|Mayor Anton Cermak is sworn into office in April 7, 1931.|
Anton Cermak was born in Kladno, Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic), on May 9, 1873. The following year his parents emigrated to the United States. After six years of formal schooling, Cermak, at the age of twelve, joined his father as a coal miner in Braidwood, Illinois.
Cermak developed a reputation for having strong views and he was selected to be the miner's spokesman in a demand for higher wages. This resulted in him losing his job and he decided to move to Chicago. He found work on the railways before starting his own business selling firewood. With his heavy-set physique and frightening temper he was an imposing man and was considered to have leadership qualities.
Cermak became active in the Democratic Party and in 1902 was elected to the state legislature. Seven years later he became a Chicago City Council alderman. Cermak was able to use his inside knowledge of proposed government land purchases to speculate on real estate. He was also the founder of the Lawndale Building and Loan Association, director of the Lawndale National Bank, and a partner in a real estate company Cermak and Serhant.
Cermak became extremely wealthy and soon became the leader of the party in the city. His main opponent was William Hale Thompson, the leader of the Republican Party in Chicago, and a man who was a close associate of Al Capone. Cermak maintained a reasonable relationship with Thompson, which allowed him to keep his patronage jobs and influence in the city. Even his enemies agreed that he was a hard-working politician who was "keenly aware of the most intricate details of the issues of the day."
In 1928 Cermak was selected as the Democrat candidate for the Senate. Although he ran a vigorous campaign, he was defeated. It was a good year for the Republicans and Herbert Hoover had a landslide victory. Several states that had previously voted Democrat, such as Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia voted Republican for the first time. Al Smith won 40.8% of the vote compared to Hoover's 58.2%.
The Wall Street Crash in 1929 changed the political direction of the country. Cermak created what became known as the "Chicago Democratic Machine." It is claimed that Cermak was probably the first politician to use statistical analysis to evaluate political performance and develop a strategy. Members of the different wards were encouraged to compete with each other and success was rewarded with patronage jobs. Paul M. Green has argued that "never before had Chicagoans seen a political party so organized for battle."
|Anton Cermak campaigning in the final days of April of 1931.|
On April 7, 1931, Cermak defeated Thompson, by nearly 200,000 votes. This included winning 45 of the city's 50 wards and this gave Cermak the largest victory in Chicago's history. During his time as mayor Cermak spent most of his time dealing with the consequences of the Great Depression. This included cutting services, laying off thousands of workers, and taking away vacation and sick pay from those who remained. To defend his policies Cermak conducted weekly radio talks that he called "Intimate Chats."
Cermak appointed James Allman as Chief of Police. He had been in the force for 30 years and enjoyed a reputation of being untainted by corruption being described as "clean as a whistle." The Chicago Crime Commission reported: "During the 12 years that the Chicago Crime Commission has been observing the Police Department there has not come to the notice a single adverse word as to Captain Allman's integrity, ability, efficiency, or independence." Allman was a great success and Chicago's murder rate actually dropped in 1931 and 1932, whereas most other major cities saw their rates rise.
The 1932 Presidential Election.
Cermak attended the 1932 Democratic National Convention, that was held to elect the presidential candidate. Cermak favored Al Smith, mainly because he was opposed to Prohibition. This issue was a problem for Franklin D. Roosevelt because much of his support came from traditionally dry areas in the South and West whereas most party members and the general public favored repeal. Roosevelt told his supporters to "vote as you wish" and that he would be happy to run on whatever platform the convention adopted. In the vote for repeal 934-213. Arthur Krock reported that "the Democratic party went as wet as the seven seas."
The first ballot showed Roosevelt with 666 votes - more than three times as many as his nearest rival but 104 short of victory. Roosevelt's campaign manager, James Farley, approached Cermak, who controlled most of Illinois delegation, about changing his vote. Cermak refused because he was aware that if he abandoned the Irish-Catholic candidate, he would have trouble from his supporters in Chicago.
Roosevelt won the nomination on the fourth ballot when he won 945 votes. William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) summed up the situation that the Democratic Party found itself in: "Liberal Democrats were somewhat uneasy about Roosevelt's reputation as a trimmer and disturbed by the vagueness of his formulas for recovery, but no other serious candidate had such good claims on progressive support. as governor of New York, he had created the first comprehensive system of unemployment relief, sponsored an extensive program for industrial welfare, and won western progressives by expanding the work Al Smith had begun in conservation and public power."
Roosevelt was elected on November 8, 1932, but the inauguration was not until March 4, 1933. While he waited to take power, the economic situation became worse. Three years of depression had cut national income in half. Five thousand bank failures had wiped out 9 million savings accounts. By the end of 1932, 15 million workers, one out of every three, had lost their jobs. When the Soviet Union's trade office in New York issued a call for 6,000 skilled workers to go to Russia, more than 100,000 applied.
The Traditional Assassination Story.
Cermak traveled to Miami on February 7th to have a meeting to discuss who was going to be appointed to Roosevelt's government. Cermak did not want a job for himself but was keen to get some of his followers to have good jobs. He also wanted to make sure Chicago got a share of Roosevelt's promised New Deal. Negotiations with James Farley went well and it was arranged that Roosevelt would meet with Cermak on February 15th at Bayfront Park.
Anton Cermak went to the meeting with James Bowler, another senior politician from Chicago. He later recalled: "Mayor Cermak and I had gone to the park twenty minutes before the President-elect was due to arrive, and we sat in the bandshell together. When Mr. Roosevelt's car came along the President-elect saw the mayor and called to him to come down. Mr. Cermak called back that he would wait until after Mr. Roosevelt had made his speech. Then Roosevelt spoke, and he waited until the mayor came down from the platform to go to the side of the automobile."
Roosevelt explained how after the speech "I slid off the back of the car into my seat. Just then-Mayor Cermak came forward. I shook hands and talked with him for nearly a minute. Then he moved off around the back of the car. Bob Clark (one of the Secret Servicemen) was standing right behind him to the right. As he moved off a man came forward with a telegram... and started telling me what it contained. While he was talking to me, I was leaning forward to the left side of the car."
At that moment an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Zangara, pointed his gun at Roosevelt. At the critical moment an alert spectator, Lillian Cross, hit the assassin's arm with her handbag and spoiled his aim. Zangara fired five shots and they all missed Roosevelt but did hit others. This included Cermak who received a serious wound in the abdomen. Rex Schaeffer, a journalist working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported: "I stood twenty-feet behind the car of the President-elect. Suddenly - I had given my attention to Mr. Roosevelt - a pistol blasted over my shoulder... Four more shots were fired and at the left of the car of Mr. Roosevelt I saw Mr. Cermak slump down."
Zangara was attacked by the crowd. "He was seized by men and women, dragged between the rows of seats, and then a policeman rushed through the crowd and swung on him with his blackjack. The Sheriff of Dade County, Dan Hardie, was on the platform and as the shots rang out he plunged into the crowd after the shooter, and with the policeman, jerked him erect and threw him on the trunk rack of an automobile which was carrying one of the wounded out of the park." Another witness remembers shouts of "Kill that man!" and "Don't let him get away."
L.L. Lee was standing next to Cermak when he was shot. He claimed that his only words were, "The president! Get him away!" Lee and W.W. Wood, a Democratic county committee member, grabbed his arms and walked him towards the president's car." The chauffeur decided to get away from the scene as quickly as possible. Lee then heard Roosevelt shout "For God's sake a man has been shot" and the "car jerked to a sudden stop."
Roosevelt told the New York Times: "I called to the chauffeur to stop. He did - about fifteen feet from where we started. The Secret Service man shouted to him to get out of the crowd and he started forward again. I stopped him a second time, this time at the corner of the bandstand, about thirty feet further on. I saw Mayor Cermak being carried."
|Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak is helped after being shot in a Miami,|
Florida park while talking to President-elect Franklin Roosevelt.
After the shooting Roosevelt remained at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami until Cermak was brought out of the emergency room. He spoke with him for several minutes and then visited the other shooting victims. According to the New York Tribune, an unnamed witness heard Cermak tell Roosevelt: "I'm glad it was me and not you, Mr. President."
On March 4th, Roosevelt was inaugurated. He called Cermak on the telephone immediately after the ceremony. “Tell Chicago I’ll pull through,” Cermak said from his hospital bed. “This is a tough old body of mine and a mere bullet isn’t going to pull me down. I was elected to be World’s Fair mayor and that’s what I’m going to be.”
Doctors thought the mayor would recover, but Cermak died at 5:57 a.m. Chicago time on March 6th, two days after Roosevelt took the first of his four oaths of office.
Giuseppe Zangara, an unemployed thirty-two-year-old bricklayer, claimed he acted alone. "I have always hated the rich and powerful. I do not hate Mr. Roosevelt personally. I hate all presidents, no matter from what country they come." After being found guilty was sentenced to death in the electric chair at the Florida State Penitentiary. When he heard his sentence he yelled at the judge, "You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You're one of the capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care!" Guiseppe Zangara was executed on March 20, 1933.
The end came peacefully, the Tribune reported, with Cermak surrounded by members of his family, three daughters, their husbands, and children.
|On March 6, 1933, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak died weeks after being shot during an assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.|
|The scene inside the mayor's residence at 2348 South Millard Avenue as mourners file past the bronze casket holding Mayor Anton Cermak in March 1933. Thousands entered the home during the afternoon and evening.|
|Flowers marking a large cross shape on the floor of the Chicago Stadium during Mayor Anton J. Cermak's funeral, full view including mourners in the seating area.|
|Two lines of soldiers standing on either side of Mayor Anton J. Cermak's coffin during his funeral at the Chicago Stadium, within a large cross shape made with flowers on the floor.|
|The horse-drawn wagon carrying Mayor Anton J. Cermak's coffin accompanied by two police during his funeral procession.|
|A crowd of 50,000 attends the burial services for Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak on May 10, 1933.|
|Giuseppe Zangara sitting in court in 1933, charged with the assassination of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and the attempted assassination of President Roosevelt.|
But... there is another version of the story which says that the Al Capone mob orchestrated the plot to assassinate Cermak (not Roosevelt) because he was trying to kick out the Capone gang.
The Crime Syndicate Theory.
Giuseppe Zangara deliberately fired wildly over FDR’s head to distract security guards while another hitman got in close and fatally wounded the mayor. The bullets that struck Cermak came from a .45-caliber weapon whereas the gun taken from Zangara was a .38-caliber pistol.
|Giuseppe Zangara in custody at Dade County Jail in Florida. When strapped in the electric chair at Florida's Raiford prison, he was asked by Sheriff Dan Hardie if he had any last words, Zangara replied "Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere!... Pusha da button!"|
It’s been said that Zangara allowed himself to be used as a decoy in Cermak’s murder because he was dying of cancer and wanted to provide for his family after his death. Supposedly the Capone gang cut a deal saying if Zangara would take the rap, the mob would take care of his family after his death.
Cermak’s promise to clean up Chicago’s rampant lawlessness did pose a serious threat to Al Capone and the Chicago organized crime syndicate. One of the first people to suggest the organized crime theory was reporter Walter Winchell, who also happened to be in Miami the evening of the shooting.
Both Alphonse Capone and Anton Cermak came from families of the Old World. Capone, the son of a barber born in Sicily, and Cermak, the son of a coal miner from Bohemia. Both men were reared on the tough streets of big cities: Capone, the Five Points of New York, Cermak, the southwest side of Chicago.
There the similarities ended, despite their common origins. Capone chose a life of crime, learning from and serving mentors that regarded all persons as expendable to their desires, while Cermak became a soul of industry and public service.
If Al Capone was a devil, Anton Cermak was certainly no angel, but assumed and affirmed an ideal that Capone would scoff at; there were solutions to problems that would not be found by a physical threat or the point of a gun.
Some political commentators such as Walter Winchell believed that Cermak was the real target. It was argued that Al Capone or William Hale Thompson had hired Zangara to assassinate Cermak. However, Blaise Picchi, the author of "The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara: The Man Who Would Assassinate FDR" (2003) argued: "Federal agents conducted an exhaustive investigation of the shooting and could not find a link between Zangara and the Chicago mob."
Cermak's biographer, Alex Gottfried, is also convinced that Zangara was not a hired gunman: "What actually seems to be the case, is that, regardless of what connections might have existed between Cermak and Chicago gangs, the shooting was neither planned nor executed by gangsters. The one-way ride, the machine gun tattoo, the shotgun blast - these are their customary and foolproof methods. No plot similar to this shooting is recorded in the annals of gang murders."
Did the Mob Order the Hit on Cermak?
In his book Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago’s Notorious Enforcer, Humble contends that Cermak was as corrupt as Thompson and that the Chicago Outfit hired Zangara to kill Cermak in retaliation for Cermak’s attempt to murder Frank Nitti.
Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti is arguably the most glamorized gangster in history. He was an infamous Chicago wiseguy who eventually rose to command the city’s premier underworld organization, The Outfit. Though he has been widely mentioned in fictional works, Humble’s is the first book to document Nitti’s real-life criminal career alongside his pop-culture persona, with special chapters devoted to the many television shows, movies, and songs featuring Nitti. Author Ronald Humble chronicles The Enforcer’s beginnings in New York’s Navy Street Boys to his position as Al Capone’s second-in-command and eventual leadership of the outfit, with bodies piling up along the way.
Was it Nitti versus Cermak? Humble seems to believe so.
There are a lot of conflicting stories and testimonials and over the decades, there has been much speculation, misinformation, and even outright fabrications regarding the shooting of Anton Cermak. Several of the versions including statements from President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, L.L. Lee, Miami City Manager, Chicago Alderman James Bowler, Mrs. Walter Wright, and Reporter Rex Schaeffer.
Gunshot Wound, Injury, and Complications.
Cermak died on March 6, partly because of his wounds. On March 30, however, his personal physician, Dr. Karl A. Meyer, said that Cermak’s primary cause of death was ulcerative colitis, commenting, “The mayor would have recovered from the bullet wound had it not been for the complication of colitis.” The autopsy disclosed the wound had healed, adding, “the other complications were not directly due to the bullet wound.”
In near zero-degree temperatures, half a million people stood along the street lines to watch Cermak’s body pass on its way to the old Chicago Stadium. Never in the history of the city has there been a funeral procession so grand. The service in the stadium was non-partisan and non-religious.
Tributes came from around the country.
Chicago committeeman T.J. Bowler described Cermak as the “the greatest leader the Democratic Party ever had,” and World Fair President D.F. Kelly stated, “Chicago has never had a man whose passing will be felt in so many directions.”
In the end, Mayor Cermak’s legacy was felt most intimately on the streets of the city he had devoted his life to and the place he loved the most, Chicago. In this truly American city, Cermak was a true American. An immigrant, a worker, and a leader. Upon his death, his city remembered him as their greatest benefactor, a champion of public service and civic pride.
In 1950 J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI was asked to report on the original investigation into the case: "The Secret Service files reflected that there were many allegations, most of which were in the form of anonymous letters, that the attempted assassination was planned by gangsters or some organized criminal group, and that Zangara had been sent to Miami expressly for that purpose. Subsequent investigation, however, indicated that he had been in Miami for several months prior to the incident. There is no indication that Zangara had any knowledge as to the identity of Mayor Cermak of Chicago. There was no evidence that Zangara had been in Chicago nor had any relatives or associates in the city."
“I work from the same desk that Mayor Cermak sat at over eighty years ago. And a day does not go by that I don’t think about Tony Cermak’s legacy and what he did for his city.” – Chicago Mayor Rahm EmanuelCompiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.