Tag Archives: Irish-American

Green Monsters

CBR_Logo2Blood Runs Green:
The Murder That Transfixed
Gilded-Age Chicago

by Gillian O’Brien

“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 blood runs green 9780226248950story 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.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Chicago Press
History/True Crime
$25, hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-24895-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Life During Wartime

CBR_Logo2Grand Crossing:
Coming of Age on Chicago’s South Side During the Great Depression
by Jack McGuire

Memoirs are difficult to do well. A memoir is not an autobiography, which focuses on the author himself (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi or Malcom X). Rather, a memoir is about the times, the circumstances, or larger-than-life characters of the memoirist’s life. Often, memoir falls into nostalgia.

Grand Crossing—an “Irish-American Memoir”—has tremendous potential: the Great Depression, an Irish family in an ethnically diverse Chicago, a policeman as father. Unfortunately, the publication doesn’t live up to its possibilities.

9781457523441 grand crossingObviously, the reader knows this is Chicago during the Great Depression, but there is no sense of the time or the place in the vignettes that fill the book. While both are clearly in the author’s head, he fails to translate that to the page. The book doesn’t smell or taste of this great Midwestern city; it doesn’t say “Chicago.” It doesn’t impart the feel or texture of the Depression. And despite the subtitle, this is no coming-of-age work. The author doesn’t grow from youth to manhood; there is no revelation, no personal growth, no loss of innocence while gaining wisdom.

Although Grand Crossing has its engaging moments, they are not enough to carry the book. A car crash in Ohio while returning from vacation resulted in spending a night at a farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the reader learns nothing of the circumstances of the farmer’s home and life. The contrast of rural family life during the Depression to the author’s urban existence could have been revealing. A second story that held potential concerned the author’s oldest sister learning from their Aunt Elsie the truth about the sister’s conception and her parents’ marriage. Aunt Elsie’s motive reflects the aunt’s cruelty. Finally, near the end of the book, the reader learns of the involvement of the author’s father in a shootout where his father kills a man. This is truly riveting, but the conversation among the policemen in the car before the shootout is cloying and clichéd.

The bulk of the book is much blander and clearly outweighs these stronger stories. The reader is treated to two paragraphs on what kind of bath soap he and his family members use. An utterly predictable chapter is dedicated to the young boy looking at pictures of scantily clad women or sneaking peaks of girls through bedroom windows. “The Trial” chapter was undoubtedly amusing in the author’s remembrance, but the humor and poignancy don’t come out in the retelling.

Jack McGuire

Author Jack McGuire

The question of the priesthood for the author is a potential conflict. Throughout the book are references to Catholicism, and three chapters focus on this rich topic. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t explore the full fabric of the Catholic religion and what it means to him. The conflicting desires of father and son concerning the priesthood could have formed the basis for insight into religion, the father’s hopes and fears, and the son’s relation to his father.

Grand Crossing is framed by the author’s experience during and just after World War II. The conceit seems to be the author’s recall of his youth while living through the fighting in Europe. This frame may explain the often jarring switches between past and present tense. It also may explain the racial and ethnic slurs that appear occasionally throughout the book. The author may be trying to recreate a sense of the times when such slurs were acceptable. Only once—in the “Red & Me” chapter—are the slurs dealt with directly. Mr. James tells Jack McGuire that using such language is not acceptable. Did the author learn a lesson here? It’s not clear, since he is soon talking about getting a new job.

Grand Crossing is a straight retelling of a few high-jinks and stories with little color, tension, or insight. Self-published books are often referred to as “vanity press” titles. This book seems to fit that description: interesting for the author, less so for the reader.

One-Star Review

April 2014, Dog Ear Publishing
Biography/Memoir
$15.95, paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4575-2344-1

—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

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