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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.

(page 5 of 5)

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In any case, Colonel McCormick came to believe that the Tribune-declared war on the gangs contributed to the eventual downfall of Capone and struck a deathblow at the underworld. Boettiger’s notions were never far from his boss’s, and the writer put it this way at the conclusion of his book: “[I]n years hence [the murder of Lingle], the crime of a century, may be reckoned as the starting place from which the fall of Chicago gangdom shall date.”

Of course, Chicago gangdom didn’t fall. Capone and his top aides went to prison, and Prohibition killed the booze trade, but the underworld regrouped and thrived, continuing its alliance with the city’s political class—a disheartening partnership that stretched for at least another half century. “Machine politics were set up to protect vice and crime,” says Robert M. Lombardo, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Loyola University. A former police detective, Lombardo concedes that the Chicago Outfit is in decline today, but he points out that local authorities didn’t strike the mortal blow—the suburbs did. “Those old neighborhoods, the racket subcultures—they’re gone,” Lombardo says.

Meantime, the so-called culture of corruption in Chicago and Illinois politics continues to offer up a steady effluence of malfeasant public officials. “What is it in the electorate that finds that acceptable?” asks Richard Norton Smith, who has firsthand knowledge of Illinois, having served as the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. “There’s an element of resignation bordering on cynicism,” he adds.

Patrick Collins, the former federal prosecutor who chaired the Illinois Reform Commission appointed in the aftermath of the Blagojevich debacle, says he has heard various theories to explain the persistent corruption in Chicago—for example, that the city’s tough immigrants embedded the custom of scuffling and cutting corners to get ahead; that crime and corruption has become a spectator sport, an entertainment that doesn’t demand change. In general, Collins concedes, “At a citizen level, for some reason, [the imperative for honesty in government] doesn’t take hold—there’s a resistance, a built-in skepticism.”

Jonathan Eig suggests that the Lingle murder came as a climax to a critical period of Chicago history. “It seems to me there was a constant battle going on in the twenties in Chicago to try to figure out just where the city stood on immorality, because the reformers came and went, Mayor Thompson came and went.” The newspapers by then had a national imprint, so Chicago’s reputation carried across the country. “I think [Lingle’s murder] became a dramatic call—an ultimate moment to get on the right side of morality, show the country that Chicago can clean itself up.” In that scenario, “Lingle is seen as a symbol of democracy.”

And then, Chicago came to know him.

* * *

In private ways, the Lingle murder took its toll on the principals. In The Colonel, Richard Norton Smith writes memorably that McCormick’s sense of betrayal by his employee led him to become even more suspicious and reclusive. “His office came to resemble the jail cell in which Leo Brothers served his sentence, but with one critical exception,” writes Smith. “When his time was up, Lingle’s convicted killer walked out of prison for good. McCormick remained incarcerated by his own wish for as long as he lived.”

John Boettiger parlayed his hard-earned favor with the Colonel into better assignments, and soon he was covering the 1932 presidential campaign. He came to know Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna. Though both Boettiger and Anna were married to others, they fell in love and, after divorces, married. Boettiger left the Tribune in 1934 but kept in touch with the Colonel, writing him as late as 1947 to remark on a lingering issue in the Lingle case. Over the years, Boettiger failed at assorted journalistic and business ventures; eventually the marriage to Anna failed, too. Battered by depression and shame, he took his own life in 1950.

And what of Jake Lingle’s surviving family? The most poignant story in the aftermath of the killing describes the scene at Lingle’s mother-in-law’s house on the West Side, where Jake’s wife, Helen, and their two children were spending a few days before moving to the summer home in Indiana. “Trunks stood ready packed in the hall, and the final articles were ready to be tucked into the traveling bags,” the Tribune reported. “Down on the front lawn, Buddy and Pansy, as the children are called, romped for the last time with their playmates.” Upstairs, where Helen Lingle had just heard the news, she cried, “If only he’d lived a little while. If only I could have seen him.”

The family stayed in Chicago. Helen Lingle never remarried, and the son, Alfred Jr., raised a family here himself, working as a salesman. Both he and Helen are dead now, but I talked to one of his sons—a grandson of Jake—Kevin Lingle, a Chicago actor. He’s in his mid-40s, a good-looking, brown-haired man with piercing eyes. He says family mythology holds that he looks like his grandfather. In fact, he says, “I’d like to play Jake in a movie.”

Still, Kevin is guarded about how the shadow of an infamous murder affected his family. His grandfather’s killing was rarely discussed in the family—he says he first learned of its significance watching TV, when Geraldo Rivera told the story as part of the buildup to the opening of Capone’s vault in 1986. “It was quite a shocking thing,” Kevin recalls. Since then he has done some research, but he’s turned up little. As for that diamond-studded belt buckle—Kevin says it’s vanished somewhere in the past.

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