The Red July of 1919
On the next day the Wingfoot Express burned and crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank building, a child was murdered coming home after playing in a nearby school yard. Just five days later, the murderer confesses to the senseless crime and on that same day, a black swimmer was murdered at a south side beach which triggered race riots that shook the country.
Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1919
THE PLAYGROUNDS MYSTERY
Missing Girl, One of Her Little Playmates, and Diagram of the Child’s Last Known Movements.
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1919
Thomas Fitzgerald has confessed to the murder of little Janet Wilkinson.
The breakdown came at 8:13 yesterday morning. An hour and a half later he had led the police to the spot where the body was hidden. It was buried in the coal pile in the basement of the building where they both lived at 112 and 114 East Superior street. The police recovered it.
The turning point in the case came abruptly at the close of the most remarkable grilling in the history of Chicago crime.
Confession Follows Eight Hour Inquisition.
It lasted eight hours and thirteen minutes. It was a new “fourth degree” in which psychology took the place of the antiquated forceful methods. When the tolling of the Sabbath church bells announced to the man that he had reached his thirty-ninth birthday he gave in and told all.
But every possible mental shock had been hammered home into the man’s sleepy and muddled brain during the wracking ordeal.
A detective disguised as a priest had sought his story in the name of the church. He kissed the hand of the robed figure reverently, but denied his guilt.
Tiny hands, taken from dolls, were laid before his bewildered eyes on a table in the dimly lit lighted police station basement as an appeal to his softer feelings. He wavered, but told nothing.
Thousands of questions, appeals, threats, promises, often mere words without sequence, were hurled at the exhausted man. When he nodded in sleep he was slapped into wakefulness.
Self-Control Finally Gives Way.
Finally the great moment came. Fitzgerald hesitated. But his mind had been slowly made up. Perhaps it was the grilling. Perhaps it was because he knew the body must be found during the day, owing to decomposition. Perhaps he hoped for mercy if he told the story voluntarily.
“Send down Mr. Howe,” he directed quietly.
Upstairs in the station Acting Lieutenant William Howe, exhausted by the all night vigil, was nodding over some routine reports. Howe hastened to the cellroom. There was a quiet, kindly talk. Then Fitzgerald confessed everything. He told the lieutenant:
I was sitting in the window at ten minutes after 12 Tuesday when I saw Janet coming towards the building. When she came up the steps to the landing at my doorway I said to he, ‘Dolly, would you like some candy?’
She hesitated. Then I picked her up in my arms and carried her into my apartment.
‘I Choked Her to Death’
She started to scream. Before I knew it or realized what I was doing, I grabbed her by the throat and choked her to death.
Having realized what I had done, I then dressed, as at the time I was in my bathrobe. I then took Janet’s body in my arms, going down the front stairs to the basement, where I buried it under a pile of coal.
While Fitzgerald was signing the first formal confession, Acting Chief of Police Alcock arrived at the station. A grim searching party, surrounding Fitzgerald, hastened to the six flat building and down into the damp, semi-dark basement.
Points to Place of Burial.
Fitzgerald, with beads of sweat covering his haggard face, walked to a corner. He pointed behind a rusty iron chimney flue, unused for years, that protruded from the pile of coal.
She’s over there. Behind that box.
He reached the spot.
Detective Sergeant Powers said:
“Do you want to lift her out?”
“Sure.” he replied. But his trembling hands refused to act.
Again he pointed. “The head is here—and the feet are there.”
Two white wings, ready to start shoveling away the coal pile, sprang forward. Feverishly they tore lumps of coal from the spot where the body was wedged between the fkue and the basement wall.
They uncovered the little form—swollen and discolored and blackened with coal dust.
“No, I can’t bear it,” moaned the murderer as he turned his back.
At left: Three attaches of street department removing body of murdered child from coal from coal cellar after being directed by her slayer. To their right (reading from left to right), Lieut. William Howe, Acting Chief Alcock, Sergt. E. J. Powers.
Two Thousand at Scene.
Janet’s remains were placed upon a stretcher and carried out to a waiting ambulance. Two thousand people, a shifting mob, touched to the heart by the tragedy, crowded ti the doorway. Tribune extras in the hands of shouting newsboys had told them the story.
Fitzgerald was brought up.
“Get him away, quick!” directed Acting Chief Alcock. The slayer was shoved inti a taxicab. The crowd surged forward.
“Lynch him! Hang him! String him up!” the men shouted. Trembling with fear, the prisoner was rushed into the automobile as several men tried ti reach him. He was whirled away to the police station.
On the third floor above Mr. and Mrs. John S. Wilkinson, parents of the dead girl, waited in suspense, They did not know of his confession. But the crowd below presaged important developments.
After the body had been removed from the basement the police broke the news to them. Mrs. Wilkinson fell to the floor in a faint. Wilkinson muttered a prayer that the slayer would meet death for the murder.
Outside the station, when the searching party returned with Fitzgerald, was a second great crows. Once more it was necessary to protect the prisoner from the muttering men. There was considerable talk of shooting him. If he was brought out, but policemen scattered the crowd and nothing happened.
A Prosecutors Swing Into Action.
A few hours later the wheels of Cook county’s prosecuting machinery were in motion.
“Red Necktie Jimmy” O’Brien, murder cause specialist of the state’s attorney’s office was called in.
He had Fitzgerald removed, under a heavy guard, to the Criminal Courts building, where the murder story was repeated in detail before official stenographers.
Several times during this examination Fitzgerald drew Howe aside.
“Don’t let them hang me, will you, Mr. Howe?” he pleaded. “Let them send me to some insane asylum. Please don’t let them hang me.”
He seemed to recover his composure when returned to his cell. He complained of being hungry. Acting Captain Ernest Mueller sent for a heavy meal of chicken, peas, mashed potatoes, bread, coffee and pie. Fitzgerald ate it all.
“That’s good food,” he told the police official. “If you feed me that well, I think I would like to stick around a while.” He was locked up with a detective to prevent suicide.
Coroner Starts Inquest.
During the afternoon Coroner Peter M. Hoffman personally impaneled a jury and opened an inquest over the body at Carroll’s undertaking rooms, 1153 North Clark street.
Wilkinson, the father, was the principal witness. He identified the clothes as those of his girl, and told how Fitzgerald had attempted to become familiar with her previously to the murder.
One development at this point disputed Fitzgerald’s confession.
See Evidence of Blows.
This, and the fact that the teeth were loosened, led the police to the belief that Fitzgerald, in stifling her screams, had clapped his hands over her mouth, punched her face and even tried to thrust his fist into her mouth to shut off her cries for aid.
For 103 hours the man had denied knowledge of Janet’s whereabouts, although every angle of the case pointed to the conclusion he had stopped the child on her way home for lunch from the playground at Chicago avenue and the lake shore, where she had spent the morning with her playmates.
The city, state and middle west were the searching grounds for a trace of her body. There were thousands of clews, but the police felt sure the solution remained in the Chicago avenue police district, and that Fitzgerald when he talked, would be able to unravel the mystery with a few words.
The Virginia Hotel at Ohio and Rush streets where he was a night watchman, had been ransacked for a trace of the tiny body. Every vacant lot and house on the near north side had been searched.
Basement Hunt Fails.
The basement where the body was finally found had been combed repeatedly by hundreds of detectives and newspaper reporters, many of whom passed within two feet of the burial spot without discovering the object they sought.
Moving of the 120 ton coal pile in the basement had been started Saturday night, and was about to be continued yesterday morning, when Fitzgerald brought the police to the place and pointed out the body, hardly out of reach of a whitewings’s shovel. In fact, the excavation of the coal already had passed the point where the corpse lay hidden.
While the search was progressing, Fitzgerald was denying his guilt night and day.
Crucial Test Fails.
The big test was set for Saturday night, when he was confronted with Michael Kozik, fireman in the hotel, who told him to his face that he had seen the Wilkinson girl on Fitzgerald’s lap in the basement of the hostelry only two weeks ago.
Yet it failed miserably, so miserably that Fitzgerald joked with Acting Captain Ernest Mueller about his new straw hat when the session was brought to a close.
But the police had not yet played their trump card on the taciturn prisoner. Promptly at midnight the “fourth degree” was started. It was resolved to keep him awake until he talked. Psychology was resorted to. Every trick of the police trade was used except for violence.
Try a Hundred Ruses.
Detectives and newspaper reporters were sent down into the station basement to grill him hour after hour. Each pursued a new line of tactics.
At the start Lieuts. Hughes and Norton opened the enfilade of questions. They did not reason with him or try to prove he was guilty. They simply asked him to confess—asked it a hundred ways, shot the proposition at him from a hundred angles.
A physician examined him carefully and left the room without telling him what the finding was. This proved to be disquieting.
His glasses were taken from him. One reason was they feared he would try to cut his throat. The other and better reason was they seemed to be a barrier between the minds of his inquisitors and the prisoner.
Fails to Flinch at Hands.
Once the detectives led him into another room and continued to shoot queries at him. On the table before his eyes were several small hands taken from dolls. The detectives appeared not to see them. He stared at the images for several minutes an made abstracted answers to their questions. Perhaps he saw the tiny hands of Janet Wilkinson on the table, but he did not flinch.
Then Detective Sergeant Frank Smith was closeted with him dressed as a priest. In sepulchral tomes he bade the murderer to confess to him. Fitzgerald said he knew the priest would keep his confidence, but he had nothing to tell.
A reporter then posed as a relative of Janet. He wept for pleas for the truth. But Fitzgerald did not wave.
Confession Ends Vigil.
Then, when the detectives became exhausted, the end came. Fitzgerald asked for Acting Lieut. Howe.
Howe went down overwrought with his emotions. But he displayed none of them to Fitzgerald. Knowing the end of the long vigil had come, he quietly advised the prisoner to talk,
And the man did.
Fears Public Opinion.
At no time during or after the ordeal and confession did Fitzgerald show any emotion, except when he heard the threatening shouts while in the basement.
He was grim, determined and unsmiling throughout. He bore the mien of an innocent man.
Then, with his soul unburdened, he acted like the boy who had been caught in a lie. He worried because “they” might think he was a “horrible man.”
Wilkinson, the father, pleaded to be allowed to talk to Fitzgerald, just to find out what his daughter last said before meeting her death at the man’s hands. His request was denied.
“They Must Hang Him!”
I hope he hangs. O, surely they must hang a creature like him. I wish they would cut him to pieces, bit by bit. Yes, I wish he could die by inches, having a leg torn off today and an arm tomorrow, until he pays for the life he stole from me. He deserves no better fate. He had no right to take my girl’s life.
I want to talk to him. I want to ask what Janet said last, how she acted, what caused mim to kill her. I should know these things. They belong to me, these facts. I am her father.
Attacked Once Before.
This was not the first time he he had tried to assault her. She came running to her mother one day last December.
‘That man pushed me over on the couch,’ she said.
I wanted to kill him then, but Mrs. Wilkinson told me, a week after it had happened, only because I promised not to mention the matter to Fitzgerald. I wish I had finished him then.
Excerpted from Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1919.
FITZGERALD’S CRIME DOES NOT SHOW HIM MORON
BY DR. W. A. Evans
Health Editor of The Chicago Tribune
Albert Moll1 says that in general such persons must be held to be legally responsible. It would be an error to assume that only morally defective persons are thus affected.
There are all degrees pf mindlessness, from imbeciles and idiots pracheally without mental capacity of any degree to high grade morons with all the mental power of a boy or girl just entering adolescence.
Fitzgerald may be a moron; as to that I have no information; but the fact that he is a paedophile or any other variety of a sexual pervert or invert does not prove him feeble minded.
Some sexual perverts are feeble minded, but perhaps more are not.
Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1919
JUDGE DECREES GALLOWS DEATH FOR FITZGERALD
Tiny Janet’s Slayer Makes Forgiveness Plea in Court
Thomas R. Fitzgerald was sentenced yesterday afternoon by Judge Robert E. Crowe to be hanged on Oct. 17 for the murder of 6 year old Janet Wilkinson.
Morbidly cnrlous men and women lied the courtroom. The parents of the victim sat within a few fet of Fitzgerald as sentence was pronounced. Other than to mumble that he “was sorry,” the murderer betrayed little feeling. Nevertheless, the ehe was tot lacking in drama.
“Thomas R. Fitzgerald, stand Up.” said the Judge. Fitzgerald had finished telling his own story of the slaying—a story that coincided with his riginal confession-and the closing pleas had been made.
“Have You anything to say?”
The prisoner gazed mildly at the speaker with a pair of lackluster eyes deep set In cadaverous sockets. The thin, hueless lips that served to accentuate the small, receding chin and the slanting bald head curved upward into the shadow of a grin as a bailiff assisted him to his feet.
“Have you anything to say before I pronounce sentence upon you for the murder of Janet Wilkinson?”
As Judge Crowe uttered this question an electric silence pervaded the crowded courtroom.
Fitzgerald’s fingers twitched and twisted.
“I’m sorry. I-I ask forgiveness.”
“Is that all? ” asked the court.
“I ask God to forgive me.”
“Thomas R. Fitzgerald, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead on Monday. Oct. 27, at the Cook county jail.
And as the judge concluded the formula Fitzgerald sat down.
At the table opposite him, inside the railing, Mrs. Wilkinson began sobbing, it was the reaction from the ordeal of the trial. Her husband placed his arms about her. He did not weep.
Change Hanging Date.
Later, after the state’s attorney’s office had examined the statutes, the date of the hanging was changed to Oct. 17 in order to comply with the provision that it “shall be between the tenth and fifteenth day after the first day of the convening of the state Supreme court.” This In order to afford the condemned opportunity for Immediate appeal.
The conclusion of the trial was marked by the customary scenes. There were the usual perfunctory arguments. Assistant State’s Attorney O’Brien, who wore his red necktie, did not disappoint the curious ladles and gentlemen seeking emotional thrills in the way of dramatic rhetoric.
1 Albert Moll (4 May 1862-23 September 1939) was a German psychiatrist and, together with Iwan Bloch and Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of modern sexology.