"You know, I have one great story," said Walter Trohan, once the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune.
This sounded a bit disingenuous from a journalist who'd chatted with Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon at the height of their power, not to mention every president in between.
"I don't know how it would end up with you," he added somewhat gruffly. "I've been trying to peddle the story for, oh God, at least 50 years. And that is the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre."
I spoke with Trohan by phone last July a few weeks after his 100th birthday. I didn't know him, but I had called his Maryland home, where he lived by himself, to ask about an obscure point of Tribune history. He said he was sorry, he couldn't really help with my question. But he talked for a while and came to his one great story.
Trohan got his start in the 1920s, reporting for the City News Bureau, the legendary local press service. He worked the police beat during the underworld warfare of Prohibition, covering his share of gruesome mob murders.
"Once, because a coroner's physician had no taste for it," Trohan wrote in his 1975 memoir, Political Animals, "I grasped the slimy hair of a smelly corpse found in an abandoned auto in a cornfield and sawed off the top of his head in order to determine whether he had been killed by shotgun pellets fired by guards at fleeing bank robbers or by gangland bullets."
Trohan was the first reporter to see the carnage of the 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, in which seven mobsters were lined up and executed in a warehouse on North Clark Street. His timely arrival at the warehouse led to the job at the Tribune.
A brief version of his Saint Valentine's Day Massacre story was mentioned in Trohan's Tribune obituary after his death last October. And the incident is covered in a page of Trohan's own memoir. But when I spoke with him, he said the most interesting part of the massacre story had never been told properly. A few minutes after I'd been wondering how to end a conversation in which he had nothing to tell me, I was busily chasing a thin narrative thread through a tangle of amusing, sometimes outlandish asides.
"I was the first reporter on the scene, and it's been in print, and it's in books and everything else," he said. "But that ain't the story to me. It just so happens that I got there first because the police reporters were all tied up in City Hall taking care of their rackets, and that's why they missed it."
He explained the "rackets."
"I hate to tell you the truth, but I will," he said. "When I say a guy covered the courts for the Tribune, or any other paper, if he got a lawyer's name in the paper the lawyer gave him $5. And a hell of a lot of them took it. Most of them. And when I went in and I was hired on the Tribune, they offered me the $5."
He didn't take it. "I was raised in the news business partly by a guy by the name of Jim Doherty, who was an honest guy. He had a brother who was a magazine writer who was a good one, and a father who was a police lieutenant who died leaving $59, so you can understand he was honest.
"Doherty told me, never let a politician buy you a drink without buying one back, because they think they own you. He was strong for liquor, of course, and he got a lot of it, but he taught me--well, I had the instinct I guess--not to take any money. And I saw some of my colleagues taking money from hoodlums. I should have reported them, maybe, but they would have been fired, and it wouldn't have done me any good."
But Trohan admitted he wasn't above exerting his influence as a journalist.
"Back in the old days, the press was very powerful, too goddamn powerful, and they did dirty things," he said. "Like me, I knew a guy that went out and did three robberies and got $21 with a gun. And his father came to me weeping and whatnot, he asked would I help him [after his son got caught]. So I got the son on parole. There was no parole for robbery with a gun in Illinois but I went to the judge, and I said, you can parole him."
Trohan said the judge took his suggestion. I didn't interrupt to ask why.
"The only reason I'm telling you this is that we did all sorts of things that were wrong," he said. "One reporter for the Journal, Murphy, had the chief of police, Thompson, put an extra sheet of paper in every accident report in the city of Chicago and that paper was turned over to Murphy, and Murphy sold it to lawyers.
"For a lot of reporters the pay was rather poor. I don't know how it was in your time, but in my time there were guys who had been working on the news for 40 years who were getting 40 bucks a week. Now the Tribune started at $50 and we were presumed to be honest, and for the most part we were. Although the guy who I succeeded in the County Building found out that I wasn't getting any money from the lawyers, and he went around and hit the lawyers himself at five bucks a name. And I raised hell with him. I was a little guy and he was a big guy, but I was feisty. I told him I'd knock the living hell out of him, and he said he had a baby and he had a good this and that, so I let him go.
"It's a hell of a thing to say, but they were a law for themselves, the press. I don't know why the press got so mighty in Chicago, but it was mighty. They thought they were better than the police. At times maybe they were."
I asked if he thought the modern press was still that powerful. "They don't have any power at all as far as I know," he replied.
Why did he think that changed?
"I get letters from them wanting help to get a lawyer and help them take care of the press and freedom and whatnot, and they've got guys you go to, and they handle it," he said. "Well, when we were in the press, we handled it ourselves."
To hear him tell it, that's what Trohan and a colleague did on Valentine's Day 75 years ago. While veteran police reporters from the City News Bureau worked their "rackets," a cub reporter manned the phones at the police station.
"There was a young kid named Johnny Pastor, nice kid, worked in the back room running out the mimeographs that went to the papers. They would graduate to be police reporters. On his first day as police reporter he's all alone in the detective bureau and in comes the massacre.
"He tried to peddle it to the city editor of the City News, who was named Gershman. Gershman wouldn't believe it. Gershman ordered me to write the bulletin for all the papers, 'Six men have reportedly been injured in a fight at 2022 North Clark Street.' I said that because it was dictated to me. A few minutes later Johnny called me and said, 'Honest to God, there's six of them dead and one on the way.' And there's been a shooting and one thing and another.
"I put down the phone and I said to Gershman, 'I'm going up there. It's a hell of a story. Can I take a cab?' Gershman said a streetcar passes by every five minutes, take the streetcar. So I still made it before anybody. But the point is, here is a kid in his first day as a reporter, he isn't there two hours, when he comes and cracks the biggest story in the crime world."
In fairness to the reporters accused of tending their rackets, Trohan's book offers a different reason for Pastor being the first reporter to hear the news at the police station: "He was alone in the Detective Bureau because the ace regular reporters had gone to the City Hall to confer with Chief of Police Morgan Collins."
The book also contains an error he repeated when he told the story to me. In both accounts he said the site of the massacre was 2022 N. Clark; other histories put the warehouse at 2122 N. Clark.
I discovered the discrepancies months after Trohan died. As he spoke I felt privileged. "Absolutely every bit of it is true," he said. "That's the only way we got the story, from Johnny Pastor. He never got another story like it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Pete Souza--Chicago Tribune, courtesy Chicago Historical Society.