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Jews in America:
The Mysterious Death of Lazarus Averbuch

(March 2, 1908)

Jews in America: Table of Contents | Virtual History Tour | National Population

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On Monday morning, March 2, 1908, Chicago police chief George Shippy reported that a young man, probably of Sicilian or Armenian birth, knocked on the door of his home, asked to see Shippy, and was admitted by the family maid. Perceiving what he described as hatred in his visitor’s eyes, Shippy grabbed the young man by the wrists and started to search the suspect. According to Shippy, the youth squirmed free, pulled a knife from his pocket, stabbed Shippy under the right arm and then drew a revolver and shot Shippy’s son Harry, who entered upon hearing the commotion. The suspect then shot James Foley, Shippy’s bodyguard. Seeing Harry shot, Shippy pulled his own gun and shot his assailant, as did Foley. The youth, who was struck by seven bullets, died on route to the hospital.

Despite his wound, Shippy wrote an account of the shooting several hours later that was widely published. Shippy was certain that the young man was an anarchist who wanted to kill him because Shippy had banned "Red" Emma Goldman, the famous Jewish anarchist, from speaking in Chicago. As it turned out, the dead man was not Armenian or Sicilian but a recent Jewish immigrant from Kishineff, Russia, named Lazarus Averbuch. The fact that Averbuch was Jewish, and that anti-immigration forces and anti-Semites associated Russian Jews with radicalism, worried Chicago Jewry that the entire Jewish community would be tarred by Averbuch’s brush.

After cursory investigations, the Chicago police and the Cook County coroner each certified that Shippy was justified in killing Averbuch, who had apparently assaulted him. Since 1886, when an anarchist bomb exploded at a rally in Haymarket Square that killed two Chicago police officers, city officials effectively banned any anarchist meeting. When Emma Goldman announced a speaking tour in Chicago in March of 1908, Chicago mayor Fred Busse prohibited her appearances. Shippy expected her anarchist supporters to retaliate. The inquests confirmed that Shippy killed in self-defense.

At first, Shippy’s explanation of events was widely accepted. Chicago’s secular and Jewish press, and most of its Jewish leadership, accepted that Averbuch went armed to Shippy’s house with the intention of killing him. They were primarily concerned to assert that not all Jewish immigrants were affiliated with anarchism. According to historians Walter Roth and Joe Kraus, who recently published a deeply researched history of the case, most of Jewish Chicago would have been happy if the Averbuch incident would disappear from sight.

Not every corner of the Jewish community was content with the official version of the Averbuch saga, however. The local and national socialist press (including the Forward), Emma Goldman and her followers, and Hull House founder Jane Addams each thought Shippy’s story had too many inconsistencies. Funded quietly by Chicago’s leading Jewish communal figures -- particularly Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears, Roebuck – Addams organized a private investigation of Shippy’s actions. Led by young Chicago attorney Harold Ickes, who later served as Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the investigation surfaced inconsistencies and absurdities in Shippy’s account that the Chicago press had public had avoided:

Ickes represented Averbuch’s interests – and those of the Jewish community – at the coroner’s inquest. Averbuch’s sister, Olga, the only person who knew Averbuch well, was the only witness of Averbuch’s behalf. She told the panel that her brother never had anarchist leanings or contacts, that he never owned a gun or knew how to shoot one, and that she had no idea why he went to Shippy’s house. She pleaded for justice for her brother, and for a Jewish funeral for her brother, who had been buried secularly in Chicago’s potter’s field. The inquest exonerated Shippy, but Olga’s character left the impression that there was more to the story than Shippy’s version of it.

It was the Jewish press to argue effectively that Averbuch was the innocent victim of Shippy’s overreaction. Chicago’s Jewish Courier hypothesized that, as a recent immigrant from Kishineff who was seeking work, perhaps in California or Iowa, Averbuch went to Shippy’s house to obtain a letter from the chief, such as he would have needed in Russia, indicating that he was of good character. According to this theory, Shippy panicked when he saw Averbuch, reached for his service revolver and fired several shots at the young man. As Shippy’s son entered, he was struck by one of Shippy’s wild gunshots; his aide, Foley, fired at and struck Averbuch as Shippy’s errant bullets wounded Foley. In this version, Averbuch was the innocent victim of Chicago’s – and America’s – anti-immigrant, anti-radical hysteria. While the coroner’s inquest exonerated Shippy, Chicago’s Jewish press tried to call him to account.

In the end, neither Ickes nor the Jewish press could change the public perception that Averbuch was an anarchist and that Chief Shippy killed him in self-defense. Despite his exoneration, Shippy never returned to active duty after his wounding, and he resigned from his post two months later. Shippy died, deranged from syphilis, in 1911. Lazarus Averbuch, after being disinterred from potter’s field and re-autopsied for the inquest, was reburied in and unmarked grave in a Jewish cemetery. Any further investigation of the Averbuch case was dropped. A heartbroken Olga Averbuch returned to Europe four years later and was almost certainly killed in the Holocaust. The mystery of Lazarus Averbuch and Chief Shippy is likely to remain unsolved forever.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society

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