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The Lost Boy

(page 4 of 4)

Chief Shippy

As others involved in the event died off, the Averbuch affair faded from memory. But in the 1960s, while working as a rabbi in Champaign and studying at the University of Illinois with Rudolph Vecoli, a pioneering scholar of the immigrant experience, A. James Rudin came across the story. “It began as a graduate paper and expanded into so much more,” he says today. “And the more I got into it, the uglier it became. The most disturbing part of the whole story was the hysterical reaction of the Chicago papers, which were dripping with anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish stereotypes.”

Rudin’s appraisal of the shooting, entitled “From Kishinev to Chicago: The Forgotten Story of Lazar Averbuch,” appeared in Midstream, a Jewish review, in 1972. Nearly 20 years later, Walter Roth, who had escaped Nazi Germany as a nine-year-old boy in 1938, began his own investigation into the shooting, which he had run across while studying early civil rights cases. “This was all precomputer,” says Roth, who today is a lawyer at Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw law firm and the president of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. “I went through all the back issues of Chicago newspapers tracing this increasingly interesting story.”

After looking into the story for a while, Roth had amassed huge amounts of material. That’s when he met Joe Kraus, an English teacher at Chicago’s city colleges. In the early 1990s, Kraus had gone to Roth to compare notes on several of his own ancestors—the Miller brothers, Jewish Chicago gangsters—and ultimately Roth enlisted Kraus in his endeavor. “I thought [The Lazarus Project] was really terrific,” says Kraus, “but I think it was Walter Roth who rescued the story. Walter found it and got fascinated by it. He researched it like crazy, but he was so overwhelmed by material, he didn’t know where to begin.”

While Hemon’s novel, with its sensory evocation of the Chicago tenements circa 1908, beautifully renders the pathos of Averbuch’s story, Roth and Kraus’s An Accidental Anarchist provides the rich nuts-and-bolts details of the affair. Read in tandem, the two books do a remarkable job of resurrecting a world long gone.

As noted, Hemon—who in his novel acknowledges his debt to Roth and Kraus’s book—presents a clear-cut take on what he thinks happened in the Shippy foyer: The trigger-happy chief gunned down an unarmed man, wounding his son and driver in the process. (Hemon may have strong feelings about what happened, but he is not so sure about the why. “I don’t have explanations,” he admits.)

What is the verdict of the affair’s most diligent students? Though none of them are ready to reach a definite conclusion, their best assumptions reveal a parting of the minds. In separate conversations, Rudin and Roth said that they leaned toward the interpretation that Averbuch, following Old World tradition, had gone to the chief seeking permission to move to Iowa. (While convinced of Averbuch’s innocence, Hemon doesn’t buy this explanation. “Lazarus had been in the country long enough to know better,” he says.) The blank piece of paper inside the envelope he had presented the chief was a courtesy, something on which Shippy might inscribe his endorsement. “[Shippy] comes down and sees this guy and thinks, This must be an anarchist,” says Roth. “They wrestle and then he shoots him. Foley came running in and took a shot, and that may have been the shot that caught Harry coming down the stairs.”

Rudin makes an attempt to understand what motivated Shippy: “Here’s this guy, this immigrant, at his door. Of course [Shippy] was frightened. He acted very rashly and in a lethal way, but he thought his life was in danger, and the life of his family. Then it got out of hand.”

And Joe Kraus? He readily admits that he is uncomfortable saying precisely what happened. But like his coauthor, Kraus acknowledges his fascination with the story, for which he finds an apt metaphor. “It’s shaped like a bagel,” he says. “The hole is missing, but it creates this gravity around which these other elements orbit”—a gravity that exerts an irresistible pull on the imagination even after 100 years.

* * *

And poor young Averbuch? What of him? In the days before his disinterment, as the clamor rose for a second autopsy, the Russian Jewish community, outraged by the heavy-handed actions of the police, began preparing for a massive demonstration that would coincide with any reburial. Realizing the conflagration this might set off, Addams and Ickes worked behind the scenes to ensure that the corpse was retrieved from its potter’s field grave, subjected to a second autopsy, and spirited away to its final grave, all in the course of a single day.

The funeral procession began as a small cortege—a hearse carrying the body (its purloined brain now returned) followed by a carriage filled with city and county detectives—which left the morgue at the insane asylum at about 5 p.m. and likely proceeded east on Irving Park Road. At Elston Avenue, a third carriage joined the solemn parade. At Ridgelawn Cemetery—today it’s the Beth-El/Ridgelawn Cemetery, just south of Peterson Avenue on Pulaski Road—only a few people clustered around the grave: the police; some newspapermen and social workers; and Rose Stern, a friend of Olga’s who, in initial press reports, had been depicted as Averbuch’s girlfriend. Preoccupied downtown with paperwork, neither Addams nor Ickes attended the funeral.

Finally, there was Olga herself, who took it hard. During the simple Jewish ritual, she fainted twice and, according to the Tribune’s account, “raved frantically,” crying, “Mother, brother, brother, father.” At one point she turned so “violent” it took three people to restrain her. Near collapse, she was supported by two men as she returned to the carriage, where again she fainted. The carriage rode off, carrying the distraught Jewish woman into oblivion.

As for Averbuch, no stone marks his grave today in that forlorn little cemetery off Pulaski Road, and no one seems to know where his body lies. If you wish to find his monument, you will have to look elsewhere: in the faded type marching across yellowed newsprint; in the hardbound pages of a still-vital Jewish review; and in a pair of books written by a trio of authors who stared into the distant past and cried, “Lazarus, come forth.”


Photograph: Chicago Daily News, Inc./Chicago Daily News Negatives Collection, Chicago History Museum/ dn-0008004

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