The Municipal Razor: The story of Chicago and the guillotine

January 16, 2012

Crime was on the minds of Chicagoans on this January 16th in 1925.

The city was earning a reputation as the wildest metropolis in the world. In the past five years robberies had gone up 35%, while the numbers of rapes, bombings, and arson cases were rising at an alarming rate. In just the last two years, murders had more than doubled.

Many experts blamed the crime problem on the Prohibition act. Alcoholic beverages had been banned, and bootlegger gangs now controlled the liquor trade. Violence was part of their business. Everyday citizens were losing respect for the law, too.

Still, Prohibition wasn't going to be junked any time soon. So what could be done about Chicago's crime? A visiting priest had one answer.

Abbe Ernest Dimnet was the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He was a respected French author whose books were becoming popular in English translation. The abbe was stopping in Chicago on a lecture tour.

Mayor Lewis Shank of Indianapolis was also in town to give a speech to a business breakfast. Shank had said the way to fix Chicago crime was to hire smarter policemen. Dimnet thought that was only part of the cure.

"In France," the abbe said, "we would be horrified at such a crime wave that has deluged dry Chicago." Besides good police, the city needed good judges who were not afraid to enforce the law. And there was one more thing.

Chicago needed a guillotine.

Dimnet admitted that chopping off heads was not exactly civilized. "However," he went on, "there is something in the utter finality of the descending blade of a guillotine that inspires a healthy respect for the law."

This was a far better way to deal with criminals than putting them in prison. Because of bleeding-heart reformers, many prisons had become as posh as a bachelors' hotel.

To be an effective deterrent, Dimnet said that the executions must be public. He thought the best location for the "municipal razor" would be in Grant Park.

Abbe Ernest Dimnet returned to Paris unharmed by his visit to Chicago. A few years later he wrote a best-selling self-help book in English titled The Art of Thinking.

Prohibition ended in 1933. Despite Dimnet's advice, Chicago never did erect a guillotine in Grant Park. Instead the city used the site for Buckingham Fountain.