King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 10 Part 2


 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 10

Biggest Local Story of the Century (part 2)

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No qualification is more important to a city editor than a “nose for news.” It is a unique faculty. It is a mystic cerebration too percussive to be merely intuitive. In print-shop vernacular, it’s “a chronic humor for hunches.” It may induce costly blunders. A trying example of this possibility was given me on the story of the Car Barn Bandits. That was a yarn bristling with more action than any director dare pack into a single movie. Chief of Police O’Neill’s formal report describes “the most desperate band of criminals that ever infested Chicago” and “the most sensational crime with which the department ever grappled.” It was the first time in America that peace officers were opposed with the organized use of automatic firearms.

The initial episode was the murder of Francis W. Stewart, a clerk, and the fatal wounding of two companions in the barns of the City Railway on Chicago’s South Side. That was August 30, 1903. A twelve weeks’ search for the four murderers followed throughout the country. The second act of this serial came in November.

Detectives John Quinn and William Blaul, working out of the Sheffield Avenue Police Station in Northwest Chicago, were assigned to “pick up” Gustave Marx. That young man was spattering himself with suspicion. He had been exhibiting the latest type of revolver to goggle-eyed hangers-on in barrooms. One pull would start a spout of nine slugs. Gustave was only a little prouder of his new weapon than of the big hunk of greenbacks “it had won him.” Late in the evening of November 21st, the officers espied their quarry through the plate-glass window in the saloon at Addison Avenue and North Robey Street.

The Car Barn Bandits

Quinn stepped in through the front door. Marx saw him in the mirror. They had known each other since childhood. A streak of orange fire blazed from Marx’s pistol. The detective fell in a heap. The first shot had pierced his stomach. He died without getting his hand on Marx or on his own gun. Blaul leaped into the saloon through the side entrance just as his dying buddy dropped to the floor. Only providence deprived the killer of a second victim. The pearl-handled automatic was aimed point blank at Blaul’s heart when Marx pressed the trigger. It snapped harmlessly. The mechanism had jammed. In another instant the desperado was felled by two bullets, one in the shoulder and the other in the hip.

Blaul, in berserk rage, jumped on his prostrate foe. He planted one heel on Marx’s throat. At the same instant, he wheeled on the group at the bar. His leveled revolver jerked their arms above their heads. With his left hand, he pulled Marx to his feet. Then, holding his prisoner in front of him as a shield and keeping the barroom crowd covered with the pistol in his right hand, the detective backed into the telephone booth behind him. For the next fifteen minutes, Blaul found himself fully engaged, telephoning for a patrol wagon, relieving Marx of two hidden revolvers and watching for possible confederates of the murderer among the gang between him and the street.

That was too precious a real-life tableau to lose. It must be captured and preserved. Not only must the community be shown what went on in its midst, but posterity should have this sidelight on the generation. Mere words were bungling tools for such an exhibit. The camera alone could serve this historic purpose. Moreover, this was a loud rap from Old Man Opportunity. One of my aims was to excel in a method of illustration that pictorial weeklies revived and exploited thirty-odd years later. It consisted of the episodic narration of a story in photographs. As often as possible, the principals were persuaded to relive the dramatic moments in front of a lens especially manufactured at large expense for such snapshots.

Detective Blaul harkened to the call of the arts. He agreed not only to reenact his share in the gripping melodrama, but also to act as an associate stage manager. Police Inspector Shippy took charge officially. He requisitioned the barroom for the show. In addition, he arranged for as much participation by Marx as the wounded man’s condition would permit. The technical details were assigned to Nathan Meissler, a Chicago American photographer. Meissler occupies a prominent niche in my hall of unwitting heroes. “The right angle for an exposure” lured him to unnumbered risks of life and limb. Once, to deliver his negatives in time for an edition, he clambered across two miles of the broken ice that covered Lake Michigan. Repeatedly submerged, he never lost the oilskin bag containing his plateholders. The rescuing police were with difficulty dissuaded from holding him for a lunacy hearing.

At seven o’clock in the forenoon of November 27th—six days after Marx’s capture—Meissler reached the Sheffield Avenue police station to pick up Shippy and Blaul en route for the great photographic drama. Five minutes later, he telephoned me. “This place has just gone nuts,” he reported. “A patrol wagon filled with cops carrying riot guns is streaking out of here toward the lake. The only guy left is too screwy to talk.” Obviously, the camera classic was off for the day. There was nothing left for Meissler to do except follow the speeding policemen.

Standing beside me was W. S. (Bill) Brons. That always meant something. Brons never wasted a footstep. He was an unabridged answer to a news department’s problems. His title of wire chief insured nearly every other title in the office. Brons whispered: “A dispatcher on the Illinois Central Railroad tips me that a special train is being made up at the city hall’s orders.” This might have any of a half-dozen meanings. It might even signify an unadvertised junket. But Meissler’s report and a ten-line item on the first page of the Tribune’s last edition that morning fused in my mind with Brons’s message. The Tribune paragraph told of several obstreperous hoboes being surrounded and held at bay in a dugout near Miller’s Station, Ind., by Chicago police.

That was the hunch that inflicted such fidgets as should have produced in me a permanent anti-hunch phobia. Every legger on duty was ordered to catch the Illinois Central special train. All the cash the paymaster could scoop together was commandeered. He handed me $900. It was stuffed into the pockets of seventeen reporters scurrying past me on their way out. They would share this with any fellow workers whom we could muster in time to join them. Before the day’s routine had fairly started, the office was stripped of the staff except for two rewrite men and Brons. At the last moment, he was sped in pursuit of the others.

James P. Bicket was my assistant. Ten years later he reached the managing editorship. Highly strung but always levelheaded, he was usually a comforting stand-by. As Brons disappeared through the door Bicket turned to me quizzically. “All our eggs in one basket,” he remarked. His tone was as gloomy as the thought he suggested. What had I done? With no more apparent reasoning than a squirrel needs for tree-climbing and by direction of what remained no more explicable than sheer impulse, our whole news-gathering force had been rushed headlong on what grew every second to look more and more like a wild-goose chase. At the end of a half-hour with not one word from any of them, it was a safe bet that all were either outside the city of Chicago or in a railroad wreck.

Where did that leave me? What could be done if a big local story broke? Still worse, what if the special train was only a mare’s nest? This was possible in a number of ways. It might be a purely technical gesture, like a show of force to establish a legal record. There had been several such demonstration in disputes between the Park Board and the Drainage Canal Trustees. And what if the gang in the dugout turned out no more dangerous than a set of the plaintive squatters that every winter annoyed the railroad company? How and whence would we get the lead for the next edition? Or for the other editions during the rest of the day? It wouldn’t be enjoyable abruptly to make room for the Chicago American’s twenty-eighth city editor. But there would be no other fate for the fool that staked and lost a whole staff on a hunch.

The ticking of a Morse instrument dispelled my jitters. It was a flash from Brons. He was astride the top of a telegraph pole in northern Indiana. He had plugged in on the main line and was sending me the contents of a dispatch he had just transmitted to Chief O’Neill. It was signed by Herman Schuettler, Chicago’s assistant superintendent of police, hero of the Haymarket riot and the most famous peace officer of the Middle West. The telegram asked O’Neill for reenforcements. Schuettler was using Brons as his adjutant. Brons’s story consisted of official messages rephrased.

Seven Chicago policemen, traveling by horse and carriage, had reached Pine, Ind., at two o’clock that morning on a secret detail from Superintendent O’Neill. They were to investigate a tip. It was a message O’Neill had received by wire from Miller’s Station, the nearest telegraph office. A local schoolteacher believed he had recognized among the tramps, in a rough shelter near at hand, some faces resembling photographs of fugitives printed in the Chicago American. Detective Sergeants Michael Zimmer and John Driscoll were in joint charge of the blue-coat detachment. They thought it prudent to lay low until daybreak.

At dawn, the squad moved cautiously toward the dugout. Smoke was curling from a chimney. Somebody coughed. Several streams of flame spurted through the half-open door. Zimmer and Driscoll fell, mortally wounded. The rapidity of this gunfire was unlike anything the attackers had ever heard or seen. They drew back.

It was word of this double tragedy that prompted Superintendent O’Neill to ask the Illinois Central Railroad for facilities with which to dispatch reinforcements. That was the special train on which I had flung our staff. They found Schuettler aboard. With him were fifty patrolmen armed with rifles. O’Neill had enjoined the utmost secrecy. He was wrestling with a question of authority. Already, he had sent two of his men to their death outside the State of Illinois. He wanted someone to back him up. Until he could reach the mayor or the governor, his official actions must be kept in concealment.

Schuettler had not yet crossed the state line into Indiana, when the cornered gunmen made a break from cover. They shot their way through the police cordon. Two of them were recognized as Niedermeyer and Van Dine, confederates of Gustave Marx. It was before taking up the pursuit that Schuettler asked O’Neill for an additional force of riflemen. All this came from Brons in a string of bulletins. From that point, the American’s presses rolled off one extra edition after another, each recording a successive chapter of the remarkable melodrama that continued from dawn to dusk, spreading over twenty towns and villages and swollen every minute by an outpouring of the countryside.

Many stories, more important or more significant, have since passed through my hands, but none so exciting in the manner of its unfolding. It was as if a master dramatist stood by, directing the action moment by moment, scene by scene. As each climax was reached, at hourly intervals, it was told in a fresh edition. A quick review of the sequence is given by the headlines on the seven issues that recounted the yarn from beginning to end:



Niedermeyer and Van Dine in Desperate Battle with Police






Others Confess Car Barn Murders

Their ammunition gone, the bleeding and exhausted desperadoes, shivering with cold, yielded to a crowd of farmers armed with pitchforks. The theatric unities were preserved to the last act. The curtain of darkness fell on the surrender. In the caboose of the train in which the prisoners were taken to Chicago was Charles C. Fitzmorris, one of the brightest reporters it has been my fortune to direct. He was then a mere stripling. Less than three years before, he had won a race around the world arranged by the Hearst newspapers for schoolboys chosen from metropolitan centers. Fitzmorris listened to the bandits’ confessions.

“Great work,” he was told as he turned in the last sheet of his copy.

“Great hunch,” he answered, smiling. “If you hadn’t started us when you did, I wouldn’t have landed my piece.”

Whereupon, as the lad’s mentor, it seemed my duty to discredit any reliance on the occult. “Hunch be damned!” was the answer. “Our tipster service was at bat.” A reputation for pulling assignments out of the air is extremely undesirable. It has licensed many a matinee truancy for skeptical reporters. Moreover, “a nose for news” sounds like a more substantial appurtenance than a susceptibility to hunches.


The Car Barn Bandits continued to “crash” the front pages until the Iroquois Theatre fire swept them and everything else into the background. That calamity, in my judgment, was the biggest peace-time story that fell wholly within the scope of local news since the turn of the century. The fatality list of more than 600 has been exceeded and vastly greater property damage has been recorded. But no other event, devoid of extramural involvements, plowed so deep or so wide a furrow through the emotions of a horrified humanity, or left so permanent an impress on the social structure. The character of the victims and the nature of the setting alone lifted it to a place apart from other disasters. The death roll, consisting largely of children, paralleled Chicago’s social register. The occasion—December 30, 1903—was a next-to-New Year’s Eve matinee performance of Bluebeard, Junior.

From the ashes of that holocaust was sifted my first contribution to an international reform. The asbestos, or fire-proof, curtain, required in auditoriums throughout the world, may be traced to a campaign launched in the Chicago American on the day following the Iroquois Theatre catastrophe. It started with my demand, made upon Chief of Police O’Neill personally, for the arrest of the mayor of Chicago, the building commissioner, one of his inspectors and the owners and managers of the theatre. O’Neill sidestepped. His failure to act was the American’s pretext for daily broadsides that continued until the grand jury indicted five of the accused men. The mayor was omitted from the list.

Vigorous pressure was exerted in the defendants’ behalf. They were described as martyrs of a hysteria engendered by sensation-mongers. My complaint had charged criminal negligence. The Iroquois Theatre was a new building. The license to operate was issued without adequate inspection. When the flames burst forth, frenzied efforts were made to open the skylight. It was hoped the blaze could be diverted upward long enough for the audience to escape. The big window couldn’t be budged. Nobody had ever gotten around to putting it in order.

A majority of the victims were found on the main floor. Fully 200 were piled waist high against the emergency exits. The charred bodies had blocked these means of egress because the doors opened inward. So, blunders of builders and managers were chargeable with more lives than the fire itself. That was one expose to which passion drove me with a fury no mere professional feeling could equal. Diagrams, sketches, cartoons and photographs stressed each lesson of the catastrophe.

Ultimately, the five indictments failed; but we had meanwhile focused attention on methods to prevent a recurrence of the Iroquois Theatre horror. A popular demand arose for these safeguards. The universal requirement for their presence in places of public assembly salves many a bruise suffered in less successful crusades. It suggests a further solace. Fire curtains and outward opening exits will last much longer than most of the goals I missed.

No other single news experience presented to me so inclusive a panorama of varied values. Foster Coates, in charge of the paper, was in New York. Andrew E. Puckrin, the managing editor, had collapsed from the suddenly tautened strain. And thereby shone the golden halo with which the spirit of journalism bedecks a staff when a crisis calls. Only a few weeks before a still-smoldering resentment against an outsider’s selection as city editor had flared afresh over his “luck” with the Car Barn Bandits story. But at the clang of the Iroquois Theatre fire alarm all personalities’vanished. From basement to roof, every worker responded as one man. “The play must go on” is a proud tradition of the stage. It becomes a wan wish beside the fierce urge that tugs at newspaper souls when “the presses are waiting.”

For ten successive days, the private economies of the American’s personnel were utterly forgotten. Several of the reporters didn’t undress for a week. Some of them snatched a few hours’ sleep from time to time on piles of old newspapers in the “morgue” or reference room. Most of them were still bleary-eyed with fatigue when a bonus of three weeks’ additional salary was distributed. That was unprecedented, but not excessive. The Chicago American‘s first extra on the Iroquois Theatre fire contained an interview with Fire Marshal Horan placing the dead at more than 500. This was told in a two-column step-off caption leading out of a page-wide head. The corresponding extra of the Daily News, our chief competitor, reached the street at practically the same moment. The American arrived at some news stands first, the News at others. But the News’s story, under a two-column head, estimated the casualties at twenty injured. An increase of $25 raised my weekly salary to $100.


The mind grasps nothing more variable—either in swiftness or in sweep—than the comparative valuations of news elements. Often, without alteration of the slightest detail, the transcendent story of one instant shrinks into a negligible item of the next. The Iroquois Theatre fire demonstrated a noteworthy case. Emil Roeski was the demonstrant. Youngest of the Car Barn Bandits, if he had chosen any other afternoon for the exploit, his escape from prison would have occasioned a special edition. The method of his break for liberty suggested an Alexander Dumas novel. A well-made rope, hidden between the crusts of a pie, had been sneaked into Roeski’s hands. It saved him a thirty-foot drop. 

The yarn of the boy desperado’s get-away and recapture, instead of commanding two pages of type and pictures, was told in a couple of paragraphs. His futile flight left the only trace of usefulness in his whole life. It is convenient to employ as an illustration or diagram of the unmeasurable exigencies that affect the allotment of newspaper space. Its simplicity is especially effective. It should penetrate even the arid areas of intelligence of those statesmen who turn from an incapacity for statesmanship to a larger incapacity for criticism of the press. It should indicate how stupid, asinine or insincere is the unskilled absentee who sets his estimate of relative news values against the judgment of the editor on the job. 

It should impress a stamp upon those pretenders whose proximity to the source endows them with a false authority—men who scorn the calling from which they draw their livelihood, either unable or unwilling to absorb its essence—those journalistic misfits who befoul their own nests with the excretions of an unforgivable benightment. Such as these might envy the effrontery of the editorial writer who descended from his lofty dais in St. Louis to give a nationwide radio audience an exposition of newspaper bias in the 1940 presidential campaign. His analysis was based on inch measurements and percentages thereof. He and his ilk might get enlightenment from the shade of Emil Roeski. 

Chapter 10 Part 3 Next Week   
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