A charismatic, resolute Catholic priest takes on Chicago’s corrupt, turn-of-the-twentieth century political machine in Poisoned, a meticulously researched, true-life account of the fight to save a self-professed-innocent death row inmate.
Herman Billik acknowledged having a romantic fling with Rose Vrzal, a married mother of seven from Chicago’s ethnic Bohemian Pilsen neighborhood. But he vehemently denied poisoning her—and her husband and four daughters—with arsenic.
Despite evidence that someone else may have committed the murders in 1905 and 1906—and that key witnesses later lied on the stand based on illegal interrogation and coercion by investigators—Billik remained incarcerated for a decade as a politically allied ring of officials from the Cook County coroner to the state’s attorney, to the trial judge, to the Chicago chief of police all the way up to the governor of Illinois, fought both actively and through intentional inaction to keep his conviction from being overturned.
The political landscape of the day ultimately becomes the story in Poisoned. That landscape was one in which decisions were based not on justice for the wrongly accused, but on damage control, especially in election years, with any admission of witness tampering, payoffs, and other illegal tactics tantamount to political suicide. It nearly supersedes in interest the actual facts of the Billik case.
Not that the facts are boring. Soap opera-like, the 1907 trial riveted the nation, and quickly became a bona fide media circus. With the proceedings on their doorstep, Chicagoans clamored for front-row seats.
In the summer of 1907, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were top contenders for the upcoming World Series. “But the hottest ticket in town was for Judge Barnes’ courtroom,” Shukis writes. “Men in neckties and bowler hats, and ladies in floor-length dresses, their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and ribbons, filled every seat in the room, and it would stay that way for the entire trial.”
The twists that should have—but failed to—save Billik are often jaw dropping. “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated,” Shukis writes.
Shukis notes that the depth of corruption was evident in the fact that an assistant coroner’s physician named Henry Reinhardt found no arsenic in the body of William Niemann. Niemann, a son-in-law of the murdered Vrzal family, died mysteriously in November 1907 while he was married to Emma Vrzal Niemann, a surviving daughter who many suspected was the true murderer. Had arsenic been found in Niemann’s body, a case could have been made to release Billik and to convict Emma of all of the murders. But after a cursory examination, Reinhardt reported no trace of it.
Reinhardt’s boss, Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, “clearly did not want poison to be discovered,” Shukis writes. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction and suggested that he, State’s Attorney Healy, Police Chief Shippy, and Judge Barnes had condemned an innocent man.”
Reinhardt “owed his job to Coroner Hoffman and the Republican cabal that ruled local government,” Shukis continues. “There was little incentive for Reinhardt to search very hard for poison when its discovery would only create problems for him and the rest of his own political organization.”
Shukis does an excellent job of organizing the book, weaving in short snippets of background and context throughout, which illuminate the points he is trying to make. He explains how arsenic poisoning affects the body and how, if given in small doses over time, arsenic poisoning can look like death from natural causes. He brings in the Republican National Convention of 1908, which was held in Chicago, to illustrate the power of the city, state, and national political machine. He discusses other murder trials, including that of serial killer Johann Hoch, who was hanged in Chicago in February 1906 on the same gallows later prepared for Billik, and happenings in Chicago and nationwide that affected and motivated those involved in the Billik case. And he points to other scandals, some years later, which embroiled officials involved in the Billik case, illustrating the dubious character of those people.
Although some readers familiar with Chicago history might already know the outcome of Billik’s case when they pick up Poisoned, for those new to the story, Shukis does a great job of not giving away the ending. It flows very much like a novel, building in page-turner intensity throughout. Nowhere in any of the cover matter is the fate of Billik or Emma Vrzal Niemann revealed, and the author successfully avoids excessive foreshadowing that would have wrecked the suspense.
The author also skillfully slips in his analysis of the story through the metered use, here and there, of a key word or two. When Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Barnes, in 1907, denies Billik a motion for a new trial, Shukis writes, for instance, that he “righteously declared that no man had ever received a fairer trial.”
Poisoned could have been improved with additional pictures. The 300-page book includes only about a dozen photographs, almost all of them posed individual shots of players in the Billik drama, mug shots of Billik, and images of family members appearing at inquests and at the trial. The author does a nice job of weaving into the text background on the Pilsen neighborhood and other tidbits about the era, such as the anarchist movement, Chicago baseball, and other infamous murder trials. Photos illustrating that background would have helped bring the story to life, and would have helped break up long stretches of gray text. It would have been nice to see, for example, historical newspaper images of the massive crowds that were drawn to public demonstrations seeking Billik’s pardon.
Despite these minor quibbles, Poisoned is a finely written, riveting indictment of Chicago’s early twentieth-century political machine, a fitting remembrance of the self-professed innocent man ensnared by it and of those who dared to stand up against it.
September 2014, TitleTown Publishing
$26.95, hardcover, 288 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann