I'm glad it was me instead of you

The early 1930s were a time of mixed emotions in Chicago. On one hand the agony of the Great Depression was continuing with no end in sight. But on the other hand there were reasons to be optimistic. Federal agents had finally caught up with Al Capone and ended the darkest days of the city’s “Beer Wars,” the city had been chosen to host the upcoming World’s Fair in 1933, and a brash and energetic new mayor had taken the helm in city hall.

Anton Cermak was born in 1873 in a portion of Austria-Hungary then called Bohemia and today known as the Czech Republic. His family immigrated to America a year later (he marked his first birthday at Ellis Island) and settled in Braidwood, southwest of Chicago. As a young man Cermak followed many of his contemporaries into a job in a coal mine. After he survived one of the deadliest coal mine accidents in Illinois history Cermak sought out a different profession, moving to Chicago and working his way up from the ground floor in a series of jobs in small businesses, beginning by selling firewood out of a wagon. Cermak and his wife Mary had three daughters.

He also became active in politics, winning election to the Illinois House in 1902 and Chicago’s 12th Ward Alderman in 1909. In the early 1920s he served as Cook County Board chairman. He came close to winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1928. In 1931, he challenged incumbent “Big Bill” Thompson for mayor. Cermak emerged as a blue-collar hero. Thompson, meanwhile, had presided over the city while the deadly gangster wars had ravaged its streets. His clumsy attempts to attack Cermak’s ancestry backfired badly among the city’s many first and second-generation Americans. On election day, Cermak won with 58% of the vote.

James P. Allman and Mayor Cermak.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum. 
Cermak wasted little time building his political machine, but also building up the city. He presided over the preparations for the Century of Progress World’s Fair. He also dealt with severe fiscal challenges as the city and the nation sank deeper into the Depression and he faced a tax strike from major property owners in the city. As mayor of the state’s largest city he was a key player in the nomination of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for President at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago. This would be a fateful turn for Cermak.

Roosevelt would go on to win the 1932 election in a landslide. His administration’s promised New Deal programs would present Cermak with the opportunity to obtain the kind of federal largesse which Cermak felt the city needed to recover from the challenges of the Great Depression.

It was in this context that the mayor traveled to Miami in February 1933 to meet with Roosevelt, who was vacationing in South Florida in advance of his March 4 inauguration.

Roosevelt had spent the afternoon of February 15 fishing off the Bahamas. As his yacht came into Miami a crowd had gathered along his route back into the city to greet him. Roosevelt’s motorcade halted in a nearby park so that he could give a few remarks to the crowd of well-wishers. Among them was Cermak, whom Roosevelt recognized and beckoned to join him in his convertible.

Just as Cermak approached Roosevelt to begin their conversation, another man emerged from the crowd. Giuseppe Zangara would later tell police that he hated all rich and powerful people. Now he approached his target and drew a pistol. At the last second, a woman in the crowd spotted the assassin and struck his arm upward, knocking off his aim as he began firing. In the next few seconds, five people were hit, two fatally. Roosevelt was not struck, but Cermak was hit.

As the crowd swarmed onto Zangara, disarming him, Cermak turned to Chicago Alderman James Bowler who had accompanied him on the trip and said, “I’m hit, Jim!”

Secret Service agents dashed in to protect the President and started to evacuate him from the scene of the shooting, but Bowler shouted out, “Mr. Roosevelt, Mayor Cermak is shot! Wait!”

Bystanders dragged Cermak to the car and lifted him inside, next to Roosevelt. The car then sped off toward a Miami hospital. The bullet lodged near his spine. The next day’s Chicago Tribune reported without attribution that while in the car Cermak looked up at Roosevelt and said, “I am glad it was me instead of you.”

Historians remain divided on whether these heroic words were ever actually spoken.

Reaching the hospital, doctors worked on Cermak’s wound and stabilized the 59-year-old mayor. Though he survived the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the mayor was clearly in trouble, as lung damage was reported two days after the shooting.

Back in Chicago, residents followed the daily updates in the newspapers as to their mayor’s condition.

“Tell Chicago I’ll pull through,” the hospitalized Cermak said. “This is a tough old body of mine and a mere bullet isn’t going to pull me down. I was elected to be World’s Fair mayor and that’s what I’m going to be.”

The updates in the papers got steadily worse. A week after the shooting, the Tribune headline read, “MAYOR IN CRISIS.” Five days later, another update warned, “The medical team’s greatest fear is realized,” as the mayor came down with pneumonia.

The day after Roosevelt took the oath of office as the nation’s 32nd President, Cermak seemed to rebound, but it was an illusion. His condition continued to deteriorate and at 5:57 a.m. on March 6, 1933, Cermak died, surrounded by his family.

Meanwhile, Zangara was quickly tried and convicted of the shooting, seemingly proud of what he had done. Less than a week after he pulled the trigger he was sentenced to 80 years of hard labor. Upon Cermak’s death, the sentence was changed to death by electrocution. He was executed later that month.

Mayor Cermak's Funeral. 
The fallen mayor’s body was returned to Chicago by train, with crowds gathering all along the route. The Tribune reported that, “tens of thousands waited in line for hours in the bitter cold to pay their respects while his body lay in state in City Hall. Many had to be turned away then as mourners escorted his coffin to a packed Chicago Stadium for the service.”

Mayor Anton Cermak was buried in Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery. His grave was inscribed with the words he is said to have spoken to the incoming President who had been so narrowly spared from assassination.

“I am glad it was me instead of you.”