Political Assassinations: Carter Harrison, Sr.
Mary Hanson, a domestic, told the tale eloquently. “Early last evening, there was a ring at the doorbell. I went to the door, and found a man I did not know. That was about seven o’clock. I asked the man what he wanted, and he said he wanted to see Mayor Harrison.” Mayor Harrison was Carter Henry Harrison, Sr., then serving his fifth term as mayor of Chicago. The mention of a ringing doorbell referred to the mayor’s residence located at 231 Ashland Boulevard. “Last evening” was Saturday, October 28, 1893.
At the time, Harrison was enjoying dinner at his home with two of his children, Sophie and Preston, while struggling not to fall asleep at the table. When the meal ended, he wandered into the back parlor to nap on a couch. He was unaware that a visitor had appeared at the door a few minutes earlier.
Ms. Hanson was not disturbed by a stranger arriving to speak with the man of the house. As she knew well, Mayor Harrison prided himself on his accessibility to the citizens of Chicago. It was not uncommon for an unfamiliar figure to appear unannounced and request a meeting with his elected executive. Still, there were limits. “I told him Mr. Harrison was eating supper, and asked him to call again. About 7:45 he came back, and I went to the door and let him in.”
The fellow stood near the front door while Ms. Hanson ambled back to speak with the mayor. “Mr. Harrison was sitting in the second room to the front,” she recalled. “I told him there was a man in the hall who wanted to see him, and I left the man in the hall and went to the kitchen.” She had performed such duties numerous times, but this night was different. “Just as I got in the kitchen, I heard several shots fired and then I ran out from the kitchen to where I had left Mr. Harrison and the man. I saw the unknown man running out the door. Mr. Harrison staggered into the second room and out the door to the hall, where he fell.” The mayor died a few minutes later.
In the meantime, the assassin fled the premises. Later that night he walked into a nearby police station. Entering the front door, he carried a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, which he gingerly handed to the desk sergeant. Without fanfare or bombast, he uttered an astonishing announcement. “I did it,” he said. When the sergeant asked what he meant, the fellow confessed. “Lock me up; I am the man who shot the mayor.” The sergeant was incredulous until he examined the gun. It smelled of gunpowder and contained four spent cartridges.
The man’s name was Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, and his motives were eerily similar to Charles Guiteau’s reasons for shooting President James A. Garfield in 1881. Prendergast, a newspaper distributor by trade, was convinced that Mayor Harrison would appoint him to a position as corporation counsel owing to Prendergast’s support for Harrison’s reelection bid. When the appointment was not forthcoming, the disappointed office-seeker lashed out.
Prendergast confessed to the crime, but his state of mind became the crucial question. If he was insane at the time of the murder, he would not be punished by the criminal justice system but would be sent to a hospital for the insane. The court chose to reject his guilty plea and put him on trial. During his trial in December 1893, defense lawyers argued for insanity, but prosecutors countered by examining the man’s actions on the day of the shooting.
When he acquired the revolver, Prendergast had the presence of mind to ensure that a round was not loaded in the chamber. The type of weapon he purchased was well known for discharging prematurely when it was inadvertently jostled. If he had been genuinely insane, prosecutors argued, would he have known to exercise such care in handling the murder weapon? They did not think so, and neither did the jury.
On December 29, 1893, after deliberating for one hour and three minutes, the jurors returned a guilty verdict. The punishment, they decided, was death. Defense attorneys had done their best to spare Prendergast. At a separate hearing to determine the defendant’s sanity, or lack thereof, they even retained the services of Clarence Darrow, who was building a reputation as America’s preeminent advocate—but it was not enough. Darrow convinced the court to allow the “poor demented imbecile,” Prendergast, to submit to a sanity inquest, but the maneuver failed to save the defendant. Public demand for retribution was enormous. Grief-stricken Chicagoans insisted that Prendergast must pay the ultimate price, and their will was too strong to resist. He was executed on Friday, July 13, 1894.
Prendergast was a Type 4 actor. His life was filled with delusions that bore little relation to reality. He was not a lawyer, and therefore he was unqualified to serve as corporation counsel in Harrison’s administration. His efforts to secure the mayor’s election in 1893 were marginal, at best, and probably had no effect whatsoever. He should never have believed that the mayor would reward him with a political favor.
In a later era, when mental illness was better understood, Prendergast probably would have escaped the gallows. In the late nineteenth century, however, insanity claims were regarded as a dodge, a careful trick manufactured by lawyers to allow criminal defendants to avoid punishment when they were adjudged guilty. Citizens screamed for vengeance, and so the harshest penalty possible was meted out. It also hurt Prendergast’s cause that he was such an unsympathetic character. Strange, taciturn, with a vaguely menacing look, he was the sort of expendable person that no one mourned apart from his family members. Sometimes the mentally ill cannot avoid paying a price for their violent actions.
The story might be lost to history, but popular historian Erik Larson featured the tale as a subplot in his 2004 bestselling book The Devil in the White City. I also discuss the Harrison assassination in Chapter 15 of my book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.