Robert P. Swierenga, "Masselink Challenges the Cicero Mob"
[Published in revised form in Origins, 24 (No. 1, 2006), 36-41]
that Masselink doesn't shut his mouth, we'll have him riding out of town on a
slab," so a
What had a minister of the gospel
done to incur the wrath of the infamous mob once headed by the notorious
"Scarface Al" Capone? Get involved in local politics, that's what.
Masselink as a Christian leader felt duty-bound to help clean up the
scandal-ridden government of the Town of
First Christian Reformed
First Cicero CRC had over 1,100
"souls" in the mid-1940s and was the flagship Dutch Reformed
congregation in town. Masselink, a graduate of Princeton Seminary with a Th.D.
degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, moved his family into the
manse in January 1944 after serving the La Grave CRC of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
He followed another high profile pastor, the learned Dr. William Rutgers, who
had nurtured high quality organ and choral work at the church led by Cornelius
Masselink as political activist
That Rev. Masselink would get
involved in politics was not surprising, given his strong convictions, but the
long tradition of corrupt bossism in Chicago-area governments had reduced his
congregants to passive citizens. The relatively small Dutch Reformed community
in the metropolitan area voted out of duty but seldom ran for office
themselves. "Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone," was the Dutch
axiom concerning the politicos.
First Cicero CRC was an exception; two of its leading members were leaders in
the town government-- Nick Hendrikse as town clerk and librarian, and Siebert
Karsen as president of the town Parent Teacher Association. Hendrikse, a former
The suburb of
The Capone Syndicate
As the industries and their union
In the 1924 municipal election,
Capone gained control of the entire town. As historian Humbert Nelli aptly
noted: "Through fraudulent registration, bribery, ballot-box stuffing,
kidnapping, slugging, and shooting, Capone 'elected' his candidate over an
opposition equally corrupt but less resourceful."7
How did the average "Joe Citizen" react to this travesty? Look the
other way. Norbert Blei, who chronicled life in
Sometimes it was impossible to look the other way. In 1926 Sieb Karsen's fiancé, the nineteen-year old Margaret VanderBerg, while at work as a secretary for a roofing company on Twenty-Second St., almost took a bullet from Capone mobsters. Her company was located next door to a local barbershop and mob hangout. One day VanderBerg looked outside and happened to see Capone's gang coming down the street in a black car with guns poking out the windows. She dove under her desk as the thugs began firing. The target was a rival mobster sitting in the barber's chair near the front window getting a haircut. The hail of bullets missed the intended target but killed another customer. When the firing stopped, Margaret crawled out from under her desk happy to be alive. After her marriage the next year, Karsen insisted that she quit her job, which she agreed to do.9
In 1931 the U.S. Department of
Justice convicted Capone of income tax evasion and incarcerated him. Two years
later the Franklin Roosevelt administration ended the Prohibition experiment.
Yet the mob continued to hold
This was the state of affairs that
Masselink, his associate the Rev. William McCarrell of the large
How wrong they were! The mobsters,
who had been caught off guard by the civic reformers, quickly regrouped and
fought back. Police enforcement of tavern closing hours and raids on gambling
halls was costing the syndicate $100,000 a day in revenue. They
buttonholed individual trustees and demanded that they rein in the new mayor.
Stoffel found himself largely alone in the reform campaign and considered
giving in to the pressure and letting things return to "normal." This
is when Dr. Masselink came to the fore and mobilized the Ministerial
Association for a long fight. He began at home by getting his own consistory at
On June 3, 1948 he had the Association pass a strongly worded resolution for the next board meeting on June 14. The resolution, which was read by town clerk Jerry Justin, commended President Stoffel, the town board, and the Cicero Life newspaper for their courageous campaign to save the town, and it served notice on the forces of corruption that the good citizens would not back down. Masselink then took the floor and declared that the resolution was not empty words but a program of action. The clerics promised to make the crusade a matter of public and personal prayer, and they called on public-minded civic organizations and individuals to come and stand with them.11
At the very next meeting of the town board, some 200 saloonkeepers and bartenders appeared, led by their lawyer, to complain about plummeting receipts. Police enforcement of the 2 AM closing time, they cried, threatened to put them out of business. They demanded immediate action by the trustees to make the police back off. When the trustees appeared to be sympathetic, Masselink and his fellow clerics, claiming to speak for the vast majority of citizens, demanded that the board hold public hearings on the matter. In the face of the packed courtroom, the trustees backed down and agreed to schedule a meeting the following Monday evening when both sides could be heard. The issue was clearly joined and the battle lines starkly drawn.
Masselink and his allies had one week to prepare. Since the saloon forces had gathered 200 strong, the ministers wanted to assemble 2,000 citizens as a show of support for reform. The clerics contacted every civic organization in town--the P.T.A., Women's Clubs, Business Men's Organizations, Boy Scouts, etc., and they enlisted twenty-six organizations to send spokespersons to the meeting. The board was so intimidated that they took no action on the petition of the barkeepers, and the matter was dropped. The forces for good had won the first battle but would they win the next battles and, indeed, the war?
Round Two began almost immediately. The syndicate
quietly got the
At the next meeting of the town board, several trustees tried to censure or depose President Stoffel and Chief Horejs for condoning gambling, but Masselink lauded Horejs and argued that the accusations were false, even though he could not prove the underhandedness of the sheriff's office. Nonetheless, he did forestall a coup and Horejs continued in his post temporarily.
The mobsters then dropped their indirect methods, and at the August 12, 1948 board meeting a majority of trustees proposed to nullify the town ordinance of 1927 that gave the president the power to appoint the chief of police. They also voted to relax police enforcement of saloon and gambling laws. Round Three had begun. Masselink learned of the intended actions and marshaled his forces to pack the town hall with "wildly indignant citizens," who insisted that any change in the town charter required a public referendum. After allowing a time for speeches, the seven trustees brazenly voted unanimously, amid boos, cheers, and futile attempts to gain the floor, to amend the charter and fire Chief Horejs. They then announced as the new chief a man who had served during the Capone regime. President Stoffel promptly vetoed the resolution, but ten days later, after the prescribed waiting period, the board met again and amidst stormy protests of a crowded chamber, overrode his veto. Masselink declared that the town board had shown a "sullen disregard for the will of the majority." "Good Government is Tottering," cried the Cicero Life.13
Two months later, on August 23, 1948, President
Stoffel resigned in protest and to preserve his self respect. The syndicate was
back in power. "Respectability dies in
Before his resignation, however, Masselink and the
Ministerial Association got Stoffel to agree to head up a citizen's petition
movement, the Cicero Citizens City Government Committee, to change the
structure of the government from a town to a city. A city charter would
automatically terminate the terms of office of every town trustee, and future
trustees would be elected by ward rather than "at large," which would
make boss rule far more difficult. To make the case to the general public for a
new charter, Masselink and his cohorts argued that the 1869 charter was outdated
and inadequate to meet the needs of a large and complex city.
Stoffel and the clerics put all their faith in the
ballot resolution to "take back
To blunt the petition drive, the board had their attorney
declare that the 1869 charter was a compact between the town and the
Round Three had taken the fight out of
The reformers girded for the election battle, but
they were no match for the town trustees, who "played the race card."
The board arranged for "burly" black males to go door to door with
flyers that urged citizens to approve the new charter so that blacks could move
Only two years later, in 1951, the citizens paid a
steep price for their racism. A black family, the husband a bus driver for the
Chicago Transit Authority, moved into a third-floor flat of a twelve-unit
apartment building on the
The arrival of the first black family to live in
Masselink and the forces for good government won the
battle but lost the war. They fought vigorously for nearly two years, but in
the end they could not save Ciceronians from their own prejudices and fears.
The crime syndicate and the conniving
As recently as 1998, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) charged
Rev. Masselink paid a personal price for leading the
crusade to save
* I am indebted to Martin Essenburg, Harvey Huiner, Wendell Karsen, James McCosh, and Clare Van Zeelt for assistance in researching this article.
1 Reminiscence of Clazina (Mrs. Edward) Masselink, undated manuscript, The Archives, Calvin College. This document and the manuscript, "Cicero Strikes Back," by Edward Masselink are the primary sources for this article, along with many newspaper clippings preserved by the Masselinks.
2 Robert P. Swierenga, Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 219-21.
3 Ibid, 676-715, quote 687.
4 Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 250, 339.
5 Norbert Blei, Neighborhood (Peoria, Ill.: Ellis Press, 1987), 35-38; Dutch Chicago, 431.
6 Capone actually had headquarters in two hotels facing each other across Twenty-second St. (later Cermak Rd.)--the Anton Hotel at 4835 West and the Hawthorne at 4923 West. Mark H. Haller, "Ethic Crime: The Organized Underworld of Early 20th Century Chicago," in Melvin G. Holly and Peter d'A Jones, Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 557-73.
7 Humbert S. Nelli, The Italians of Chicago, 1880-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 217, 218 (quote).
8 Blei, Neighborhood, 16
9 Story recounted to the author by son Wendell Karsen, e-mail of 2 June 2005.
10 This and the next paragraphs rely on Masselink, "Cicero Strikes Back."
11 For this and the previous paragraph, see Consistory Minutes, First Christian Reformed Church of Cicero, 17 May 1948, used by permission; Chicago Sun Times, 15 June 1948.
12 Cicero News, 2, 9 July 1948.
13 Cicero Life, 15 Aug. 1948; Chicago Herald American, 24 Aug. 1948.
14 Chicago Daily News, 13, 17 Aug. 1948; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13, 17, 24 Aug. 1948, Chicago Herald
American, 28 Aug. 1948; Cicero Life, 25 Aug. 1948; Chicago Sun Times, 24 Aug. 1948.
15 Cicero Life, 13 June 1949; Chicago Daily News, 29 July 1949; Chicago Sun Times, 29 July 1949.
16 Cicero Life, 14 Aug. 1949; Chicago Daily Tribune, 23 Nov. 1949; John De Boer to the author, e-mail 17 Sept. 2005.
17 Cicero Life, 13 June 1949; Chicago Daily News, 29 July 1949; Chicago Sun Times, 29 July 1949.
18 Undated 1998 Cicero Life clipping of story by Associated Press reporter Mike Robinson; Chicago Tribune, 28 Apr. 1998.
19 As Bernard Huiner said, according to his son Harvey, e-mail to the author, 31 May 2005.
20 Clazina (Mrs. Edward) Masselink, "Cicero Strikes Back," p. 7. On 26 June 1950, as Masselink entertained a call from the Hull, Iowa congregation, his consistory attested to the harmonious relationship between pastor, consistory, and congregation" and urged him to decline, which he did, and remained in Cicero another five months.