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The Lost Boy

(page 2 of 4)

The Shippy residence, then and (inset) now.

Because a solution to the mystery behind Averbuch’s death lies in the why, it’s simpler to first consider the what. Hemon, who dispatches Lazarus in the opening pages of his novel, lays the blame at Shippy’s feet. Confronted by a swarthy, suspicious, and unarmed immigrant caller, the chief, in Hemon’s version of the story, shoots first and asks questions later. The first bullet wounds Averbuch as Foley, the chief’s driver, rushes into the house. Startled, Shippy shoots Foley through the hand, and then, “wheel[ing] around like an experienced gunfighter,” he shoots his son, Harry, who is descending the stairs. Foley pulls his revolver and joins in, and when he and the chief are done, Averbuch has been shot seven times, “his blood and brains spurting and splattering on the walls and on the floor.”

That’s one possible version of events, but it differs drastically from the accounts that first appeared in Chicago’s mainstream papers. A central figure in Hemon’s account of the Averbuch affair is a Chicago Tribune reporter named William P. Miller. (The character’s name, says Hemon, was inspired by Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter criticized for her coverage of the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) But the florid, xenophobic prose that appears under the fictional Miller’s byline in The Lazarus Project is not that far removed from the stories printed by the Tribune after the shooting.

As in Hemon’s novel, on the morning of the shooting, Chief Shippy is finishing breakfast in his home on Lincoln Place (the house still stands in the 2100 block of North Hudson Avenue). Called to the door, he confronts a young man “with a foreign cast of features,” reports the Tribune, “. . . that would send a shiver of distrust into any man’s heart.” The man hands Shippy an envelope, but the chief, sensing a ruse, drops it and grabs his caller’s wrists. He shouts for his wife, who searches the man’s pockets and finds a pistol. Before she can grab the gun, the slight man escapes from Shippy’s powerful grip and slashes the chief’s arm with a dagger. By the Tribune’s account, the chief pulls out his own revolver and shoots the young man in the neck. Enter the chief’s son, Harry, who is shot in the chest by the intruder. Enter the chief’s driver, who exchanges shots with the swarthy foreigner. Both men find their mark. Enraged, the chief fires two more shots at the intruder, this time “with deadly effect,” as the Tribune puts it. After less than three minutes, the confrontation is over.

For several days, that version of the story circulated in most of the local papers, augmented by descriptions of young Averbuch as an “anarchistic assassin.” In a city that vividly recalled the violent Haymarket incident—the 1886 labor rally that culminated with the deaths of eight policemen and several citizens—that anarchist label raised the specter of a vast, foreign-born conspiracy intent on toppling law and order across the country. Two days after Averbuch’s shooting, the “Red Queen” Emma Goldman arrived in Chicago, igniting a wave of editorials that called for deportations, limits on free speech, and increased surveillance. Hectored by police, Goldman went into hiding and never had an opportunity to address her Chicago followers in the wake of the shooting.

* * *

In the days immediately following the violent encounter in Chief Shippy’s foyer, Chicago was as one in denouncing the would-be assassin. Even members of Chicago’s Jewish community, fearful that people would turn on them, condemned Averbuch. But soon the city’s socialist and Jewish papers (the latter rendered in Yiddish) began to wonder why everyone had been so eager to accept the word of the man who had slain the Jewish youth, a recently arrived immigrant who may have had a limited command of English. In New York, where the story had spread, one Yiddish-language daily put the question bluntly: “Why, with no legal investigation at all, was the Chief’s explanation just taken for certain truth . . . ? Why was there a hue and cry in this case not against the murderer but actually against the murdered . . . ?”

Finally, on March 12th, after no evidence had emerged linking Averbuch to the anarchists, one of Chicago’s most respected Jewish citizens stepped forward. Since 1880, Emil Hirsch had served as rabbi of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the Midwest. (At the time, Sinai’s temple was at 21st Street and Indiana Avenue; today it’s at 15 West Delaware Place.) “There is doubt as to what happened at the home of Chief Shippy,” announced Hirsch, who proceeded to lay out his own theory as to the sequence of events. Averbuch had not gone to the Shippy home intent on assassination, he said; rather, the clue to his mission was the envelope he had handed the chief, which turned out to contain only a blank piece of paper. With the potential of a better job in Iowa, the naïve young Jew, following a bureaucratic Russian custom, had approached Shippy simply to secure the necessary permit he thought he needed to leave the city. “A misunderstanding arose,” said Hirsch. “Chief Shippy thought the man was an assassin and tried to protect himself, and Averbuch also defended himself.”

Hirsch’s remarks helped galvanize efforts to exonerate Averbuch. Already a movement was afoot to gather funds to aid his sister. A seamstress in a Chicago sweatshop—and, like her brother, a survivor of the vicious Kishinev pogrom of 1905—Olga Averbuch had been detained by the police for 72 hours and subjected to a relentless interrogation. Convinced of her brother’s innocence and desperately trying to reclaim his body and provide it with a Jewish burial, she found herself taken under the wing of the city’s great champion of the immigrant: Jane Addams. From her base in Hull-House, Addams began collecting funds for Olga’s cause, raising, according to various reports, between $10,000 and $40,000. Julius Rosenwald, the wealthy president of Sears, Roebuck and a member of Hirsch’s congregation, may have privately kicked off the fundraising drive with a donation of $2,000.

People began to voice the suspicions they had silently harbored for more than a week. Where was the evidence that Averbuch was an anarchist? Other than a few books among his meager belongings, there was none; contrary to early reports, it seemed unlikely he had even attended a “march of the unemployed” staged in Chicago—and broken up by police—a few weeks earlier. Gainfully employed, Averbuch had worked as an egg packer on South Water Street, where he earned high praise from his boss.

The questions went on. How was it that Chief Shippy, a big, strong man who knew how to use his fists, had been unable to subdue the undernourished immigrant? What evidence was there that Averbuch had wounded Shippy with a knife; could the wound have been self-inflicted? And in the face of Olga’s claims that her brother could not afford a gun and did not know how to use one, where was the evidence that he was actually armed? In the list of the contents of the dead man’s pockets compiled by the police, the notation that he had carried a gun and a knife had obviously been added later in a different hand, and the assertion of the pawnbroker who claimed to have sold the weapons to Averbuch at a particular time and date were easily refuted by Averbuch’s boss at the egg-packing company, who reported that Averbuch had been at work at the time. Most damaging of all, why had Averbuch’s body been so hastily buried after only a perfunctory autopsy?

Ignoring charges that she was only aiding the anarchists, Addams set out to find a lawyer to take on the Establishment. She was rebuffed by Chicago’s top legal minds and finally turned to a member of her ad hoc Averbuch committee: Harold LeClair Ickes. Though nearly 34, Ickes, who would later win fame as a champion of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (his son Harold M. Ickes served as deputy White House chief of staff for President Clinton), had only just begun to practice law. This would be his first case. He began by orchestrating a second autopsy by a doctor of his choice, which of course required exhuming Averbuch’s body. It had been buried in the potter’s field at Dunning cemetery, which adjoined the county poor farm and insane asylum. (Long forgotten, the cemetery—a burial ground for indigent Civil War veterans, unidentified victims of the Chicago Fire, and the county’s poor and mentally infirm—was rediscovered by developers in 1989; today, the Read-Dunning Memorial Park, near Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue, marks the site.)

Conducted in the asylum’s morgue, the autopsy revealed several interesting facts. Ickes’s doctor discovered another fatal wound that revealed Averbuch had been shot in the back, a circumstance that ran counter to the reports of Chief Shippy and his driver. Furthermore, an undertaker who was in the room, noting how one bullet had entered and exited the body, concluded that the young man had also been shot at least once from above. But the most curious detail would emerge only years later, after Ickes committed it to an unpublished memoir. Noticing a heated dispute between an attendant and the county coroner, Ickes asked someone about the reason for the argument. It turned out that, in violation of both civil and Jewish law, the coroner had removed Averbuch’s brain and sent it off for examination. For the time being, Ickes kept this fact to himself.


Photography: Chicago Daily News, Inc./Chicago Daily News Negatives Collection, Chicago History Museum/ dn-0005931, (inset) Paul T. Johnson

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