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The Lost Boy

(page 1 of 4)

Shortly after the March 1908 shooting, a dapper Chicago police captain displays the corpse of Lazarus Averbuch.

Early on the morning of March 2, 1908, a scrawny Russian-born Jewish man boards a northbound streetcar at 12th and Halsted streets. The young man’s surname is Averbuch; his first name might be Harry or Jeremiah, though history generally recalls him as Lazarus. The streetcar carries Averbuch away from the overcrowded tenements clustered around Maxwell Street toward Chicago’s rarefied North Side. At Webster Street, he leaves the car and walks east toward Lincoln Place, a short street lined by tall brick houses pocked with windows and protected by wrought-iron fences. At 8 a.m., Averbuch walks up to one of these houses and rings the bell; a maid answers, gives him a disdainful once-over, and tells him to come back later.

An hour passes. Averbuch returns and is admitted into the home of George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. The door closes. Almost immediately the sound of gunfire erupts. At least six shots are fired, and when the smoke clears, Harry or Jeremiah or Lazarus, just a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, lies dying, his body riddled by bullets. Also wounded are Harry Shippy, the chief’s son, and James Foley, his driver. As for Chief Shippy, he has a slight knife wound under his right arm—or perhaps he has suffered no injury at all. For two or three weeks, the news of Averbuch’s death preoccupies Chicago, and then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the story vanishes and is gradually forgotten.

Yet like his biblical predecessor, Lazarus Averbuch refused to stay buried. In 1972, a rabbi resurrected the tale for a Jewish magazine, and 26 years after that, a Chicago lawyer, assisted by a local English teacher, crafted a book around the incident. But Averbuch’s story truly burst into prominence last year after Aleksandar Hemon, a 44-year-old refugee from Sarajevo who now makes his home in Chicago, published The Lazarus Project. The short novel, which alternated chapters about Averbuch with the story of a modern-day writer named Vladimir Brik, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The paperback edition (Riverhead Books, $16) is slated to appear on May 5th.

Hemon’s book artfully revives Averbuch’s story, but it is important to recall that The Lazarus Project is a work of fiction. Hemon invents and recasts events, invades the deepest recesses of his characters’ minds, and allows the drama to play out based on his assumptions of what really happened in that Lincoln Park foyer 101 years ago. “My guess is that Chief Shippy thought Lazarus was an assassin,” says Hemon. “There was a scuffle and a shootout, though I doubt [Lazarus] had a gun—and I don’t think he had ill intentions.”

Hemon’s novel is a bravura performance, and serves well the author’s multifaceted depiction of displaced immigrants. But it sidesteps some of the nagging questions that have cluttered this complex story since it first played out on the front pages of Chicago’s newspapers in 1908. Nor does it fully present all of the tale’s disparate details and local personages, including the fledgling lawyer Harold L. Ickes and the immigrants’ savior, Jane Addams—a cast and setting that make Averbuch’s tale what one historian calls “a Chicago story of the first order.”

* * *

Let’s begin with the slain man’s name.

There is little doubt his surname was Averbuch, though its spelling occasionally varied; in her 1931 memoir Living My Life, the Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman refers to him as Overbuch. It’s when we get to Averbuch’s first name that real problems arise. The newspapers of the day called him Lazarus, a name rich with metaphorical resonance (Hemon taps into this by using the story of Lazarus’s resurrection as related in the gospel of John as the epigraph to his novel). Rabbi A. James Rudin, who wrote about the shooting more than 35 years ago in the magazine Midstream, calls the young man Lazar. “Lazarus is the Greek form,” says Rudin, who today is a senior interreligious advisor of the American Jewish Committee. “Lazar is the Hebrew name.”

But perhaps “Lazar” is also incorrect. At the belated coroner’s inquest into her late brother’s death, Olga Averbuch insisted that “his name was not Lazarus,” and that she called him Jeremy or Harry; likely taking Olga’s statement into account, the coroner’s jury, in its verdict, referred to the dead man as “Jeremiah Averbuch, also known as Harry Averbuch.”

Wait a minute, say Walter Roth and Joe Kraus, who wrote 1998’s An Accidental Anarchist, the most thorough examination of the Averbuch killing. “Walter and I took a while before we came to the sense that Lazarus was likely his first name,” says Kraus, today an associate professor of English at the University of Scranton. The confusion arising from Olga’s statement merely reflects her intimate familial relationship with her younger brother. “She’s speaking of him as she loves him,” Kraus says. “That’s part of the whole immigrant experience. They don’t even speak a language that we can follow.”

So let’s call him Lazarus, if only to get rid of one niggling question. The thorny challenge, as it has been for more than 100 years, is figuring out what really happened at Chief Shippy’s home—and why. Those questions have no easy answers, presuming they have any answers at all.


photograph: Chicago Daily News, Inc./dn-0005898, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

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