Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chicago Disasters: Little Girl Lost

A missing person report for a six-year old girl, Janet Wilkinson, was issued to the Chicago police on July 22nd.  Searches for the little girl took place through the work of citizens and of the police. Evidence pointed at a neighbor of the family, Thomas Fitzgerald. He had been arrested before about annoying young girls (but not convicted), and the six-year old's friends thought they saw him with Janet around the time of the abduction. Fitzgerald adamantly denied having any involvement with the abduction when he was questioned, but when Fitzgerald's wife came in to speak in his defense, she spoke to him privately not knowing that a detective was listening in the next room and taking notes. He heard her whisper to her husband, "You did it. I know you did it." When confronted with the notes taken of the conversation she admitted that she hadn't lived with her husband for years due to his interest in little girls.

Other Chicago families felt moved at this time to admit that their children had also been molested, but that had been to ashamed at the time to go to the police.

Over the next few days, Fitzgerald was continually questioned by the police and denied sleep, but stubbornly stated time and time again that he was innocent. Police eventually resorted to bizarre tactics. To name just two of those, they brought in a man who claimed to be a priest, urging Fitzgerald to confess to the crime, and later arranged a table of baby dolls posed in pleading positions then forced Fitzgerald to look at it. None of the tactics worked though so Fitzgerald was ultimately locked in his cell in hopes that on reflection he would finally decide to confess. It worked. Fitzgerald asked to see the only police detective he felt had treated him decently and admitted to him tearfully that he had killed Janet Wilkinson.

He had tried to lure her into his house with candy on the day she disappeared, but when she seemed reluctant to come in, he picked her up and carried her in. She began to scream, and in desperation Fitzgerald strangled her. He then carried her body to the basement of his building where he buried her in a pile of coal.

Investigators took him to the location, where they were searching piles of coal trying to find her body. He directed them to the pile of coal where she was found, and her body was taken away in an ambulance.

Newspapers had been notified almost immediately of the news and a large and angry crowd had gathered outside the building, yelling, "Lynch him!" Thanks to the fortuitous arrival of reinforcements the police were able to hold the crowd at bay. If they had been allowed to, the mob certainly would have killed him as he exited the building. A policeman commandeered a taxi and Fitzgerald was quickly put inside with a policeman lying on top of him to protect him from the crowd who were reaching through the windows of the car in a last effort to get to him.

Another angry mob waited at the Chicago Avenue station when the taxi carrying Fitzgerald arrived, but Fitzgerald was quickly whisked into the station and from there to the Criminal Courts Building where he was question at length by the State's Attorney. The only new comment of note that Fitzgerald made there was to ask that he not be hanged but sent to a mental asylum. Instead he was scheduled to be tried by a judge well known for using capital punishment in murder cases. The angry masses of people wanted an immediate hanging, but the prosecution of the case took a month while proper legal procedures were practiced.

At the end of the trial, Fitzgerald was convicted and hanged.

Chicago was becoming a city wrapped in fear and anger, and as events of the next few days became interwoven with that fear, anger, and mob mentality, Chicago erupted like a power keg. None of the coming events would have been seen as related to each other if not for the timing. It just seemed that all hell broke loose at once in the Windy City.

A memorial stands for Janet Wilkinson today in Calvary Cemetery
Evanston, Cook County, Illinois:

                                                      Birth: 1913
                                                     Death: Jul. 22, 1919
                                         Beloved daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Wilkinson.
                                            Loving sister of Berenice and Jean.

Books used for this post:

City of Scoundrels: 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Websites used for this post:

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