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Chicago: A History of Violence

Updated on July 10, 2014

Ft. Dearborn


A Fort and a Massacre

Before Chicago was a city it was a military outpost. That outpost was known as Fort Dearborn, located in what is now downtown Chicago. The fort was build back in 1803 and was one of the most westward outposts in America for a while.

Then in 1812 the US and Britain went to war. The British began to capture several of these forts located on the frontier. The British troops were there, but they had also made a deal with various American Indian tribes like the Potawatomi. Fort Dearborn was the next likely to fall, so negotiations were entered between the soldiers and civilians who had sought shelter there, to evacuate the fort. It appeared that an agreement had been reached.

On August 15, 1812, a group of soldiers, plus women and children who had sought shelter, left the fort. Around them were members of the Potwatami tribes and some others. Just as the group left and were out in the open, it became obvious that this was an ambush. By the time the battle was over, it was reported that 26 regular soldiers were dead as were 12 militia members, two women and twelve children. There were more taken prisoner.

The ground of downtown Chicago was baptized in blood before a city existed.

The Haymarket Affair

In the late 1880s things were changing in the labor world. Workers wanted weekends and better hours for more pay. In Chicago, there were huge and wealthy business leaders with names like Montgomery Ward and Marshall Field. They did not want to pay workers or give more days off.

It was only a matter of time before things came to a head. So, a group of labor organizers staged a number of protests across Chicago. This was to culminate in a Mayday rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago.

On the evening of May 4, a group of protesters arrived to hear speakers who led the movement talk. It began peacefully. Several speakers got up and talked. The crowd got bigger. Business men in the area got nervous, so did the police. When the rhetoric started to get, in the opinion of the police, too fiery, they decided to shut it down.

When the cops moved in someone threw a homemade bomb. It went off near the cops and killed a police officer immediately and mortally wounded six others. Gunfire erupted. Demonstrators fled and the police advanced, still firing. To this day there are accusations that the cops fired on fleeing demonstrators and initiated the gunfire. Several organizers were arrested, many put into prison, and several hanged for starting the resulting riot.

Seven police officers were killed and at least four workers. There was also more violence and rioting in subsequent days.

Dr. HH Holmes


The Not-So-Good Doctor

At the same time there were riots for better working conditions, there was a man building a hotel for the sole purpose of murder. His name was Dr. HH Holmes and he was taking advantage of the Colombian Exposition, or World's Fair. He built a massive (some said hideous) hotel and building. Inside were hidden rooms and tunnels where he lured women. He would trap them in rooms where he could flood with carbon monoxide.

One of the first serial killers on US soil, no one knows for sure how many Holmes killed. The number ranges from nine to 200. He was eventually caught and hanged.

Al Capone


The Gangsters

Of course, most people know about Al "Scarface" Capone and his gang. One of the most famous bloody events in the history of the US mob happened in Chicago.

Capone was fighting tooth and nail for control of the city against the Moran gang. Capone had men set up an outpost across the street from a garage where he knew Moran and his men hung out. One day, the call came that Moran and his men were in the garage. Capone was at his home in Florida, but it is believed he gave the OK.

Several of his men, dressed as cops, entered the garage. The lined up the seven men they found there against a wall, and then opened fire with a shotgun and Tommy guns. Moran, it turns out, was not there, but he was so shaken by the massacre, his gang disintegrated.

Capone would rule the city for more years, but the tide turned against him with the brutality of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. He was eventually arrested for income tax violations and sent to Alcatraz. He would get sick there from syphilis and die at his Florida home in the depths of dementia

Richard Speck


The Murderous Wanderer

In 1966 a man who had spend much of his life wandering from one job to the next, spending much of that time as a merchant marine, came to Chicago with a twisted mind and with dangerous intent. His name was Richard Speck.

On July 13, 1966, Speck entered a building that housed a number of young nursing students. One by one he entered each room, found each student, tied them up and then murdered them. One student managed to hide beneath a bed before emerging early the next morning to alert the city to the horrors within.

Speck was caught and tried and spent the rest of his life in prison. The exact motive of the massacre was never known, perhaps even to Speck.

John Wayne Gacy


The Killer Clown

John Wayne Gacy was a fairly well respected businessman in the Chicago area. He had photos of himself shaking hands with politicians and even President Carter's wife. He ran a construction business, was a birthday party clown, and hired young men for the summer to work with him and his construction crews.

At the same time, young men were vanishing from in and around Gacy's neighborhood. Detectives eventually found a way to connect one of the disappearances to Gacy, and then they noticed a strange smell inside his home.

Gacy had buried a number of bodies beneath his home, in the crawlspace, as well as beneath a concrete slab in the garage. He had dumped more bodies in the nearby Des Plaines river. He was convicted of killing 35 young men, but there may have been more. He was sentenced to death and died by lethal injection, but there are still unidentified remains of some of his victims in police vaults.

Modern Day

Today, the names of the killers and their victims are becoming faceless. However, the violence of today is, sadly, just part of the continuing history of violence that has been a part of day-to-day life in this city since its inception.


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