Eighty years ago this week in Miami, a "maniac" tried to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt. The assassin's bullets missed their intended target but hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and four other bystanders. Cermak was rushed to the hospital in Roosevelt's car.
So began a 19-day ordeal as Chicagoans waited to hear if their mayor would pull through. As Cermak was fighting for his life in that Miami hospital, Tribune readers got a crash course in trauma medicine — and remarkable access as the drama unfolded.
Day 1: 2 a.m. Feb. 16, 1933, just hours after the bullet lodged hear his spine, the 59-year-old first-term mayor was given "more than a 50-50 chance" of survival, doctors announced. They reported his vital signs as normal but his condition was "regarded as dangerous": Pulse, 88; temperature, 98.6; respiration rate 24.
"Normal pulse for an adult of Cermak's age varies from 74 to 88; normal respiration is 18 to 22; normal temperature is 98.6," the Tribune explained.
Roosevelt was returning from a fishing trip on Feb. 15 and stopped at a rally in a Miami park. His motorcade from the harbor was greeted along the route by enthusiastic supporters cheering and waving. At the park, he found VIPs seated at a band shell and thousands more people crowded around. His open-topped car was driven up to the band shell, where the president-elect noticed Cermak.
Roosevelt smiled broadly and motioned the Chicago mayor to join him, the Tribune reported.
But Cermak shook his head and said, "After the speech, Mr. President."
So Roosevelt took up a microphone, said a few words, then "beckoned again to Mayor Cermak, who came down the steps of the shell to the car. They shook hands warmly" and exchanged a few words.
"Suddenly two shots rang out," the Tribune reported. One witness said Cermak fell. Another said the mayor sagged but didn't fall down, instead turning to his friend and travel companion Ald. James Bowler and saying, "I'm hit, Jim."
Roosevelt's driver and security detail had immediately covered FDR and started driving away, but Bowler yelled, "Mr. Roosevelt, Mayor Cermak is shot. Wait."
Cermak was "half dragged across the few feet" into the waiting car and pushed in next to Roosevelt. Once at the hospital, Cermak reportedly uttered the line that is engraved on his tomb. Speaking to FDR, Cermak allegedly said: "I'm glad it was me instead of you." The Tribune reported the quote without attributing it to a witness, and most scholars doubt it was ever said. The newspaper at the time didn't doubt it — or at least liked the sentiment enough to perpetuate it. The quote was featured the next day in Carey Orr's Page 1 cartoon headlined "The Voice of a Patriot."
Day 3: 2:55 a.m. Feb. 18. Pulse 94, temperature 99.8; respiration 24. Mayor is resting easily but now it is reported that the bullet pierced a lung, and he has been coughing up blood. Further, the mayor already suffered from a pre-existing heart condition; was he strong enough to survive this stress?
"Tell Chicago I'll pull through," Cermak said from his hospital bed. "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."
That wasn't the only reason he was elected. Many had invested their hopes and dreams in this foreign-born Czech immigrant. The Great Depression was tearing apart the social fabric of the city and nation. Chicago's financial situation was dire. Reform-minded citizens, including the Chicago Tribune, wanted him to continue cleaning up City Hall, which had been a cesspool under a third term with the notorious William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.
"All right thinking citizens of Chicago have come to have a high regard for the man," the Tribune editorialized two days after Cermak was shot. "We think he faced his problems courageously and did the best that was in him to put this punch drunk city back on its feet, to restore its reputation in the eyes of the world."
The varied ethnic communities had rallied around a fellow working man who truly seemed to understand them. With very little formal schooling, Cermak proved to be a decisive leader and a natural organizer, the Tribune would later say. By bringing together the Germans, Czechs, Italians, Jews, Russians, Lithuanians and even the disaffected Irish, he created the Chicago Democratic Party machine. But he was not a saint. He was tough, never shying from a fight, be it figurative or literal, and once somebody was a member of the party, that person had better obey. "He demanded loyalty and discipline, and he made sure he got it by whatever means it took," the Tribune said.
But Cermak was the kind of brilliant politician who could make all these disparate groups see what they wanted to see. So the whole city was counting on him to pull through.
Day 7: 4:30 a.m. Feb. 22. Pulse 108, temperature 101.2, respiration 30. Doctors report the mayor is in considerable pain despite opiates as his fever spikes. "If he is not better by morning, the situation will be very grave, indeed," says Dr. Karl Meyer, chief surgeon at Cook County Hospital and one of seven doctors attending Cermak. The Tribune's headline reads, in part, "MAYOR IN CRISIS."
Day 12: 2:30 a.m. Feb. 27. Pulse 128, temperature 101, respiration 36. The medical team's greatest fear is realized. Cermak faces a threat even deadlier than the bullet: pneumonia. "The latest complication stunned the group of physicians at his bedside and reduced them to despair," the Tribune reports.
The would-be presidential assassin was Giuseppe Zangara, a naturalized Italian-American who hated government, the Tribune reported. He was sitting about four or five rows back when he stood up and opened fire on the president. He might have been more successful if Mrs. W.F. Cross hadn't grabbed his arm and pushed it into the air. Zangara managed to get off a few more shots before the crowd descended on him, beating him severely. "A policeman with a blackjack belabored the assassin unmercifully until it seemed he would be killed," the Tribune reported. In court, Zangara didn't put up any defense, and justice was swift. Just six days after the attack, he was sentenced to 80 years of hard labor. When he heard the sentence, he said, "That's fair! That's right! I'm satisfied!"
Day 14: 2:45 a.m. March 1. Pulse 120, temperature 101, respiration 36. Cermak rallies and is able to eat a little. He's even strong enough that his famous temper flares. "Take that tent thing off me and give me something to drink. Quit shooting that stuff into my arm and leave me alone. I'm going to get well," he says. The doctors are all smiles.
Day 18: 3:30 a.m. March 5. Pulse 126, respiration 32. Cermak is in considerable pain. His groans can be heard 100 feet from the oxygen room. Gangrene has developed in his right lung.
Cermak died at 5:57 a.m. Chicago time on March 6, two days after Roosevelt took the first of his four oaths of office. The end came peacefully, the Tribune reported, with Cermak surrounded by members of his family, three daughters, their husbands and children.
The outpouring of public grief and respect in the following week was immense. Crowds met Cermak's funeral train at stops all the way from Florida to Chicago. Back home, thousands solemnly marched through the Cermak home at 2348 S. Millard Ave. to view the mayor's body. Then 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. Then the final march began. About 30,000 joined a somber procession from the stadium to Bohemian National Cemetery at Foster Avenue and Crawford Avenue (now Pulaski Road) on the Northwest Side.
A crowd of 50,000 was estimated at the cemetery. The Tribune summed it up: "Mayor Anton J. Cermak was buried yesterday after the most spectacular funeral demonstration ever seen in Chicago."
On the same day, March 10, Zangara was re-sentenced to die by electrocution for Cermak's murder.
Five days later, the City Council voted to change the name of 22nd Street to Cermak Road.
And less than a week after that, Zangara was executed.
Editor's note: Thanks to Tom Hope, of Arlington Heights, Matt Baron, of Oak Park, and Sterling Taylor, of Hammond, for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun