Bloody Maxwell

February 11, 2013

We've been hearing much about Chicago's crime problems lately. Was it always so bad? Take a look at the Chicago Tribune from February 11— 107 years ago. 

In 1906 our city was already known for the biggest Stock Yards, the busiest street corner, and the most railroad trains. Now Chicago had earned another distinction. We had the most dangerous police district in the world.

The Tribune called it “Bloody Maxwell.” Then known as the 21st Precinct, it took in the area west of the river between Harrison and 16th, as far as Wood Street. Each year, within this single square mile, scores of people were murdered.

“Murderers, robbers, and thieves of the worst kind are born, reared, and grow to maturity in numbers that far exceed . . . any district on the face of the globe,” the paper reported. “Stealing is as natural as breathing. Property belongs to whoever can take and keep it.”

In some families, four generations were active criminals.

The area was filled with recent immigrants. There were Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Russian Jews, and others, all living uneasily together in crowded, dirty tenements. They brought with them their Old World traditions–you backed your own people, you solved your own troubles, and you didn’t trust the police.

The precinct station stood at 943 West Maxwell Street, like a Wild West fort surrounded by hostile Indians. The Tribune called the cops there ”the bravest policemen in the world.” Most of them had grown up in the neighborhood, and knew how to deal with the conditions. Yet even the most fearless officer would never enter a building alone.

The cops didn’t have enough manpower to patrol the area. The thugs knew this and were getting bolder. “Living more like beasts than human beings,” the paper said, “hundreds and thousands of boys and men follow day after day, year after year, in the bloody ways of crime.”

Even so, some young men did overcome their environment. They spurned the seductions of the streets. They went on to lead useful, productive lives.

Why did two boys growing up on the same block–perhaps even in the same tenement–turn out so differently? Why did one become a model citizen, and the other a depraved rogue? It was something the sociologists needed to study.

The story of “Bloody Maxwell” filled two full pages of the Tribune. Over a century later, it’s still interesting to read. Today much of the old 21st Precinct is gentrified, or part of the UIC campus.

The police station remains standing at the corner of Maxwell and Morgan. If it looks familiar, that’s because it was later featured on a TV series about city cops in a crime-filled, inner-city district: "Hill Street Blues.”