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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: 1917’s Dark Legacy

January 11, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the fourth instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

In September, 1917, Italian immigrant pastor August Giuliani instigated a frenetic chain of events that would culminate in one of the Milwaukee Police Department’s darkest days…  Giuliani, a Methodist convert allegedly excommunicated from the Catholic Church, led a flock of Protestant Evangelists from Milwaukee’s Italian Third Ward to the smaller Italian alcove of Bay View, intent upon encouraging local residents to support America’s involvement in World War I.

Though Giuliani was met with resistance from a crowd he termed anti-war anarchists, the former priest was more unwelcome, according to journalist Robert Tanzilo, because of his defamation of Catholicism in his attempts to convert local Italians. When police approached the hecklers, guns were drawn and shots fired as the crowd frantically dispersed. As Tanzilo tells it, “[Bay View Officer John] Wesolowski testified ‘I seen guns coming out of their pockets and didn’t wait a moment, and shots were fired, and I drew my gun and fired into the crowd.’  Officer [Joseph] Rydlewicz saw another of the group […] Antonio Fornasier, […] draw a pistol and let off four rounds. The officer and Detective [Paul] Weiler emptied their revolvers, and Fornasier fell.  […] August Marinelli […] shot at Detective Weiler from the side and Wesolowski fired on Marinelli, sending him to the ground.”

August Giuliani

When the pandemonium finally subsided, two policemen were hurt, two Bay View Italians were mortally wounded, and two more were injured, with one shot in the back.  Remarkably, (or perversely, depending on who you ask), Pastor Giuliani and his entire flock survived the carnage unscathed, with the pastor singing an Italian version of “America” totally undisturbed amid the chaos even as bullets whizzed by him. While Detective Albert Templin and Officer Rydlewicz were each grazed by a bullet and suffered minor injuries, Officer Wesolowski would earn the title “the man with the charmed life”, as the riot was the third shooting Wesolowski survived in just two years.

After backup arrived from Central Station, the officers proceeded to an adjacent house which one anarchist had been seen running towards. Ultimately, eleven suspects would be arrested and taken to the nearby Kinnikinic Police Station. A search of the anarchists’ meeting hall produced anarchist and communist literature, including Italian books on the Russian revolution, free love, economics, and agnosticism.

According to Tanzilo, The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that “On the walls of the clubrooms were maps, notably of the northwest, where anarchist activities have hampered government industries…” The investigating officers also found framed portraits of renowned anarchists Gaetano Bresci, Francisco Ferrer, and Enrico Maletesta, and anarchist periodicals, including one from Lynn, Massachusetts known as Cronaca Sovversiva or Subversive Paper.

Incredibly, police asked the riot’s primary instigator, August Giuliani, to translate much of the discovered literature, and the testimonies of the defendants; something UCLA sociology professor Constantine Panunzio seemed to cautiously reference in his 1921 study The deportation cases of 1919-1921: “Even more important than the intelligence of the interpreter, or his ability to properly interpret the alien’s or the inspector’s meaning, is the question whether the interpreter was in any way connected with the prosecution.”

Later, the police canvassed the neighborhood for clues, and were met with stone-faced silence from most residents.  Those who would talk quickly described the 11 arrestees as “well read young men who spent their spare time discussing literary issues and social questions of the day.”

Over the next several days, police maintained a dominant presence in Bay View, eventually apprehending 15 more known associates of the anarchists.

Two months after the riot, and just a week before the trial of the eleven primary Bay View defendants was scheduled to begin, a package bomb was discovered at Giuliani’s Third Ward church. Giuliani himself had already departed Milwaukee for Markesan, Wisconsin.

Witnesses described the package as being the size of a half-gallon jar, topped with a small bottle filled with a dark brown fluid. There were metal plates on the package’s top and bottom. A parishioner carried the parcel to the police station, hoping officers would know what to do with it. Tragically, no one took the bomb seriously… The officers present that night were preoccupied with taking the statement of a woman reporting her former boyfriend who had been harassing her.

The explosion was heard for miles. As the Milwaukee Journal reported the next day “Glass, plastering, clothing, arms, legs, papers, covered the floor. A cap from an officer’s head hung on a broken bit of glass in a side window.” Just minutes after, a hysterical citizen demanded the imposition of martial law.  “Give everybody a gun and a star, put the town under arms… Kill off all these anarchists.”

According to Robert Tanzilo, among the dead were seven detectives, a sergeant who straddled the bomb as he unwrapped its paper covering, and a police alarm operator on the floor above who was killed by projectiles shot through the floor beneath him. Numerous other officers sustained serious injuries. The massacre would earn the grim distinction of being the largest loss of American police life in a single incident, a record broken only by 9/11.

1917 MPD bomb.v1

Firemen from Engine Company No. 1, located across the street, were first on the scene.  As the New York Times reported, the systemic destruction “was a shock to even the policemen and firemen, who are used to tragic emergencies.”  Detective David O’Brien’s mutilated body was found under a pile of heavy debris. As the Journal reported, positively identifying his body would require the testimony of dozens of his friends and colleagues. Sergeant Henry Deckert was found by the entrance, fatally impaled by a piece of steel. Rescuers would spend three hours collecting the remains of the dead.

Police Chief John Janssen would later tell the Milwaukee Sentinel “I never saw a bomb such as this is described to be… there is no doubt that its manufacture is the work of experts.”  Subsequent investigation would reveal that the police had at least two hours to disarm or dispose of the bomb.  One of the enduring unsolved mysteries of the Milwaukee police station bomb has always been why no effort was made to dispose of the package even after Sergeant Deckert and several officers believed it to be a bomb.

While news of the blast was deliberately withheld from the riot suspects, the event was front page news to the New York Times, and countless other publications across an America preoccupied with war. Unfortunately, most news organizations treated the event with a rabble-rousing sensationalism. Even Milwaukee’s own Sentinel joined in the fray with sensational headlines declaring “Body of Deckert is blown to bits.”

As Tanzilo recounts, after the bombing, Milwaukee police began rounding up Italians and others in Bay View and the Third Ward on suspicion, working off a list of names provided by Captain John T. Sullivan.  Ultimately, more than thirty Italians were detained and interrogated. While similar operations were launched in Seattle and Omaha, even the combined efforts of the federal and local authorities failed to link anyone specific to the crime.

All 11 riot suspects were convicted of conspiracy and intent to kill. Their convictions were later overturned on appeal to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, who noted that the conspiracy charge was insufficiently proven. Among several key observations, Justice Aad J. Vinje ruled that if a group was planning to attack—and murder—a significantly larger group, most of the attackers would be heavily armed, and yet eyewitness testimony and collected evidence showed the opposite to be true.

Names of the fallen officers are inscribed on a downtown Milwaukee monument to police killed in the line of duty.  According to Robert Tanzilo, the monument would itself become one of several pipe bomb targets in 1984.

The 1917 Milwaukee police station bombing remains unsolved, although many of August Giuliani’s parishioners put the blame squarely on anarchists who may or may not have been among those apprehended and tried.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…     

officers killed.v1 

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