Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jean Baptiste La Lime was Chicago's first murder victim; killed by John Kinzie in 1812.

Chicago was not a city, but rather a frontier settlement occupied mostly by French-Canadian and American traders as well as soldiers and Indians. It was the home of Fort Dearborn, the site of the famous battle that would take place that same year.

But Fort Dearborn’s history was bloodied even before it became known for the battle that bears its name. Just two months earlier — on June 17 — it was the site of Chicago's first documented slaying — and some say its first murder. The suspect in the slaying was John Kinzie who, in historical accounts, was sometimes referred to as "Chicago's first citizen." 

Haiti-born Jean Baptiste Point du Sable {{the "du" of Point du Sable is a misnomer. It is an American corruption of "de" as pronounced in French. "Jean Baptiste Point du Sable" first appears long after his death}} is widely considered to own the title of "Chicago's first non-native citizen" today. 
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a cabin just north of the Chicago River near Lake Michigan in 1779 (approximately where the Tribune Tower is today) where he established a trading post. (claimed to be the first house build in Chicago). Du Sable sold his property to Jean Baptiste La Lime, who in turn sold it to William Burnett, John Kinzie's business partner. In 1804 Kinzie buys the house and property from Burnett and keeps the property until 1828. The house of Antoine Ouilmette is seen in the background.  Illustration from 1827.
The deceased was Jean Baptiste La Lime, a French trader who also served as an interpreter among the settlement's inhabitants and the Indians. La Lime first purchased Point du Sable's cabin, later changing hands, then Kinzie buys the property in 1804. In 1812, Kinzie and La Lime were neighbors, but historical accounts do not portray their relationship as neighborly. There was "bad blood" between them, according to a Chicago Daily Tribune article from 1942.

"They had some long association with each other," Russell Lewis, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, said. "It was a very small neighborhood… and people were competitive. John Kinzie was not known as a particularly generous or affable person."

While Kinzie's name triumphed over La Lime’s in Chicago lore, historical portraits of him aren't all flattering. A Chicago Tribune article from 1966 paints Kinzie as an "aggressive" trader who clashed with some American soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn. Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College in Naperville, describes Kinzie as a "volatile and violent character." Tensions between Kinzie and La Lime came to a head on June 17, 1812, when the two men met outside Fort Dearborn, La Lime armed with a pistol and Kinzie with a butcher’s knife. Keating describes the murder that ensued as "premeditated" in her book "Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago."

A witness account of what followed appears in Keating's book: “We saw the men come out together; we heard the pistol go off, and saw the smoke. Then they fell down together. I don’t know as La Lime got up at all but Kinzie got home pretty quick. Blood was running from his shoulder where La Lime shot him.”

The reasons for the fatal dispute are unknown. Kinzie fled the area afterward and didn’t return until authorities ruled the slaying was in self-defense. Historians do not know whether Kinzie attacked La Lime first or if it were the other way around.

"The fact that Kinzie, of course, after La Lime was killed, ran away and became a fugitive, that's open to lots of different kinds of interpretation," Lewis said. "He was innocent if it was self-defense, so why did he run away?" Whether Kinzie really did murder La Lime in self-defense — and it's suggested that his gunshot wound is evidence that he might have — another possible reason he fled is because of his loyalties. 

Chicago in 1812 was a frontier settlement with people from all over the world — France, Canada, Great Britain and possibly Spain, to name a few — as well as the Indians who already lived there. Kinzie may have stood out in this melting pot for his pro-British and anti-American stance, Lewis said. This may have made him unpopular with some of the settlement’s inhabitants, possibly leading Kinzie to believe he wouldn't get a fair trial. After recovering from the gunshot wound from La Lime, Kinzie narrowly escaped death again at the Fort Dearborn Massacre which occured in August of that year.

Billy Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the battle and saved the lives of the John Kinzie family. That’s the traditional account of what had happened. Historians have been unable to verify it.

Kinzie died in Chicago in 1828.

Today, Kinzie's remains are buried at the historic Graceland Cemetery in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
John Kinzie grave in Graceland cemetery.
La Lime's body was rumored to be buried near Kinzie's cabin. In 1891, 79 years after the slaying, a partial skeleton thought to belong to La Lime was excavated at Illinois Street and Cass Street (now Wabash Avenue) and given to the Chicago Historical Society, which still possesses the preserved skeleton. The remains have never been confirmed to belong to La Lime, whose legacy remains nearly as anonymous as his skeleton.
The alleged skeleton of Jean La Lime, at the Chicago Historical Museum.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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