Anton Cermak

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Anton Joseph Cermak
Anton Cermak cph.3b27410.jpg
44th Mayor of Chicago
In office
1931–1933
Preceded by William Hale Thompson
Succeeded by Frank J. Corr
Personal details
Born (1873-05-09)May 9, 1873
Kladno, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary
Died March 6, 1933(1933-03-06) (aged 59)
Miami, Florida, United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Horejs Cermak

Anton "Tony" Joseph Cermak (Czech: Antonín Josef Čermák, pronounced [ˈantɔɲiːn ˈjɔzɛf ˈtʃɛrmaːk]; May 9, 1873 – March 6, 1933) was an American politician of Czech origin who served as the mayor of Chicago, Illinois from 1931 until his assassination in 1933.

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Kladno, Austria-Hungary (now in the Czech Republic), Cermak emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1874. Cermak grew up in the town of Braidwood, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, and later moved to Chicago. He began his political career as a precinct captain and in 1902 was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives.[1] Seven years later, he would take his place as alderman of the 12th Ward. Cermak was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1922, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 1928, and mayor of Chicago in 1931.[2] In 1928 he ran for the United States Senate and was defeated by Republican Otis F. Glenn, receiving 46% of the vote.

Campaign for Mayor[edit]

His mayoral victory came in the wake of the Great Depression and the deep resentment many Chicagoans had of Prohibition and the increasing violence resulting from organized crime's control of Chicago, typified by the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.[citation needed]

The many ethnic groups such as Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians, and African Americans that began to settle in Chicago in the early 1900s were mostly detached from the political system, due in part to lack of organization which led to underrepresentation in the City Council. As an immigrant himself, Cermak recognized Chicago's relatively new immigrants as a significant population of disenfranchised voters and a large power base for Cermak and his local Democratic organization.[citation needed]

Before Cermak, the Democratic party in Cook County was run by Irish Americans. As Cermak climbed the local political ladder, the resentment of the Party leadership grew. When the bosses rejected his bid to become the mayoral candidate, Cermak swore revenge. He formed his political army from the non-Irish elements, and even persuaded black politician William L. Dawson to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Dawson later became U.S. Representative (from the 1st District) and soon the most powerful black politician in Illinois.[citation needed]

Cermak's political and organizational skills helped create one of the most powerful political organizations of his day. With support from Franklin D. Roosevelt on the national level, Cermak gradually wooed members of Chicago's growing black community into the Democratic fold. Walter Wright, the superintendent of parks and aviation for the city of Chicago also aided Cermak in stepping into office.[citation needed]

When Cermak challenged the incumbent "Big Bill" Thompson in the 1931 mayor's race, Thompson, representative of Chicago's existing power structure, responded with ethnic slurs:

I won't take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is.
Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at?
Can you picture a World's Fair mayor?
With a name like that?

Cermak's reply, "He doesn't like my name... it's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could." It was a sentiment to which ethnic Chicagoans could relate and Thompson's slur largely backfired.[3]

The flamboyant Thompson's reputation as a buffoon and the voters' disgust with the corruption of his machine and his inability or unwillingness to clean up organized crime in Chicago were cited as major factors in Cermak capturing 58% of the vote in the mayoral election on April 6, 1931. Cermak's victory finished Thompson as a political power and largely ended the Republican Party's power in Chicago; indeed, all of the mayors of Chicago since 1931 have been members of the Democratic Party.

Mayor[edit]

For nearly his entire administration, Cermak had to deal with a major tax revolt. From 1931 to 1933, the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers mounted a "tax strike." At its height, ARET, which was headed by John M. Pratt and James E. Bistor, had over thirty thousand members. Much to Cermak's dismay, it successfully slowed down the collection of real estate taxes through litigation and promoting refusal to pay. In the meantime, the city found it difficult to pay teachers and maintain services.

Assassination[edit]

While shaking hands with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida, on February 15, 1933, Cermak was shot[4] in the lung and seriously wounded when Giuseppe Zangara, who at the time was believed to have been engaged in an attempt to assassinate Roosevelt, hit Cermak instead. At the critical moment, Lilian Cross, a doctor's wife, hit Zangara's arm with her purse and spoiled his aim.[5] In addition to Cermak, Zangara hit four other people, one of whom, a woman, also died of her injuries.[5] Zangara told the police that he hated rich and powerful people, but not Roosevelt personally.[6]

Later, rumors circulated that Cermak, not Roosevelt, had been the intended target, as his promise to clean up Chicago's rampant lawlessness posed a threat to Al Capone and the Chicago organized crime syndicate.[4][7] According to Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith, there is no proof for this theory.[8] One of the first people to suggest the organized crime theory was reporter Walter Winchell, who happened to be in Miami the evening of the shooting.[9][10]

Long-time Chicago newsman Len O'Connor[11] offers a different view of the events surrounding Cermak's death. He has written that aldermen "Paddy" Bauler and Charlie Weber informed him that relations between Cermak and FDR were strained because Cermak fought FDR's nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the legend that his last words were "I'm glad it was me instead of you" was, according to O'Connor,[12] totally fabricated by Weber and Bauler.

Author Ronald Humble offers his view as to why Cermak was killed. 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.

Death[edit]

Monument to Anton Čermák in the town in which he was born.

Cermak died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami[13] 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.. the other complications were not directly due to the bullet wound." [14]

He was interred in a mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago. The mayor's death was followed by a struggle for succession to his party chairmanship and to the mayor's office.

A plaque honoring Cermak still lies at the site of the assassination in Miami's Bayfront Park. It is inscribed with Cermak's alleged words to FDR after he was shot, "I'm glad it was me instead of you."

Following Cermak's death, 22nd Street, a major east-west artery that traversed Chicago's West Side and the close-in suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, areas with a significant Czech population, was renamed Cermak Road. Zangara was electrocuted in Florida's electric chair on March 20, 1933, for he could not be charged with murder until Cermak died.

In 1943, a Liberty ship, the SS A. J. Cermak was named in Cermak's honor. It was scrapped in 1964.

Family[edit]

Cermak's son-in-law, Otto Kerner Jr., served as the 33rd Governor of Illinois and a federal circuit judge. His grandson, Frank J. Jirka, Jr., was with him in Miami when he was assassinated, later becoming a highly decorated UDT naval officer from wounds suffered at Iwo Jima (double amputee below the knee), after WWII he became a Physician, and in 1983 president of the American Medical Association.

In popular culture[edit]

  • A hastily produced movie about Cermak, The Man Who Dared, was released within months of his death. Further, there was a made-for-TV movie, The Gun of Zangara, about Cermak's assassination. It was originally a two-part episode of The Untouchables, where it had the title "The Unhired Assassin."
  • Cermak is mentioned in Stephen Sondheim's play Assassins during the song "How I Saved Roosevelt."
  • Cermak and his rise to the mayoralty has also been mentioned in Jeffrey Archer's novel Kane and Abel.
  • Part of the episode "Objects in Motion" of the television series Babylon 5 is based on the circumstances of Cermak's death.[15]
  • In Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, FDR is killed by not having a Zippo lighter in his pocket, leading into a series of events, including increased American isolationism, that ended in the victory of the Axis Powers in World War II, and subsequent occupation of the United States.
  • Cermak is referenced by Kelsey Grammer's Chicago mayor Tom Kane in several episodes of the Starz TV series Boss.
  • In "Red Team III," the seventh episode in the second season of HBO's The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) references Anton Cermak.
  • The history-based crime novel True Detective, the first in Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller series, includes a fictionalized account of the Cernak slaying.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.nndb.com/people/610/000132214
  2. ^ Hirsch, Arnold R. "Democratic Party." Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  3. ^ Wendt, Lloyd (1979). Chicago Tribune. Chicago: Rand McNally. ISBN 0-528-81826-0. 
  4. ^ a b "Freedom of Information Act : Franklin D. Roosevelt (assassination attempt)". Retrieved 2008-08-04. [dead link]
  5. ^ a b Smith, page 297.
  6. ^ Smith, pages 297-298.
  7. ^ Gumbel, Andrew: Steal This Vote. Nation Books, 2005. ISBN 1-56025-676-1, page 157.
  8. ^ Smith, Jean Edward, FDR (2007), Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-6121-1, page 715n.
  9. ^ Ridings, J. (2010). Chicago to Springfield: Crime and Politics in the 1920s. Arcadia. p. 19. ISBN 9780738583730. Retrieved 18 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Alter, Jonathan (2007). The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. Simon and Schuster. p. 367. ISBN 9780743246019. Retrieved 18 May 2013. 
  11. ^ "Meet Len O'Connor... Chicago's Pioneer Broadcast Street Reporter". Rich Samuels. Retrieved 11 November 2012. 
  12. ^ O'Connor, Len: Clout: Mayor Daley and His City. McGraw-Hill/Contemporary, 1984. ISBN 0-8092-5424-7.
  13. ^ "Kerner-Cermak family of Illinois". The Political Graveyard. Retrieved 2013-05-22. 
  14. ^ Reveals Colitis Fatal to Cermak", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 31, 1933, p1
  15. ^ Babylon 5 Magazine #4
  • Beito, David T. Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
  • Gottfried, Alex. Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership. Seattle: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

External links[edit]

Media related to Anton Cermak at Wikimedia Commons

Political offices
Preceded by
Daniel Ryan
Cook County Board President
1922–1931
Succeeded by
Emmett Whealan
Preceded by
William Hale Thompson
Mayor of Chicago
1931–1933
Succeeded by
Frank J. Corr