Monday, September 12, 2011

The LaSalle Street Cable Car and the Bigamist

Chaos at the Rush Street Bridge (JWB collection)

You get stuck in traffic on a Friday at 5:00 in the afternoon, and you would swear that things couldn’t get any worse.  But the truth is that things could be a whole lot worse, and in the early days they were.  There was virtually no way across the river to the north except the Wells Street Bridge or the Rush Street Bridge, and surface transportation consisted of cable cars that were prone to frequent breakdowns and crossed the river by means of narrow tunnels at LaSalle and Washington Streets.

I was doing some research the other day on an artist’s colony that sprang up on Burton Place in the late 1920’s.  The street was originally named Carl Street, and it was populated as early as the Chicago Fire of 1871.  I ran up against the name of an early resident of Carl Street, an unfortunate soul by the name of Henry S. Holden, who resided at No. 9 Carl Street.  Mr. Holden and Chicago’s primitive cable car system met on the morning of Monday, February 19, 1894, a deadly encounter for Holden.  

Conductor John Bambor presented the facts at the Coroner’s inquest on Thursday, February 22, 1894.  As the cable car came down Wells Street, headed south, the gripman, William J. Linch yelled to him that the brake chain on the car had broken.  A repair wagon was summoned, and the car met the wagon at Ohio Street.  The cable car was pulled around to LaSalle and Illnois where the grip was raised so that the car could be pulled west on Illinois to Wells Street. 

The original power house for the LaSalle Street Cable Cars, formerly
Michael Jordon's, now The LaSalle Power Co. at 500 N. LaSalle
The horses were unhitched, and the car was allowed to go on under its own momentum until it reached the switch at LaSalle Street.  The car had not yet come to a full stop when Linch tried to stop it with the track brake.  Either the forward progress was too fast or the brake failed completely, and the car began to roll toward the LaSalle Street tunnel.  The speed increased as the car got closer to the tunnel, and the passengers left on board began to panic.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s account of the accident, “The passengers inside the car saw that something was wrong and with visions of a tunnel horror in their minds they made for the door with all possible speed.”   Bambor tried to block the door, but the surging mob was too much.

Two women jumped off the car as it neared the entrance to the tunnel.  A third, Mrs.  C. D. Coddle, jumped just as the car reached the entrance to the tunnel and was thrown violently against the lamp post just outside the tunnel entrance, receiving “injuries about the hips.”

At that point poor old Henry Holden lost his nerve.

Here’s how The Trib described what happened next, “As the car started down the steep incline it gathered speed with each foot of ground and dashed into the cavern at a rapid rate.  Holden seemed to lose his presence of mind as the train leaped along.  He sprang upon the rail of the platform, poised there a moment to get his balance, and as the car reached the place where partition divides the two car tracks he leaped into the air.  At this point the track makes a slight turn.  As the man jumped the car swerved, his head struck on the stone wall with terrific force, and his body fell back across the track.”

It would be bad enough if the whole thing had ended there, but there was more to come.  As the story continues it’s interesting to note the difference in reporting style between 1894 and today . . . “The train, propelled by the momentum down the north incline, ran several hundred feet up the south incline and started back again with sufficient force to carry it past the spot where Mr. Holden lay, crushing him into a shapeless mass.  Both of his arms were broken, the top of his head was cut off, and small pieces of clothing and flesh littered the track for a number of feet.”

Henry Holden was a wealthy dealer in gas-fixtures and a stockholder in the Northwestern Tile Company.  He had been in business since before the Chicago Fire.  He left a widow and a five-month-old child.  His brother-in-law took charge of his body.  Although the conductor and gripman were arrested, the Coroner’s inquest found them innocent of any negligence in the unfortunate accident.

And that should have been the end of it.

But there was more to come.

It seems that a week before the accident one Michael Kenna, a saloonkeeper, began suit against Holden for bigamy, claiming that Holden had married a woman in New York in 1867 and then had come to Chicago and married the second woman, the widow on Carl Street.  Holden was arrested and posted a bond of five thousand bucks. 

The accident happened on Monday.  On Tuesday Mrs. Katherine Holden, the New York wife of unfortunate Henry, authorized an Undertaker Sigmund to inter the body.  Another north side undertaker showed up at the morgue with authorization to remove the body to the No. 9 Carl Street address.  Since the New York relative identified what was left of Henry, the Coroner released the body to her.

At the Coroner’s inquest a Mrs. Hannah Barrett testified that Mr. Holden was her father, was born in England, and was about 59-years-old.  “I last saw him alive thirteen years ago in New York City.  He had not lived with my mother for thirteen years,” she said.

Then the New York widow was called.  She testified, “We were married in New York in 1857, and ten children were born to us.  Seven of them are now alive.  Mr. Holden deserted me seventeen years ago in New York, and three months afterward my last child was born.  I have been blind for twenty-seven years—since the riot in New York.  Two years after my husband left he began to write monthly letters to me.  Each month he sent me $20 until four years ago, when he began to send me $25, which he continued until last month.”

At this point an administrator was appointed for Mr. Holden’s estate, which was estimated to be worth in excess of $10,000.

But . . . can you believe it?  It doesn’t end there!

What Carl Street looks like today as
Burton Place (JWB, 2011)
Over two years later, The Trib reported on January 10, 1896 that a J. H. Holden, the proprietor of the Chicago Silver torpedo works, residing at No. 9 Carl Street, the heir to the inheritance left by his dear old decapitated dad, believed that he was the victim of a conspiracy formed between Mrs. Holden No. 3 (!), and one Pat Colbert.

The night before Mr. Colbert’s wife had informed J. H. that her husband was gunning for him.  While Holden was at the Bell Restaurant at No. 122 West Madison Street, Colbert entered and headed for the young man.  Holden hot-footed it out the rear door and went to the Central Police Station.  Finding no one there he knew, he returned to the restaurant where Mrs. Bell, the proprietor, informed him that Colbert had indeed brought a revolver with him and would have shot Holden except that a customer came between the two of them.

Holden headed out to the DesPlaines Street Station “under great excitement” where he explained that he had left his wife in tears at the home of a Mrs. Kenney, who “he claims is a sister of ‘Hinky Dink,’” (That would be Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, the 5’ 1” First Ward Alderman who had begun his career selling newspapers at the age of ten and grew up to control the saloons, the gamblers, the pimps and the whores of the most notorious ward in the city.)

Can the story that began with a broken-down cable car get much stranger?

Holden told the police that he had come to Chicago from New York two years earlier, leaving his mother and sister behind, discovering upon his arrival in the Windy City that his father had married a third wife.  It was Holden who had sworn out the warrant back in 1894 and had his father arrested for bigamy. 

"Hinky Dink" Kenna
After the cable car accident, the elder Holden’s fortune, which by 1896 amounted to $80,000, went to the son and the New York wife, evidently Wife No. 2.  Wife No. 3, according to J. H., had “made many overtures to obtain a portion of the estate.”  When her efforts proved fruitless, according to the heir of the Holden fortune “she made threats to obtain a portion of the estate at any rise.”

And that was the end of it.  There is not another report in The Chicago Tribune of the family or the inheritance.  Just a guess, but I have to think that with his name plastered all over the paper, Hinky Dink Kenna quickly made the whole affair “go away.”

At a cost, maybe, of a couple ducats to the First Ward Ball in consideration of his efforts.

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