Death comes for the archbishop

February 10, 2012

February 10th might have been Chicago's day of infamy--the date remembered for the greatest mass murder in our history.

The year was 1916. George Mundelein had just arrived in Chicago to take charge of the Catholic archdiocese. At 43 he was young for an archbishop. Now the leaders of the city and state were giving him a welcoming banquet at the University Club.

About 300 people were present. Mundelein sat at the head table next to Illinois Gov. Edward Dunne. During the first course one of the guests felt faint. He got up from his chair, then collapsed.

The man was helped from the room. Waiters opened windows, thinking tobacco smoke had knocked him out. Soon other people complained of upset stomachs. They were led away. A few doctors followed to help.

The trouble was traced to the soup. The doctors thought the bouillion in it had spoiled, and that the victims were suffering from ptomaine. The banquet went on. Most of the remaining guests refused to eat anything except the ice cream.

Over a hundred diners had been stricken, most of them violently ill. After further investigation, public health officials made a chilling announcement. This had not been a case of accidental ptomaine--someone had laced the soup with arsenic!

Suspicion immediately fell on one of the cooks, a man named Jean Crones. He was nowhere to be found. Police searched his apartment. They found numerous phials of poison and piles of anarchist literature.

Authorities speculated that the poisoning was part of a larger anarchist plot. Labor leader Bill Haywood was questioned, and said "All I know about it is what I read in the papers." One of Haywood's friends claimed that the whole incident was a police scheme to frame radicals.

All the poison victims recovered. Jean Crones turned out to be an Italian anarchist named Nestor Dondoglio. He was never caught.

Mundelein himself came through the evening just fine--he had not eaten the soup. He knew his church had enemies, but was unafraid. "The man who would be guilty of such a plan is a crank or mentally unbalanced," the archbishop said.

Then he smiled and added, "It takes more than soup to put me out."

George Mundelein was later named a cardinal, and remained Chicago archbishop until his death in 1939.