The Murder of the White City Mayor Carter Harrison by Patrick Eugene Prendergast

The Murder of the White City Mayor Carter Harrison by Patrick Eugene Prendergast
Prendergast kills Harrison

The city of Chicago was preparing to close out the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on October 30, 1893 with pomp and pageantry but it would ultimately end more akin to a funeral.

Patrick Eugene Prendergast was a man of grand dreams, small means and even grander delusions.  By today’s standards he would have been more than likely termed a paranoid schizophrenic but in 1893 simply a lunatic.  He worked as a newspaper distributor but had delusions that because he supported (unofficially) Mayor Harrison’s election that the mayor would elect to give him the position of corporate counsel and would more than likely do so before the end of the World’s Fair in Chicago.

Mayor Carter Harrison Sr.

Mayor Carter Harrison Sr.

As would become evident at his later trial, Prendergast had a number of issues that consumed his every thought.  A single tax system, the danger of ungraded railroad crossings and of course his inevitable elevation of position from being in charge of newsboys to becoming the head attorney for the city of Chicago (Prendergast did not have a law degree).

At 8:00pm on October 28, 1893, Prendergast walked to the Mayor’s house at 231 Ashland Avenue with a pistol and what he believed would be the support of the Catholic Church and the will of the people of Chicago.  Prendergast was to be their savior (much like Jesus Christ as was evident from some of his rambling writings).   Prendergast believed that Harrison, who in his mind was formerly an ally, now stood in the way of the safety and well-being of the citizens of Chicago and he had the right as well as the responsibility to murder him.

Mayor Harrison was known as the mayor whose door was open to anyone and that would ultimately be his undoing.  Prendergast rang the doorbell and Mary Hansen, the maid, answered.  Prendergast gave his name and that he had business with the mayor.  Ms. Hansen thought she recognized Prendergast, let him in the entry hall, woke the Mayor and returned downstairs.

There were no witnesses to the actual shooting but it happened very quickly and after a very short exchange of words according to testimony of persons in the house.

Harrison was shot three times.  First in the abdomen, then above the heart and lastly in his left hand (probably a defensive wound).

W. J. Chalmers who lived directly across the street at 234 Ashland heard the shots and rushed to the mayor’s house as he told his wife to call the police.  He saw Prendergast emerge from the shadows and fire a shot at a pursuer.

The Harrison home at 231 Ashland where Carter Harrison was assassinated.

The Harrison home at 231 Ashland where Carter Harrison was assassinated.

He entered the house through a haze of gun smoke and found Mayor Harrison on his back at the end of the entry hall in the threshold of his study.  The Mayor was bleeding profusely from the mouth but still conscious.  He was very quickly joined by the mayor’s son, Preston Harrison.  Mr. Chalmers folded his jacket and raised the mayor’s head while his son asked him who had shot him.

Mayor Harrison simply told them that it didn’t matter and that he was shot fatally.  Chalmers and Preston told him he was going to be alright but the mayor knew otherwise.  He asked that someone call Annie Howard, his fiancé, to the scene.

Preston was so angered he ran outside in an attempt to find his father’s assassin when the first police wagon arrived.  Policeman John Hurley was the first to arrive and ran in where he cradled the mayor’s head.  Chalmers took the opportunity to summon physicians but it was too late for the mayor.  He was dying from extensive internal bleeding and by 8:27pm his last word was “Annie”.

Prendergast had already turned himself in at the DesPlaines Ave Police Station to Lieutenant Wheeler and was held by the Coroner’s Jury for the murder of Mayor Harrison.

What followed was a very lengthy court case where attorney’s used every angle in their arsenal to spare Prendergast the death penalty.  The question of his committing the crime was never an issue but his sanity was.  At the time, Illinois law stated that the individual to be declared legally sane or insane only had to know the difference between right and wrong.

Page 1 of rambling letter written by Prendergast from Cook County Circuit Clerk Archives

Page 1 of rambling letter written by Prendergast from Cook County Circuit Clerk Archives

In the end not even the great Clarence Darrow could save Prendergast from the gallows.  It would be the first death penalty plea of Darrow’s career and the only one in which he was unsuccessful at saving his client.  Darrow would later save the lives of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who murdered 14 year old Robert “Bobby” Franks in 1924.

At 11:48am on July 13, 1894, Patrick Eugene Prendergast was executed by hanging at the Cook County Courthouse and Jail at 54 W. Hubbard Street.  While most anyone who knew the details of the case including many physicians at the time would concur that Prendergast was insane and not a candidate for the death penalty, Carter Harrison was a very beloved man and Chicago mayor and even religious leaders of the time were calling for revenge.

Criminal Courts Building 1892

The old Criminal Courts Building at 54 W. Hubbard where Prendergast met the gallows.

Today Prendergast lies in an unmarked grave next to his father at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston and the scene of his death has been named a historic landmark and has been re-purposed as an office building.






Find Chicago History The Stranger Side on FACEBOOK

Find Ray Johnson on Twitter and Google+

If you love Chicago History please consider subscribing to my posts. You will receive an email that alerts you when a new article is published. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment