In 1928, the Grand Trunk
Railroad operated Train Number 10 daily except Sunday, between Chicago and Port
The train consisted of a steam locomotive of the second class, a coal car, an
important mail car serviced by two clerks and a passenger car with a smoking
The Grand Trunk tracks skirted the city on the west and south, and a busy
scheduled stop of Train Number 10 was Evergreen Park
at the junction of 95th Street
Avenue. The train, in those competitive days,
stopped at other stations for passengers leaving or boarding; the flag stop
at St. Mary's was rarely used; it was at 90th Street on the east side of St.
Mary's Cemetery, and at that time a dirt road, now covered with the lawns,
geraniums and headstones of the relatively new Evergreen Cemetery, ran from
St. Mary's Station along the east side of the tracks to 91st Street.
On the frosty morning of February 25, 1928, the little train started out from
the Dearborn Street Station with its customary quota of cars, calm crew,
carefully padlocked mail-car and a handful of somnolent passengers. At the
last minute, a clumsy Italian boarded the train and modestly seated himself
near the rear door of the last car, telling the conductor who collected his
ticket that he wished the train to stop for him at St. Mary's. He carried a
shovel wrapped about with a pair of worn overalls.
At 8:20, as the train slowed down for his station, he moved to the door where
the helpful brakeman waited to see him safely down the car steps. They had no
sooner dismounted together than they were both peremptorily and profanely
ordered to get back aboard by a hooded ruffian dressed in work clothes,
flourishing an ugly sawed- off shotgun. The brakeman, a perceptive man, saw
in a flash another similarly garbed bandit dash to the rear of the coach and
pull the valve of the airbrake, making it impossible for the engineer to
start the train. The conductor, the brakeman and the bewildered and
frightened passengers were herded into the smoking compartment, where a
gunman told them that it was a holdup; that no one would be hurt unless he
tried something funny; that there would be an explosion. In a moment there
was a very violent explosion, which shook the entire train.
In the meantime, the Italian workman had slipped swiftly across the platform
of the coach, leaped to the ground and was running around the back of the
train to pick up his cue in the carefully laid plans for the successful
holdup of the mail train.
Three of the desperadoes had leaped aboard with wires, detonator and dynamite
bomb. The ensuing explosion severely damaged the front end of the passenger
coach and blew in the locked and bolted steel door of the mail car. The three
rushed into the mail car with drawn guns, loud with threats of sudden
extinction, demanded from the two stunned railway clerks the Harvey mail
sacks, which they threw out to the sprinting Italian laborer, who ran with
them to a super-sized maroon Lincoln sedan, waiting on the dirt road nearby,
with engine idling and a tense hooded man at the wheel.
In the meantime, one of the gang had stationed himself with a very mean
machine gun behind the lattice-work that surrounded the out-house of St.
Mary's station and let loose bursts of bullets which sprayed off the sides of
the coaches and broke a number of windows.
A sharp whistle from the limping chief set all running for the Lincoln. They crowded
in, settled themselves on seats and mail sacks. With guns protruding form
every window the car roared off to the southeast through a cloud of dust. It
carried a cargo of eight tough guys, plus their loot, $133,000 in United States currency stolen form the United States
It had taken only three minutes to pull the job. The participants those that
lived were collectively sentenced to one hundred and three years in the
An alarm reached the Evergreen Park police
headquarters. At the time the village housed police car, fire equipment and
garbage trucks in an old garage and machine shop on Kedzie Avenue.
Tom Buis, the village policeman, took the call,
knew that the police car was being repaired, quickly borrowed the mechanic's
jalopy and boldly set forth at top speed for the scene of the crime. At the
corner of 91st Street and Kedzie Avenue, a huge
dark-colored car roared past him, headed east, with guns sticking out in all
"It looked like an arsenal on wheels," reported Tom. He added,
"I quit the police business right there. I went back to the garage and
called the Gresham Station of the Chicago Police Department. I got that old
Irish sergeant. I told him to send some help, that we'd had a train robbery
in Evergreen Park. He growled at me that it
was outside the city limits. He said we should handle our own train
robberies, that he had enough trouble as it was. He hung up on me."
As the Lincoln reached Western Avenue, the guns were tucked
away and the car moved quietly and swiftly to the most exclusive section of
serene law-abiding Beverly Hills,
where the ignition was finally turned off in the garage of a rather new and
plush residence done in Spanish-style. The Lincoln, which had been stolen, was found
the next day, Sunday, parked on a side street on the south side.
By arrangement, no one was at home in the Spanish ranch house that day. The
train robbers broke a window that led from the garage to the basement and
spent the day, until dark, in the basement and in the house, behind the drawn
draperies, changing their clothes, shaving, "looking the joint
over" (especially Madame's boudoir), drinking milk and coffee and very
little liquor, and dividing up the loot.
Counting and dividing took a lot of time, but was accomplished without any
untoward incident. The currency was all in bills of small denominations,
ones, twos, fives, tens and twenties. This was all part of the
well-thought-out plan, because the leader knew that the mail sacks would
contain currency for the week-end payrolls of the large industrial plants in
Harvey, shipped by mail form the First National Bank and the Federal Reserve
Bank of Chicago. Loot in the form of "small" bills meant that the
services of a "fence" would not be required and that involvement
through identification of stolen property would be practically nil.
The bundles of bills were checked, thumbed and totaled, and each man received
an equal share, in amount $16,030, after certain obligations were attended
to. The men agreed unanimously that the wife of the leader had been so nice
about getting up about two o'clock in the morning to cook breakfast of
pancakes and sausages for the crew that she merited a special bonus of $400.
First it was proposed that the worthy burger in whose basement the money was
being divided should be awarded $2,000 for his cooperation in absentia, but
the leader, who seems to have been delinquent at the time on some personal
legal bills owing to the house-owner, suggested that the gratuity be
increased a little, and in that flush moment the robbers raised it to $4,000.
The money was counted out, placed in a black suit box and was carried
upstairs by the leader, who attached a penciled note of explanation. Other items
taken care of were $300 for the machine gun purchased from the notorious Joe Saltis and $60 for dynamite and other incidentals.
They burned the mail sacks in the incinerator.
When darkness fell, Willie Jackson backed the car out on Pleasant Avenue and drove them
fearlessly, in two loads, to their homes or other requested destinations.
Willie Jackson, who had a rather full police record, was never sentenced for
his part in the train robbery, nor did he even come to trial. Before the
police could find him, he got involved in a street gun battle and was killed.
A policeman testified at one of the trials that the last time he saw Willie
Jackson was on a slab in the South Chicago
Wild Bill Donovan got back to his home at 3215 Maypole Street in time to take his
wife out to dinner. He told her the good news. She was so elated that, before
putting on her hat to go out, she quietly went back to the kitchen to phone
her good friend, the wife of the leader.
"Kate," she gurgled, "isn't it great! The boys got all that
money without anybody being hurt!"
A short block from my father's dry goods store in Washington Heights, on the
far south side of Chicago, a seemingly mild-mannered man named Limpy Cleaver, who called attention to himself by the
fact that he carried bags of groceries home form the chain store for his
wife, twice a week, was thought to be operating a beer flat in his frame
cottage. Because it was rumored that he was actually engaged in beer running,
and because the police suspected him of accepting orders for dynamite bombs
and "soup" from even more lawless members of society, Limpy's telephone wire had been tapped, and the joyous
message from Mrs. Wild Bill Donovan to Mrs. Catherine Cleaver was intercepted
by a trained listener. The call was traced to Donovan's phone. He was
arrested later that Saturday night and, confronted with enough evidence to
shake him, he confessed, and agreed to turn state's evidence.
The Cleavers were taken into custody immediately. The next day the police
arrested Frank Meccia, alias Frank Derrico, also know as Bozo. Lawrence O'Brien evaded the
police for eighty-eight days and spent half of his $16,000 in the interim.
Willie Jackson was killed in a gunfight before the police nabbed him and so
was Louis "Scarface" Padersonik.
John Flannery, a small-time gangster who was brought into the conspiracy only
the night before the robbery, and Virgil Litsinger,
alias Bill Collins, who was wanted for murder, managed to get into hiding in Canada, and
was not apprehended until much later. That makes eight.
Wild Bill Donovan was forty-eight years old at the time. He described himself
as a marine engineer. He had already served a sentence in Leavenworth
Kate Cleaver said about him: "I wasn't exactly afraid of Wild Bill
Donovan. I was rather nervous when he was around. I just didn't like his
He stated, in trial testimony, that he and Limpy
Cleaver began talking about the mail train robbery in October of 1927. The
first conversation on the intriguing subject took place in Cleaver's cottage.
There were present two other men of somewhat tarnished character. One was
Bozo, who was later to play the part of the innocent Italian laborer who
requested the fateful stop at St. Mary's. The other was Bill Collins, who was
then living in the Cleaver household, with intermittent mysterious absences.
At meetings in October and November there were also present Willie Jackson
and Scarface Padersonik.
Although Donovan testified that Padersonik had
stolen the Lincoln
car used for the get-away and had detonated the bomb which blew in the mail
coach door, he never stood trial. On March 19, only three weeks after the
train robbery, the newspapers carried a story that he had been killed in a
restaurant at 2344 West Lake
Street. His death was at the hands of a
policeman investigating an exchange of shots between Scarface
and the proprietor. The newspapers reported that it was not a holdup, only an
The idea for the mail robbery was not original with Limpy
Cleaver. The notorious Tommy Holden gang had attacked the same train and
seized the same mail pouches, achieving a net haul of $135,000, on September
Cleaver and his colleagues planned to do the job in Harvey and set the date as December 10,
1927. They drove out to Harvey
in two cars, because Bill Collins argued that six men in a fast car would
look suspicious and that they might get into trouble with police and need to
shoot it out. They were all fully armed, but the presence of a number of
guards at the Harvey
railway station made them think better of their enterprise. They gave up the Harvey project and
returned to Cleaver's kitchen to concoct other plans.
Casing the Evergreen Park environs convinced
them that if they could board the train at St. Mary's flag stop, they stood
an excellent chance of a successful robbery. According to Wild Bill's
testimony Cleaver did most of the planning. Finally the date was set for
Saturday, February 25.
All eight of the conspirators were in the Cleaver cottage during the evening
of Friday, February 24. Lawrence O'Brien and John Flannery were new hands as
of that day. It had been decided in December, after the Harvey plan had been
dropped and the St. Mary plan approved, that the original six were not
sufficient for the involved project of stopping a train, boarding the coach
to control the passengers, controlling the train crew, bombing the mail-car
door, garnering the correct mail pouches, loading the motorcar, making the
get-away and possibly having to deal with chance spectators.
In the words of one of them: "We decided we needed more men to take it
and Cleaver said he would get a few more good men, but didn't say who he
But Cleaver did nothing about it in December or January. On February 24, he
called O'Brien and told him to come out to the house and to bring a good man
with him. O'Brien got in touch with John Flannery in a saloon on the south
side and asked him to go along. In court several months later he stated that
he first met Flannery about New Year's Day of 1928 and that Flannery had been
convicted and sentenced to be hanged by Judge Gimmel
a few months before for the murder of one Swiontkowski.
He undoubtedly considered Flannery a good man for Limpy
"Cleaver told us he had a job he wanted to put us on," testified
O'Brien, "and we said alright. He told us it was to rob a train."
They all sat around in Cleaver's place that night, part of the time watching
Cleaver and Wild Bill Donovan make a pair of bombs out of old newspaper,
wires, two flashlight batteries and a few sticks of dynamite. Cleaver and
Donovan had purchased the dynamite several days earlier from a farmer near
Garments, to hide identity, had been purchased. All were to wear one-piece
khaki- colored mechanic's coveralls and over their heads knitted
khaki-colored wool army helmets, pulled down over the face, with holes cut
away for the eyes. That is, all but Bozo were so garbed, because he had been
selected to be the innocent train passenger requesting the stop at St. Mary's
station, unanimously selected because he was the only one without a police
record and so without an identifying photo in the Detective Bureau.
Bozo rehearsed his disguise at Cleaver's so as to be certain that his friends
would recognize him in the morning when he got off the train. He wore a
sheepskin-lined khaki-colored coat, brown working trousers, high-laced
leather boots and he carried a shovel with an old pair of overalls tied
He left the party in his Chrysler 72 sedan at about ten that night, drove to Dundee where he got some sleep in a roadhouse. He then
drove back into the city at about five in the morning, phoning Cleaver from
the Reliance Hotel to give the instructive message that he had just arrived
in town, that he would take the train out and that he was looking forward to
see the old gang again.
Bozo had two other names. He was born Frank Derrico,
but his step-father's name was Meccia and so Bozo
called himself either Frank Derrico or Frank Meccia as occasion demanded. He had run a roadhouse in
Fox Lake, but had been in Chicago for four or five years, intermittently
active in the restaurant business or the trucking business. He pleaded guilty
in court and was sentenced to serve nine years and six months in the
penitentiary. He was thirty years old.
The gang did not get much sleep that Friday night, if any. The plan had been
worked out carefully. Each participant had been assigned his role. Cleaver
permitted no drinking, since every man would need steel nerves and a clear
head for the early morning's three-minute encounter.
Kate Cleaver stated in court: "They were talking about things and sent
me upstairs. I didn't hear any of them talk about committing any robbery.
They were talking about something, but I didn't know what. I suspected that
they were doing something, but I didn't know what. I saw him (Virgil Litsinger, alias Bill Collins) whispering and talking
with Donovan, Bozo and Mr. Cleaver. I couldn't tell how long a period I saw
him whispering with Mr. Cleaver. They used to whisper and talk, but I don't
know what it was about."
"I came down again later," she stated, "when Mr. Cleaver asked
me to get something to eat. That was about two o'clock in the morning and I
made some pancakes and sausages. Bill Collins ate breakfast along with the
others there. I saw Donovan make a bomb with one of those sticks and wrap
paper around it. He had wires, quite a long piece on the table, I think, and
I saw two guns on the table and some dynamite there. I didn't see Bill
Collins do anything about the dynamite which was kept in a box in the back
bedroom. The box was white when it came into the house, but was painted black
by Bill and Mr. Cleaver."
In her testimony in court, Kate always referred to her husband as Mister
Cleaver. Later he referred to her, with a sinister snarl, as "that dirty
At Litsinger's trial in 1929, Kate testified that
she recalled a conversation that took place in her home a few days before
February 25, 1928, in which Litsinger said that
there would not be another twenty-fifth of a month go by without his getting
"He said that in my kitchen," she stated. "Mr. Cleaver and I
were present. He said that he was sick and tired of being broke. I don't
remember what month it was. It was a year or so ago' I don't know when it
was. This thing has been going on so long I don't really know."
Willie Jackson did the driving from Cleaver's cottage to the depot at St.
Mary's, very early that Saturday morning. He made two trips and they were all
on location before five a.m. It was cold and raw. There was no stove in the
depot. They were chilled and restless and tense. Bill Collins had brought
along a pair of lineman's climbers; donning them, he went out, scaled two
wooden telegraph poles and cut the important wires. The rest of them sat and
waited for the fateful minutes to pass. They were ready for any contingency
and were armed with two machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, a rifle and a
variety of revolvers, including one that was nickel-plated.
However, during the robbery, there was no shooting, except for the playful
warning tune on the Joe Saltis machine gun, to
remind the train crew and passengers that it was safer and wiser for them to
stay aboard the train. Bill Collins carried the machine gun and he knew how
to use it.
He had been indicted, some months before, under his real name of Virgil Litsinger, for the murder of a man named Glynn, and Limpy Cleaver, learning of his difficulty, had invited
him out to the back bedroom at 10235 Elizabeth Street. He moved about rather
freely, even frequenting Joe Lamm's poolroom. He
bought his cigars there.
Later, a post-office inspector, James F. Lyon, testified in court concerning
a search he made of the old barn behind the Cleaver cottage: "I didn't
find anything in the first part of the barn, but in about the middle I found
a compartment built into the back wall, in which was an old still, dynamite,
debris and bombs under the debris. Going further into the north part of the
barn, looking for possible secret hiding-places, I found a board under some
debris, lifted it up and there was a can stuffed with some papers. I opened
the papers and there was a transcript of the evidence taken at the inquest
over the murder of one Glynn."
Kate Cleaver's statements were quite important to the prosecution in proving
that Bill Collins and Virgil Litsinger were one in
the same person. She said that she had known Bill Collins for about a year
before the date of the train robbery and that during that time he had stayed
in her home two or three weeks at a time, part of each month during the year.
Toward the end of the year she learned that his real name was Litsinger, but she said, "He never had any
conversation with me at any time about himself as Virgil Litsinger."
When the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Poust, asked her
directly whether he had ever talked to her about the case of the People
versus Virgil Litsinger, arising out of the sudden
death of a man named Glynn, she replied that he told her once that it was
hell to be accused of something one had not done.
She stated: "They found the papers there, but I don't know what date it
was. It was the same day the postal inspectors went out to my house with me
and got the guns and money out of the secret room there."
She testified that during the night before the robbery Mr. Cleaver, Wild Bill
and Collins were contriving a dynamite bomb and she heard something about
blasting a door. At the close of her testimony she said, "During the
year I knew him I never saw anything out of the way in his conduct. He was a
very nice gentleman."
Later the jury found him guilty of robbing the United States mails and Judge
Wilkerson sentenced him to serve twenty-five years in Leavenworth.
There were some other people in Chicago at the time who did not consider him
a perfect gentleman. These were some Republican campaign managers and
Virgil's uncle, Ed Litsinger, purveyor of Ford
cars, who had announced his candidacy on the Republican ticket for the Board
of Review, now known as the Board of Appeals, with the election looming up in
When the police hammered peremptorily on the front door of Limpy Cleaver's cottage on Saturday night, shouting,
"Open up! This is the Law!" there were three persons within, Mr.
and Mrs. Charles Cleaver and Virgil Litsinger,
alias Bill Collins.
"I saw Mr. Cleaver and Bill Collins come into the house about eight
o'clock on the night of February 25. They were alone. I saw him when he came
into the place. He had nothing with him. He talked in the kitchen, stood at
the table and I spoke to Mr. Cleaver. I told them about Mrs. Donovan calling
up on the telephone and that she said it was wonderful; the boys got all that
money without anybody being hurt. I can't say that remark Mr. Cleaver or Bill
Collins made when I told them that. Bill went to the telephone and called
Donovan and said it was a fine thing for him talking that way to his wife and
he said to get the hell to Cuba."
"I didn't see any money on Bill Collins at the time. I think he wore a
brown sweater. The police came just after, in less than an hour. When Mr.
Cleaver opened the front door, Bill Collins went out the back door."
That was February 25. Nine months later, on November 21, shortly after
another Republican landslide election, he gave himself up to Chief Post
Office Inspector K.P. Aldrich in Chicago. By this time all the other
principals in the crime were either dead or sentenced to the penitentiary,
with the exception of John Flannery, who continued to hide out in western Canada
and who was not seized by the authorities until May 25, 1929.
Inspector Aldrich's testimony in this matter sounds as though it were being
presented for the benefit of the newspapers rather than for the case at hand.
"I directed and conducted a very close search for these men," he
said, "and in March, 1928, I had printed 247,000 circulars. The
circulars had on the face of them the picture of Litsinger
and on the reverse side his fingerprints and they were mailed by my office
under my supervision to all of the first and second-class postmasters in the
United States and the Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs of all those states and
all the counties in the United States. They were sent to the constabulary and
post-office inspectors in Canada, customs patrol of the United States and to
all the law-enforcing and investigating agencies with whom we have
"I did more things than send the circulars out. I sent inspectors to
various states of the Union looking for Litsinger.
I also secured the cooperation of the police in Chicago and they conducted a
search for him and this was carried on for months until he returned. I sent
inspectors to Canada and went there myself. An inspector went to Wisconsin
and we had the cooperation of the post-office inspectors all over the United
"Yes, I know Fred Litsinger, the brother of
Virgil Litsinger. He did not appear before me in my
office about ten days after February 25, 1928, and have a conversation with
me about his brother. According to my recollection he first came into my
office after this man surrendered. I don't remember him coming in shortly
after the crime was committed and in the month of March, 1928, he did not say
to me that Virgil Litsinger would be produced
immediately after the election. He did not come into my office at any such
time. I did not say to Virgil Litsinger when he
surrendered himself in November, after the November election, where Ed Litsinger was a candidate, I see you have kept your
Virgil Litsinger and John Flannery were brought to
trial on July 9, 1929. Both pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty by the
jury on all counts of a long and impressive bill of indictment and were
sentenced by Judge Walter C. Lindley to twenty-five years in the federal
Flannery had been known to have been hiding with or near relatives in Inwood, Canada, but was not apprehended there.
Considering his reputation at the time as a notorious and dangerous criminal
(he was considered a suspect in the newsworthy murder of Midget Fernekes) his arrest was a rather drab and shabby affair.
At five-thirty in the morning of May 25, 1929, police knocked on the door of
the one- story cottage at 6641 South Hamilton Avenue, occupied by Ben Dixon
and his family. Mrs. Dixon was John Flannery's sister. They knocked on the
door for twenty minutes without a response.
"When the man I saw through the window in bed," testified Officer
Thomas Curtin, "didn't get up, we forced our way in and searched the
cottage. I opened the door into the kitchen, leading to the attic, climbed up
to the attic there, put my revolver on Flannery who was in the attic and told
him to throw up his hands, which he did. Mayes and Regan came up and searched
Officer Lawrence Mayes then said, "We saw and talked with his sister,
brother-in-law and two children. There was a basketful of dirty clothes and a
couple of old chairs and a ladder on the back stairs and we had to climb over
them to get up there. Flannery was at the other end of the attic, lying on
the floor. He was not sleeping in the attic; he was about half dressed."
Officer Curtin continued: "We brought him downstairs and asked him in
the presence of officers if there were any guns there and he said there was
no need for searching; that we had him; that he would take what the
government decided to do with him."
It was the testimony of Frank Meccia which finally
established the guilt, as a member of the conspiracy, of the prominent lawyer
who resided smugly at the time in the Spanish-style stucco home at 8826 South
Pleasant Avenue in Beverly Hills. The name of the lawyer was Charles S.
Wharton. He had been a congressman in Washington. He had served as assistant
corporation counsel for the city of Chicago and had served for three years as
an assistant State's attorney. He had also kept Limpy
Cleaver out of jail on four separate occasions.
The evening before the robbery, Charlie Cleaver phoned Charlie Wharton,
informing him that he and the boys were going to pull off a job the next day
and that they wanted the use of Wharton's basement as a hideaway for the day.
"And listen, Charlie," said Cleaver, "you get your wife out of
there and the two of you stay away all day, understand?"
Wharton understood, for, testified Frank Meccia
alias Bozo, "On the night of the 24th, I drove Cleaver over to Wharton's
home in my car and I was present when Cleaver and Wharton made the
arrangement for us to hide out there the next day. Wharton took us down in
the basement of the house and showed us the window that could be kicked out,
between the basement and the garage."
In return for his readiness to cooperate in the proposal of his rough client
who had neglected to pay in full certain legal bills for having been kept out
of jail, he received $4,000 of United States currency, in bills of small
denomination, in a black suit box. Later he was sentenced to two years in the
When the police accused him, he brazenly denied any involvement. But the
evidence piled up, despite Herculean efforts by his principal lawyer, State
Senator James J. Barbour.
One of Mr. Barbour's witnesses was John J. Hennessey, who described himself
as the proprietor of the Beverly Protective Agency, which he had been running
for about a year, the business of which was to protect the homes of Beverly
Hills, including the home of Charles S. Wharton, from nine o'clock at night
until daylight. Mr. Hennessey said that he could not keep up the payments on
his car, and besides that, it was stolen one day, from in front of Wharton's
Spanish house. Following that, the generous Mr. Wharton permitted the
hard-working night watchman to use his car, nights, to make his rounds. Mr.
Hennessey had a key to the Wharton garage and sometimes, after his patrolling
hours were over, he would put the Wharton car in the Wharton garage, and
sometimes he would just park it at the curb in front of the house. He was
pretty sure that he had left the garage door unlatched on the morning of
February 25, but no one seemed to believe him.
In those days some of the private night watchmen had rather odd habits. For
instance, there was that old one who told Mrs. McManus, the wife of the head
of the Legal Department of Swift & Company, that the chore of walking
around all night made his feet sore. When Mrs. McManus later told her friends
at the bridge club about having put an old rocking-chair on the back porch
for the watchman's ease and comfort, some eyebrows were raised and a number
of contracts summarily cancelled.
Important testimony was given by Bill Schroeder, who was the neighborhood
yard man. He worked for Mr. Wharton and for Mr. Arnold, who was Wharton's
immediate neighbor, and he also worked for Murray Hetherington, the
architect, who had designed and built both of the handsome houses. There was
a stump between the two homes, actually on the Arnold property and having
been instructed by Mr. Arnold to get it burned down eventually, old Bill had
his weekly bonfires on the stump.
"I got there Sunday morning, February 26, at about seven o'clock,"
he testified. "I had two newspapers. I tended the fire, read the paper
and then took one newspaper to Mr. Wharton. I used to clean the house for Mr.
Wharton and later cleaned around the building for him. I got only a glass of
beer for it."
"Later that morning he came and told me to burn up a sack. It was a
burlap sack and in it were two white sacks that looked like beer filters.
Before burning them I went back because they were closed and asked if he
wanted me to burn them and he said he did. I threw one back on the fire and it
bust and there was grain and Mr. Wharton said it was chicken feed. Then I
burned them both. Mr. Wharton pointed them out to me and told me to burn
At this point Miles J. Devine, attorney for the defense, moved to strike out
Bill Schroeder's evidence on the ground that it was incompetent and
irrelevant and had not "force and effect," but the judge denied the
Three or four days after the robbery, the authorities made a thorough search
of the Wharton establishment. According to the newspapers, Mrs. Wharton, a
night-clubbish kind of person, laughed when asked
about the search and said that it was more amusing than it was insulting. She
thought the whole thing was probably started by the rumors of neighbors when
they saw the handyman digging up a broken water pipe by the house and later
burning some rubbish. She said that at eight p.m. on March 1, four Chicago
policemen and eight federal post-office inspectors invaded her lovely home
with picks and shovels and a warrant to search the house. They began digging
like gophers in the basement. There they found an old radio battery, which
they handled very gingerly, thinking it might be a bomb. One found a
discarded black perfume box in the incinerator and, in Mrs. Wharton's words
"opened it as though it were a pot of gold." A discarded mattress,
torn up and shaken, rustled of paper, but when opened contained nothing but a
couple of old magazines.
However, Post-Office Inspector P.G. Rowan had had the opportunity to visit
casually with bungling Bill Schroeder. He returned the next day, rather
quietly, and dug with an archeologist's care in the ashes and debris around
the old stump, where the sacks had been burned on Sunday, February 26. He
found the evidence for which he was searching, some metal eyelets later
identified as the kind fixed on mail sacks and a certain registered rotary
mail lock, serial number S 4950.
About this time, Charles Wharton protested weakly that the Federal agents
were trying to implicate him and he hired a pair of smart lawyers.
What kind of a human being was Charles Wharton, the "boy
congressman" from Illinois? His story, the story of a prosecuting
attorney turned criminal, was meat for the sensational newspapers of the day
and they made the most of it. He was a pompous kind of a lawyer and
politician, ready to make a Fourth of July oration at the drop of hat. He
took a firm stand on patriotic duties and civic responsibilities and moral
Here are his remarks on December 6, 1906, during the second session of the 59th
Congress, when he opposed a bill to fix by federal statute the compensation
received by harbor and river pilots: "Mr. Speaker, I come from a
district which does not hold human life cheap and I believe that all
protection and safeguards possible which can be given to those wayfarers on
the high seas, even though it cost a little money, should be given . . . I
believe that the man who takes his life in his hands and is compelled to go
out there on the high seas in stormy weather at the call of duty, which is
always dangerous, to safely guide the ships to a haven of safety, is worthy
of his hire and is entitled to some compensation And there is only one reason
in my mind why I should be turned against my honest convictions concerning
this bill and that is that the agitation against its passage is favored by
that arch enemy of the principles of veracity, that arch demagogue and liar,
Samuel Gompers, who willfully and maliciously
misstated and falsely misrepresented my attitude and vote on the eight-hour
proposition in connection with the Panama Canal last session. But I have
decided not to let that interfere with my position upon this question, but to
vote as my honest convictions demand . . . I believe in the best possible
protection to shipping. And the man who is a passenger on a boat at the mercy
of the wind and weather should be given the best protection possible and that
protection can best be given by the pilot who knows the condition of the
harbor, the man who has made a lifelong study of the conditions of that
particular harbor. I believe that he, and not the master of the schooner,
should be the one to guide and pilot that boat to safety and for that reason
I will vote against this bill and in the interest of honest labor and
protection to human life."
Congressman Wharton the landlubber was out of his depth on the high seas.
About this time he was shanghaied by his friend and protector, Tim Sullivan,
then executive vice president of Tammany Hall, on an informal junket to
Paris, and he was deathly sick all the way across the Atlantic.
Wharton tells about this in his memoirs but does not explain how he, a
staunch Republican from the stockyards district of Chicago, where he lived in
a flat above the post office, could become the favorite of one of the most
ruthless Democratic politicians of the time. Sullivan paid his bills,
permitted him to carry on scandalously in the demimonde society of the
Parisian cafes of the day and in desperation bought his passage back to the
United States. One can only surmise that the boy congressman form Illinois
had possibly been useful to Tammany interests in Washington.
His constituents were not impressed with his record or his oratory. He ran
for the same office in 1907, but was defeated.
He was very proud of some incidents in his private practice. He claimed Harry
K. Thaw as a client and recalls Thaw's early married life with Evelyn Nesbit
when she was at the height of her arresting beauty and Thaw was madly in love
with her. Wharton writes that in June of 1905, when they were returning from
their Pacific Coast honeymoon, he visited them in their Virginia Hotel
apartments and took them to lunch at the College Inn before they left for a
matinee performance of "The Mayor of Tokyo" at the Studebaker.
Wharton boasts that he caused a sensation in Congress by introducing a
resolution empowering President Theodore Roosevelt to exclude from the mails
any account of the testimony of Thaw's trial for killing Stanford White. This
was the text:
"Whereas the public
sense of decency and morality has been greatly outraged by the publication in
detail of the most revolting features of the evidence of the trial of Harry
K. Thaw now in progress in the city of New York, which reveals the depth of
moral depravity, degradation and degeneracy on the part of Stanford White
unequalled in all the annals of our criminal history; and"
"Whereas, the publication in detail of the loathsome and licentious acts
of the said Stanford White in a long and uninterrupted career of debauchery
of girlish virtue and chastity must of necessity have a demoralizing
influence on the youth of the land; therefore be it"
"Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United
States of America in Congress assembled,"
"That as a protection to the honor and good name of the womanhood of
America, the President of the United States be hereby authorized and
empowered to exclude from the mails of the United States any and all
publications containing the revolting details of this case and others of a
He reports that it was of
course defeated, but that it brought national prominence to a kid congressman
twenty-eight years old.
He continued his relationship with Thaw, and in 1925, saved Thaw from a
blackmail plot that threatened to cost him $100,000. Wharton's activities in
this sordid affair indicate that he certainly believed at the time that the
end justified the means.
He also boasts that, as assistant State's attorney under Robert E. Crowe
(Fighting Bob), he and Harry Read, famous City Editor of the Chicago
American, upset the dastardly plans of the rich W. E. D. Stokes to ruin his
handsome red-haired wife Helen by proving that she had been an inmate of the
notorious Everleigh Club in Chicago's old levee
district. Mrs. Stokes did not like her husband and she fought him tooth and
nail. She engaged Charles Erbstein as her private
counsel and William C. Dannenberg as her investigator. In the final trial in
New York she was represented by Samuel Untermeyer
and Stokes by the famous Max Steuer.
Wharton says: "She was vindicated by our uncovering the conspiracy
There was violent skullduggery involved and Charles Wharton knew what
He fought the indictment of having joined a conspiracy to rob the mails,
using very able legal talent, as well as the experience of his own career as
a practicing attorney and as an important member of the staff of the State's
attorney. Since he had not had a part in planning the robbery, nor in
executing it, his position was that the government had no reason for
including him with that gang of robbers. He might have been accused of
receiving stolen property, that's all.
He and Limpy Cleaver were to be brought into court
together on July 24, 1928, the other principals having been either sentenced,
slain or not yet apprehended. The case was scheduled for Federal Judge Samuel
Alschuler. On July 20, Wharton filed an eloquent
motion for a separate trial.
Part of it reads as follows: "Furthermore, this affiant states that in
making his own defense he should be perfectly free to take the stand as a
witness for himself and candidly and in detail discuss his relations with and
his estimate of the character of the defendant Charles Cleaver. And yet the
ethics of the profession of the law, the rules with reference to a lawyer not
being a witness against his client and the centuries-old traditions against a
lawyer voluntarily taking the stand and being a witness in proceedings where
the client is on trial are of such magnitude in their importance, especially
touching the confines of duty involved on the part of this affiant, as the
heretofore attorney for the said Charles Cleaver, that this affiant will be
harassed and confused and mentally incapable of fairly and properly making
his defense and establishing his innocence before a jury in the trial of the
above indictment, if in so doing he is to be sitting as a co-defendant with
the said Charles Cleaver This affiant submits that to require him, in order
to fully and fairly defend himself, to take the stand, and, although the
acknowledged attorney of the defendant Cleaver, testify in a disparaging way
or in a manner that would reflect upon or bring discredit to the said Cleaver
and thereby prejudice the jury against Cleaver, would be to subject this
affiant to unpleasant and undesired criticism from the public generally and
from his fellow members of the bar."
Wharton and his attorney then filed a demurrer, which presented some good and
some specious reasons why the indictment was not applicable to Wharton,
though proper for the train robbers. It ends with the statement,
"Wherefore, for want of a good and sufficient seventh count in said
indictment, the defendant, Charles S. Wharton, prays that the said count may
It was a hot summer. Judge Wilkerson ordered Adolph Thorpe, deputy United
States Marshal, to entertain the jury by taking them on Saturday, July 28, to
a rodeo performance in Grant Park and on Sunday to a White Sox game. The
expense was $50.24 and it took a written order of the court to get it paid.
The jury, which, incidentally, did not include a single woman, rendered its
verdict on August 2, finding Charles Cleaver guilty on all seven counts and
finding Charles Wharton not guilty on counts five and six, but guilty on
Cleaver entered a motion for a new trial, but it was denied on August 3 and
he was sentenced to the penitentiary for twenty-five years.
Wharton also entered a motion for a new trial and the hearing on it was set
for September 28, but when it actually came before Judge Wilkerson on October
25, it was denied and he was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth. The court
stayed his imprisonment until November 19, but he actually entered the
penitentiary on June 13, 1929. He was released on January 20, 1931. He went
to Kansas City and bought a suit of silk pajamas. There he met his buddy,
ex-convict Freddie Zehrl, released the same day,
and they took the train back to Chicago, enjoying a huge dinner purchased by
Wharton and several big black cigars.
He had been disbarred and he set himself up in the restaurant business, with
a joint on the near North Side, but Mrs. Wharton had lost her touch as a
barmaid and things did not go too well.
With the help of Harry Read of the American he wrote and published a
sensational book about his lurid career and the sixteen fearful months he had
spent in Leavenworth. Its title is "The House of Whispering Hate."
The title page shows the author as Charles S. Wharton, ex-congressman,
ex-lawyer, ex-convict. The publisher was Madelaine Mendelsohn, Chicago. It had a second printing in January
The copy I have been reading is autographed by the author on March 5, 1933,
in these words: "To Mr. and Mrs. Murray Hetherington, both artists, one
with pencil and brush, the other whose artistry lives in the beauty of brick,
steel, mortar and tile, preserving to society the bulwark and mainstay of
civilization, the Home."
Wharton died in Chicago on September 4, 1939, about five years before Limpy Cleaver was released from Leavenworth.
Cleaver served sixteen years of his twenty-five year prison term, earning
some reprieve of sentence for his good or doubtfully good behavior.
On June 16, 1944, at noon, a man limped into the lobby of the small bank in
Washington Heights, and greeted me by name. The bank lobby was practically
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"You're Limpy Cleaver," I replied.
"Right you are!" he chortled. "You know me. Will you cash my
check? I'm just out of the pen. I earned some money in the carpenter shop
there. I need it."
It was a United States Government check for $87.88 and when he endorsed it, I
He was seventy-two years old at the time, but he looked very vigorous. He
remained in Washington Heights after that and lived for many years in a small
frame cottage just across the street from the bank. He got a job as a night
watchman in Blue Island, guarding a plant, and worked there for seventeen
years, never missing a night and never being a minute late. But he got too
old for it, he reported, "especially with six nights a week."
Charles Cleaver was born on October 19, 1872. His parents were subsistence
farmers. He left home when he was about seven and a half years old, to train
as a boy jockey. He had contact with his parents only once after he ran away
from home and was told then that they would have nothing to do with him and
to forget that he ever had a family. He has said that his brothers and
sisters disowned him and that he never attempted to ascertain their
He rode as a jockey for five years, learning fast how to be skilful and sly
and unscrupulous. When he was caught reining in his horse in a rather
important race he was disqualified as a jockey and he went naturally into the
race-horse training business. He has said that he trained horses in a
But he tired of this after several years and became a tramp. He enjoyed the
life of the road. This was around the turn of the century and there was a
considerable population of vagabonds in the country. These free souls were
not playing the market or building up balances in a building and loan
association. They had not much interest in the latest styles and wore
anything that they could scrounge or steal. Their one serious problem was
Cleaver has said that he often proposed sawing cordwood for a farmer or a
farm wife in exchange for a meal and arranging to get the meal first, being
obviously too famished to work without sustenance, would then find some way
to skip off without touching the saw.
He finally wound up in the logging camps of Michigan. It was while he was a
logger that he married Kate. When logging and lumbering palled he became a
miner. There was an interlude during which he attached himself to a gambling
house and enjoyed a plush income. But, in his words, "They caught up
with me and I went back to mining."
Finally the Cleavers landed in Chicago, probably at 10235 South Elizabeth
Street in Washington Heights and Charlie landed a job as a steamfitter with
the Jackson Construction Company. The scenery began to shift rapidly, from
World War I to prohibition to bootlegging and gradually steamfitting
became a front for other less honorable activities. He made home brew and
sold it in his cottage. Policemen and others learned that they could go to
Charlie Cleaver's and get a drink for a reasonable stipend.
It was during this period that Elmer Munns, the
town druggist, asked me one day if I would like a case of beer. I merely
replied, "How?" That afternoon the little delivery boy came around
with a suspicious looking carton in his squeaking red wagon. I paid through
the nose for it. Each bottle bore a label "Health Ale good for nursing
But one thing led to another in Charlie Cleaver's cottage. There began to be
some trafficking in hard liquor and soon Charlie found himself rubbing elbows
with the tough guys. He has boasted that at the time he made a deal with Al
Capone. However, he was never disturbed by the authorities during that earlier
period and he has stated with pride that he never paid off a policeman.
The newspapers first mentioned him on October 16, 1921. There had been some
very damaging shooting in a saloon at the corner of Sixty-Third Street and
Western Avenue. A policeman and an ex-policeman were killed in the fight and
another policeman wounded. Arrested with Cleaver in this case were James
"Iron Jaw" Ryan and Clarence Glynn. The latter was shot to death
some years later, possibly by Virgil Litsinger.
One newspaper account of the melee quoted the dying ex-policeman as telling
an investigator, "Cleaver shot me. Don't forget it."
Cleaver was brought to trial, was defended by Charles S. Wharton and on May
9, 1924, was set free by the jury. It was said that he was badly wounded in
the leg in that affair and became know as Limpy
Cleaver following it.
A year later, Limpy and Richard Brown were arrested
by Captain John **** time, but they were never brought to
On December 29, 1925, Cleaver was arrested by Captain Michael Hughes of the Deering Station and identified by witnesses as one of
four men who on November 24 and held up messengers of the Drovers Bank at
Forty-Third Street and Halsted Street, shot a policeman and made off with
$57,000 in currency and $438,000 in checks.
Charles S. Wharton defended him again and again he was acquitted.
"Hell," said Cleaver to a reporter, "they claimed they shot a
finger off my hand in that deal, but I proved a doctor took it off a long
time after that job and I had witnesses to prove it."
The relationship between Charlie Cleaver and Charlie Wharton had become too
warm and the disastrous Evergreen Park train robbery found them enmeshed in
the same web.
After his arrest on February 25, 1928, Cleaver, being considered a dangerous
criminal, was locked up in the Du Page County Jail
in Wheaton. His attorney, Joseph P. Power, had some difficulty in
interviewing his client there. It was quite a trip from Chicago to Wheaton
and Sheriff Hattendorf of Du
Page County was a stubborn man, demanding that Barrister Powers bring with
him each time a permit from the United States Marshall for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division, and insisting that such permit was
not effective unless personally okayed by Deputy Marshall Hal Carr.
In a petition for a continuance of Cleaver's trial, the attorney rather
peevishly states that "on the following Sunday your affiant called at
the Wheaton County Jail and was abused by two of the deputies of Du Page County and although your affiant presented a
permit to see the said Charles Cleaver, properly signed by the United States
Marshall, aforesaid, and okayed by Hal Carr, and permit also bore the United
States Marshall's seal, your affiant was ordered to get away from the County
Jail at Wheaton under penalty of being confined therein."
All this was too much for Limpy Cleaver and he
It was a desperate venture. Limpy's accomplices
were a burglar, a robber, a criminal who had shot a policeman and Joe Farina
who made his living holding up banks. They put a can of condensed milk in a
sock and slugged Deputy William Edgeton when he
brought their food. They seized three shotguns and a submachine gun and
dashed from the jail.
Interviewed after the mass escape, Police Commissioner Hughes (who was to be
replaced in this job, at Mayor Thompson's request, before the end of the
following month) was quoted as saying: "There isn't a cleverer or more
desperate criminal anywhere in the United States. He'll shoot and he'll shoot
to kill. Alongside Limpy Cleaver, Jesse James was a
Naturally, reporters were interested in Charles S. Wharton's comments on
Cleaver's escape and rushed to him for an interview. He said blandly, "I
am sorry he got away. He was the only member of that gang that I ever knew. I
was his attorney on several occasions. He could have testified to my
But Limpy got away only temporarily. The five
scattered, but Joe Farina had relatives in Melrose Park and he took Limpy with him in that direction. The relatives would
have none of the pair, apparently, and the escapees hid out in a clump of
bushes in a meadow nearby, hoping that the great man-hunt would run its
course without locating them.
A seventeen-year-old lad caught sight of them, however, watched them from a
distance for a long enough period to observe that one of the two walked with
a limp and reported to the Melrose Park police. The Federal agents were
notified and very soon, just four days after the jail break, some forty
heavily armed officers were bearing down on what they were sure was the
hideout of Limpy Cleaver.
When they reached the meadow they found a small natural depression in its
midst, filled with trees and brush. In this dimple were Farina and Cleaver,
well armed, but Cleaver was cursing because they had failed, in their haste,
to bring with them ammunition for the machine gun.
Firing started immediately and the battle of Melrose Park was on. Reports
indicated that about four hundred shots were fired. At one point Lieutenant
Andy Barry rushed forward in order to be better able to direct the fire of
his men and was hit several times, but refused to be rescued, sending his
would-be rescuers back to safety. He was later given the Lambert Tree medal
After a few interminable minutes, the jail-breakers had exhausted their
limited supply of ammunition and they surrendered, each with about a dozen
bullet wounds. Limpy was transported to the Bridewell Hospital, his worst wounds being three bullets
in the lungs, cursing his wife for being a stool pigeon. When she came to
visit him in the hospital, he snarled, "Take that squealer out of
He also made the sneering remark, "Forty against two!"
Limpy Cleaver's life in the penitentiary was not
uneventful. He served his time, in Atlanta, Alcatraz and finally Leavenworth.
He was in Alcatraz when Al Capone was there and at the time of the attempted
slaying of Capone in the penitentiary he was accused by the warden of being
an accomplice to the crime. He refused to talk (he had morals against
squealing) and was punished by being sent to "the hole" (prison
language for solitary confinement) for nine days. He was in total darkness
for that period and his only food was a glass of water and a slice of dry
bread at eight in the morning and at eight at night. When he was brought
before the warden he still refused to talk and was returned to solitary
confinement, but in three days a convict named Murphy confessed and Limpy was returned to the normal penitentiary routine.
When, in June of 1944, he came back to civilian life in Washington Heights
and became a night watchman, Kate did not rejoin his household. He told
someone that she would have nothing to do with him and that this was jake with him because he did not need her. She died about
seven years ago.
A very pleasant-looking woman called Mrs. Carroll, moved in with him some
years back and they have been keeping house together.
On a recent afternoon, I returned to the bank after spending several hours in
the offices of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Appeals where I had been
perusing details of the record of the great Evergreen Park train robbery and
as I entered the door, there was Limpy Cleaver
going out, Mrs. Carroll at his side.
He grinned at me and said, "I just been in to pay the rent. Shake!"
Shaking hands with him, I was uncomfortably conscious of the missing finger
that had been shot off at Forty-Seventh and Halsted.
As I passed Mrs. Cornell's desk, she said with her usual bright smile,
"He's going to be ninety-four years old next month. Isn't he