Ninety years ago, a sailor was found dead in Chicago, bloodied but still warm. His name was John Andrew Becker and he was my great-great-great-uncle.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, I have uncovered many names as I have fleshed out parts of the family tree, but it has at times been hard to learn about them as individuals. In the case of John Becker, the murder generated newspaper stories, military reports, police files, coroner’s inquests, and much more. This tragedy has offered a chance to learn more about a person in the family, and the people connected to him (for good or ill) at the time of his death.
What follows is my re-telling of John Becker’s murder based on reading many newspaper reports, a transcript of the Cook County coroner’s inquest board, John Becker’s military personnel file, various death certificates, and other material.
In coming days I will also write about the process of discovering this story for anyone who’s interested.
The powers of Europe were ensnared in the Great War (World War I) and the U.S. was preparing to join the fray. Eleven days before Congress passed the Selective Service Act to authorize a draft, John Becker enlisted in the Navy in St. Louis, Missouri. It was May 7, 1917, and he was 21 years old.
Becker was promptly sent north to the Great Lakes Training Station near Chicago. He trained for a few short months, but never left the middle of the country for the sea. He was killed Nov. 10, a Saturday night, in Chicago.
Becker’s body was discovered around 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, in a women’s restroom on the third floor of the Sharples building at Washington and Jefferson streets. The Chicago American newspaper described the Sharples building as “a large loft structure occupied by many manufacturing firms.”
C.P. Riopelle, the building’s engineer, discovered Becker’s body after hearing about blood spots another man had seen on the third floor landing earlier Sunday morning.
It appeared likely that Becker had been killed inside the building. Riopelle thought there might have been a struggle in the restroom. Becker was partially undressed, with some of his outer garments draped over a table.
The murder made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and other daily newspapers in the city. The early newspaper stories advanced several theories of police detectives. First, that John Becker may have been killed because he knew something about a $3,000 payroll embezzlement at the naval training station. Second, that he may have been lured into the building by a romantic rival who was jealous over a woman; the third, that this was simply a robbery.
Becker had been with his family in St. Louis on furlough three weeks before the murder. His father, Frank Becker, said he believed his son had been murdered for money, since his son had had several hundred dollars when he last saw him.
Over the next few days, detectives followed new leads. Police found a tobacconist who said that Becker had been in his shop near the Sharples building and made phone calls on Saturday to a woman called “Bess” to arrange a meeting for 6:30 p.m. that night. This statement bolstered some detectives’ belief that Becker’s murder had a romantic angle, and so police and reporters hunted for “Bess.” But police Capt. Thomas Meagher was convinced this theory was “poppycock from beginning to end” and that the murder had been committed during a simple mugging.
A young woman named Mary Williams appeared at the coroner’s inquest hearing and testified that she had received a call from Becker on the Saturday he died, Nov. 10. Williams, a telephone operator, had known him for a month, after making his acquaintance through James Bennett, Becker’s tentmate. Williams and Becker met in person only once, but corresponded by mail several times. On that Saturday, Becker called her from a jewelry shop to say that he couldn’t meet her before 8:30 p.m. because he had to meet Bennett at Halsted and 25th streets. Williams waited for Becker until 10 p.m. but he never showed up.
The friend was, in fact, James Bennett. Becker had planned to meet both Bennett and another sailor at Halsted and 25th at 8 p.m. Saturday, Bennett told detectives. But Becker had to “skip ship” to do it. He had obtained a leave from the training station, but it didn’t start until Sunday. Naval authorities told police that Becker had answered roll call at the training station on 4 p.m. that Saturday, but didn’t answer the 8 p.m. roll call. Police guessed he left the station around 5 p.m. in order to meet his friends Saturday evening in Chicago. Bennett said Becker never arrived for their meet-up.
A pawnbroker, Hyman Ginsburg, had told police that Becker had been in his shop around 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening to redeem a gold watch. Becker left with about $20. But when his body was discovered on Sunday, he had no money or watch on him.
Police found a man who said he had seen a bloody sailor stumbling around outside the Sharples building around 8:10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10. He thought the sailor was drunk so he walked past; then he thought better of it and turned around to help, but the sailor had disappeared.
This witness strengthened police Capt. Meagher’s belief that the attack took place outside and that Becker had survived and wandered into the Sharples building. The police abandoned the earlier, more elaborate theories about Becker’s death. Instead, they believed it had been a simple “slugging, with robbery as a motive.”
Investigators turned their attention to alleys and areas near the Sharples building, seeking any evidence of the attack. And they found exactly what they were looking for — blood stains on the ground and an iron pipe clotted with blood behind the Williamson building on Washington Street.
Patrick Redmond, a watchman for the Williamson building, testified at the coroner’s inquest that he had heard the noise of a scuffle taking place in the alley around 8:10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10. He was in the basement of the Williamson building at the time, clearing ashes from the boilers. He said it sounded like three voices hollering, but he didn’t pay any attention as there were fights in that alley regularly. The next morning, Sunday, he found blood in the alley.
At this point the investigation slowed. Detectives had interviewed numerous sailors at the Great Lakes Training Station, people on the street, nearby shopowners, and Becker’s friends and acquaintances. But they had no serious suspects.
There was an “if only…” moment during the interview of a witness on Dec. 13 by the coroner’s inquest board. The witness was Dominick Wafer, who described himself as an apprentice in a machine shop of the Republic Fillmeter Company at the Sharples building. He testified that he went up to the third floor around 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11 and saw some blood. Wafer looked around for five minutes, but seeing nobody, he continued going upstairs and thought nothing more of it. He later mentioned the blood to the building’s engineer, C.P. Riopelle, who then discovered Becker’s body. The deputy coroner remarked to Wafer, “Undoubtedly this man was alive … If you had only spoken about that time we would have got there …”
Liquor, sailors, and slugging
The Chicago Evening Post’s initial report about the murder on Nov. 12 tied the murder news to the angle that police and federal officials would start a crusade to protect trainees from the Great Lakes station when they came to the city on furlough.
Federal law prohibited the sale of liquor to military personnel in uniform. Despite this, “the boys are overwhelmed with temptation the minute they arrive in Chicago,” the Evening Post reported. “They are even met at the station by men who provide them with bottles of liquor — at a price — and, when they have imbibed sufficiently, they often become easy prey for those of the street who find the young men, at liberty for the first time in weeks, and with money in their pockets …”
The next break in the case came Dec. 23, 1917, when another young “jackie” (slang for “sailor”) was beaten in a manner similar to John Becker.
Richard Bundick, a 21-year-old trainee from the Great Lakes Station, was attacked by two other sailors. He put up a fight and survived to stumble into a boarding house where he had spent time earlier in the night. Just like Becker, he was missing some clothing as well as his money belt. Bundick identified his assailants as “Harding” and “King.”
Because of the similarities in the cases, police believed that these same two attackers must have killed Becker.
Just a day before this attack, John Becker’s father, Frank Becker, wrote a letter to his congressman, William L. Igoe, to ask about the status of the inquiry into his son’s death.
An arrest and confession
On Jan. 26, 1918, the Becker case was back on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, seemingly solved. A 19-year-old Navy deserter named John Dell Claude (alias “John King”) had been arrested in St. Louis with another teenage deserter, Raymond Dunn. Claude had confessed to a role in the attacks on John Becker and Richard Bundick. Claude implicated Dunn in the Bundick attack; and a third deserter, alias “B. W. Weir,” as his accomplice in the Becker murder.
Claude explained everything in a surprisingly detailed, candid confession. He said that he had met “Weir” on a train to Chicago. They were both short of money and decided to rob someone. Weir got some whiskey from a tramp near the train station and the pair decided to use the whiskey to lure someone into an alley where they could rob him.
Their victim would be John Becker. Claude apparently had met Becker before at the Great Lakes Training Station, so he was a convenient mark when they came across him at the train station. Becker and Claude went out to eat, and afterward they were joined by Weir.
Weir suggested they all have something to drink, and the trio made their way to an alley behind the Williamson building. As Becker raised the whiskey bottle to his lips, Claude struck him with a lead gas pipe. Becker fell to his knees. When Becker started to get up again, Weir snatched the pipe and hit Becker several times on the top of his head. Becker fell over on his back. Claude and Weir took $9.85 from Becker, plus his pea coat, a watch, and a neckerchief.
They fled the scene and checked into the Cumberland Hotel, where they divided the money and discussed what had happened. They returned to the scene of the crime twice, but never found a trace of Becker. They first learned of his death when a man asked them if they had heard about the “death of the jackie.”
Claude and Weir parted ways after a week or so. Weir left town in the company of a man Claude thought was a deserter from the Marine Corps.
On Dec. 14, Claude attacked and robbed another great Lakes sailor named Patrick Murphy. Murphy gave up his money after the first blow, and got away without further injury.
Claude returned to the naval training station and got leave again on Dec. 23. At that time, he met Raymond Dunn at the railroad station. As before, this new pair was short on cash, so Claude suggested pulling another “pipe and whiskey” job.
The first man that came along was Richard Bundick. Claude said he hit Bundick five times with the pipe, but Bundick still put up a fight. Claude had to grab Bundick and hold him by his neck while Dunn continued beating him with the gas pipe. They made off with $13.80 and Bundick’s pants and shoes.
Claude and Dunn stayed several days at a hotel and then they fled to Terre Haute, Ind. In Terre Haute, they beat up the mistress of the boarding house where they were staying. They robbed her, then stole a car, and drove to St. Louis.
In St. Louis, the pair planned to continue their “pipe and whiskey” game. But they “got tired of waiting for some jackie to show up, and we got drunk, and then the police took us in,” Claude said.
In police custody in St. Louis, Claude mentioned the Bundick attack. He and Dunn were transported back to Chicago where they were interrogated. During the interview, police Lt. Edward Grady realized Claude was wearing Becker’s pea coat and Bundick’s trousers. As the Tribune put it, “When confronted with this evidence, (Claude) wilted and confessed.”
State and federal authorities discussed who would handle prosecution of the case. Newspaper reports pointed out the possibility of death by firing squad if Claude was tried by naval court martial. Ultimately, though, the case fell to Illinois. John Dell Claude was sentenced to life at Joliet state prison.
Manhunt for Cornielson
After Claude’s confession, Chicago police took a 22-year-old woman named Billie La Verne into custody. Police had taken her into custody before — in connection with the beating of Richard Bundick on Dec. 23, 1917.
La Verne admitted she had talked to John Dell Claude and Raymond Dunn on the night they assaulted Bundick. She said they told her they were going to “get” Bundick.
Through La Verne, police learned that “B. W. Weir” had another alias: Burrell W. Cornielson.
A nationwide manhunt for “Cornielson” commenced. But authorities wouldn’t find him until 1920 — not soon enough to try him for his crimes.
Meeting their ends
John Dell Claude didn’t last long at Joliet State Prison. On Sept. 17, 1920, he poisoned himself with bichloride of mercury.
Claude’s partner in the Becker murder poisoned himself, too, just two months later.
On Nov. 14, in a room at the YMCA hotel in Chicago, a man named Eldon L. Dierdorff swallowed cyanide of potassium. A suicide note was found in Dierdorff’s pocket which read “Tell the coroner to bury me here. Broke. My mother’s address is 1919 Washington street, Denver.”
Chicago police Lt. John Norton said he was certain that Dierdorff was the man that police had been looking for — Claude’s accomplice who went by the aliases “Cornielson” and “Weir.” Dierdorff’s body was identified by C.M. Knight, who owned the Central Plating Company.
Dierdorff had worked for Knight for as a polisher for a year and a half. Knight said that Dierdorff borrowed $3 from a workman at the company a few days earlier after having been absent for two months.
“He said he had just come from St. Louis where he had dropped a big pile in a poker game,” Knight told the Chicago Daily Journal.
Knight gave to police a letter from Dierdorff’s mother, which she had written to Knight one month prior. The long letter pleaded with Knight to help her son get his life on the right track. “He’s all I have in the world. Please look after him,” the Chicago American quoted the letter as saying.
The Daily Journal said the letter concluded “I think he has lost his mind or is in very bad company and drinking himself to death. He wrote me such awful letters, always threatening to kill himself.”
Here are PDFs of two documents I found in John Becker’s official military personnel file. These documents were among the sources I used to write this weblog entry.
- Cook County coroner’s inquest – A 60-page transcript of the testimonies of the witnesses.
- John Becker’s service record – This is incomplete, but it has the most interesting pages, including the pages with his signature and fingerprints.