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Chicago Gets Shaft on Historic Gallows

By Shannon in News on Dec 9, 2006 4:00PM

Chicagoist would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at this particular auction: In a heated bidding war that ended late Wednesday, Ripley's (of "Believe It or Not!" fame) sniped our own Chicago History Museum at the last second. The coveted item? A warped, weather-beaten 119-year-old gallows. Not just any gallows, however ...

gallows pinThe five-noose set was built specifically for four of the convicts from the Haymarket Riot of 1886. After that tragic mess, the gallows hung around (sorry, we had to get it out of our system) for 40 years, sending a total of 86 people to their deaths. In 1927, Cook County switched to electrocution, rendering the older, more organic method obsolete. Officials would have ditched the gallows entirely if not for one tiny little loophole: Cop-killer Ice-T "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor escaped the noose back in 1921 and disappeared off the radar entirely. His sentence mandated that he had to be hanged; legally, the cops couldn't fry him. So, rather than leave the gallows out for curbside pickup, police shoved them in a jail basement once capital punishment went "live," on the hopes of one day recapturing the murderer. The day never came.

That bizarre twist is what really grabbed Edward Meyer, VP of exhibits for Ripley's. He dubbed the major historic item the "Rolls-Royce" of pieces, spurring him to drop over $68k on it. Selling the gallows was Mike Donley, owner of Wild West Town in Union, who acquired them in 1977 when the city finally gave up O'Connor's ghost. Lamentably, the gallows probably won't be shown anywhere around here; the last Ripley's in Chicagoland closed in 1987. According to Meyer, the display will feature information about the rich history surrounding the gallows. It damn well better, if it's not ending up in the History Museum. But hey, if not for some cops who didn't feel like rigging a rope over a tree branch, those gallows would merely be a macabre memory.

Image via the Chicago Historical Society.