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Though Jake Lingle, in the words of one colleague, “never mastered the art of writing,” he was a star of the Tribune newsroom thanks to his well-placed connections—including both Al Capone and Chicago’s chief of police.
On the Monday eight decades ago—June 9, 1930—when Chicago celebrated the opening of the new Board of Trade Building, the board’s officers planned a lavish dedication banquet at the Stevens Hotel, today’s Hilton Chicago. The city badly needed an occasion to cheer. The stock-market crash seven months before had punctured the economy. Gangsters virtually ran the town, raking in obscene sums when they weren’t gunning each other down on the street. The corrupt and clownish mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, swaggered around staging ludicrous stunts, when he was around at all.
The banquet that night brought together the city’s leading citizens, a who’s who of Chicago’s financial and political elite. But at least one name made a curious fit with the rich and powerful: Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a $65-a-week police reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Jake Lingle, however, was no ordinary reporter. He operated at the center of a network of friends and associates that may stand unmatched for its depth and width in the history of the grown-up city. His best friend was William Russell, the chief of police, yet Lingle talked regularly with Al Capone and other gangsters, conversations that produced countless scoops for the Tribune. He hobnobbed with Governor Louis Emmerson and collected tips on investments from Arthur Cutten, the millionaire Chicago trader. Politicians, prosecutors, judges, cops, and athletes all offered confidences to the 38-year-old reporter, but his network stretched far beyond the well connected. Years later, Levering Cartwright, a Tribune colleague, recalled being sent with Lingle on an assignment to Chinatown. “He knew every rat hole down there,” Cartwright said. “We’d go [into] the cellar and there’d be Chinamen playing dominoes or whatever it was, he knew them by their first names. A truck would come along with a Racing Form, and he knew the driver and would get a copy.”
But on that Chicago evening in 1930, Jake Lingle didn’t join the 2,450 bigwigs who dined on filet of Colorado mountain trout, saute meunière, in the grand ballroom at the Stevens, while listening to speakers toast the new LaSalle Street temple of capitalism and decry the “parlor socialists” undermining the country. Earlier that day, as the reporter ambled through a pedestrian tunnel at Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, a tall young man had walked up and fired a fatal shot into the back of Jake Lingle’s head.
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The murder of Jake Lingle, which had all the markings of a mob hit, set off an impassioned outcry in Chicago and across the country. It was one thing when the mobsters shot up each other, but now they had taken out a man “whose business was to expose the work of the killers,” as the Tribune put it. “People started to think it could happen to anyone,” says Tim Samuelson, the cultural historian for the city of Chicago. The furious city “went berserk,” as the investigative reporter Edward Dean Sullivan wrote at the time. Preachers, politicians, businessmen, editorialists, civic groups—all rose up and demanded action against the underworld.
And then, within a week or so, the slow drip of rumor broke into a torrent of news—Lingle was corrupt to his core. The exact levers of his graft remain unclear to this day, but it’s likely he acted as a middleman among mobsters, cops, and politicians, brokering deals to allow illegal operations—speakeasies, gambling joints, dog tracks—to operate freely. Astonishingly, no one at the Tribune had called him out for being crooked, even though he lived and spent extravagantly on his lowly newsman’s salary, and even though he paraded around wearing a diamond-studded belt buckle, a gift from Capone himself.
The story of Jake Lingle remains one of Chicago’s nagging murder mysteries, retold in books, a movie, episodes of The Untouchables, and countless newspaper and magazine articles. The case offers a vivid window on a particularly raw moment in Chicago’s past, but the Lingle saga also echoes into our era, where it seems that almost every day brings a new revelation of wrongdoing by people in positions of trust. Looking through the old newspaper accounts of the murder and its aftermath, watching Lingle turn from heroic victim to conniving scoundrel, it’s hard not to think of regular Chicagoans feeling their outrage once again sink to resignation. Today, a number of observers (myself included) suspect that that sense of resignation—that hopeless shrug in the face of the Lingle revelations and other public betrayals—persists into our own time and accounts in part for the viral corruption that continues to plague this city and state.
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo