Madman Murders Mayor

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On October 28, 1893, lone gunman Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast shot and killed Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. The delusional, obsessively postcard-writing Prendergast believed that the mayor owed him a political office. His strangely premeditated crime served to be the smoking gun that would get him hanged.

Prendergast emigrated from Ireland in 1873 when he was six. His mother was prone to hysteria and his father died of tuberculosis. The lad apparently suffered head trauma from a fall at age four that left him comatose. At 16 he developed delusions of persecution that drove him from home. At 18, he became politically motivated.

His political activism fed into his mania, which was fed by the Chicago political machine. He met with the Single-Tax Club, who believed that private landowners should pay a tax because land belonged to all people. Prendergast stood against the public danger of grade crossings, where trains pass at street level. He campaigned for Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. This is where things get weird. Prendergast began to write postcards obsessively. He filled them with his cramped handwriting, sending them to prominent members of society and urging them to vote for Harrison. He also found himself deserving of Chicago’s political patronage. In patronage, those in power retain it by trading favors for government contracts and jobs. Since Prendergast supported Harrison, he wrote postcards to the mayor insisting that he should be appointed as Chicago’s corporation counsel, the chief legal officer who deals with civil claims like lawsuits. Bear in mind that at this time Prendergast worked in the distribution warehouse for the Inter Ocean newspaper.

As an example of the writing campaign, criminal defense attorney A.S. Trude received a postcard from Prendergast dated November 28, 1892. It began as a sympathy card. Prendergast saw a newspaper article on Trude’s recent minor accident. From there, the postcard reinforced the legal authority of our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Prendergast added, “Have you ever saw the picture of the fat man who looked for his dog while his dog was at his feet and still did not have the wit to see what was the matter—have you observed the cat?” Trude did not comment on whether or not the argument swayed his vote, but the card would become notable later.

1893 was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition and in October, Prendergast reached his peak of mania. Early in the month, he visited City Hall under the delusion that Harrison finally appointed him as corporation counsel. He badgered a clerk into bringing him to the current Counsel Kraus. Kraus paraded Prendergast around the office and taunted him by asking if he would like the job there and then. Prendergast declined and left.

Prendergast assassinated Harrison on Saturday, October 28, 1893. It was American Cities Day at the Exposition. For four dollars, the killer bought a .38, six-chamber revolver. This model had a tendency to misfire if dropped or banged, so he kept an empty chamber under the hammer. At 3 pm, he went to Governor John Altgeld’s office in the downtown Unity Building but appeared suspicious and was turned away.

That night, Prendergast visited Mayor Harrison’s home at 231 Ashland Avenue. At 7:30, he showed up at the doorstep. The maid Mary Hanson asked him to return later because the mayor was taking a post-dinner nap. Harrison took pride in making himself available to the common people of Chicago. Prendergast returned at 8 o’clock and shot Harrison three times. He fired at the coachman and ran away. Harrison announced, “I am shot. I will die.” Despite a lack of visible blood on his chest, he died there. A half hour later, Prendergast turned himself in at the Des Plaines Street police station.

The Columbian Exposition’s closing ceremony was cancelled and replaced by a funeral procession for Harrison on October 30. At 4:45 pm, the warship Michigan saluted the mayor with its cannon. Harrison was laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery.

Patrick Prendergast’s trial took place in December 1893. The prosecutor was the same A.S. Trude who received the strange postcard about Jesus and the picture of the fat man.

The defense attempted an insanity plea. However, the care that Prendergast took in leaving an empty chamber in the gun showed that he was too rational to be declared insane. Noted lawyer Clarence Darrow, of the Scopes Monkey Trial, called for a sanity hearing, but the ruling stood. The court declared a guilty verdict on December 29, 1893. Prendergast was hanged on July 13, 1894. After the letter writing, the belief in reward from Chicago’s political machine and the assassination of a long-standing mayor, Darrow summed up Prendergast as “a poor demented imbecile.”

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Topics: Chicago, History

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