SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Chicago's reputation for dramatic crime and corruption predates Al Capone and prohibition by decades. In May 1889, Dr. P.H. Cronin, an esteemed physician, was found in a sewer there, naked, dead and savagely beaten. The investigation and trial set off an international sensation and one of the world's first media circuses, over a story that involved Irish revolutionaries and reactionaries, secret societies - all at a time when Chicago had been burned down and was reborn as the fastest-growing city in America. Gillian O'Brien, a senior lecturer in history at Liverpool John Moores University, has a new book, "Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago." She joins us from the BBC in Liverpool.
Thanks so much for being with us.
GILLIAN O'BRIEN: Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: Help us appreciate what Chicago was like in this period after the great fire.
O'BRIEN: I think in many ways the period after the fire in Chicago became a place where almost anything was possible. It was a city that had to reinvent itself, a city that was building the first skyscrapers, a city where you could be pretty much anything you wanted to be and a city of great opportunity, also, great poverty and as the book explains, sort of great corruption.
SIMON: And into this cauldron, a dapper man named Alexander Sullivan inserts himself. What brought him there?
O'BRIEN: Sullivan was - by the time he got to Chicago, he had already been to Detroit, he'd been to New Mexico, he'd been to New York. And he left all of those places under somewhat of a cloud for various reasons. And he arrived in Chicago, I think, really a little bit like the city, trying to reinvent himself, trying to take on another career, trying to establish himself as someone of great respectability. And Chicago was the place where he thought that reinvention could be completed.
SIMON: And was part of his effort to reinvent himself what brought him to the Clan na Gael?
O'BRIEN: I think so. I mean, he was from an Irish-American family. He wasn't initially very political, but one of the ways for Irish Americans to, I suppose, make progress themselves was to join a number of Irish-American societies. So, some of them were fraternal, some of them were charitable and some of them were political, others were revolutionary. And Clan na Gael was one of those revolutionary societies. It was a secret society. But its aim was to free Ireland from Britain and to do so using force.
SIMON: And this kind of brought him into the orbit, in a contrary way, of Dr. Cronin, didn't it?
O'BRIEN: That's true. I mean both men - similar ages. Both men were high achievers. They didn't come from very wealthy backgrounds, they were really sort of self-made men. And both were very ambitious. And in fact, Sullivan, who had been in Chicago almost a decade before Cronin, got Cronin his first job in Cook County Hospital. But the two men never really saw eye-to-eye. Cronin regarded Sullivan as a professional patriot in that he felt that his allegiance to Ireland was really only to further his own aims rather than a real dedication to the cause.
SIMON: This was a time too, we should appreciate, when the debate over Irish nationalism would roil cities even on the other side of the ocean, wouldn't it?
O'BRIEN: Well, that's very true. I mean, the debate about Irish nationalism was very alive in the 1880s, both in the United States but also across Australia and obviously in Britain, in Ireland itself. And how to achieve Irish freedom, whether you do that through sort of political, constitutional means or do it using violence, was something that was hotly debated and hugely problematic for many people.
SIMON: Yeah. And this was an area in which these two men disagreed?
O'BRIEN: Yes. They didn't disagree about the use of force. They disagreed about how to - what to do with the money that had been raised to sort of help fight the fight.
SIMON: Yeah. So, one night, Dr. Cronin didn't come home.
O'BRIEN: That's true. He had two surgeries, one of them at his home. And he was called out on an emergency on the evening of the 4th of May, 1889 and he was not seen by anybody who knew him after that.
SIMON: Yeah. Until they saw him in the sewer.
O'BRIEN: Until they saw him in the sewer. And then it took some time to recognize him because two weeks in a sewer is not good for a body.
SIMON: So, let me ask you about the investigation and trial. The Chicago police force in those days was almost half Irish. And there were very un - what we would now call now un-PC calls to keep Irish cops off the case, weren't there?
O'BRIEN: Yes. Well, the interesting thing about the police force being half Irish is that the Irish only made up 17 percent of the population of Chicago. So it was completely disproportionately Irish. And there were certainly calls, particularly after the initial arrests of men associated or believed to have been associated with the murder, after those arrests were made there were calls right into the highest level in the police force to take anyone Irish off the case because they couldn't be entirely trusted. That said, even though those calls were made, some Irish policemen and detectives did remain on the case and, in fact, they were really the ones who cracked the case.
SIMON: The trial is too good to give it away. But let me put it this way, did the murder of Dr. Cronin wind up affecting support - changing attitudes that a lot of Irish-Americans had about Irish independence?
O'BRIEN: I think it did. I don't know that it changed their attitudes towards a general desire to see an independent Ireland, but it certainly stopped the flow of funds into those organizations that wanted to use force to achieve that independence. I think for many who were members of groups like Clan na Gael in the 1880s, I think many of them joined because it was a way to meet other Irishmen. It was a way to get a job. It was a way to go out on a Friday evening and end up having a few drinks with your friends. You'd go to the meetings, and then they'd go on to the local saloon. And I think they gave money knowing it was going to fight for Irish freedom, but it was very abstract. And I think when the murder happened in Chicago and the amount of coverage it got, it became very real.
SIMON: I mean, a criminal act so chilling, it appalled even Chicagoans.
O'BRIEN: Well, that's true. I mean, Chicago was absolutely shocked and completely fascinated. I think one of the things that I found really amazing was when it came to the trial itself, they could not find 12 men in Chicago who did not already have an opinion.
SIMON: Gillian O'Brien, her new book, "Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago."
Thanks so much for being with us.
O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Scott.
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