Infamous Piece of Chicago History Goes on the Block

In Chicago in 1977, assistant state's attorneys view the disassembled gallows in the Cook County Jail, after a judge, despairing of ever using it on murderer
In Chicago in 1977, assistant state's attorneys view the disassembled gallows in the Cook County Jail, after a judge, despairing of ever using it on murderer "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor, who escaped in 1921, ordered it sold. (Chicago Tribune Via Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

CHICAGO, Oct. 30 -- It could be the perfect Halloween treat -- or trick -- for that person who already has everything else: a gallows.

About to be auctioned is the gallows that was built to hang anarchist labor organizers convicted in the Haymarket Affair in the late 19th century. It continued to be used for decades to hang some of Chicago's most infamous criminals.

Since 1977 the gallows has stood in a Wild West theme park run by two history-buff brothers in small-town Union, Ill. Before that it had languished, disassembled, in the basement of Cook County Jail in Chicago.

The gallows would have been destroyed after Cook County discontinued hanging in 1927 if it were not for a fugitive named "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor, who escaped from death row in 1921, four days before his scheduled execution for killing a Chicago policeman. The gallows was preserved so O'Connor's sentence, which specified that he be hanged, could be carried out should he ever resurface. Theories held that O'Connor returned to his native Ireland to fight the British, fled to Mexico or became a Trappist monk. His tale is the basis of the films "The Front Page," "His Girl Friday" and "Switching Channels."

There were at least 40 hangings on the gallows, done in the hallway between cellblocks at the jail so other prisoners could watch. Famous executions included those of Patrick Prendergast, a journalist hanged in 1894 for assassinating Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, and Johann Otto Hoch, a serial killer who used aliases to marry and then murder at least 50 women. He was hanged in 1906.

"It must have been pretty solemn, standing there in a dingy cellblock with the other prisoners watching," said Mike Donley, 54, proprietor of Donley's Wild West Town, where the gallows sits next to a faux frontier village. "It's pretty spooky to imagine."

The gallows was replaced by the electric chair in 1927. In 1977 a judge ordered the gallows sold. Mike Donley and brother Randy Donley placed the sole bid after seeing a newspaper ad for the gallows auction. They trucked the apparatus to the small museum they had started to showcase their father's collection of antique phonographs. In 1986 the museum made international headlines when it exhibited what may have been Adolf Hitler's photo album, purchased from a World War II veteran.

Mike Donley said he has had inquiries from both private collectors and museums about the gallows.

Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago History Museum, said the museum is interested in adding the structure to a permanent exhibit on the Haymarket Affair, which takes its name from a May 4, 1886, labor rally in Haymarket Square at which a bomb was thrown, resulting in the deaths of eight police officers. The eight men accused of the bombing were widely considered to have been convicted for their oppositional political views. Four were hanged.

"This was a momentous event in not just Chicago history but national labor history," Mahoney said. "It's still a contested issue."

James Acker, professor and co-founder of the National Death Penalty Archive at the State University of New York at Albany, said most Americans do not know that hanging is still legal in Washington state and New Hampshire, as an alternative to lethal injection, and was only recently outlawed in Delaware. It is still a major form of execution in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Japan.

"Most people associate it with the Wild West," he said. "It resonates with the 19th century and cowboys, and there's also the very negative association with extrajudicial lynchings in the South."

Acker said he hopes whoever ends up buying the gallows displays it appropriately.

"This could be a legitimate mechanism for preserving a bit of this country's history with the death penalty, so future generations will be able to look back on these practices and make whatever judgments they will," he said. "But there's also the risk something like this could be cheapened, vulgarized or marketed for whatever entertainment value it might have."

Jane T. Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said she hopes the gallows auction gets people thinking about the death penalty in general.

"It's interesting that this comes at the same time there is considerable controversy over lethal injection," she said. "The gallows are kind of a jolt from the past, when executions were public. Now we have this idea that they're supposed to be painless, which is also kind of contradictory since they're supposed to have a deterrent effect."

Bidding for the gallows, which begins on Nov. 20 and closes Dec. 6, will start at $5,000. Brian Marren, vice president of acquisitions for Mastro Auctions, said other historic items started at that price have gone for more than $100,000.

Marren said the fact that only the Donleys and the county government owned the gallows increases its value. "It's a one-of-a-kind item," he said.

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