Photos

Chicago's Gangster Past, Minus the Romance

A collection of photographs from the Chicago Tribune archives rejects spectacle in favor of brutal, messy truth.

Image Photos © Chicago Tribune
William Heirens, also known as "The Lipstick Killer," is escorted to a detective bureau line-up in July, 1946. His nickname stemmed from the note he scrawled in lipstick on the wall of one of his victims: "For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." (Photos © Chicago Tribune)

Even a casual observer of American history will no doubt recognize several of the names in Gangsters and Grifters, a new book of early 20th century crime photographs from the Chicago Tribune archives. John Dillinger (and his corpse) monopolizes a handful of pages. A smirking Al Capone makes a few courtroom appearances. But this isn't another text seeking to glorify the Second City's criminal past.

Photo editors Erin Mystkowski, Marianne Mather, and Robin Daughtridge, who refer to themselves as "The Dames of the Chicago Tribune Photo Department," made a conscious effort to offer a more holistic representation of the annals of Chicago's notorious history. Through 125 thoughtfully curated photographs, juxtaposed next to the corresponding Tribune headlines, the somber realities of Chicago's historical criminal activity become apparent.

A sizable crowd gathered on West Augusta Boulevard to view the body of Wanda Stopa, Chicago's first female assistant U.S. district attorney. Stopa had attemped to kill the wife of her supposed lover, but accidentally killed their groundskeeper instead. She later committed suicide by swallowing arsenic. "When we posted this photo online," says Mather, "we had so much response from people, who said, 'Oh my gosh, I live on that block!' Or 'I live in the house that the wake was in.'" (Photos © Chicago Tribune)

"There's nothing romantic about these photos," says Mather, "and I think that was an interesting thing for us: to show Chicago's history as truthfully as possible."

The images are brutal and difficult, yet engrossing. Part of what makes them so compelling is that they come from an era in which the boundaries of what could and could not be captured on film were far less defined. Newspaper photographers had extensive access not only to crime scenes, but to private moments in the lives of those touched by violence: families, victims, police officers, lawyers—even the accused themselves.

Meet Gertrude Murphy, also known as "Billie." "She's the quintessential 1920s flapper girl," says Mather. "She's 22, she got herself into a little bit of trouble, she's being brought in for questioning. Two men were fighting over her and one shot the other one dead. But meanwhile, she already had a husband who was in jail. The look on her face in this photo is priceless." (Photos © Chicago Tribune)

"If we were to print those today, it would be quite shocking," says Mather.

One photograph in the book that particularly illustrates this bygone openness shows a man named Nick Kuesis identifying 20-year-old James Morelli as the man that shot him in the neck and murdered his brother, John. "That’s the dirty bastard that killed my brother," said Kuesis, pointing confidently at Morelli from his hospital bed with a bandage wrapped around his wound. A detective stands between them. Morelli doesn't meet his eye.

(Photos © Chicago Tribune)

"First of all, we wouldn't have access to shoot that today," notes Mather, "and we probably wouldn't have printed that in the paper, either."

But it's not just the unburdened accessibility of the Tribune's photojournalists that makes Gangsters and Grifters noteworthy. The editors have also taken care to balance the infamy of iconic figures like Capone and Dillinger with lesser-known (but just as devious) personalities. It's a dissection of the well-worn narrative of crime and Chicago, one that seeks to reveal the humanity behind the headlines.

"What I think is so fascinating about these pictures is that these are the actual people that all that pop culture is based on," says Mystkowski. "These are the real people who are Chicago and lived through that."

Tillie Klimek sits on the right in this photo, next to her cousin Nellie Stermer-Koulik. The two women were accused of using arsenic to poison 20 relatives and friends. Tillie was eventually sentenced to life in prison, where she died in 1936, while Stermer-Koulik was found not guilty. "Tillie is a fascinating character," says Mather. "I can't believe she was able to get away with all that she did."(Photos © Chicago Tribune)
Mystkowski and Mather agree that this photo of a deceased John Dillinger is easily the most surreal in their collection. "We have absolutely no idea why there are two women in bathing suits leaning up against the glass to view him," says Mather, "but it makes for such an odd juxtaposition." (Photos © Chicago Tribune)
These two teenage girls were suspected of burglarizing around a dozen homes in 1927. According to the Tribune, when the police grabbed the older of the "girl bandits" in the midst of one of their crimes, "she spilled rings, bracelets, beaded bags, and what not from every part of her clothes. When they shook her, she literally dripped booty." (Photos © Chicago Tribune)

(Images reprinted with permission from Gangsters & Grifters by the Chicago Tribune staff, Agate Publishing, 2014)

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