Alderman Ed Burke has been a fixture on the council for over three decades. He is widely viewed as being its most influential legislator, not to mention its historian.
But can he change history?
Burke is deep into his authorship of a book entitled “End of Watch.”
When the book is published later this year it will recount the sad stories of each and every police officer killed in the line of duty since the streets of the Windy City were first patrolled.
But Burke plans to entirely retell the story of one law enforcement officer, Constable James Quinn, who 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 publicly aired by Ald. Burke, 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 accordingly tainted.
Tale of a town
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.
His name is at the front of a line of more than 450 officers slain in the Chicago Police Department’s and listed in the Honored Star Case, which is on display at police headquarters on South Michigan Avenue.
James Quinn’s name is not included in this memorial.
His absence from the official record, his virtual anonymity, is made more absolute still by the fact that there is no known photograph of the man or sketch of his features.
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 order.
But Ed Burke is nothing if not determined and has introduced a resolution before the Chicago City Council calling for an amendment to the official record.
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,” Dublin-born Quinlan told the Echo.
Margaret Quinn, now a widowed mother of three, did indeed receive $50 from the police department after it was determined by the department and city council — known then as the Common Council — that Quinn had been “killed in the discharge of his duty.”
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.
Chicago, as such, was little different to New York, Boston or Philadelphia.
But given the extraordinary pace of change in those same cities, many Irish who 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.
Searching for the crime
Alderman Burke believes that this was precisely the situation that Constable Quinn faced.
Burke’s attention was drawn to the Quinn story by retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent and amateur historian Rick Barrett.
Barrett came across the Quinn story when researching some of his own ancestors who had served as Chicago police officers.
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, according to a statement from Alderman Burke’s office, 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.
The later petition submitted by Quinn’s widow was filed on February 27, 1854.
It was, according to Burke, 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.”
Burke and Barrett have together uncovered evidence showing that on March 6, 1854, the Common Council’s Committee on Judiciary authorized the $50 compensation for Margaret Quinn on the grounds of her husband’s death as a constable acting in the line of duty.
“Common sense tells us that this payment to a fallen officer’s widow proves a prima facie line of duty death in the case of Constable Quinn, and establishes Margaret Quinn as the first line of duty death widow in Chicago history,” Burke stated.
Somehow though, the official record never reflected the judiciary committee’s decision and it was Lauer who went down as the first officer to die on duty.
“Over the course of history, the name and the valor of Constable Quinn appear to have become all but forgotten. I believe the time has finally come to correct this oversight and place Constable Quinn’s badge alongside his fallen comrades where it rightfully belongs,” Alderman Burke has argued.
In spite of the new evidence, history, not to mention the present day Chicago Police Department, seem to be pulling the other way.
The Quinn versus Lauer issue is now before the City Council’s Police and Fire Committee. But the council can only apply pressure, not necessarily enforce the final word.
According to reports in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, the police department has stated that it has an open mind and will now take a fresh look at the case for Quinn.
But reports additionally indicate little momentum in the department towards changing the historical record.
Either way, the final decision in the matter rests with Chicago Police Superintendent Philip Cline.
Press reports are depicting the latest twist to the tale as a standoff between Burke and Cline.
“My guess is that there won’t be any change in the official record,” a well-placed Chicago media source told the Echo.
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.”
It was a neighborhood where many residents did not even recognize the legal authority of the Chicago authorities. Today, the area is the rather more upscale corner of town known as Streeterville.
The Chicago Police Department is expected to make its views known sometime in the coming weeks.
If it sticks to what is the current official line there will be a standoff indeed because, according to Donal Quinlan, Alderman Burke plans to record Quinn’s demise as being the first on-duty police death in his upcoming book.
“Hopefully they (the police department) will see the light and either support Alderman Burke or not oppose,” said Quinlan.