Monday, January 22, 2007

How Woodrow Wilson’s World War I Drove Chicago’s Irish and Germans Together; Thomas Francis Cleary Knocks Out a Brit Sympathizer in a Bar.

More for my children and grandchildren about their grand- and great-great-grandparents.

“I don’t know now and never have why we had to go to war to defend the English,” Thomas Francis Cleary, a marble-layer and my grandfather, told me—a kid history buff and already a hot-eyed disciple of my German-American father’s distaste of internationalism. We were in his house on Cornelia and, at 77 he was contemporarily forgetful—the beginning of Alzheimer’s which later that summer sent him on a long exploratory walking tour from a tobacconist to find his way back home, ending with the police finding a tall, balding, white-mustached gent, impeccably dressed in suit, white shirt and tie when it was 84 degrees, dead on a lawn 17 miles away. But when he said in 1939 when I was eleven (having returned from Germany with my parents the year earlier) it was identical to Father’s fulminations at Woodrow Wilson, FDR and the English during every morning’s shaving session at his bathroom sink.

The last time I saw him alive, Tom Cleary was seated on his back porch, smoking his pipe with the radio playing the Cubs play-by-play through the open windows. Every so often he would direct his question to the open window where his wife and two youngish old maid daughters were doing the dishes: “What’s the score now and who’s up?” The answer from his wife: “I keep telling you! It’s 2 to 1 and Galan’s up!”

And then he said with meticulous accuracy of some history and statistics which is the anomaly of his malady—perfect remembrance of some things, great recall of the commonplace and confusion about the present-- “Did you ever hear of Goo-Goo Galan? No, well he’s up now, he was christened August, we call him Augie and he’s leading the league in steals, hit .300 last year, bats left, throws right and he’s up right now. Don’t your folks tell you any of that stuff or aren’t you interested? Not interested, huh? That’s because you don’t play much ball, do you? Your cousins do and your father did I wonder why you’re not but maybe it’s because you’re nearsighted, do you think that’s why?—maybe so, maybe so. I never played ball either but that was--. Where was I—did I tell you that when I was a kid I watched this city burn down in the Chicago Fire?”

I lied and said I hadn’t heard it but I heard it at least four times before but wanted to hear it again for comparison’s sake. Indeed: I never grew tired of hearing it and I knew he was telling the truth because during all the retellings I heard, the details remained exact. Born in 1862 in Chicago he was with his mother on the hot October Sunday night—the 8th—in 1871 when he was nine as a hot gale-force wind carried burning woodchips and embers from one wooden house to another, starting even the wooden sidewalks aflame.

His father, a marble layer, came home from the foundry and grabbed his family and squeezed them on a street car so jam-packed he hung precariously on the outside of the car as it headed toward the lake. Once there, they pulled off their shoes and socks and, carrying them, ran up to their knees in the warm lake. At dusk, Tommy Cleary turned to look back at the city and the fire, like a shrewdly-directed army was engulfing the business area. From the South Side at DeKoven street from the O’Leary barn north, the Little Giant Fire horse-drawn engine (all had names: the Little Giant, America, Long John, Sherman and Winnebago), smoke pouring from its stack, was training its hoses, following a beacon of fire racing--racing like an athlete.

Tommy Cleary stood entranced—not sad or fearful at all since he was with his folks, rather glad that there would be no more school—and fascinated as a 9-year-old could be as he saw the churches and school go up along with the new Grand Pacific hotel, all six-stories, that was just built without having been opened yet. General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero, who had wrongly thought he could rest on his laurels with a cushy peacetime urban job as Chicago’s army commandant now faced one of the most challenging tests of his life: he had the idea of blowing up buildings to head off the flames (he had the munitions) and didn’t heed big business’ cries to spare their buildings. He didn’t and the buildings came down: the new Bigelow Hotel at Dearborn and Adams, the Tremont whose manager John B. Drake was furious (it was the fourth straight time his hotel was ruined by fires; his last was to carry his own name: the fifth one being the charm).

But the blow-ups didn’t stop the flames; they smartly dodged, swerved, crossed the streets and kept up the pace. The Clearys huddled with other families on the warm sand of the beach while the bells rang and rang and horse-pulled engines galloped by until Tommy Cleary fell asleep, his last memory of that night, as he was tucked in the crook of his mother’s arm, was hearing a man shout “the West Side is lost!” When he woke up the early morning was still sticky and hot; he heard the lapping of the soft waves on the beach and the skies were lurid, yellow-red. They stayed there from Sunday to Tuesday, taking care of their sanitary needs as best they could at old St. Patrick’s was still standing and is today one of the few survivors of the fire, or behind trees, washing in the lake and cadging food from passing-by wagons. When they went home, their house was gone—one of 17.450 and they belonged to the 90,000 homeless but thanked God they weren’t of the 300 officially dead or the many-many more who were never recorded in the crematorium that was the city.

“The water pressure came from the water tower,” he said (the Tower still stands, a relic, on Michigan avenue, a neo-medieval structure). “It had a three-inch pipe about 130 feet high, not at all able to supply the water needed. Then everything was wood, although the builders disguised it: the church steeples were wood with copper sheathing. All the houses were wood, or most of `em. Besides we were full of woodworking factories, the McCormick reaper and the Pullman sleeping car factory. And seventeen grain elevators, made of wood and four or five stories tall In our house, kerosene was on hand for the lamps (we didn’t have gas) and the sheds stored hay and other feed for the horses.”

But after he was done with the story of the Chicago fire on that last day we talked, I got him on World War I to see if he differed ideologically from Father, he being Irish and Father German. Not in the slightest. The Germans, the city’s largest immigrant group, steadfastly opposed Wilson’s support for the Entente Powers (Britain, France and Russia)—particularly Britain. The Irish for bitter, colonial and persecutorial reasons hated Britain. But the two groups had never been close. What drew them together in the city was the British blockade of food for Germany prior to our entry into the war. The blockade was imposed by Britain in punishment for Germany’s violation of Belgian “neutrality”; but Belgium had never been neutral as Father and Grandfather both pointed out . The Germans wanted safe passage for their troops, the same as was granted them by Luxembourg, and agreed to compensate the Belgians for any damage along the way. But Belgium, far from neutral, had agreements with Britain and France and its border with Germany bristled with forts while its border with France was free-passage.

In punishment for “violating the integrity of little Belgium,” the British imposed a food blockade on Germany which none other than Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, admitted was to “starve the whole population—men, women, children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission.” The blockade violated international law as understood in the 19th and 20th centuries without a peep from the American “idealist” president who remarked to an aide (published long after the war as a memoir): “England is fighting our fight and you may well understand that I shall not, in the present sate of the world’s affairs, place obstacles in her way…I will not take any action to embarrass England when she is fighting for her life and the life of the world.” The life of the world? In 1914? The Kaiser coming over here with his horse-drawn caissons and spinning jenny aeroplanes?

Germany responded by announcing it would retaliate against the blockade by sending its submarines to torpedo ships flying neutral flags but which were carrying armaments. In 1915 Churchill, the empire-defender, was encouraging such a policy. All the while British pleasure cruises continued sailing including one by the “Lusitania.” The Cunard liner was built to Admiralty specs with the understanding that if war happened, it could be swiftly converted to a battleship; ammunition magazines and gun mounts were on her decks which could be quickly armed when needed.

On May 1, 1915 it left New York harbor for Liverpool with a warning ringing in its ears from the Germans that no rupture of the counter-blockade would be tolerated. Although the “Titanic” had taken two-and-a-half hours to sink after having sustained fearful damage, the assumption was that the “Lusitania”—faster and built heavier—would survive longer. On May 7 it neared the coast of Ireland. Incredibly the German sub captain fired only one torpedo and went under in an astounding 18 minutes! Why so quickly? Because unknown to its passengers—and suspected rightly by the Germans—almost all her hidden cargo was munitions and contraband manufactured surreptitiously by the U. S. under Wilson’s aegis to help the British war effort: and the munitions detonated the ship and caused it to sink in record time. Most passengers died—1,119 of the 1,924 aboard including 114 dead Americans including Alfred Vanderbilt one of the richest men in the world and the famed playwright Carl Frohman.

This country was inflamed—but Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, who ran three times for president as a populist demagogue against Wall street (Tom Cleary’s hero who the first time got nominated for president in 1896 with a fiery address at the Chicago Coliseum which Tom attended) asked this of Wilson: “Bad as the carnage is, why are you more angered by the drowning of these people when you are silent about the starving of a nation?” Wilson didn’t answer and Bryan, convinced Wilson wanted war, resigned to be followed by Lansing who was Wilson’s clone. Having been reelected on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson now passionately wanted war. And when the U.S. ambassador to Germany, James Gerard asked Wilson: “Why should we enter a great war because some American wants to cross on a ship where he can have a private bathroom?” the president was outraged at his ambassador’s insolence.

Later when Chicago’s Jane Addams of Hull House and other peace activists went to the White House to protest, Wilson told her “as head of a nation participating in the war, the president of the United States would have a seat at the peace table, but…if he remained the representative of a neutral country, he could at best only `call through a crack in the door.’” Thereupon Wilson armed merchant ships with Navy guns and instructed them to fire on any surfacing submarine they encountered. Then as a kind of ready-made fuse, there was a “leak” of a German memo that purportedly was sent to Mexico to bargain for Mexico’s entry into the war against us, allegedly promising to return southwestern lands to Mexico after a victory. The memo smacked of something William Randolph Hearst would use to sell newspapers and has not been viewed by historians as substantive.

Then, four merchant ships were sunk and, pretending that he had no other option, Wilson bundled all the cases together and using his best ex-president of Princeton rhetoric, asked Congress for the declaration of war in 1917 which he wanted in order to become a world statesman.

Tom Cleary kept his Irish-American family heated up against Wilson and the Brits. His daughter, Frances Catherine Cleary, my mother, was powerfully influenced by her father during Wilson’s warlike actions from 1915 to `17—probably the first time as a young person she paid attention to world affairs or politics of any kind. While she didn’t know my father who lived in the German neighborhood, a few blocks away, his own father, Adam Roeser, a street-car conductor and his brother, John, a street car motorman, agreed with the overwhelming number of German-Americans in anger of Wilson and the Brits. Adam Roeser, my paternal grandfather, though born here had always viewed himself as a Bismarck-socialist yearning for the corporate state, but now became a conservative Republican, free-marketer and near-pacifist. The war fever took over the country and great portions of Chicago. The Germania Club, home to German-Americans who drank beer and chomped sausages prepared by Oscar Meyer of wiener fame, was forced to change its name temporarily to the “Lincoln Club.” The Bismarck Hotel changed its name to the Hotel Randolph. Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony, a German native, understood the game and applied for American naturalization so he could keep on conducting.

A local huckster, Mayor Big Bill Thompson of Chicago, fanned the flames by declaring that if King George of England were to come to Chicago, he—Thompson—would punch him in the nose. That was entirely okay with the Irishman Tom Cleary and the German-American Adam Roeser as the Irish and Germans galvanized. For once in his life, Anton Cermak, the Czech genius who built the Democratic party Cook county machine that exists to this day, played his cards wrong and, running for sheriff, attacked the Germans hoping to play into the once anti-kraut sympathies of the Irish. Both Germans and Irish, now together, reacted strongly and Cermak lost heavily. Mayor Thompson announced for the U. S. Senate on the Republican ticket and faced a primary challenge from Congressman Medill McCormick. Both were hotly anti-war and anti-British but Thompson took the cake by refusing to meet with visiting French Marshal Joseph Joffre and snubbed the Liberty Bond drive that raised money to support the troops. The mood swiftly changed concerning him and he was called anti-patriotic. He lost to McCormick, a depressive and drunk, the brother of Robert R. McCormick. Not Thompson but Cermak drove the Germans and Irish together during that time.

Our entrance into the war changed all that: everybody wanted to win although nobody particularly liked the Brits or hated the krauts. My father, Harold Nicholas Roeser, was just a tad too young to be drafted in World War I (but as a young reporter gloried at the rhetoric of Wilson’s message of war though not the reasoning). A close pal and fellow softball semi-pro of Father’s, George Helfrich, slightly older than Father, was drafted and went to France. Tom Cleary’s only son, Maurice, enlisted in the Navy. And Mother? Well, as I related before, she was doing well at J. Walter Thompson, had had a memorable date with “The Peacock of the Navy” but nurtured misgivings against Woodrow Wilson and the Brits and rather fancied the Germans until the day she died.

One day the War became a very personal issue with Tom Cleary. Each evening when he would return from his work at the foundry in his overalls, he would stop by a neighborhood bar and the bartender would fill a tin canister of beer called a growler from a giant beer barrel which Tom would carry home, sitting in the kitchen sipping it while his wife, my grandmother Anne, would prepare dinner. One evening Tom came in the bar, ordered his growler filled and while he waited and smoked, a pro-war, pro-Brit drunk who was both anti-German and anti-Irish, tottered up to him and mumbled “shanty Irish-shanty-Irish, shanty-Irish!” At first, Tom Cleary looked the other way. Then the guy announced to the crowd at the bar—largely Irish—these fighting words: “It took a wheel-barrow to teach you Irishmen to stand on your hind legs!”

If he hadn’t done it, another would--but with that, Tom Cleary, age 55 but muscled and trim from heavy manual labor, turned and swung at the guy as hard as he could, his iron-tough knuckles apparently fracturing his chin, and sending him reeling back, falling down and striking his head on an iron radiator, unconscious, his head twisted at an almost impossible angle as if the neck was broken. The bartender and the group tried to rouse him but could not. Thereupon Tom Cleary was seized with fear. “You’d better go home, Tom,” said the bartender. “We didn’t see it! We’ll keep the secret but it looks like this guy isn’t going to come around!” He went over, bent down and looked at the guy. “Looks like his neck is broke.”

Neglecting his beer, Tom Cleary ran the few blocks to his house, called his family together and said, with whitened face, “You should all know this! I just killed a man!” He told them the story and they all knelt down and said the rosary, convinced that the police would come to pick him up at any minute.” Then, following the rosary, they held a family consortium as to whether Tom should turn himself in or just wait…and if everybody in the bar did keep the secret, should he fulfill his moral duty to go to the police and confess or not? Anna, his wife, said no, let the police come and get him, he was the father of six but she wept. Maurice, the son, said the hell with it, the guy deserved what he got with that anti-Irish remark and he, Mor, , hoped he was indeed dead—but Tom Cleary decided that he would go right then, without eating dinner, to the police station and turn himself in. The kids wept, grabbed him and tried to remonstrate against his going.

His wife, my grandmother, found an alternative course. They should send their 21-year-old son Mor to the bar and see if the guy had died…have him just sort of saunter in and look around and try to engage the bartender in a conversation about things, expecting that the bartender would tell him a murder was committed there earlier that night whereupon Mor would run home and tell his father to give himself up to the police as a murderer. Mor left for the saloon. About an hour later he returned with glee. The guy woke up bloodied but left. While everybody in the bar was relieved, they shouted as he went out the door that he got what he deserved for insulting the Irish and that he better not complain to anybody or the next time he would come in—or go to any other bar filled with Irishmen in the neighborhood, or, for that matter, any German bar in the adjoining neighborhood to root for the English--he would receive worse treatment than he got. “The neck, the neck!” cried Tom Cleary. “No,” said Mor, “the bartender said he held his neck funny but Pa, he couldn’t have done it with a busted neck.”

Whereupon Tom Cleary wept out of relief and ordered everybody to say the rosary for thanksgiving, his daughter, Frances, my Mother saying: Is it all right if we eat first? It’s ten p.m! But grandfather and grandmother would have none of that. They said their prayers quickly and then attacked the veal roast that Anna Cleary had prepared which had gotten very cold. Tom Cleary had no beer that night and stayed away from the bar for the rest of the week in fear the police would be inquiring but resumed the practice of toting home a full growler every night after work thereafter. The next day after he left on the street-car at 6 a.m. to go to the marble foundry to work, Anna Cleary went to the 7:30 weekday morning Mass at St. Sebastian’s (a special occasion, daily Mass being otherwise out of the question for her as she began her chores, washing the clothes, boiling the shirts, lifting them out of the tub dripping hot water with a pole, then ironing, all this starting at 6 a.m.) to thank God her husband had not gone to jail for murder.


  1. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!

  2. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!

  3. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!

  4. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!

  5. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!

  6. When I begin to think, "this guy must peak about now-" you come up with another in the series that tops the last.
    Your children, and theirs, are lucky indeed!