Thursday, January 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Another Chicago Cold Snap—A Murfin Memoir

A woman braves the cold and wind in December 1983.

Yesterday and today are supposed to shatter all sorts of cold weather records in Chicago and much of the Midwest.  Among the cold snaps cited was one in the days before Christmas in 1983 when the lowest day time high temperature of -13° was recorded on December 24.  The days immediately before were nearly as frigid.  And therein lays a tale.
Kathy and I were living on the first floor of a gray stone two flat on Albany Street half a block north of Diversey with our daughters Carolynne age 13, Heather age 9, and not-quite four month old Maureen.

A recent Google street view of our gray stone two flat on North Albany.  Not much changed since 1983 except for the wrought iron fencing.
On December 20 Kathy asked me to check up on her grandmother Helen Zgorski.  Neither she nor her aunt Benita had been able to get her on the telephone to discuss Christmas arrangements.  No one was particularly alarmed, but I could drop by the CHA senior housing building on Sheffield just north of Diversey.  That was easy enough.  I worked at RaySon Sports on North Lincoln Avenue repairing football shoulder pads just a couple of blocks away.  I could pop in before I took the bus home.
The last of winter daylight was fading rapidly when I got there and took the elevator to her floor.  I knocked on the door.  There was no response.  I knocked again.  And again.  Alarmed, I went for the building manager who came with me to unlock the door.  Inside, lying on her bed was Grandma.  She was stone cold dead.  My heart sank.
We called 911 to report the death and I waited for the police and paramedics to respond.  Then I had to call Kathy at home to break the news.  She in turn notified her mother Joan Brady who everyone called LuLu up in Round Lake and Aunt Benita Wilczynski in Chicago.
I stayed in the small apartment four a couple of hours as the paramedics examined the body and the police investigated the scene.  Suspicious of the hippy looking guy in a cowboy hat, I was questioned closely about who the hell I was and why I was trying to gain entrance to the apartment.  I had no way of proving I was a grandson in-law.  I’m sure they called in my State of Illinois ID card—I didn’t have a driver’s license—and turned up my arrest record  for keeping a disorderly house when a fracas blew up at the IWW hall while I was Branch Secretary, a disorderly conduct arrest on a strike picket line at the Three Penny Cinema, and, oh, my conviction for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War.  That did not exactly endear me to the cops.  Finally while searching the rooms some photos turned up from Kathy and my wedding and other family events.  I was somewhat reluctantly off the hook.
By the time they brought her body down to the ambulance for the ride to the morgue and the bus ride, it was well into the evening before I got home.
Helen Zgorski was a tiny, frail looking woman who could be sharp and abrasive.  She was born in Chicago I 1907 to Polish immigrant parents.  Her mother operated a bakery on North Ashland Avenue near Belmont.  She grew up as a first generation bi-lingual and often had to translate for her parents.  The family was, of course, deeply Catholic and loyal Democrats, then nearly inseparable Chicago Polish identities.  As expected she grew up, married, and had two children, Lulu and Benita.  But her husband died in his 40’s leaving her a widow with two girls.  That’s when her connections to the old Democratic Machine paid off.  George Dunne, who was then 42nd  Ward Alderman and would go on be the longtime President of the Cook County Board, and Cook County Democratic Chairman after the death of Mayor Richard J. Dailey, found Helen a patronage job as a housekeeper at the old Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
As a struggling single mother she was stern with her two daughters entering their teens which affected her relationship with both.

Helen Zgorski with her great grandaughter Maureen Murfin shortly after the baby's birth.
She retired from the Sanitarium after twenty years or so.  When I first met her she was living in a small rear apartment in a frame building not far from her daughter Benita and her husband Al.   She would attend family functions, including frequent Sunday dinners at our Albany Street apartment.  After dinner there would be card gamesnickel 31 and Uncle Al and I would sometimes try to match her shots of Christian Brother’s Brandy.
For a few months she took care of Carolynne and Heather when they got out of St. Bonaventure School.  They would ride the Diversey bus and walk the couple of blocks to her apartment.  Kathy often worked late at her job at Recycled Paper Products so I would come to get them after my work and walk them the five or six blocks home.
Preparations for Christmas were put on hold as the family attended to the flurry of arrangements that a deaths always set off.  Lulu, Benita, and Kathy did most of the heavy lifting.  There was a funeral home wake which I must have attended but don’t remember. 
Meanwhile Chicago temperatures were plummeting from merely standard cold to arctic.
On the day of the funeral mass and burial dawned well below zero with cutting winds.  Baby Maureen was also sick—too sick to be taken out in the cold.  Kathy told me that I would have to stay home with her while everyone else went to the services and the traditional after burial restaurant meal with family and other mourners.  Since I had found the body, I felt somewhat invested in the whole thing and protested resulting in kind of a nasty spat.  But in the end there was no real alternative.  I stayed home.
By afternoon Maureen’s temperature spiked dangerously and was very sick.  In those bygone days before cell phones there was no way to reach Kathy or any of the other family members who by that time were at the cemetery.   I called the family doctor and was told to get the baby in right away.  On a work day there were no neighbors I knew who had a car.  Cab company dispatchers could not even promise a pick up in a sketchy neighborhood to go a handful of blocks.  Taxis could make all the money they wanted in the Loop and lakefront neighborhoods.
There was no choice.  I had to carry Maureen to the doctor.  I dressed her in her warmest onesie, pulled on her hooded snow suit, mittens, and wrapped her face in a scarf.  I swaddled her in two baby blankets.  And over the whole cocoon put her into a hooded blanket of brightly colored strips that Kathy had knitted and woven together.

A National Weather Service graphic showing that December 1983 was the third coldest month in Chicago with average  temps of 14.3°.  From December 21 through Christmas Day it never got above zero
Maureen might have been well insulated, but I was not.  I had my long johns on, of course, a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and slick soled cowboy boots.  My winter coat, blanket lined denim with a corduroy collar like those worn by railroaders was fine in ordinary cold but was way too thin for the below zero weather and stiff wind.  On my hands I had canvas and leather palmed work gauntlets pulled over thin brown jersey gloves.  At these temperatures my fingers were frozen in moments.  I tied a red bandana around my ears and pulled my old Stetson down tight.
It was not far to the doctor’s office.  Just south on Albany a couple of blocks to Logan Boulevard, over the wide parkway to the other side and another couple of blocks to the office  near the intersection with Milwaukee.  But it was face-freezing cold and snow blowing from rooftops stung.  I was most worried that I would slip on sidewalk ice or trip over the rock-hard piles left by snow plows at the end of each block.  It was a moustache freezer.  Each breath was like a knife to the lungs. We were probably outside less than 15 minutes, but it seemed infinitely longer.
The doctor’s office was not crowed.  Few patients had ventured out in the weather.  Cooing nurses helped unwrap Maureen’s many layers.  In fact the baby may have actually been over-heated by the bundling.  She was crying, fussing, and very flush.  Her face was almost burning to the touch.  The receptionist got me a hot, bitter cup of office coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
Youngish Dr. Findlay Brown saw us almost immediately.  He was the family doctor and had treated Kathy and the girls for some time but barely knew me.  He was caring and concerned.  He quickly ruled out the most frightening childhood illnesses.  He wrote a prescription and gave me advice about how to cool her down at home.  He also said in no uncertain terms that I was not to carry Maureen home.  The sun was going down and temperatures were plummeting again.
I picked up a prescription at the small pharmacy that served the medical building.  It turned out that the druggist used to have the drug store my family used in Skokie when I was in high school.  We chatted a bit.  I tried again unsuccessfully to call a cab.  I left Maureen with the nurses in the office while I went out on the Milwaukee Avenue side of the building to see if I could flag one on the street.  No luck.
I considered the CTA, but I would have to wait with Maureen for a Milwaukee Ave. bus and then transfer to an east-bound Diversey Bus.  Waiting for the busses could easily take longer than the walk.  I still could not reach Kathy or Uncle Al who had a car.

A blue and white Chicago Police Department squad car like this saved us.
An hour or so after the appointment, I spotted a police car at the stop light on Milwaukee.  I ran up and tapped on the window.  It was a two-man squad car.  Both cops were relatively young.  I explained my situation and practically begged them for a ride home.  Despite my disreputable appearance they agreed and waited while I ran in and re-bundled Maureen.  We arrived home about 5pm and I was profuse in my thanks to the cops who had ignored rules and procedures for us.
A while latter Kathy and the older girls arrived home.  I was scolded for taking Maureen out into the dangerous cold.
The next day her fever broke.  Christmas came despite it all.
I’ll save the tale of losing our heat and our pipes bursting in another record shattering cold snap in 1985 for another day.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Old Hickory’s Defiant Brush With Assassination

Mad Brit Richard Lawrence's pistol misfired when he took point blank aim at Andrew Jackson on the steps of the Capitol.

Note—By calendar serendipity we have back-to-back entries about Andrew Jackson.
You have to feel a little sorry for Richard Lawrence.  He was in the right place at the right time, skulking around the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 30, 1835.  A funeral service for a member of Congress was breaking up.  All of the dignitaries of the government including the Chief Executive himself were in attendance and would have to pass within feet of him.  He carried in each side pocket of his coat one cocked and loaded single shot derringer flintlock pistol.  He had a plan.  What could possibly go wrong?
Lawrence was a 35 year old Englishman who had been hearing voices in his head for a very long time.  Some believe he may have been the victim of lead in the paint he used in his work. Back home those voices had told him that he was the son and the heir of Richard III and that somehow the American President had kept him from the Throne.  He believed what those voices told him with such certainty that he decided to cross the ocean and come to the United States to have his revenge.  Along the way he decided he was also King of the U.S. and that Andrew Jackson was a usurper.
Suddenly the doors of the Capitol flew open and the mourners, led by the President himself emerged.  Lawrence hid himself behind a pillar.  As Jackson neared, he drew his pistol and stepped in front of the President firing at his chest at point blank range

Jackson's larger than life image began with his Revolutionary War capture by the British as a boy and the saber slash across his cheek for defying an officer's demand that he clean his boots.
We interrupt the narrative at this point to review a little bit about the victim of the assault.  Andrew Jackson was no stranger to violence. During the American Revolution acting as a courier for irregular troops in North Carolina at the age of 13 or 14, Jackson was captured by the Red Coats.  When he defiantly refused the order of a British officer to shine his boots, his cheek was slashed open by a saber.
As a young man he took leave of his widowed mother keeping in mind a single piece of advice which he would follow to the letter the rest of his life, “Never sue for libel in a Court of Law.”  By that she meant that in affairs of honor the manly thing was confronting the offender personally and if possible, kill him.
In the raw new territory of Tennessee Jackson read and began practicing law.  He also developed a reputation of being quick to anger and as a common tavern brawler.  As he rose in the society of Nashville, he assumed the manners and character of a gentleman.  Which meant he abandoned wrestling in the mud, eye gouging, and trying to bite your enemy’s ear off.  Instead he subscribed to the Code Duello.  Over the years he was in several affairs of honor and was both shot and did the shooting. 

Jackson shot and killed Charles Dickenson in an 1806 duel after his opponent wasted his shot.  Dickenson had accused Jackson's wife Rachel of bigamy.
In one case he challenged a man who publicly asserted—truthfully—that his beloved wife Rachel was at least an inadvertent bigamist for marrying him before a divorce to her first husband was final.  On the field of honor his enemy purposefully wasted his shot.  In most cases the other party would do the same and both could leave the field with honor.  But Jackson took slow and steady aim at the defenseless man and shot him dead through the heart.
In 1813 a feud between Jackson, by then General of the Tennessee Militia and a former friend and subordinate officer Col. Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse erupted into a wild street fight.  As Jackson closed to kill Thomas with a brace of pistols, Jesse snuck up behind him and shot him at point blank range in the side.  A ruckus between partisans of both sides ensued.  The Benton brothers fled town and Tennessee, although Tomas would later reconcile with the old General and become a political ally as a Senator from Missouri.  Jackson nearly bled to death and lost partial use of his left arm.  Jesse’s ball remained lodged in his body and caused him almost constant pain for the rest of his life.

Jackson suffered a near fatal wound in a wild street brawl with Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse.  Thomas latter reconciled with the General, became a staunch political supporter, and was a powerful Senator from Missouri.
Then, of course, there was Jackson’s well documented heroics and adventures as an officer against Native American tribes in the Red Stick War against the Creeks, at the legendary defense of New Orleans against the British, and finally marching through Florida in defiance of orders putting the nation at risk of a new war with Spain.
Back at the Capitol steps, when Lawrence fired a loud pop was heard and a cloud of black powder smoke briefly engulfed the two men.  But for some reason it was just a misfire and the ball never left the barrel.
As the smoke cleared the enraged 67 year old President lurched for Lawrence and began beating him with his heavy gold-headed cane.  Lawrence stumbled.  He had trouble getting his second pistol out of his pocket while fending off blows.  When he did get it out, the second gun also misfired.  Jackson continued raining blows on the now prostrate man until witnesses physically dragged him away.
Jackson was unscathed, although he didn’t realize he had not actually been shot until he got back to the Executive Mansion and discovered nothing more than powder burns on his clothing.
Lawrence was taken to jail unconscious.  When he recovered he was examined by a doctor who declared that he was suffering from “morbid delusions.”
Later that spring Lawrence was put on trial.  The prosecutor was Francis Scott Key, better known as the writer of the Star Spangled Banner. Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity, one of the first such verdicts in American history.  He lived his life out in various mental institutions until his death in 1861. 

Jackson suspected that his bitter enemies for blocking the renewal of the Second Bank of the United States Charter were behind the assasination attempt.
Jackson didn’t believe it for a second.  He was sure that Lawrence was a hireling of his political enemies in the emerging Whig Party or perhaps of the bankers irate over his blocking the renewal of the Charter of the Second Bank of the United States.  Vice President Martin Van Buren agreed.  Ever after he carried a brace of pistols to the Capitol to fulfill his Constitutional duties of President of the Senate.
Many historians have examined the matter and none have found any connection between Lawrence and Jackson’s many enemies.  That did not prevent the spread of the first of the conspiracy theories which seem to arise naturally from all assassinations and attempts.

The Smithsonian Instituion tested both of Lawrence's flintlock derringer pistols similar to this one, and both fired perfectly.
Lawrence’s pistols ended up in the Smithsonian Institution.  Around the centennial of the attack, researchers there tested both guns to try to find out why they had misfired.  Both fired perfectly on the first attempt to shoot them.  The scientists placed the odds of both functional pistols misfiring at 1 in 250,000.  Jackson was a lucky man.
Even luckier that he did not live in the 21st Century when his assailant might have a Glock with an extended clip.  No gold headed cane would protect him from that.