With the Chicago mayoral race heating up, we look back at Anton Cermak, the Chicago politician killed by a bullet meant for President Roosevelt on this day in 1933.
Born Antonín Josef Cermák in the town of Kladno (now part of the Czech Republic), Cermak celebrated his first birthday on Ellis Island in the company of his émigré parents. They were headed to Chicago, home to the highest Czech population of any city outside of Prague. At a young age, Cermak followed his father by working in the coal mines near Joliet. At 16, he moved to Chicago proper where he worked as a railway brakeman and a teamster. By 19, he’d started his own haulage business, earning him the nickname “Pushcart Tony.”
A decade later, he got into real estate, starting the firm Cermak and Serhant, and he would soon begin his political career. In 1902, after having served as a precinct captain, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and seven years later he became alderman of the 12th Ward. In 1931, he decided to enter the race to become Chicago’s next mayor.
Prohibition-era Chicago was a city with big problems. The Great Depression was in full swing, and the city’s reputation for lawlessness and violence were typified by the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929, a gangland killing that left seven dead. Corruption was rampant, with Republican mayor ‘Big’ Bill Thompson known for disrupting elections by having his cronies lob hand grenades at polling places, as in the infamous “Pineapple Primary” of 1928 during which at least two politicians were killed. Though Thompson had publicly pledged to take a tough stance on crime, he was in the pocket of the man who really ran Chicago in the 1930s – Al Capone.
The Democratic political establishment who opposed Thompson were mostly Irish, and they didn’t want to put forward a Czech as their mayoral candidate. Without their support to draw on, Cermak was force to politically organize the other major ethnic groups – Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Italians and African-Americans. In doing so, he built the Democratic machine that still runs the city to this day.
During the campaign, incumbent Thompson made a major mistake, mocking Cermak’s name and ethnic background. Cermak cooly responded, “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower. But I came as soon as I could.” The sentiment won him even greater support among Chicago’s large immigrant population, and he captured 58% of the vote on election day. Since April 6, 1931, no Republican has been mayor of Chicago.
Cermak was given a gift his first year in office when Al Capone was indicted on tax evasion charges. But there were plenty of gangsters to take his place, including Frank Nitti. When Nitti was shot by Chicago police during a 1932 raid, he claimed in court the police were under direct orders from Mayor Cermak to assassinate him. In addition to contending with organized crime, early in his administration, Cermak was hit with a real-estate tax revolt that threatened to cripple the city.
It was the rapidly depleting Chicago coffers that brought Cermak to Miami on February 15, 1933. He was there to meet President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in hopes of securing a federal loan with which to pay Chicago municipal workers. Cermak was shaking hands with Roosevelt at Bayfront Park when he was shot by an unemployed bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara.
Though most credible historians believe the intended target was President Roosevelt (who emerged unscathed, though five other people were hit by rounds from Zangara’s .32 pistol), some have put forward notion that the intended target was Cermak all along, and that the hit was ordered by the mob in retaliation for the shooting of Frank Nitti.
Cermak would linger for several days with a bullet in his lung before dying on March 6, 1933. His alleged last words were delivered to Roosevelt, whom he told, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Assassin Zangara was quickly tried and executed a mere two weeks later.
When Chicagoans hit the polls next week, they won’t have to worry about anyone throwing bombs at them. And whomever they choose to elect as the 55th mayor of Chicago, you can bet it will be a Democrat, an inevitability that leads back to the organizing savvy of Antonin J. Cermak.