Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"I AM GLAD IT AS ME INSTEAD OF YOU" - Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago

People of my parents' generation were extremely fond of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - after all, they elected him president four times.  Chicagoans of their generation were very proud of the story of the Mayor of Chicago who was assassinated in the place of Roosevelt.  As with many of the stories of the old days, I am afraid this story is virtually forgotten today.  One of the purposes of my blog is to re-tell the stories of the men and women of days gone by so they are not forgotten.  So as a life-long member of the greater Chicago community I will proudly tell the story of Anton Cermak, the martyred mayor of Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Anton Joseph Cermak (Antonín Josef Čermák) was born in Kladno, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on May 9, 1873.  He came with his parents to the United States in 1874 and the Cermak family settled in northern Illinois as many of their fellow Bohemians did.  After his schooling was completed young Anton joined his father as a coal miner in Braidwood, Illinois.  In 1890 he moved to Chicago and found work on the railroad before starting his own business as a wood dealer and hauler in the city. 

Cermak began his political career as a precinct captain and in 1902 was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives.  Seven years later, he would take his place as alderman of the 12th Ward.   Using his aldermanic office as a springboard, he was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1922, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 1928, and ultimately mayor of Chicago in 1931.

Up until this time, politics in Chicago, and the rich patronage army that came with it, had been controlled by the Irish.  An immigrant himself, Cermak realized that the vast majority of immigrants felt disenfranchised by the Irish politicians so he made them his political base.  He may not have been Irish, but he had been in Chicago long enough to learn from the pros.  After the Irish bosses rejected Cermak's bid to become their mayoral candidate, he swore revenge. He formed his political army from all of the non-Irish elements, and was the first Chicago politician to reach out to the African-American community through black politician William L. Dawson.    Cermak persuaded Dawson to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party.  With the support of the Cermak political machine, Dawson was elected to the US Congress and went on to become the most powerful black politician in Illinois.

When Cermak challenged the incumbent Wiliam Hale ("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?

I love Cermak's reply:  "It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I got here as soon as I could."
The Chicago Tribune didn't mince any words with their opinion of Big Bill Thompson:

"For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character."

Sometimes a politician can go too far - even in Chicago.  In the mayoral election held on April 6, 1931, Anton "Pushcart Tony" Cermak won with 58% of the vote.  Cermak's victory finished Thompson as a political power and largely ended the Republican Party's power in Chicago—no Republican has held the office of mayor of Chicago since Thompson's exit in 1931.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in November of 1932.  In those days, the president was not inaugurated until the following March.  On February 15, 1933 President-elect Roosevelt arrived at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida.  He was coming off a yacht he had been using for a fishing trip to the Bahamas.  After giving a short speech while sitting on the back seat of a convertible Roosevelt noticed Cermak in the crowd.  He motioned Cermak over - probably to thank him personally for his help in getting Roosevelt elected.  After the two spoke privately, Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara stepped out of the crowd and began shooting.  It was believed that Zangara was attempting to kill Roosevelt, but he hit Cermak instead.

Zangara fired six bullets - the bullets hit four bystanders (including a mother of 5 children) and Mayor Cermak.  The mayor fell out of the car and called out "The President, get him away!". But Roosevelt ordered his car to stop and had the Mayor put in with him. President-elect Roosevelt held Cermak all the way to the hospital. On March 6, 1933, Cermak succumbed to his wound. Before he died, he is reported to have said to the President, "I am glad it was me instead of you, Mr. President."

An unrepentant Giuseppe Zangara, who laughed when he was sentenced to die, was executed in Florida's electric chair on March 20.  Relatives refused to claim his body so he joined other killers, rapists and common criminals who are interred in plots in orderly rows marked by a small concrete block with a license tag-shaped metal plaque stamped in the prison's tag plant with a name, date of death and a correction number on the grounds of the Florida State Prison at Raiford known as "boot hill."

Photo used with the permission of the photographer Z.K. Roberts.

Cermak's body was returned home for an elaborate funeral in Chicago.  Thirty thousand mourners marched in a solemn procession of six black horses, an open Army caisson, bells and muffled drums. Five hundred thousand Chicagoans presented themselves to honor their fallen leader as he lay in state first in the front window of his home, and then in the central corridor of the building shared by the City Hall and the offices of Cook County.  (It was not recorded whether or not Big Bill Thompson was among the mourners).

Twenty three thousand mourners packed into every available space in the Chicago Stadium for Cermak's funeral service.  Cermak's late wife Mary was a Catholic as were the Cermaks' daughters, and in fact a priest was called to his bedside as he lay dying, but Anton Cermak himself was not a Catholic.  It was decided that the service at the Stadium would be more of a civic service than a religious one, although mixed in with the politicians there were eulogies from The Rev. Daniel J. Frawley, pastor of St. Jerome's Catholic Church, Rabbi Louis L. Mann of Sinai Temple, and The Rev. John Thompson, pastor of The First Methodist Episcopal Church.  Governor Henry Horner gave the final eulogy.

After the services concluded, a crowd estimated at fifty thousand followed the late mayor's bronze casket from the Chicago Stadium to its final resting place at the Bohemian National Cemetery on North Pulaski Road.  The committal took place on a carpeted space in front of the art-deco Cermak family mausoleum where Cermak's beloved wife Mary Horejs Cermak had been laid to rest in November of 1928.  

It took ten army trucks to deliver all the floral offerings which were placed all around the mausoleum among the gravestones and against the trees.  Then finally, as Taps was played, Mayor Anton Cermak was commended to eternity.  Not bad for an immigrant boy from Bohemia, was it?

It is fitting that the front of Mayor Cermak's crypt is labelled with the quote he is most remembered for:

"I Am Glad It Was Me, Instead of You."   

May he rest in peace.


  1. What a rough start to Roosevelt's presidency! Thank you for reminding us of this chapter in Chicago political history. What a story!

  2. We can't begin to imagine what Mayor Cermak might have accomplished, had he lived. In his short tenure as mayor he had already made significant headway in rooting out the corruption left over from Big Bill Thompson's administration. Cermak was just a regular guy - owner of a small business and raising a family. He came up from the bottom but he never forgot his roots - or got too full of himself. What might have been... I am glad to do my small part to keep his memory alive.

  3. PS - Chicago politics is many things, but it is never dull.