I have been shot and cannot live

Finishing dinner with his son and daughter at his home on October 28, 1893, Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison must have been in a good mood. Just hours earlier he had delivered remarks to hundreds of his fellow mayors attending American Cities Day during the final weekend of the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago’s World’s Fair. Author and historian Erik Larson wrote that, “Friends said he had never looked so handsome, so full of life.”

The fair had been an overwhelming success, bringing the world to Chicago and showcasing the city’s recovery from the great fire of 1871. More than 200,000 visitors had passed through the fair on a single day that week, while over 27 million people attended the fair at some point during its six-month run: more than one third of the entire nation’s population. The world’s fair had been the stage for displaying scientific breakthroughs, entertainers, and even the world’s first Ferris wheel. It was Chicago’s grandest step yet onto the world stage, and Mayor Harrison was surely enjoying the moment.

“Chicago has chosen a star and has looked upward to it and known nothing that it cannot accomplish,” he had triumphantly said that afternoon to the group of mayors. “I intend to live for more than a half century and, at the end of that half century, London will be trembling lest Chicago shall surpass her!”

But outside the mayor’s home that evening lurked a failed, disgruntled office seeker out for revenge. It was a story sadly already known to Americans in the late 19th century. Just twelve years earlier a deranged man who felt that he was entitled to an ambassadorship had murdered President James A. Garfield in a Washington DC train station when the president had dared to name someone else to the post. History was about to repeat itself at Mayor Harrison’s luxurious home at 231 South Ashland Avenue.

A distant cousin to the previous President of the United States Benjamin Harrison, the Kentucky-born and Yale-educated Carter Harrison was, by 1893, one of the most successful politicians in Chicago’s history. First elected to the Cook County Commission, Harrison had gone on to serve two terms in Congress before winning his first mayor’s race in 1879 to become the 24th Mayor of Chicago. In those days mayors were elected to two-year terms, so Harrison would seek and achieve re-election in 1881, 1883 and 1885.

Mixed in with these victories, however, were some high-profile losses. Harrison was defeated for re-election to Congress in 1878 and also lost a bid for Governor in 1884. But Harrison was not easily discouraged: each of these failures was followed less than a year later by a victory in the race for mayor.

Harrison had come to Chicago in the 1850s and quickly become wealthy as a real estate investor, a common path to riches in the fast-growing city. He did not get involved in politics until the desperate days after the fire when he worked alongside Joseph Medill in Medill’s successful race for mayor just weeks later. Harrison’s own rise began not long after with his election to Congress.

Carter Harrison. 
In Washington, Harrison was known as a fiery speaker, not uncommon in those days, and he quickly rose to the chairmanship of a House committee looking at civil service reform. He found himself in trouble after he used his influence to secure wounded soldier pensions for four men who claimed, without evidence, to be Union Army veterans.

The issue of patronage and civil service reform would be thrown into the limelight following the Garfield assassination. Meanwhile, political corruption would continue to follow Harrison for the rest of his career.

Harrison’s time as mayor coincided with an exciting time in the history of Chicago, and Harrison seemed like just the man the city needed at the helm. He was known to refer to the city as “my bride.” He demanded improvements to the fire department and ensured that the new electric and telegraph lines being installed the center of the city were buried underground to minimize disruption. He battled railroad interests all the way to the state Supreme Court over access to the lakefront, preventing a plan which would have caused the city and its residents to be separated from the lakeshore by a series of railroad tracks. He upgraded the city’s infrastructure – everything from roads and bridges to rail lines and waterways.

But with all this progress came a number of colorful characters with names like “Bathhouse John” and “Foxey Ed” who dominated the city’s liquor and gambling and who found a friend in Harrison’s leadership style. Foxey Ed was once credited with saying that it was “better to send back the man who has stolen enough already than to send in a new man.”

“This is a free town,” Harrison once said when asked about vice in the city, and he governed with the attitude that the best way to deal with it was to let it flourish in one section of the city in order to keep it from spreading into the others.

Chicago historian Edward R. Kantowicz called Harrison’s views on vice, “decidedly broadminded.”

“The city’s stern Protestant upper class saw him as a civic satyr whose tolerance of prostitution, gambling and alcohol had allowed the city’s vice districts, most notably the Levee – home of the infamous bartender and robber Mickey Finn – to swell to new heights of depravity,” Larson writes.

Harrison had an open-door policy as mayor, meeting with everyone who came to his office in the morning and sometimes handling their concern personally. He courted labor and the many immigrants who were settling in Chicago in the 1880s, and they rewarded him with their votes during his first four terms as mayor. He was a common sight around the city, riding atop his white Kentucky mare while wearing his black slouch cap.

In 1886 his career suffered a setback as he received a large share of the blame for the outbreak of violence which came to be known as the Haymarket Riot. Harrison was defeated for re-election the following year.

Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian
Exposition in Chicago
True to form, Harrison did not stay on the sidelines for long. Leaving Chicago for a tour of the world, Harrison kept his name in the news by sending back tales of his travels in the far west to the Chicago Tribune and later publishing them in a book entitled A Summer’s Outing and the Old Man’s Story. Returning home he fell short in another mayoral bid in 1891, but won in 1893, becoming the city’s first five-term mayor.

“When years ago I stood before you…and took the oath which fitted me for this high office, Chicago had less than half a million population. Today it is the sixth city on the face of the globe, the second in America in population, and the first city on Earth in pluck, energy and determination,” he told the city’s aldermen as he took the oath of office for his fifth term on April 17, 1893.

With the World’s Fair having completed its successful run (it would formally end two days after the mayor’s closing remarks) Harrison had enjoyed a quiet dinner and then adjourned to his room for a rest.

Around 8 p.m. a small man rang the bell at Mayor Harrison’s door, which was opened a moment later by a member of the household staff, Mary Hansen. The visitor told her that he needed to speak with the mayor at once. When she turned to summon the mayor, the assailant followed her into the house and up the stairs. As Harrison stepped out of his room, Hansen returned to the first floor, but she heard enough to know that the visitor was insisting on obtaining a city job. Harrison refused.

“I tell you I won’t do it,” he said. A moment later there were three gunshots.

Mayor Harrison was struck once in the hand and twice in the chest. His son Preston rushed to his side.

Meanwhile, the assassin, Patrick Prendergast, ran for the front door. He encountered the mayor’s carriage driver who was rushing up from the back of the house and fired a shot at him, which missed. The driver returned fire as the assailant fled into the darkness.

“I have been shot and cannot live,” Harrison gasped as a neighbor placed a coat under his head as a pillow.

Harrison died a few minutes later at 8:25 p.m.

Blocks away at the Des Plaines Street police station the desk sergeant, O.Z. Barber had just received a telephone call alerting him to the shooting at the mayor’s home when a man came into the station and walked directly up to him. Accounts differ as to the details of the conversation which followed, but all agree that the gunman calmly handed his revolver over to the sergeant and introduced himself as the man who shot the mayor.

An arrest and a fuller confession followed, including details of the assassin’s work for Harrison’s campaign and his mistaken belief that he had been promised the city’s corporation counsel job even though his only work experience had been as a telegraph messenger and newspaper distributor.

In the days that followed many details emerged about his multiple letters to city officials and visits to political leaders in pursuit of the appointment, actions reminiscent of those which preceded President Garfield’s murder in 1881. He had even attempted to visit the Chicago office of Governor John Altgeld just hours before the shooting only to be turned away by a clerk who found his behavior suspicious.

Two days later the assassin was indicted. He plead not guilty by reason of insanity, with famed attorney Clarence Darrow as his counsel. But the jury did not agree. Even after a new trial was granted he was convicted and hanged on July 13, 1894.

The closing celebration of the World’s Fair was cancelled. In its place was held a funeral procession for Mayor Harrison which was among the largest ever seen in the city, both in the number of participants and the number of spectators. Many of them wore buttons with the phrase “Our Carter.” Seemingly every group of Chicagoans had a delegation represented in the march, which went on for more than two hours.

Harrison’s imprint on the city’s politics would last for decades and would include the beginnings of the infamous political machine which would be such a force in the city long after Harrison’s death. One of the beneficiaries of this machine was the mayor’s son, Carter Harrison II, who would follow in his father’s footsteps and serve five terms as the city’s mayor in the early 20th century.

Mayor Carter Harrison is buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Carter Harrison Statue in Union Park, Chicago.