A long-smoldering debate over who was the first Chicago police officer to die in the line of duty roared into life again this week with the publication of “End of Watch,” a history of the Windy City police force that names Constable James Quinn, a famine-era Irish immigrant, as the first officer to die in the course of carrying out his duties.
“End of Watch” is the work of Chicago City Alderman Ed Burke and Tom O’Gorman, an author and senior aide to Burke, a 30-year political veteran often described as the city council’s historian.
At 568 pages and crammed with 600 photos, “End of Watch” is a meticulous detailing of the lives and deaths of generations of police officers who made up the thin blue line between the law abiding citizens of Chicago and those who would do them harm.
Most crucially, the book names Quinn as the city’s first fallen cop.
But that’s not how the police department sees it.
Constable Quinn was beaten to death by a tavern owner in December 1853.
It was alleged by some at the time that Quinn was off duty, drunk and killed in nothing more than a bar brawl.
But another view, one being championed by Burke, O’Gorman and retired DEA agent Rick Barrett — who runs a Web site dedicated to the Quinn story — is that Quinn was on duty, that he had been attempting to make an arrest in a part of town notorious for anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry, and that the statements of witnesses who stated that Quinn was drunk were tainted.
“The records were opened to us and we were able to examine and analyze this story in a way that never happened before,” Tom O’Gorman told the Echo.
“We found 13 other cops who died in the line of duty and who are not on the (police department’s) list and should be. But our book starts with Quinn,” O’Gorman said.
Officer Casper Lauer, a German Catholic immigrant stabbed to death just a few months after Quinn’s death, is currently listed as the first Chicago police officer to die in the line of duty.
Lauer’s name is at the front of a line of more than 500 officers slain in the line of duty and listed both in the Chicago Police Department’s Honored Star Case, at police headquarters on South Michigan Avenue, and on a new $5 million memorial wall located on the city’s lakefront close to Soldier Field.
James Quinn’s name is not included in either the case or the memorial.
Being first in anything is a big deal. Being first to die in the line of duty is beyond measure. So changing the record is, to say the least, a tall task.
According to Donal Quinlan, spokesman for Burke, documentary evidence from the time supports the view that Quinn was going about his law enforcement business when he suffered his ultimately fatal injuries.
“The city council at the time acted on this basis. Quinn’s widow received a death benefit. We uncovered the paperwork,” Quinlan told the Echo in a previous report.
Quinn had been elected constable of the young city’s Ninth Ward. The job involved a variety of duties but a constable in 1850s Chicago effectively doubled as a police officer in what were the early formative years for today’s police department.
As was the case with a number of 19th century American cities, Chicago was a town where newly arrived immigrants of every stripe faced discrimination and outright violence at the hands of nativists and know-nothings.
But given the extraordinary pace of change in those same cities, many Irish who were at the receiving end of the nativist boot one day found themselves walking the streets as law enforcers the next.
Nevertheless, even a badge and a truncheon were not guaranteed protection against entrenched prejudice.
Alderman Burke believes that this was precisely the situation that Constable Quinn faced.
Burke’s attention was first drawn to the Quinn story back in 2002 by Washington, D.C.-based Barrett, the son and grandson of Chicago police officers and an enthusiastic amateur historian.
Barrett came across the Quinn story when researching his family’s links with the police department.
Papers unearthed by Barrett revealed that Quinn died on December 5, 1853, two days after he was beaten for the second time while attempting to arrest a man in a house located along what is now the city’s North Lakefront.
The house was situated at that time in a vice district where many inhabitants rejected Chicago’s claim that the area was under the city’s jurisdiction.
The coroner at the time concluded that Quinn died from injuries inflicted by William Rees or Reese, a local tavern owner who had kicked and punched him.
A petition for support, submitted by Quinn’s widow, was filed on February 27, 1854 and was accepted by the mayor and the council, which went on record as stating that Quinn “was deprived of his life in the honest and faithful discharge of his duty as an officer of the city.”
The Quinn case, Barrett said, rested on two pillars of truth, they being a pair of decisions by the Chicago authorities, one by the coroner in 1853, the other by the Common Council’s judiciary committee in 1854.
“Take away all the bullshit and it’s really a simple case. But we’re dealing with group-think. The Chicago Police Department is invested in the Casper Lauer story,” Barrett said.
He argues that Quinn was a “throw-away” to the know nothings who held power in Chicago in the mid 1850s.
As a result, the official record has never reflected the judiciary committee’s March 1854 decision and it was Lauer who went down as the first officer to die on duty.
Some newspaper reports have depicted the latest twist to the Quinn story as a standoff between Burke, one of the most powerful political figures in Chicago, and Chicago Police Superintendent Philip Cline.
However, The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times both reported last year that the police department had stated that it had an open mind and would take a fresh look at the case for Quinn.
But when the lakefront memorial was officially dedicated last September, Quinn’s name was not on a wall of honor that looks like a smaller version of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.
The department’s longstanding view of Quinn’s death is that he was killed while off duty and drunk in a notorious part of Chicago known at the time as “The Sands.” Today, the area is the rather more upscale corner of town known as Streeterville.
A possible tiebreaker in the standoff is a study of the Quinn case now being carried out by the Chicago History Museum.
But Tom O’Gorman believes that his and Ed Burke’s narrative, which spans the years 1853 to 2006, should be enough on its own to settle the case.
“I think it will change the list,” he said.
More details on the Quinn saga are available on Rick Barrett’s Web site, www.constablequinn.com.