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Stranger in the House

Myron Fox never doubted that his father was an upstanding citizen. He was a family man. He was a religious man. He was a company man. He certainly wasn't a murderer.



Myron Fox thought he knew his father's story inside out. He knew, for instance, that Philip Fox had come to America in April 1912, when he was 11, and that he'd sailed from Europe exactly seven days after the sinking of the Titanic.

He knew that Philip had arrived at Ellis Island with his mother, his brother, his four sisters, a grandfather, and an uncle, and that the family--fleeing anti-Semitism in their native Galicia--set out directly for Chicago, where Philip's father, Max, was waiting.

He knew that Max Fox ran a bakery on Ogden Avenue, and that it took him years to pay back the $450 he borrowed from the Schiff Bank at Roosevelt and Halsted to bring his family to America.

Philip Fox grew up in the bustling old-world enclave of Jewish immigrants centered on the Maxwell Street market. He went to school in the neighborhood, and as teenagers he and his brother, Jack, became interested in automobiles. In 1919, when Philip was 18 years old, he and Jack bought a Dodge touring car and started driving for the Checker Taxi Association. Philip worked for Checker for almost 25 years--as a driver, a company plumber, and a road superintendent--and then in men's retail before retiring.

Myron remembers riding around as a kid in his father's superintendent's car at Christmastime, delivering chocolates to switchboard operators and hotel receptionists. He remembers his father's religious devotion, his participation in political debates at Bughouse Square, and the pride he took in his adopted country. Myron grew up believing that his father's story had been the story of most of the immigrants of his generation: one of struggle and sacrifice but also of assimilation, steady improvement, and providing a better life for his children.

And then one day in 1975, Myron and his brother Morton were visiting their father's cousin Eva while on a business trip in South Bend, Indiana. "Out of the clear blue," Myron remembers, "Eva said, 'Gee, it's a shame your father had to take a fall for those guys.'"

Myron Fox has been retired for almost ten years now. As a kid, he'd wanted to become a writer. He wasn't a particularly good student, he says, but one day in study hall his geography teacher approached him and asked if he wanted to write an essay for a contest commemorating the 30th anniversary of commercial airmail. When he didn't seem interested, "She said, 'I'm gonna put it to you this way: if you don't write an essay you're going to fail the class.'" He wrote it and won the contest, and in the process discovered that he liked writing. But the exigencies of life--supporting a wife and seven kids--kept him from pursuing his early ambition for the next 45 years.

Born in 1931, Fox grew up mostly on the west side, in an apartment in the redbrick building at 1618 S. Turner (later renamed Christiana) that his family had occupied since the early 20s. He and his four brothers and sisters went to Howland elementary, across the street.

In 1948, Philip Fox moved his family to an apartment in Hyde Park, where Myron went to high school for two weeks before convincing his father to let him drop out, get a job, and go to night school. Not long after, he met and married Frances Rosenburg, who lived across the alley. In 1950 he joined the air force. He served four years, one of them in Korea, and on October 19, 1954, his 23rd birthday, he was discharged at Chanute air base in Rantoul.

Back home he had a wife and kids to support, and he quickly got a job making deliveries for a food supplier. Soon after that he picked up a couple more jobs. "From 7 in the morning till about 3 in the afternoon I drove for the company," he says. "From 3 to 11 I worked in a bakery. But I still needed money, so I started driving a cab at night. At 11 I'd go down to pick up my cab at Elston and Division and drive till 7 in the morning. The only place I was sleeping was at the cabstands."

It was there, Fox says, that he learned something new about his father's early life. "I would sit in a line and the old-timers would knock on the window and say, 'Hey kid, you new?' And I'd say, 'Yeah.' 'What's your name?' And I'd tell 'em, 'Mike Fox.' 'Fox? Are you Phil Fox's kid?' That's the first question. And I'd say, 'Yeah, why?' And they'd say, 'Man, your old man and your uncle, they were the rough boys.'

"I assumed they were referring back to when my father was younger," he says. "I know my father, and he took crap from nobody."

Fox and Frances eventually settled in the suburbs, first in Skokie and then in Libertyville. As his retirement was approaching he began thinking about writing again. He started looking for a subject. And then he remembered his cousin Eva's remark.

At ten o'clock on the night of June 8, 1921, 20-year-old Philip Fox was asleep in his apartment when he got a call from his boss, Mike Sokol. Sokol told Fox that his friend and fellow Checker driver Morris Stuben had been trying to get into the cab line outside the Hotel Sherman at the corner of Randolph and Clark when a fight had broken out between Yellow and Checker cabbies. In the brawl, Sokol told him, Stuben had been hit over the head with a brick. Sokol wanted revenge. He told Fox to meet Stuben and three other men--Charles Goldstein, James Mogley, and Max Podolsky, men he didn't know--at the Checker garage at Paulina near Monroe and to go with them to identify Yellow cabstands around the city. Their orders were to get even.

For Fox, a call in the middle of the night wasn't unusual. The cab business at the time had more gray areas than regulations, and growing pains between the fledgling industry's two major players had turned into all-out war.

Yellow was the more established operation, founded in 1915 by car salesman John Hertz (who later started the rental car business) when he realized he could turn unsold used cars into taxicabs. Prior to Hertz, the cab industry consisted mostly of independent owner-operators. Hertz--whose innovations included painting his taxis an eye-catching yellow and introducing a telephone dispatch system--leased the cabs to his drivers and ran a tight ship: Yellow drivers wore a uniform and polished shoes and were required to keep a whisk broom to tidy their cabs. Checker, run by Mike Sokol, was an association of independent drivers formed in 1919 by Oak Parker Frank Dilger. Drivers received insurance and a garage to work out of in exchange for paying an association fee. Hertz claimed that Checker was made up of men who couldn't get a job at Yellow, and rumor had it that one Checker garage kept a closet full of guns.

Tensions between the two companies had risen in late 1920 with the passage of the Cab Stand Permit Law, an ordinance that required drivers to obtain a permit before they could work the cabstands. Problem was, the Checker people said, only Yellow drivers were getting the permits. They believed the ordinance had been bullied through the City Council by Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson at the behest of John Hertz to drive Checker out of business. Thompson, they believed, was angry with Checker for its support of the opposition on a recent judicial ballot. With the mayor, police, and the law on the side of Yellow, Checker said, their drivers were trying to get a fair shake the only way they could: with baseball bats, fists, and occasionally bullets--means, they said, also employed by the Yellow drivers. At one point City Council minutes referred to the situation as a "war of terrorism on the streets of Chicago."

Stuben's run-in at the Hotel Sherman was just one of many clashes that occurred the night of June 8. Earlier that evening, the Chicago Tribune reported, a Yellow driver had been shot in the foot in Logan Square. A Checker driver had been arrested outside the Hotel Sherman for rear-ending a Yellow cab. Another Checker driver told the Chicago American he'd been surrounded by four Yellow cabs at 33rd and Michigan and had been driven into the curb. Still another claimed he'd been attacked by five Yellow cabbies and that the windows of his cab had been smashed.

Just before 1 AM, a black Stutz touring car approached the Yellow cabstand at Roosevelt and Kedzie from the south. Mogley, Podolsky, and Goldstein were in the backseat behind dark window curtains, Stuben was driving, and Fox was riding in the passenger seat. The Stutz's occupants opened fire on the cabstand, spraying the area with 25 bullets, one of which tore into Yellow cabdriver Thomas Skirven and killed him. Witnesses said the Stutz then sped north and disappeared.

Later that morning Fox and Stuben were arrested at David Brown's restaurant and pool hall, a Checker call-in location at Damen and Division, and were taken to the Cook County state's attorney's office, where 24 hours later they signed confessions to the murder of Thomas Skirven. Present at the time of the confession were arresting officer Thomas Mangan, assistant state's attorney William Stewart, and George Barrett and Benjamin Samuels, attorneys for the Yellow Cab Company. A grand jury hearing was scheduled for the following morning.

That afternoon with his father's cousin in South Bend, Myron Fox says, was the first time he'd heard of the events of 1921. But what Eva said didn't fit his image of his father. "I looked at my brother Morton and he looked at me and we shrugged our shoulders," he says. "I assumed she didn't know what she was talking about. After all, she's talking 50, 60 years ago. She probably had him mixed up with somebody else. Maybe she had him mixed up with Jack, Philip's brother." He never brought the subject up with his father, who died in 1982. When he first heard the story Fox was living in Skokie and running a business with Morton and their brother-in-law Joe, manufacturing and distributing hair care products. He shoved what Eva had said to the back of his mind and soon forgot all about it.

Twelve years later, Fox, Frances, and his sister Esther were in California visiting another cousin, Sadie, who repeated what Eva had said almost word for word: his father had taken the fall for someone. When they got back to Chicago he asked his nephew Michael Fryer, who was working as a photographer at the Tribune, to search the paper's archives to see if Philip's name came up. "He couldn't find anything," Fox says. "And knowing my father--he had a short temper, he was a pretty strong guy, short, but he had big arms--I figured maybe somebody wised off or somebody smacked somebody and he went to jail for 30 days for assault and battery."

He stopped searching until 1993, when he was attending a family funeral. "My oldest living cousin--Harry Kreiter--was sitting next to me, and we were talking about the old days, and I said, 'Harry, was my father ever in jail?' He started to tell me the story," Fox says, "and he floored me. I mean, how in the hell, after all these years, did we not know? I'm a middle child. My brother and sister were older. They didn't know--although my older brother had vague recollections of going to visit my father in Stateville. He never said anything. He wasn't sure what he remembered--at the time of the second trial he was only one year old, and my sister was only one month.

"Harry started telling me about how every other Tuesday they'd get in my uncle Jack's car and they'd go out to Stateville to visit my father. And how my father was disciplined twice for talking in line. He remembered the state's attorney's name, the prosecutor. Everything he told me afterward was kind of a blur."

Myron also learned that Harry's nephew, Mitchell Kreiter, a criminal lawyer, had come across a law code--People v. Philip Fox--during his studies that pertained to voluntary and involuntary confessions.

The next day Fox and Frances went to the Harold Washington Library and began searching the newspaper archives. They started in January 1920. In the Tribune of June 9, 1921, they found a front-page headline that read, "Driver Slain in Taxi War; $5,000 Reward." The story that followed reported that "Chicago became a battlefield last night for a taxicab warfare when shortly after midnight [Thomas] Skirven, a Yellow cab driver, was shot and killed, the police believe by men connected with the Checker company."

On the front page of the next day's Tribune--below the headline "Checker Taxi Driver Admits Cab War Murder"--Myron Fox found what he'd been looking for. "Philip Fox, Checker cab company chauffeur, confessed last night that he was implicated in the murder of Thomas A. Skirven, driver of a Yellow cab."

Fox was stunned. He read that after being arrested the previous morning at David Brown's, his father had "admitted he and the other Checker employees went there to hide their revolvers after the shooting of Skirven." He also began to make out another side of the story: "Officials of the Checker company," the article read, "declare that politics and unionism are back of the war; that they are 'fighting the entire Thompson-Lundin political organization.'" (Republican Party boss and former congressman Fred Lundin was Mayor Thompson's right-hand man and had an office next to his in City Hall.) "Attorney Leonard J. Grossman of the Checker concern stated that under [the cabstand] ordinance passed in 1920 a number of chauffeurs who had not taken out cabstand licenses were arrested. But none was convicted.

"Some time ago, [Grossman] says, they held a conference with [chief of police Charles] Fitzmorris. The chief stated the matter would rest until after the judicial election. 'If this was a hint for the Checker chauffeurs to line up with the Thompson-Lundin outfit in the judicial campaign,' he said, 'we ignored it.'"

Fox set out to find every scrap of information he could. He pieced together the basics of the story from the newspaper clippings. "Michael Fryer was able to get me more information from the Tribune and other sources. My cousin Mitchell got me the ruling on the case history," he says. "I went down to the state's attorney's office to get the trial transcripts, but they had a burn order and we missed it by two weeks. So I didn't have that, but I did have the Illinois Supreme Court ruling. Then I started interviewing my cousins."

Some of the story, Fox admits, is conjecture--there just wasn't enough surviving information. His main purpose was to reconcile the man who emerged from the evidence with the father he knew.

His search culminated in a book, Through the Eyes of Their Children, which was published last year by the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. "I wrote it with love and affection for my father," he says. "I wrote it with the idea in mind that he was innocent."

The morning after their confession, Philip Fox and Morris Stuben were brought, without counsel, before the grand jury, which handed down three indictments: for assault with intent to murder, for murder, and for conspiracy to commit murder.

During the habeas corpus hearing the following morning, Fox repudiated the confession he'd made in the state's attorney's office two nights before, saying it had been given under duress. He said that during his interrogation he'd been beaten and threatened by two police officers. At one point, he said, one of the police officers pressed his knees into Fox's stomach and told him to "come clean or I'll throw you out the window."

Fox said after the beating he was taken to a room where Yellow Cab attorney George Barrett--who, Fox said, told him he was a judge--asked him, "Do you know anything about [the murder] now?" At the hearing Fox said he replied to Barrett that he didn't, but that he'd do anything to stop the beating. At three that morning Fox had signed his confession.

After hearing the testimony the presiding judge ordered Fox and Stuben removed from the custody of the state's attorney and turned over to the sheriff's department, where Fox was examined by three doctors. The doctors' report stated that Fox looked like a man "who had been terrorized." The report also described in great detail wounds found all over his body, and concluded that they had been recently inflicted. Fox's family posted his bond, and a trial date was set for the spring 1922 term of the criminal court of Cook County.

In the months leading up to the trial, Fox and Stuben's lawyers--paid for by Checker--assured them that with no eyewitnesses to the murder, the state had a weak case. The trial began in April. Presiding judge George Kersten ruled both confessions inadmissible because Barrett had misrepresented himself as a judge and because Fox had been beaten. The state, seeking the death penalty, brought forward two witnesses: David Brown, owner of the pool hall where Fox and Stuben were arrested, and a man named Peter Hanson.

Brown testified that at around 3 AM on June 9 three men--one of whom he recognized as Philip Fox--entered his restaurant and went into the poolroom. After several minutes, Brown said, the men came out of the poolroom and left. He also stated that he'd seen Peter Hanson hanging around the restaurant throughout the night.

In his testimony, Hanson said he was suspicious of the men's behavior and that after they left he searched the premises and found three guns hidden under a porch at the back of the pool hall, which he turned over to a superintendent of the Yellow Cab Company.

Fox and Stuben's defense attorneys never disputed the prosecution's testimony. They never asked who Peter Hanson was or why, upon discovering the weapons, he didn't turn them over to the police. They never called upon Fox or Stuben to testify.

After 24 hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked at 11 to 1 in favor of a guilty verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. State's attorney Robert Crowe--under the influence, Myron believes, of his former law partner, George Barrett--decided to pursue a second trial.

Meanwhile, Fox tried to restore some normalcy to his life. He left Checker and began working as a plumber. In 1923 he met and married Bella Leibovitz, a Romanian Jew who'd come to America three years earlier, and the couple settled into the flat on South Turner and started a family. Bella gave birth to their first two children, Edward and Esther, before Philip's second trial, which got under way in June 1925.

This time, Stuben's confession was allowed into evidence. The prosecution also brought forward three witnesses who hadn't appeared at the first trial. The defense, represented by Checker attorneys Michael Ahern and Elwyn Long, asked for a motion for dismissal on the grounds that Stuben's confession was being used against Fox. The motion was denied.

The most damning evidence introduced at the second trial was the testimony of a man named Robert Stamm, who records show was under indictment for manslaughter at the time. Stamm told the court that before midnight on the night of June 8 he'd been hanging around outside the Paulina Street Checker garage and had seen Goldstein, Fox, Stuben, Mogley, and Podolsky. He said that Goldstein had asked him to come out and kill some Yellow drivers with them, and that after he refused he saw the men get into a Checker cab and drive away. Stamm also said that after the murder Fox approached him and said that if he didn't testify Fox would get him a job at Checker.

The second new witness was Yellow driver Chauncey Scandiff, who testified that while driving south on Kedzie he passed the Stutz driving north. A few minutes later, he said, he reached the Yellow cabstand and found Skirven lying on the ground with a bullet wound in his chest.

The prosecution's final witness was Samuel Miller, the former manager of Checker's Paulina Street garage who had gone to work for Yellow since the first trial. Miller identified one of the guns found at Brown's pool hall as the property of Philip Fox. Miller also said that he'd seen Fox and Stuben after they were released on bail and that he'd talked to them about the charges against them. According to the Illinois Supreme Court ruling, Miller said that he told Fox he "didn't think much of anybody who done a thing like that, and Fox replied, 'Well, there's no use in saying anything; it is not going to bring him back to life.'"

Miller said he saw Stuben several days later and asked him "why he went out and shot up the town." Stuben, he said, replied that "he had a bee in his bonnet, from an argument he had at the Sherman House with Yellow Cab drivers, and that one of them tossed a brick through the window of his cab, and another gave him a black eye, and that he went out to get even with them."

The prosecution's testimony again went undisputed. The jury, after a brief deliberation, returned, on July 10, 1925, with a guilty verdict for murder. Fox and Stuben were given life imprisonment.

The other defendants--Goldstein, Mogley, and Podolsky--were granted a separate trial, at which assistant state's attorney William Rittenhouse entered a motion of nolle prosequi, saying that the state lacked sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Following the verdict, Fox and Stuben's bonds were revoked, and they were placed in the custody of the Cook County sheriff's department while they awaited the result of their appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court on writ of error. Late in December 1925 the court affirmed the judgment of the criminal court. On January 8, 1926, Philip Fox became the 329th prisoner to enter the 32-foot-high limestone walls of the new Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet.

Every other Tuesday, members of the Fox family--Bella, Edward and Esther, Philip's mother Marion, his brother Jack, and sometimes Harry Kreiter--would pile into Jack's touring car to visit Stateville, bringing kosher food and various supplies. While Fox sat in prison, Jack and their sister Rose set about raising money to hire an attorney for him independent of the Checker Association, says Myron. Their plan was to get a lawyer to file a petition for pardon. By the end of 1926 they'd raised almost $10,000, all of it coming from inside the ranks of the taxi industry. The petition was filed on June 10, 1927.

On July 10 of the following year the pardon board hearing for Philip Fox and Morris Stuben convened in Springfield. The defendants were represented by a former judge, C.H. Jenkins, who argued, according to transcripts from the hearing, that Fox and Stuben's conviction "grew out of and is part and parcel of a purely Chicago situation, wherein two rival cab companies...had business differences in the field of transportation.

"As a result of these differences," Jenkins said, "violence ensued, violence indulged in by the employees of both companies. This violence finally resulted in the killing of an employee of the Yellow Cab Company.

"It was deemed necessary, apparently, by the officials and legal advisers of the opposing cab companies that somebody be convicted, and that an example be made.

"Fox and Stuben were arrested on suspicion without warrant and were taken to the State's Attorney's office. I do not mean to criticize the attorney who defended Fox and Stuben at their trial, but he led them to believe that the trial court in the admission of confessions which had been made by Fox and Stuben had committed error, and that when the matter finally came to the Supreme Court, the case would be reversed and remanded for a new trial. Therefore Fox and Stuben on advice of counsel were not permitted to take the stand in their defense, so that the record rests upon the uncontradicted testimony of the witnesses offered by the people together with the confession of Stuben, the confession of Fox being denied by the court.

"It is evident that from a reading of the opinion, both of the majority of the Supreme Court and by the dissenting opinion filed by Judge Duncan, that Fox and Stuben were selected as the victims to stand as a sacrifice for all of the trouble and all the violence and all of the illegal things that had been done by the employees of the Checker Cab Company in this cab war, each seeking a monopoly upon the streets of Chicago."

Jenkins then enumerated what he believed were four critical flaws in the prosecution's case:

First, though witnesses present at the cabstand testified to seeing several hands holding revolvers reaching outside the car, none were able to see any person in the car nor give evidence that would connect any person with the shooting.

Second, he pointed out that the state had decided it lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute James Mogley, Charles Goldstein, and Max Podolsky, all charged for the same murder.

Third, the Illinois Supreme Court's decision to allow Stuben's confession went against the generally accepted doctrine that involuntary confessions should be excluded from evidence.

Fourth, Fox was wrongly advised not to testify on his own behalf.

Jenkins's appeal concluded: "This incident occurred seven years ago. Since that time the differences between the cab companies are at least at a truce and there is no warfare. The conditions existing between the two cab companies are reasonably pleasant. Fox and Stuben have served in the Stateville Penitentiary at Joliet for three years. They have been subjected to all the ignominies of two trials. They were beaten severely, and about everything that could be done to a human being was done to them, and I say to you they were not guilty. It is time that they be permitted to go out of the penitentiary, and go back to their families. They have paid the necessary price and have done in the way of a sacrifice all that might be desired by the Yellow Cab Company and by society....This is an appeal, gentlemen of the Board, let them go back and believe they are properly entitled to their liberty."

The pardon board recommended to Governor Len Small that Stuben and Fox's sentences be commuted to expire immediately. The governor agreed, and late in the afternoon of December 21, 1928, the two former cabdrivers were released.

"My father was innocent," Myron Fox says. "He couldn't have been the shooter for several reasons. The only eyewitness talks about the touring car coming north. The cabstand is on the northwest corner--on the Kedzie Avenue side at Roosevelt Road. My father sat up front with Morris Stuben, on the passenger side.

"He'd have to shoot Stuben's nose off," Fox says, "to shoot out the window."

But the real proof of his father's innocence, he believes, is in the ballistics. "It was a .38 that killed Skirven, and my father's supposed gun was a .32. That in itself should have proven he wasn't the killer."

While he doesn't doubt his father was in the Stutz that night, he thinks the men went out to send a message--one he believes was justified, given the circumstances--to John Hertz, Mayor Thompson, and all the Yellow taxi drivers that Checker wouldn't be bullied by them. He didn't go out that night to kill anybody. "They were just gonna go out and try to level the playing field, show they weren't gonna be intimidated. All the Checker guys were trying to do was break the stranglehold that Yellow had on the cab business. The Checker guys, the independents, could not break in. Their cabs were being assaulted just for pulling into the idiot line where the Cab Stand Permit was [in effect]."

Like Jenkins, Myron believes his father and Morris Stuben were patsies. He wonders why, of the five men in the Stutz that night, the two that were found guilty were cab personnel, while the other three were let off the hook. "How can you have evidence on two in the car and not the other three?" Fox asks. "They were in the same car. If two of them were guilty, all five of them should have been guilty. Doesn't make sense. They had them, they arrested them, and just let them go. That to me is the overriding question. That was the first sign of a setup."

Fox suspects, though he admits he can't prove it, that Mogley, Goldstein, and Podolsky had a mob connection and that Checker president Mike Sokol--who by the time of the second trial was courting a peace with Hertz--decided to let Fox and Stuben take the fall, which is why their defense allowed the prosecution to railroad them.

Shortly after Skirven's murder, the City Council threatened to revoke all taxi licenses if the violence didn't stop. By 1930, things had become so amicable that when Hertz wanted to get out of the business, Checker absorbed Yellow's fleet.

Even though Philip Fox was pardoned in the end, his family kept the story secret. "It was just an unspoken thing. In my grandmother and grandfather's eyes it was a great big shame, a shanda, using the Hebrew word. It was something you just didn't talk about." If it hadn't come up in South Bend in 1975, Myron's sure the secret would have been kept forever.

"My dad was a very fastidious man," Fox says. "Friendly. Never once bum-rapped the society that wrongly incarcerated him. He was very patriotic, and served in the civil defense during World War II. He spent the rest of his life devoted to his family, and never once gave up on the system, even in prison. He knew that the American system of laws was the best in the world, and that it would eventually right the wrong that was done to him."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of Myron Fox, Bruce Powell.

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