Chicago Remains to Be Seen

Anton Cermak

Born in Kladno, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic), about 15 miles northwest of Prague, in 1873, Anton Cermak emigrated with his parents to the United States the following year, and celebrated his first birthday at the Ellis Island immigration center.

Cermak began his political career as a precinct captain in Chicago and was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1902. Five years later, he was elected alderman of Chicago's 12th Ward. Cermak was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1922, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 1928, and mayor of Chicago in 1931.

Although Cermak is credited with building the Democratic political machine in Chicago, he is best known for taking a bullet intended for the president of the United States, becoming the second Chicago mayor to be shot to death while in office.

Cermak's victory in the mayoral race in 1931 came during the early years of the Great Depression, the final years of Prohibition, and the middle of the growing power and influence of organized crime in the city. While people across the country were feeling an increasing lack of trust in their government, members of Chicago’s many ethnic groups -- Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians and blacks who began to settle in Chicago in the early 1900s -- felt particularly detached and unrepresented in city government. As an immigrant himself, Cermak recognized their anger and frustration, and also realized that they could be a large and important power base for him and the Democratic Party in Chicago.

When Cermak, who campaigned on an anti-Prohibition, anti-crime platform, challenged incumbent "Big Bill" Thompson in the 1931 mayor's race, Thompson publicly attacked Cermak for his immigrant roots. "It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower," Cermak said in response, "but I came over as soon as I could." It was a sentiment to which many ethnic Chicagoans could relate, and Cermak won 58 percent of the vote in the mayoral election on April 6, 1931, becoming the city’s first foreign-born mayor. (It also didn’t hurt Cermak that Chicago had the third-largest Czech population in the world, after Prague and Vienna).

Cermak's victory finished Thompson as a political power and largely ended the Republican Party's influence in Chicago -- after Thompson left office, no Republican has ever been elected mayor. Cermak's political and organizational skills helped create a powerful, wide-reaching and all-inclusive political organization, and Cermak is considered the father of Chicago's Democratic machine.

On Feb. 15, 1933, Cermak was in Miami to meet with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at Bayfront Park. Roosevelt was sitting in the back seat of an automobile when Cermak climbed onto the running board to shake his hand. Cermak was shot in the lung and seriously wounded when an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate Roosevelt, but hit Cermak instead. In addition to Cermak, Zangara’s shots hit four other people.

After the shooting, as he was being taken to the hospital, Cermak reportedly said to Roosevelt, "I am glad it was me instead of you."

Rumors quickly circulated that Cermak, not Roosevelt, had been the intended target, as his promise to clean up Chicago crime posed a threat to Al Capone, Frank Nitti and their organized crime operations. One of the first people to suggest the organized crime theory was reporter Walter Winchell, who happened to be in Miami the evening of the shooting.

After his arrest, Zangara confessed to the shooting, telling police that he hated rich and powerful people, but not Roosevelt personally. He pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Nineteen days after the shooting, on March 6, 1933, Cermak died of his wounds. On the same day, Zangara was charged with first-degree murder, again he confessed, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On March 20, after spending only 10 days on Death Row, Zangara was executed.

Cermak's body was brought back to Chicago, with an estimated 20,000 people meeting the train when it arrived from Florida. Cermak was interred in a private mausoleum at Bohemian National Cemetery. His final statement to Roosevelt is etched on the wall inside the mausoleum.

A plaque honoring Cermak was placed at the site of the assassination in Miami's Bayfront Park. It is also inscribed with Cermak's famous words to FDR after he was shot.

Following Cermak's death, 22nd Street, a major east-west artery that traversed Chicago's West Side and the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, areas with a significant Czech population, was renamed Cermak Road.

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