May 9, 2011

In the line of fire

Anton Cermak just after being shot, 1933.

Anton Cermak, who was born on this date in 1873, died in 1933, a month after being shot by Giuseppe Zingara, who may or may have not been aiming at the man standing next to him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

For a long time it was believed that Cermak’s death was an accident, a tragedy that prevented a worse tragedy.  But a lot of history has been dug up since the event, and arguments are made that Cermak was the target all along.  Zingara never really said, although his statement that “I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists,” sounds like he was aiming at FDR.

Zingara, however, was quite short and had to stand on a folding chair to see over the crowd – a situation likely to have adverse effects on his aim.

Giuseppe Zangara, mug shot.

Cermak was in the middle of his first term as mayor, his election a victory over Big Bill Thompson, a Chicago politician who’d been the mayor and the machine’s man for a long time.  His most repeated argument against Cermak was that he was a foreigner with a funny name. (Cermak’s family was Czech and arrived in Chicago when Anton was a year old.)

Thompson’s most famous lines seem to have been “Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart?” and “Who wants a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”

To which Cermak replied, “… it’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”

A lot of foreigners with funny names who had flocked to Chicago at the turn of the century voted for Cermak and much to the dismay of the entrenched Republican political machine, he won – he’d created an effective Democratic political machine. The Chicago Tribune (which hated Thompson for a lot of reasons) wrote

For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy…. He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.

Whether Cermak was the reformer his constituents were hoping for we’ll never know – when he was shot both he and FDR were in Florida – in Cermak’s case it might have been because he was fleeing the Capone gang. More here.

It’s all pretty murky, but one thing is sure – Cermak’s presence saved FDR.  Angelenos may be interested to know that most days they can hear the traffic report on KCRW given by Cermak’s grandniece, Kajon Cermak.



  1. Very exciting thank you.


    Comment by avery — May 9, 2011 @ 7:32 am | Reply

  2. AHHH Chicago, dear Chicago!!!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — May 9, 2011 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  3. What a great home town to have.


    Comment by Carol — May 10, 2011 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  4. It was fun finding and reading this. I still have holiday greeting notes, an invitation to Governor Otto Kerner’s inaugural ball, and other correspondence including some from the Illinois Trade Mission. All sent from Springfield, the capital of Illinois, to my parents John and Kathleen Cermak. My connection to the Governor? Kerner married Mayor Anton Cermak’s daughter, my cousin once removed, Helena.

    “Otto Kerner, Jr. (August 15, 1908 – May 9, 1976) was the 33rd Governor of Illinois from 1961 to 1968. He is best known for chairing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) and for accepting bribes….” Wiki

    I only saw my dad cry three times. When his father John Joseph Cermak II died, when President Kennedy was shot, and when Otto Kerner Jr. was found guilty and was convicted on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and related charges.

    Also interesting to note was the way in which Kerner got caught…

    “The scandal came to light because Marge Lindheimer Everett, manager of Arlington Park and Washington Park race tracks, had deducted the value of the bribe on her federal income tax returns in the belief that bribery was an ordinary and necessary business expense in Illinois…” Wiki

    I miss Chicago.


    Comment by Kajon Cermak — October 19, 2011 @ 11:45 pm | Reply

  5. Do you know who the other three men are that are shown in this photograph?


    Comment by Amy — February 23, 2017 @ 9:20 am | Reply

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