In 1908 the nation was in the midst of a depression and becoming alarmed at what it perceived as a growing threat. The Haymarket Riot, though more than 20 years in the past, still loomed large in the public's mind. In 1901 President William McKinley had been gunned down by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. And in late February of 1908 a priest in Denver had also been assassinated by an anarchist. Many blamed immigrants for bringing anarchism to America.
On the first day of March in that same year, the Chicago Tribune ran a chart depicting the "noses of Chicago," purporting to link personality traits to nose shape. The chart described the typical nose as "inclined to be Roman, especially in the average, young businessman; has traces of the classic Greek and Hebrew, but Roman predominates, [indicating] hustle and combativeness." "Aquiline"--Jewish--noses were pronounced "commercial" and were said to indicate "suspicion, power of adaption to surroundings and ability to look out for No. 1 in financial matters." In an analysis of the noses of some of Chicago's notable citizens, it declared that police chief George Shippy's nose was "Roman, pronounced, combative."
The next morning, a 19-year-old Russian Jew named Lazarus Averbuch, a recent immigrant, knocked on the door of the Shippy family's north-side home. A few minutes later Averbuch lay dying on their hallway floor after being shot six times. The chief, his son, and his driver were wounded in the incident. Exactly what happened is unknown, but hours after the shooting Shippy released a statement in which he said he had been the target of an assassination attempt by "a Sicilian or Armenian" and that he had shot the man in self-defense. Shippy's story was widely accepted, and the afternoon newspapers screamed about an anarchist assassination plot.
The halfhearted investigation that followed focused on proving Shippy's story. Without telling her what had happened, the police showed Averbuch's sister Olga his bullet-ridden corpse in an attempt to shock her into admitting that her brother had planned to kill Shippy. When that failed, they "sweated" her for several days, keeping her locked up in an attempt to force her to confess that her brother had been an anarchist. She didn't. Police illegally detained other witnesses, but they only found that Averbuch had been a hardworking man who attended night school.
The xenophobic hysteria surrounding the event is chronicled in the new book An Accidental Anarchist (Rudi, $16.95), written by Chicagoans Walter Roth and Joe Kraus. The pair examine the circumstances of Averbuch's death as well as the questions that were never answered during the investigation or at the inquest, such as why Averbuch traveled across town from the west side to visit Shippy in the first place. Roth and Kraus speculate it was because Averbuch, who had been in Chicago only three months, wanted to ask the chief for a letter of recommendation for employment--a common practice in his hometown of Kishinev.
The book also notes the famous names who were peripheral players in the ensuing storm. Jane Addams took Olga Averbuch under her wing and convinced Harold Ickes to represent her at the inquest; it was the future cabinet member's first case. Anarchist Emma Goldman and Chicago character Ben Reitman met and began a ten-year affair when Reitman helped her secure a speaking venue after the shooting.
Each newspaper offered its own interpretation of the incident. The Tribune called it a conspiracy, connecting it to Goldman's upcoming speech. The Daily News and the Inter Ocean provided some of the most evenhanded coverage. The Yiddish press, including New York City's Morning Journal and Jewish Daily Forward and the local Daily Courier, bent over backward to distance the Jewish community from the shooting. The Daily Socialist questioned Shippy's statement from the beginning, and Goldman's Mother Earth painted Averbuch as a police scapegoat.
"Part of what fascinates me is our inability now to have any kind of objective idea of what happened," says Kraus. "The story does not come into focus by arranging the papers side by side."
Kraus says the finger-pointing sprang from the public's sense of an increasingly unsafe society. "It was frightening to a lot of different constituencies for a lot of different reasons. A Jew was not only killed but also an immigrant. Anarchists wondered what would be next from the police. Industrialists and the police were afraid of the anarchists."
Opinions remain divided on the issue. Despite proof to the contrary, Averbuch is still referred to as an anarchist in history books. Roth says that acquaintances who have read the book tend to follow their political leanings: "The conservatives think he was an anarchist. The others say he was framed."
"To solve the case is to take away what's interesting," says Kraus. "Its absolute fundamental uncertainty throws into relief the tensions in the city at that time. It's a story shaped like a doughnut, with a hole in the middle. We don't know what happened. I was amazed at how one social group after another became clarified around this uncertain moment. Jews had to defend themselves against the charge that they might be anarchists. Anarchists had to say they weren't all barbarians or killers. The police were still articulating what it meant to be preserving democracy or justice or the white American way of life in the city.
"Averbuch was an accidental scapegoat, I think," says Kraus. "But he happened to be killed, for whatever reason, in such a way that tensions there before and afterward were suddenly manifested."
"The thing that startled me was that no matter what, he wasn't an anarchist," says Roth, who immigrated from Germany in 1938 when he was nine. "I have people now who say, 'Why did he go to the police chief's home if not for a bad purpose? He had to have been an anarchist.' It shifts with time, who are the bad guys. In those days it happened to be poor immigrants from eastern Europe and southern Italy."
Eighteen months after the incident, Shippy was committed to an insane asylum for complications arising from syphilis. He died a few years thereafter. Olga Averbuch moved back to Europe to be with her family; Roth says she probably perished during Hitler's reign. Lazarus Averbuch is buried in Ridgelawn Cemetery on the northwest side. Visible from his grave is a sign that reads "Jesus Saves."
Roth and Kraus will talk about their book at a meeting of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society on Sunday; refreshments will be served at 1 and the discussion will begin at 2. It's at Temple Sholom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive. Call 312-663-5634 for more information. They will also appear at 7:30 Tuesday at Barnes & Noble, 1701 Sherman in Evanston; call 847-328-0883. Both events are free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Kraus, Walter Roth photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; Lazarus Averbuch after his death photo/ Chicago Daily News-reprinted with permission of the Chicago Sun-Times, copyright 1997.