Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wrong Time, Wrong Place—Anton Cermak’s Bad Luck

Moments before things went south in Miami in 1933.  FDR shakes the hoof of a guy in a donkey suit.  Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak is in the crowd right above Roosevelt's hat.  Moments later he hopped on the touring car's running board to speak with the President elect.  Shots, as they used to say on old radio thrillers, rang out.

Just what the hell were Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt doing in Miami, Florida on the Ides of February 1933?  Good question.
For his part FDR had taken a break after the campaign in which the New York Governor had trounced Herbert Hoover winning the votes of Depression weary—and thirsty—Americans.  He had taken a leisurely sail on a yacht to fish, drink martinis, and regale friends with his stories.  He finished the trip in Miami then planned a train trip north with stops for brief speeches before his March 4 inauguration.  He was whisked from the dock to Bayside Park in an open car for an appearance before a cheering crowd.
Cermak was on a rather more urgent errand.  He had traveled all the way from Chicago to beg.  His city was broke.  It could not even meet the payroll of city workers.  The mayor wanted to plead for help from the Federal government.  He hoped Roosevelt would be grateful for his help in carrying normally staunchly Republican Illinois for the Democrats.
Neither man planned an appointment with a diminutive but handsome Italian immigrant and self-professed anarchist and the cheap .32 revolver he had recently purchased at a pawn shop.
Giuseppe Zangara was born in Ferruzzano, Calabria in 1900.   A veteran of the Italian Army Tyrolean Campaign of World War I, where he was reported to be an excellent marksman with a rifle but was unfamiliar with hand guns.  He and an uncle had immigrated to the U.S. together in 1923 settling in Patterson, New Jersey where there was a large Italian community.  Badly educated and barely literate in his own language, Zangara became a brick layer, backbreaking work for a man barely 5 foot tall.
He had become a citizen in 1932.  But it is unlikely that he voted that year.  Zangara had vaguely absorbed anarchist ideas that percolated through his immigrant community.  Although he had no known ties to any organization and could probably not even read the Italian anarchist press like Carlo Tesca’s sophisticated and influential Il Proleterio, he could spout slogans he probably picked up at street meetings and could rage against kings and presidents.”
Things had not been going well for him.  A botched appendectomy in 1926 damaged his gall bladder leaving him in constant, agonizing abdominal pain, a pain so intense that it affected his mental health.  The Depression made work at his trade scarce.  Broke, out of work, in pain, and full of mounting rage against the injustices that had made his like a living hell, Zangara had drifted down to Miami, living in cheap rooming houses and picking up what casual labor jobs he could at things like dishwashing. 
Then he learned that an actual almost President was being miraculously delivered to his very doorstep. Zangara was not about to miss a golden opportunity.
It was evening as Roosevelt’s car pulled into the park.  As it rolled to a stop the crowd surged around it with no interference from the handful of police present.  There was no reason to worry, the crowd was friendly, almost euphoric at seeing FDR up close.  Roosevelt boosted himself up from his back seat to the trunk of the touring car to wave jauntily at the crowd.
Nearby but behind several others, Zangara strained to get a glimpse of his target, unable to see over the heads of a crowd all taller than himself.  He found a vacated metal folding chair and from that shaky perch drew his revolver from his pocket and took aim.  His arm reached over the head of Lillian Cross and he squeezed off a round.  Cross and others nearby grabbed for the gun but in the struggle Zangara wildly got off four more shots.   .
Roosevelt at the moment of the first shot had slid back into his seat and was reaching to take the hand of Cermak who had stepped onto the running board of the car to greet him.  The crowd around him immediately reacted to the string of pops from the small pistol, not unlike fire crackers.  FDR was unhurt but confused.  Five others were not so lucky, each hit in the wild fusillade.  Closest to him was Cermak.  A bullet had pierced his lung.
Stunned and wounded Cermak was aided by bystanders moment after being shot.  He would be placed in Roosevelt's car which would take him and FDR to a hospital.

The wounded Cermak was hauled into Roosevelt’s car, sprawled beside him on the seat.  As best it could the car broke free of the panicked crowd and sped to Jackson Memorial Hospital.  Along the way the mayor was widely reported to have croaked to FDR, “I’m glad it was me, not you.  Years later colorful 43rd Ward Alderman and boss Paddy Bauler would claim that Cermak had said no such thing and that he had fed the story to the press as a way polishing the Mayor’s image.  But that may just have been Bauler, a noted blowhard, in his cups.
Back at the park Zangara had been wrestled to the ground and was being pummeled by the crowd.  Police waded in and saved him.  He was taken to a nearby precinct house where he cheerfully confessed.  In fact, he could not stop confessing.  He was glad to do it for anyone who asked.  The press was filled with quotes, all carefully presented in dialect fit for any vaudeville comic Italian like Chico Marx.  “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.”

After the shooting Guiseppe Zangara, the tiny anarchist would-be assassin was roughly handled and hauled to a Miami precinct house where he would not shut up.  Here is is put on display for the press and the uniformed officer displays the pistol he used in the attack.  No carefully preserved "chain of evidence" without contamination in those days.

As Cermak and the other victims still lay in the hospital, Zangara was brought to speedy trial for attempted murder.  He pled guilty so that without even calling witnesses, the judge sentenced him to 20 years on each of four counts.  As he was being led away Zangara shouted, “Four times 20 is 80. Oh, judge, don’t be stingy. Give me a hundred years!”
He did not have to wait long for a harsher sentence.  Cermak died in the hospital on March 6, two days after Roosevelt was sworn into office.  The bullet wound was not the direct cause of death.  His doctors reported that was healing and that he would have survived it.  But he was suffering an unrelated case of peritonitis which caused complications and weakened him.  Despite the diagnosis of peritonitis as the cause of death, Zangara was charged with his murder.  It didn’t matter since another victim, a woman, had also died and he could be charged with her death as well.
Once again Zangara was found guilty after declaring, “You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair. I no care!”  The judge was glad to oblige. 
He was taken to Florida State Prison in Raiford where he waited only ten days before he appointment with Old Sparky.  While in custody he was perplexed that anarchists and workers had not rallied to his defense as they had for Sacco and Vanzetti a few years earlier.  But then Sacco and Vanzetti were widely believed to be innocent men and framed.  Zangara was manifestly guilty, surely deranged, and more than a little embarrassing for a movement that had generally moved away from the propaganda of the deed and political assassination years before in favor of an anarcho-syndicalist labor movement.
Zangara had been glad to mug and boast for newsreel cameras while in custody and was angry and disappointed to learn that they would not be allowed to film his execution.  When the time came, strapped to the chair, defiant as ever he said, “Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! ... Pusha da button!”  They did.  Zangara fried on March 20, little more than a month after the fateful night in Miami.
Cermak was regarded as a hero and a martyr by many in Chicago.  This souveneer plate memorialized the words he supposedly uttered to Roosevelt on the way to the hospital.  "I'm glad it was me instead of you."  Later 43rd Ward Alderman Paddy Bauler would claim he made up the quote to polish Cermack's image in the press.  But Bauler was a notorious spinner of yarns so who knows?

Of course then as now conspiracy theories were quick to take root.  Walter Winchell who was by happenstance in Miami when the shooting occurred was the first to float the theory that Italian gangsters were involved, on no greater evidence than Zangara’s ethnicity.  He assumed that FDR was the target and that perhaps the motive was stopping the repeal of Prohibition, expected to be a body blow to the mob’s black market liquor and speakeasy operations.
In Chicago, however, few thought that FDR was the target.  It was widely assumed that Zangara got his man—Cermak.  There are a number of variations on conspiracy theories, still advanced and a staple of local lore and crime fiction. 
The most popular hypothesis is that the Outfit was angry that Cermak had ousted their loyal protector, long-time Republican Mayor William Hale Thompson in the election of 1931.  Cermak had promised to be tough on the gangs who had made Chicago’s streets notorious and had, indeed made some progress in cleaning out the Police Department of its most notorious protectors.  It is said that Frank Nitti, running the mob while Al Capone vacationed in Atlanta as a guest of the government for income tax evasion, personally blamed Cermak for a raid on his office in which Chicago Police Sergeant Harry Lang shot Nitti three times in the neck and back in what was widely regarded as an assassination attempt.
A variant version is that Cermak was not a reformer at all, but indebted to non-Italian gangsters out to displace the Outfit, who had helped him assemble the patchwork ethnic coalitions that would become the bedrock of the long running Democratic Machine.
Cermak's impressive mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery.
Good guy or crook, Cermak is seen by conspiracy theorists as the natural target of assignation.
The fact that Zangara was from Calabria, the ethnic home of many non-Sicilian gangsters, has been a tantalizing clue for them.  But not only has no connection ever been found between Zangara and the Chicago Outfit, no even casual connection has been found between him and crime figures anywhere.
As for me, I’ll take Zangara at his word.  But if you are from Chicago, you probably won’t.

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