Prince of the City: The mysterious mob hit on 1920s Tribune reporter Jake Lingle

He spent lavishly and hung out with the city’s elite, including Al Capone. His murder in a passageway under Michigan Avenue outraged the city, until the truth emerged—that he was corrupt to his core.

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Lingle’s funeral parade proceeds past Our Lady of Sorrows on West Jackson Boulevard.
Lingle’s funeral parade proceeds past Our Lady of Sorrows on West Jackson Boulevard.

 

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Lingle’s life and death

The murder investigation zigzagged along through the summer and fall, with little success. Word had reached Charles Rathbun and his investigators that Lingle might have been killed by the North Side gang in return for his failure to protect a swanky, illegal gambling establishment, the Sheridan Wave Tournament Club. On Waveland Avenue, a few blocks east of Wrigley Field, the Sheridan Wave sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, according to contemporary descriptions—players in evening dress, free drinks and food, admittance allowed only to those known by the doormen. The club brought a steady, hefty stream of revenue to Bugs Moran and his hoods. The cops closed it in 1928; the place later reopened, then got raided again in 1929. The proprietors, including Julian “Potatoes” Kaufman, planned to open yet again, and, by some accounts, Lingle tried to hit them up for a fat fee or a cut of the profits in return for clearing the way. When they balked, Lingle vowed to arrange another raid. The Sheridan Wave never did start up again—opening night was scheduled for June 9th, the day Lingle was shot.

With rumors connecting Lingle to the club, the police arrested a Moran lackey named Jack Zuta, who was thought to be the brains behind the Sheridan Wave. In much of the contemporary journalism about the underworld, the writers can’t hide a smirking, boyish admiration for the mobsters. Not so with Zuta. It was bad enough that he “made his living out of women’s shame,” as Boettiger put it. He was also, by assorted accounts, a sniveling toady and a coward—though apparently his cowardice had some justification. After picking Zuta up, the police held him at a detective bureau at State and 11th streets, Capone territory. Nothing came of the interrogation, and when the cops released him, he begged for a police ride to the safety of the North Side. A cop was ferrying him up State Street in the Loop when a blue sedan pulled alongside, and a gunman let fly with a volley of shots that “sent three or four hundred startled citizens scurrying for cover in doorways, in alleys, behind lamp posts and refuse boxes,” the Tribune reported. A stray bullet killed a streetcar operator, the father of three children.

Zuta survived and fled to Wisconsin, hiding out at a resort near Delafield. A month later, as he was dropping nickels into a mechanical piano at the resort dance hall, five gunmen strode in and shot him to death. The murder was never solved, and some investigators thought Zuta had been silenced because of a role in the Lingle killing.

Zuta didn’t shuffle off, however, without leaving a parting gift. An obsessive packrat, as one judge described him, Zuta kept meticulous records, and investigators found a trove of documents connecting him to prominent judges, politicians, cops, and legislators. As Boettiger put it, “Chicago enjoyed a nine day sensation. Public officials came tumbling into the offices of the Lingle investigators, explaining how their names came [up] in the Zuta papers, why they took Zuta’s money, and how innocent they all were.”

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As the investigation dragged on, Capone himself offered to help search for Lingle’s killer, and the gangster—perhaps playing out a ruse—held several secret, fruitless meetings with a representative of Charles Rathbun. Finally the authorities got a break. An informant heard that a mug going by the name Buster had shot Lingle and that he was still in Chicago. Using telephone wiretaps, the investigators traced the suspect to an apartment hotel at 4827 South Lake Park Avenue in Hyde Park. After an all-night stakeout, the cops arrested him on December 21st.

Buster turned out to be Leo V. Brothers, a small-time hood from St. Louis, where he had belonged to a gang called Egan’s Rats. At 31, Brothers was tall, with wavy blond hair and a long record, including a murder charge in St. Louis. For 17 days, Rathbun and his team held Brothers in secret and incommunicado at the Congress Hotel while questioning him about the Lingle assassination. Years later, Brothers claimed his treatment had been so brutal that he had overheard Boettiger tell a detective, “Why, if this man is freed, he will own the Tribune.” The investigators assumed someone had hired Brothers for the killing, but who? Brothers denied everything with a stoicism he kept up throughout the case.

By the time the trial started in March 1931, several rival Chicago papers—particularly the Hearst-owned Herald and Examiner—charged that the Tribune was railroading Brothers simply to clean up the Lingle affair. For appearances’ sake, Rathbun stepped aside as lead prosecutor in favor of the assistant state’s attorney C. Wayland Brooks (who later rode the Tribune’s backing to a U.S. Senate seat). In court, a defense lawyer for Brothers took up the conspiracy charge. “Find the motive of this prosecution,” thundered Louis Piquett. “Is it a prosecution by the state’s attorney or by the Chicago Tribune? . . . This is the most gigantic frame-up since the crucifixion of Christ!”

The state didn’t have to show a motive, however—it sufficed to prove that Brothers killed Lingle. The prosecution’s case rested solely on eyewitnesses, seven individuals who took the stand and identified Brothers as the man seen fleeing the scene of the murder. The defense responded with seven who said he wasn’t. Brothers himself never testified. The jury deliberated for 27 hours before returning what was clearly a compromise verdict—guilty of murder, but with the minimum sentence, 14 years. Brothers famously said afterward, “I can do that standing on my head.” The outcome no doubt disappointed the prosecution and the Tribune, but the verdict represented a landmark of sorts: After more than 500 gang murders in Chicago in the last decade, this marked the first time the authorities had brought in a conviction.

* * *

Much of Chicago was not persuaded. Rival papers inveighed against the verdict, and even Lingle’s mother wrote to Brothers in prison, saying she believed in his innocence. But the state supreme court upheld the verdict, and at the Tribune, McCormick remained certain that the killer had been found, ignoring a touching letter from Brothers’s mother asking for the Colonel’s help in freeing her son. (“Would a mother[’]s plea induce you to release my son so my few remaining years can be spent with him[?] You can do it. You know you can.”) Brothers served nine years and died in 1950, always insisting he was innocent.

The conviction did nothing to explain who ordered Lingle’s murder, however, and the mystery persists to this day. The two main schools of thought parallel the gang warfare of the time. One holds with the Sheridan Wave theory and argues that Lingle fatally annoyed Bugs Moran and his henchmen. By this analysis, Jack Zuta arranged the hit. As one Capone biographer, Laurence Bergreen, puts it, “From Moran’s point of view, the murder of Jake Lingle was the perfect crime, for Moran knew that the blame would fall on Capone.”

The rival explanation points the finger at Capone, who, by this line of reasoning, had decided that Lingle had double-crossed him, either by failing to deliver on promised protection or by cozying up to the North Side gang. Another Capone biographer, John Kobler, provides evidence for this view in citing a letter written by Mike de Pike Heitler, an estranged Capone “whoremaster.” Heitler had left the letter with his daughter with instructions to deliver it to an investigator in the event something happened to him. His body was found in a burned-out car in late April 1931. In the letter, Heitler claimed that eight Capone gangsters had conspired to murder Lingle, and Heitler quoted Capone as saying, “Jake is going to get his.”

Colonel McCormick blamed Capone, but on slightly different logic. The feds were starting to build the tax case that would eventually send Capone to prison in 1931, and they hoped that Lingle, given his warm association with the mobster, might provide some helpful details. (Federal agents did talk to McCormick about Lingle, but—contrary to several later accounts—only after the murder.)

Jonathan Eig, author of the forthcoming Get Capone, doubts that the mobster ordered the hit. “It doesn’t make sense,” Eig argues. “Capone had much bigger problems at that point. The feds were breathing down his neck. He knew his phones were tapped. He was lawyered up.” The Heitler letter was suspicious from the start—Heitler was illiterate, and the woman to whom he supposedly dictated it could barely read and write. As for the tax case, “The IRS investigation was already well under way, and Lingle wasn’t a key source,” Eig says. “There were lots of people who knew more and talked to the agents, and no one got hurt.” Besides, he adds, “The Lingle hit was anything but a Capone-style hit. Too many witnesses.”

So does that point the finger at Bugs Moran and his boys? That’s Eig’s best guess.

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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo

 

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5 years ago
Posted by mckomin

I really enjoyed your article about Jake Lingle. Well written and researched. Do you know the address of his home in Long Beach, IN? I am a Long Beacher myself and would like to know where he lived. None of my neighbors are old enough to remember.

5 years ago
Posted by seattle99

Good article

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