibi. He was in Florida being interviewed by lawyers. He certainly was not the trigger man, and he certainly was not in Chicago when it happened.
There’s also not much reason to believe that Capone would have wanted this to happen. He was not engaged in an active battle with [North Side gang leader Bugs] Moran or with any of the men in the garage. He had the feds breathing down his neck, mostly around his taxes. He was trying to keep his head down basically. There’s very little reason or motive to imagine why he would kill these men in the garage even if he wanted to get Moran, Moran wasn’t there. So why would he order the killing of these other people? If he wanted to get Moran, he knew how to kill Moran. He knew where to go to kill Moran.
There’s nothing in the facts of the crime that would tie it to Capone or even suggest that he had a reason to want any of these men dead. If you want to make an argument that Capone ordered this hit, you’ve got a long bridge to cross before you can even start connecting it to Capone.
Then you have to ask yourself: What are some of the other potential motives? There were plenty of them in Chicago. The men in the garage were gangsters, most of them. The Gusenberg boys were always getting into trouble. There were plenty of people who might have wanted the Gusenberg boys dead and who might have been willing to kill a whole bunch of people at the same time to get the Gusenbergs. They had lots of enemies.
I think any cop can tell you usually the most obvious suspect is the best suspect — the person who’s closest and the person who’s angriest is most likely to have been the perp. So these theories that it might have been another gang or that it might have been cops who had been in a feud with the Gusenbergs all have more validity than saying it must’ve been Capone just because Capone was the biggest name in town.
What do you think? Check out Eig’s book “Get Capone” and decide for yourself. Got a favorite theory on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? Send it to me here: amartin@suntimes.com.
One of the Hollywood movies that connected Capone to the massacre is available for free on YouTube (for now). Watch it here.
Chicago's most wanted
In this 1932 photograph from the Chicago Daily News, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stands next to Mayor Anton Cermak in Chicago. One year later on Feb. 15, 1933, Cermak was shot while attending a rally with then President-elect Roosevelt in Miami. Roosevelt drove with Cermak all the way to the hospital. He survived for a few weeks and then died on March 6. From the Sun-Times archive.
In this 1932 photograph from the Chicago Daily News, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stands next to Mayor Anton Cermak in Chicago. One year later on Feb. 15, 1933, Cermak was shot while attending a rally with then President-elect Roosevelt in Miami. Roosevelt drove with Cermak all the way to the hospital. He survived for a few weeks and then died on March 6. From the Sun-Times archive.
“I’ll pull through.”
But he wouldn’t.
On Feb. 15, 1933, an assassin shot Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while he was in Miami at a rally in Bayfront Park with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Cermak was standing near Roosevelt, anarchist Joseph (Giuseppe) Zangara fired shots, striking Cermak and four others. The mayor was rushed to a nearby hospital.
The Chicago Daily News published in the afternoon before the shooting happened. Its coverage picked up the next day.
“Dr. J.W. Snyder, in charge of the case, reported by telephone to The Daily News at 2:30 p.m. eastern standard time that the Chicago executive had ‘a pretty good chance’ for recovery,” the paper said. “Mayor Cermak was ‘not out of danger,’ said the physician, but his chances were ‘improving.’”
Meanwhile, Roosevelt boarded a train for New York, and in his private car, he told reporters what happened.
Roosevelt was sitting on the back of his convertible, speaking with rally-goers. As he slid off the back and into his seat, he spotted Cermak coming forward. They chatted for a minute, Roosevelt told reporters, and then Cermak moved behind the car, now standing near a member of the Secret Service. Another man with a telegram approached Roosevelt, and they conversed.
“Just then,” Roosevelt said, “I heard what I thought was a firecracker, then several more.” He continued:
“The man talking with me pulled back, and the chauffeur started the car.
"I looked around and saw Mayor Cermak doubled up and Mrs. Gill collapsing. I told the chauffeur to stop. He did, about fifteen feet from where we started. The secret service men shouted ‘get out of the crowd.’ The chauffeur started again and I stopped him again, this time at the corner of the bandstand.
"Looking back I saw Cermak being carried along and we put him in our car. He was alive, but I was afraid he wouldn’t last. I got my hand on his pulse and found none. He was on the seat with me and I had my left arm around him. He slumped forward. A detective from Miami, standing on the running board on that side of the car, was leaning over him. He said after we had gone a couple of blocks he was afraid Cermak would not last.”
Roosevelt said he held Cermak the entire ride to the hospital, talking with him and trying to keep him calm and assured. But Cermak seemed to be “more worried over the teachers’ salary situation in Chicago” than his own health, the president-elect added.
On March 6, Cermak died. Zangara plead guilty to first-degree murder and received the death penalty. The state of Florida executed him on March 20.
In 2007, the Miami Herald published a great overview of the shooting for its 84th anniversary. Read it here.
Like the case of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, there’s been much debate over the years as to whether Zangara pulled the trigger or why he did it. Check out some of these theories here.
Side note: Cermak’s particularly famous in Chicago: He’s credited with creating the Democratic Machine.
First mention/Last mention
Alex Borstein, born Feb. 15, 1971: The comedian, best known as mom Lois Griffin on “Family Guy” and Susie Myerson in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” was born in Highland Park. Her first mention in the Chicago Sun-Times was brief: “A former Chicago improv star is among seven comedians joining the cast of Fox’s ‘Mad TV.’” Borstein joined the cast along with six other local comedians including William Sasso, Pat Kilbane and Aries Spears.
Nat King Cole, died Feb. 15, 1965: The legendary jazz singer, who died of cancer at the age of 45, may not have been born in Chicago, but his childhood in the city set him up to make his mark on music history. According to a front-page Chicago Daily News article announcing the singer’s passing, Cole learned to play music before he could read it in his family’s South Side apartment. The Panama Cafe at 58th Street near Prairie Avenue hired a teenaged Cole and his brother to play for $18 a week.
Borstein won an Emmy in 2019 and gave one of the best acceptance speeches of the night. Watch it here.
Nat King Cole gave us so many classics, but the one song that “kids from 1 to 92” remember him for would be “The Christmas Song.” Listen to the story behind Cole’s Christmas classic. And ICYMI: Cole’s centennial birthday was in 2019. Check out this recap of his legacy.
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
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