Compared to a generation ago, when bootleggers and gangsters controlled this city, it’s uncommon for an alderman to die violently now, and many people still looked shocked….
by Mark Rica, Chicago Daily News columnist, March 5, 1963
Everyone turned out for the funeral. They overflowed the Galilee Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s far West Side, thousands of them spilling into the streets, including politicians, businessmen, police, and family. Each silently pondered the same question: “Who killed Ben Lewis?”
Compared to a generation ago, when bootleggers and gangsters controlled this city, it’s uncommon for an alderman to die violently now, and many people still looked shocked. I shared their surprise, so I watched the proceedings from the rear of the sanctuary, where I could see all the mourners and listen closely to their tributes.
Leading them up the aisle came the pallbearers, including the five remaining Negro aldermen on the City Council. Lewis was the best known of them, a rising political player in a city ruled by the Boys from Bridgeport. The Irish machine has controlled all the Cook County democrats for decades, but few as firmly as The Silent Six, who always voted as they were told, knowing this is the way things work in the City that Works.
Following them came Lewis’ only child, Joan, a school teacher, and his widow, Ella. They filed past the open casket for a final look at the nearly departed, then around the dozens of bouquets that filled the pulpit. Compared to the rest, they looked composed, even resigned, as though they already understood his unexplained death.
As the pews filled, accompanied by organ music and the competing perfumes of flowers, I watched the other celebrants, who fidgeted against the stony chill of the sanctuary, for evidence or insight.
First to the dais came Ald. Reginald Coates, who recalled that Lewis’ family had moved up from Georgia when he was little, part of the Great Migration that brought so many Negroes to this city. As a young man, Lewis worked hard to support his own wife and child, taking jobs as an elevator operator, city housing inspector, and CTA bus driver. He prided himself on being a loyal father, husband, and party member.
Officer Shea O’Malley, who guarded the rear door from the thousands left outside, shook his head as Coates completed this eulogy. The beat cop stood out among the mourners, with his dress blue uniform, red hair and freckled face. I could see why they’d chosen him as bouncer—he could intimidate with just a look. Since he patrolled the ward, I asked what he knew about the deceased.
“Dat guy was a pathological skirt chaser,” said O’Malley, in the charming brogue of this city.
“You know this for a fact?” I said, with deliberate naiveté.
“He had a different broad for every night of da week,” said O’Malley, swaying on his flat feet. “Even made a play for ‘Shakey Tom’ Anderson’s wife. What kind of guy goes after a hoodlum’s girl?”
“You think that’s who killed him?” I said.
“Most likely,” said the cop. “Some mug probably found out and took umbrage.”
I could imagine the alderman as a lady’s man. He radiated style and charm, quick with a joke and a proposition. He trailed cigarette smoke like an aphrodisiac. Still, as I watched his widow, who looked dignified dressed in a black fur coat and black fur cossack hat against the foggy chill of winter, I wondered what she knew of his reputation.
Next to testify was Sal Goldsworth, a long-time precinct captain in the 24th and holdout from the days when whites dominated the ward…. The mourners nodded silently at this tribute to the American dream….
The above is excerpted from Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3, a charitable crime fiction anthology focused on discrimination and voting rights, edited by Mysti Berry.
David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood. Real events inspired all four novels, including the murder of a politician’s daughter six weeks before election day (They Tell Me You Are Wicked), a series of sniper killings in the city’s most notorious housing project (They Tell Me You Are Crooked), the Tylenol poisonings (They Tell Me You Are Brutal), and the false convictions of ten men on Illinois’ death row (They Tell Me You Are Cunning). Like all his books, David is inspired by efforts to right criminal injustice.