Possession might be nine-tenths of the law, but that other tenth just had a very good day. The Chicago History Museum, which for the past few months has been holding boxes of documents that once belonged to the federal prosecutor who put away Al Capone in 1931, has agreed to turn everything over to the National Archives.
The documents would have been a terrific addition to the History Museum collection, Capone being probably more closely identified with Chicago than any other person in the city's history — Michael Jordan not excluded. What's more, Capone's federal trial on income tax evasion charges was held here. And the family of George E.Q. Johnson, the U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Capone for tax evasion, wanted the Chicago History Museum to have the materials.
But the National Archives made a persuasive case that almost all the Johnson documents were working papers and therefore belonged to the federal government. At a meeting Wednesday, the history museum didn't argue the point. It also didn't try to hang on to materials it might have been able to keep at the cost of breaking up the collection, materials such as scrapbooks that Johnson arguably produced on his own time.
At least they'll stay in Chicago. The Johnson papers will be housed at the National Archives' Great Lakes regional office at 7358 S. Pulaski. It's open to the public.
The full back story of the Johnson materials can be found on the Reader website in this report by Sarah Louise Klose. Many of these papers had been in the possession of the Chicago author Jonathan Eig, who found them invaluable in the writing of his recent book, Get Capone.
Klose was notified Thursday afternoon by John Russick, senior curator of the Chicago History Museum, of the outcome of the meeting. Here's his email to Klose:
Representatives from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) came to the Chicago History Museum yesterday to meet with me, CHM archivist Peter Alter, and Russell Lewis, executive vice president and chief historian. The meeting lasted about an hour. We discussed and clarified the legal grounds for NARA’s claim and reviewed the types of government records covered under the agency’s mandate. Then we went through the entire collection of documents. After the review, the NARA representatives claimed that the vast bulk of the material was clearly produced or acquired by George E. Q. Johnson in his official capacity as a US attorney. We agreed with that assessment.
CHM is already in the process of preparing this material for its eventual transfer to NARA. It is important to note that NARA has agreed to keep these documents at the Great Lakes branch of the National Archives (7358 South Pulaski Road, Chicago). And, at CHM’s urging, NARA has agreed to acquire all of the materials related to Johnson that came to CHM thru Jonathan Eig last year so that the entire collection of documents related to Johnson’s work as a US attorney and any of the material related to Johnson’s career outside the federal government or his personal life will be included in the collection at NARA Great Lakes.
While we are disappointed that these important documents will not be available as part of the extensive collections of the Chicago History Museum, we are pleased to have been able to help facilitate the transfer of these documents into the public domain where a vastly greater number of people will have access to them.