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Robert P. Swierenga, "Masselink Challenges the Cicero Mob"

[Published in revised form in Origins, 24 (No. 1, 2006), 36-41]

            "If that Masselink doesn't shut his mouth, we'll have him riding out of town on a slab," so a Chicago mobster in 1948 threatened the Reverend Dr. Edward J. Masselink, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Cicero, Illinois for the previous four years. When his wife Clazina heard the telephone ring at the parsonage in the middle of the night, she warned her husband not to turn on any lights for fear of a bullet coming through a window. Babysitters were reluctant to come to parsonage. One father insisted on accompanying his daughter for protection.1

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 Cicero. Ever since Capone moved his headquarters to a Cicero hotel during the Prohibition era of the 1920s, this industrial town that bordered Chicago on the west became a haven for gangland vice and racketeering. Worse, city officials came under the influence (some would say control) of the crime syndicate.


First Christian Reformed Church of Cicero

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 Kickert, a Calvin College graduate of 1927 and music teacher in the local Morton High School. The reputation of the church and its pastor induced the management of Cicero radio station WHFC-AM to beam across Chicagoland Rutgers' famed Heidelberg Catechism sermons in a program called The Reformation Hour. Masselink, a biblical theologian with an experiential bent, took over Rutgers' microphone but changed the format to a half hour devotional that applied the Bible to everyday life. As with his predecessor, radio made Masselink's name a familiar one in Christian circles in Chicagoland. But radio waves could not compete with newspaper headlines and photos that soon flashed Masselink's name and face across Chicago.2


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.[3] 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 principal of Timothy Christian School, was an elder and vice president of the consistory, and Karsen was superintendent of the Sunday school. These men and other activists in the congregation steered their willing pastor to join the Cicero Ministerial Association (CMA) and by 1948 Masselink was its president. The crusade of the Association to take Cicero back from mob racketeering is what sparked the conflict that led Masselink to fear for his life.



The suburb of Cicero began as a quiet, leafy suburb for upwardly mobile Chicagoans. The town was incorporated and chartered in 1869 and the truck farms quickly gave way to brick bungalows with tree-lined sidewalks and backyard gardens. Along the boundaries of Chicago sprawling factories sprang up, notably the Grand Locomotive Works and later the Western Electric Hawthorne Works, which manufactured telephones and switching equipment for the Bell System. More than one in every five employees in Cicero "worked at the Western," located along the Chicago border on Cicero Avenue.4

Cicero offered more jobs than workers, so men commuted to its factories from across Chicagoland, and the workforce soon surpassed the total town population of 75,000 in 1930. Near the factory gates and across town stood 275 taverns to slake the thirst of the laborers, and many ran wide open 24 hours a day, despite the 3 A.M. closing time on weekdays and 4 A.M. on Sunday. Foreign-born made up one-third of the Cicero populace, mostly Czechoslovakians (always called Bohemians), Lithuanians, and Poles, with a smattering of Italians, Anglo=Saxons, Irish, Germans, Swedes, and about 3,000 Dutch Reformed. The latter lived cheek by jowl in the residential Warren Park district close to Roosevelt Road and Austin Boulevard, which was far removed from the Hawthorne district where Capone's hung out. The Dutch fringe also spilled over into the adjoining towns of Berwyn and Oak Park. Most of the "white ethnics" had fled from the encroaching African-American slums on Chicago's Old West Side, and they valued their bungalows and two-flats above all else. "My home is my God," said a Bohemian in all seriousness, as he vowed to keep blacks out of Cicero.5


The Capone Syndicate

As the industries and their union workforce expanded, Cicero's economy prospered and taxes on factory equipment and payrolls swelled the city coffers far above local needs. This bonanza attracted the mob. Cicero was the largest urban area in the county (outside Chicago) and the fifth in size in Illinois. During National Prohibition in the 1920s, powerful Chicago vice families--the Jake Guzik-Ricco-Al Capone Syndicate--opened speakeasies, gambling halls, horse racing tracks, and houses of prostitution, to rake in the easy graft. Saloons were at the heart of the vice and in their backrooms the mob ran the numbers games, bootlegging, and prostitution. To obtain the necessary legal "cover" for the ubiquitous graft, the mob put Cicero politicians "on the payroll," so to speak. Al Capone made his headquarters in the steel-armored, bombproof Hawthorne Hotel on Twenty-second Street near the Hawthorne Works.6

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 Cicero in these years, said it best: "Yes, Capone ruled Cicero. But the locals "never saw, or pretended not to see," what was going on under their very eyes. Even when the city newspaper, the Cicero Life, did acknowledge the "dark action," who cared? "Not John Buchta, average Ciceronian, who had his own Cicero life to live."8

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 Cicero captive. Saloons again operated legally and owners ignored an old city ordinance that required them to close by 2AM. Vice operations and gambling remained above the law.


"Cicero Strikes Back"

This was the state of affairs that Masselink, his associate the Rev. William McCarrell of the large Cicero Bible Church, and the Cicero Ministerial Association, which included every Protestant minister in town, were determined to end. In a quick stroke, the Association put up a reform candidate in the April 1948 local election and then went door to door during the campaign. Some 33,000 citizens turned out and, lo and behold, John Stoffel, the son of a former town clerk and scion of an old Czechoslovakian (Bohemian) family with a reputation for honesty, won the office of town president and ousted the mob front man. On the night of April 16 that Stoffel was sworn as president in front of the town board, he announced the naming of Joseph Horejs, a fellow Czech, as chief of police, with orders to enforce town laws for tavern closing hours and state laws banning gambling houses. With reporters on hand from Cicero and Chicago newspapers, the flummoxed trustees found themselves "exposed" and they approved a formal motion to endorse the new mayor's actions. The reformers went home, satisfied that the town government had been redeemed.10

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 Cicero I church to send a letter of "commendation and encouragement" to the Cicero Town Board urging them to stay the course on reform. The weekly church bulletin that Sunday informed congregants of the consistorial letter and urged those residing in Cicero to "do the same." This was the first and last mention of the reform campaign in the official minutes.

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 Cook County sheriff's office, headed by Elmer Walsh, to discredit the Cicero police. The scheme worked as follows. The mob would give the police a tip report about a gambling hall, but when the officers arrived they found the place empty. However, an hour and a half later the sheriff's men would go to the same store and make an arrest, collect evidence, and close the place. When the newspapers reported the arrests, the impression was cleverly created that gambling continued openly in Cicero and Chief Horejs, the "Keystone Cop," was too inept to close it down. Worse yet, charged the Cicero News, a mob-controlled paper, Mayor Stoffel and his "unfit" police chief were actually in cahoots with the syndicate! In actual fact, Horejs was a World War Two naval hero and reputable crime fighter.12

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 Cicero," screamed a large black headline in Chicago's Herald American. The Cicero Life, a paper that backed the reform efforts, decried the "Smell Over Cicero."14

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. Cicero must be incorporated under the Revised Cities and Villages Act of the State of Illinois, which had been enacted during the Progressive Era to strengthen citizen democracy and end boss rule. Litigation due to corrupt politicians had already cost the citizens more than $300,000, Masselink argued.

Stoffel and the clerics put all their faith in the ballot resolution to "take back Cicero" and they worked furiously to enlist allies in the cause. The action group quickly obtained 10,000 signatures on petitions to force a charter vote. The list far exceeded the required minimum of 4,500 names (one-eighth the number of votes cast in the last election).

To blunt the petition drive, the board had their attorney declare that the 1869 charter was a compact between the town and the Illinois state legislature and it could be altered only with the permission of the legislature. The citizens' petition was therefore illegal. Stoffel and his charter revision committee countered this clever ploy by filing suit in the Circuit Court to force the town board to hold the charter referendum. The trustees also ordered Frank Marek, the Cicero representative in the Illinois statehouse, to introduce a bill barring any change in the Cicero town charter for four years, until 1952. The bill, euphemistically labeled the "Save Cicero Bill," passed the House of Representatives unanimously and the Senate by 33 to 5. Governor Adlai Stevenson, a reformer himself, vetoed it. Ciceronians, he declared, deserved the right to have a city, if they so desired. The lawmakers, however, had no difficulty overriding Stevenson's veto.15

Round Three had taken the fight out of Cicero and into the state court system and the statehouse in Springfield, but the outcome looked bleak. The tentacles of the syndicate extended all the way to Springfield. The reform crusade bogged down after the legal wrangling began. Then in March 1949 came a breakthrough. Circuit Court Judge Harry Fisher issued a writ that ordered the town board to call an election on the charter petition signed by the 10,000 voters. The board appealed Judge Fisher's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, and this gave lawyers for the Cicero Citizen's Committee the opportunity to stand before the state's high court. Both sides held their breath while waiting for a decision. On November 23, 1949, the Court declared that Ciceronians had the right to change their government and the Court ordered the town board to hold an election. The trustees reluctantly obeyed and set a date in early January 1950. Stoffel and his Citizen's Committee had won in court and Masselink and the Ministerial Association were ecstatic. Victory now seemed certain, provided that the referendum passed. In that confidence, Masselink and the reformers recruited a full slate of aldermanic candidates, including John De Boer, a member of his congregation.16

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 into "lily-white" Cicero. Many residents had fled Chicago's inner city for just this reason; fear of an influx of blacks was the ultimate threat. The dirty trick worked to perfection. The referendum went down to defeat and the slate of aldermen became smoot. The crushing loss totally demoralized the civic reformers and they gave up the crusade.

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 Nineteenth Street parkway at Lombard Avenue, the dividing line between the Cicero and Berwyn. The city of Berwyn was mostly a Czechoslovakian community, with a Dutch Reformed fringe along Roosevelt Road. Less than a mile from the apartment in Berwyn stood the First Reformed Church of Chicago and the Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church. A little over a mile away in Cicero stood the First Christian Reformed and Warren Park Christian Reformed churches and the West Side Reformed Church. The Oak Park Christian Reformed Church was located within two miles.

The arrival of the first black family to live in Cicero or Berwyn brought out an angry crowd of four hundred, who on a summer evening pitched the family's possessions out the front windows into the street below and torched them, all under the eyes of Cicero policemen who stood by after having guaranteed the family protection. Some rioters were Dutch Reformed young men from Masselink's former congregation. The church softball team had just finished its game, heard of the "happening," and headed right over to join the action. Subsequently, the governor called out the National Guard to restore order. For this clear civil rights violation, the town of Cicero had to pay a large sum to the family.



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 Cicero trustees were too wily and resourceful. The telephone crusades, the marshalling of church members across all Protestant denominations, the visits to Springfield, and the alliances with President Stoffel, Police Chief Morejs, and Governor Stevenson all came to naught. Cicero's town hall and police department remained in the clutches of corrupt political bosses for the next fifty years.17

As recently as 1998, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) charged Cicero's town president, Betty Loren-Maltese, and nine other officials with stealing $10 million in taxpayer monies. Loren-Maltese went to prison, following on the heels of her husband, Frank "Baldy" Maltese, a one-time town clerk. "The Cicero candy store is closed," declared an FBI investigator confidently. But if past history is any guide, the agent may well have spoken prematurely. The crime syndicate may be as resourceful today as ever.18

Rev. Masselink paid a personal price for leading the crusade to save Cicero. He and his family were harassed and threatened with physical harm by the mob. But he never lost the esteem of his congregation, although some members might have had misgivings about their activist pastor, believing strongly that politics should be keep out of the pulpit, or in this case, the manse. Others grumbled about the name of the church being dragged into the public eye in the frequent newspaper reports about the political battles of their pastor. Yet others thought the ministerial reform campaign was hopeless, a waste of time, and a distraction from more important "church business."19 A year after the crusade collapsed in disarray, Masselink accepted the call of the Twelfth Street CRC of Grand Rapids and quietly left town. One might think that he departed, shaking the dust of Cicero off his feet, but he and Clazina testified later that their seven years in Cicero were happy ones, even if they were far from tranquil.20


* 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.