Alderman O'Malley Charged With Murder

As Adolph Luetgert was on trial for murder, newspapers often compared it with the O'Malley case, which had been big news in late 1896 and early 1897. Inspector Michael Schaack and Cook County State's Attorney Charles Deneen were criticized over their handling of the O'Malley case, and some of their opponents tried to draw parallels with the Luetgert case. The following is an account of the prosecution of Chicago Alderman Thomas O'Malley on charges of murder.

On Election Day, November 5, 1894, the polling places were patrolled by gangs of desperadoes affiliated with the Democratic Party  — "wharf rats and dock thugs," according to the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune. They had orders to prevent Republicans from casting ballots.

Things got violent in the 23rd Ward. Eight men attacked Michael Kennedy, a candidate who was challenging the political machine of the Market Street gang, tore off one of his ears and kicked him unconscious. Later in the afternoon, a Tribune reporter witnessed about fifty hoodlums beat and kick a "slight young fellow who looked like a Swede," dragging him in the street as a crowd of 200 watched and laughed. And men hanging around the polling places filled out ballots for voters, telling them they had no choice but to vote for State Senator John F. O’Malley.

Gus Colliander, who was a saloonkeeper at Oak and Sedgwick streets but also something of a politician with a large following in the Swedish community, had been working against Senator O’Malley’s campaign.

A couple of days before the election, he gone to another saloonkeeper, William Coughlin, who was a friend of both Colliander and O’Malley, and said he wanted to make peace with the senator. That night, Coughlin told Senator O’Malley about Colliander’s gesture of conciliation, but the senator wanted no part of it. He said Colliander could try to beat him on Election Day if he wanted to.

"I tried to reason with John and tell him that this was not good judgment, but he would not listen to me," Coughlin said.

After that, Colliander became enraged and worked even harder against the senator. At noon on Election Day, Coughlin hunted down a different O’Malley, Democratic 23rd Ward Committeeman Thomas J. O’Malley, and took him to Colliander’s saloon. Tom O’Malley asked Colliander, "Why don’t you stop this thing, Gus?" Colliander said the senator had insulted him, and he would never stop his campaign against him now.

At midnight Colliander locked up his saloon and went to a polling place down the street, where ballots were being counted. A short time later, eight men armed with revolvers and "apparently frenzied with drink" kicked down the door. A police officer who was present ordered the thugs to leave, but they opened fire, hitting the officer in the groin, another man in his arm and Colliander in his abdomen. The officer, lying on the floor, drew his revolver and returned fire. The gunmen fled down the street. The three shooting victims were taken to a hospital, and Colliander died a few hours later.

Inspector Schaack quickly came up with a list of suspects in the Colliander murder. He sent handbills throughout the United States, offering rewards for the arrests of eight men. He had little evidence against these men, however, other than the fact that they’d been seen harassing voters earlier on Election Day.

The two members of the gang Schaack focused most of his suspicions on were John Santry, who had apparently been shot in the breast during the attack on the polling place, and John Bingham, who had fled from Chicago just after the murder. Despite his suspicions, Schaack found it difficult to win a conviction against the men.

He sent Captain Herman Schuettler to New Orleans, where he captured one suspect, John "Major" Sampson, and brought him back to Chicago, but Sampson was acquitted on murder charges. Bingham fled to Milwaukee, Mexico, California and Oregon, where he was arrested. Though Schaack would have liked to have tried Bingham on murder charges in Chicago, the suspect ended up in the Oregon State Penitentiary, serving a sentence for burglary and robbery.

A year and a half later, in April 1896, Schaack was still preparing evidence for a prosecution against Santry. He brought many of the same witnesses who had been questioned before back to the police station to see if they would identify Santry as one of the revolver-wielding thugs.

"I almost had become ashamed of asking these men to come to my office," Schaack said. This time, however, "One of the witnesses remarked that he could tell something if he wanted to. I asked him what he meant. He replied again, ‘Well, I can tell something if I want to.’ I insisted on his explaining what he meant."

Finally, the witness told Schaack that the man he was looking for was Thomas J. O’Malley, the Democratic committeeman, who had since been elected to the City Council. After questioning this witness and several others, Schaack said he became "absolutely convinced" that Tom O’Malley was one of the men responsible for the murder of Colliander. An election judge who said he’d known O’Malley for years told police Tom O’Malley had been one of the first men to burst through the door of the polling place on that election night. "Give me that box," O’Malley had cried out, along with an "oath." O’Malley had pointed to the ballot-box and flourished a revolver, seconds before the shooting broke out, the witness said.

When Schaack presented his new evidence to State’s Attorney Jacob Kern, the prosecutor was less than persuaded. He waved aside Schaack’s new theory, saying, "There’s nothing in it." Later in the year, when Kern had only two weeks left in office, he asked Schaack to press the case against Santry, and Schaack refused. At Schaack’s urging, a judge agreed to postpone the case. Then, in December 1896, a thirty-three-year-old Republican with a reputation for honesty, Charles Deneen, took office as the new state’s attorney for Cook County.

"Within three days after Mr. Deneen had taken possession of his office, I laid all the evidence before him and he himself personally examined the witnesses," Schaack said.

The inspector persuaded Deneen to prosecute Tom O’Malley, and a grand jury indicted the alderman on the day after Christmas, to the shock of the public, which had never heard O’Malley’s name mentioned in connection with the Colliander murder.

Prosecutors claimed to have a strong case against O’Malley, but it hinged on the ability of witnesses to place him at the scene of the crime. On December 29, a friend of the alderman told a newspaper reporter, "The light in the polling place was so bad and the confusion so great that the identification of O’Malley by anyone in the place is utterly impossible. Another thing I can find a dozen Irishmen in town who bear a general resemblance to the alderman. By the way, there is one now." O’Malley’s friend pointed to a man crossing the street, and the reporter agreed that the passer-by had a strong resemblance to the indicted alderman.

Sure enough, when O’Malley went on trial in January and February 1897, many witnesses said they could not positively place him at the murder scene. Several witnesses said they’d seen O’Malley in the saloon of Charles Berger at Wells and Oak streets at midnight, when the killing took place. O’Malley’s attorney portrayed the case against him as a politically motivated conspiracy. Accusations flew back and forth about witnesses being bribed or coached to lie. A large crowd turned out to watch Deneen make the first major closing argument of his prosecutorial career. He claimed that witnesses had refused to identify O’Malley because they feared retribution from the Market Street Crowd. The jury didn’t agree, though, finding O’Malley not guilty.

Schaack and Deneen faced harsh criticism for the way they’d handled the O’Malley case. Schaack was a Catholic, but he found that the members of his own church were among his bitterest enemies, and the most anxious to depose him. Despite calls to remove Schaack from office, the Democratic mayor, Carter Harrison II, stood by him.

© 2003 by Robert Loerzel.

Picture: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 27, 1896.

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 6, 1894, Dec. 27 and 30, 1896; Chicago Daily News, Dec. 30, 1896, and Feb. 6, 12, and 13, April 28 and  30, 1897; Chicago Chronicle, May 18, 1898.