“The story had everything an editor could want: conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder.”
So writes Gillian O’Brien in Blood Runs Green, a history of the 1889 murder of one Dr. P. H. Cronin, a man who at the time was a respected physician and cunning politician but whose notoriety over the past century has faded like long-forgotten copy on crinkled, yellowed pages of so many defunct newspapers.
Add to “conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder” some politics, corruption, patriotism, nationalism, and religion, and you paint an even fuller picture of the murder and melodrama that marked Cronin’s misfortune. Toss in some sensationalism courtesy of Chicago’s numerous newspapers of the day, and you have a story as captivating today as it was more than a century ago.
Cronin, an Irishman who emigrated from Ireland to North America in the mid-1800s, rose through the ranks of Chicago society and politics as a respected doctor, aspiring political leader, and compelling figure among the members of Clan na Gael, a secret society of Irish Americans who fought for Ireland’s independence from Britain, often through violence. Cronin soon finds himself pitted against one Andrew Sullivan, a power-hungry man of dubious character, as they jockey for position amongst the cream of Chicago’s Irish community. The distaste the two men feel for each other is no secret, so when Cronin disappears and later turns up dead—found naked and disfigured in a sewer in Lakeview—Sullivan and his cronies become suspects in a murder that would long capture the attention of Chicago and even the world.
An important figure in Chicago and in the Irish-American community, Cronin’s disappearance and murder fascinated the public, stumped the police, inspired journalists, and troubled politicians. O’Brien notes that the story “transfixed” curious onlookers in Chicago, Dublin, and London as they spent hours every day speculating about what might have happened to Cronin, who was involved, why he was murdered, and what would happen to those responsible for his death. Leaders in the Irish community feared what might happen to their secret societies if the investigation into Cronin’s death revealed the inner workings of their clubs. Reporters mixed fact and fiction to sell evermore newspapers to voracious readers who couldn’t get enough of the intrigue surrounding the case. And politicians on either side of the pond wondered what Cronin’s death—and Sullivan’s implication—would mean for the Irish independence movement.
Much is going on in these pages, and O’Brien does a fine job of unraveling a tangled web of nationalism, patriotism, politics, corruption, power, and murder. She takes readers behind the scenes to see inside Clan na Gael and the Irish National League of America. She details the unsavory rush to publish scoops that led journalists to fabricate stories and report half-truths. And she brings readers into the courtroom as the fantastic trial played out in front of thousands of spellbound onlookers.
O’Brien paints a vivid picture of Irish Chicago in the mid to late 1800s, a powerful community that in many ways shaped the city. The political jockeying, backroom power struggles, and secret deal-making of the day are clearly evident in these pages. With its numerous players and their various shenanigans, the discussion of the political complexities that colored the case at times feels a little tangled and dense, but O’Brien does a fine job of laying a foundation here, spelling out for the reader how this intricate tapestry of power and politics blanketed every aspect of the case, from the conspiracy that led to Cronin’s murder to the newspaper coverage of it to the bungled investigation to the sensational trial and beyond.
Blood Runs Green is at its best when O’Brien shares the details of the discovery of Cronin’s disfigured corpse and the speculation, innuendo, and investigation that followed. Her portrayal of the courtroom drama that eventually took place also is riveting. Fans of true crime will find these portions of the book to be page-turning must-reads.
Although O’Brien notes that the Cronin murder remained in the headlines for decades, chances are that most of today’s readers will be unfamiliar with the story. In retelling a tale that for years captured the attention of Chicagoans as well as international readers, O’Brien has shared a slice of history that had long-lasting and far-reaching implications. Thoroughly researched and well told, Blood Runs Green is a timeless story that deftly captures the feel of an era.
March 2015, University of Chicago Press
$25, hardcover, 320 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen