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Policing and Music: O'Neill's career blended these two seemingly different things. This page discusses some of his legacies

Policing. It's important to note first that the police in O'Neill's day did a lot of things modern police forces leave to other agencies. The police were the ambulance service, and the EMTs.
In 1903, O'Neill reported that “two thousand seven hundred and thirty-four lost children were picked up, temporarily cared for and eventually restored to their anxious parents. 10,381 sick and injured persons were cared for in various ways by the signal service and ambulance corps of this department.” They rounded up stray dogs--over 11, 000 in 1904 according to O'Neill's annual report--and runaway horses. They housed the homeless, in unused prison cells and on the floors of the Harrison Street station. They were not yet the highly specialized, militarized force they became in the twentieth century. The account of Walter Wyckoff, below, describes that difference.

But O'Neill very much wanted the police militarized and said so many times. For example as described in The Beat Cop,  he tried to reorganize the police ranks, so the Chief would have the formal rank of "colonel" and his assistant chief would be "Major," as in the Army. He was roundly mocked for this, but in his report on the Pullman strike he directly compared the Chicago police to the US army, and found the Army wanting.

He was also, as described on the "communities" page, a frank defender of the forms of torture the police commonly used on suspects. He was not shy about this:

I am not in favor of torture to wring a confession from a man, but sometimes in the case of appalling crimes the police are justified in stretching the law to its limit. The judgment of the officer may be wrong, but the courts themselves are frequently reversed. I'll warrant the courts are reversed as often as the police....While the police sometimes may not keep wholly within the law in these matters, they aim to do so, and if they do stretch the law at times, then it must be remembered that they do so in a good cause. And we have the color of authority also, because the methods we use in questioning prisoners are also used by the state's attorney.

The article here, from the Chicago Tribune, 10/12/1902 p. 36, shows the manner O'Neill often adopted with the press and which the press was happy to foster. It is very likely no one reading this account believed it when O'Neill said "you know what the Chicago police do in questioning a suspect? They take him into a pleasant room and sit about and ask questions." O'Neill more or less tries to say "everyone does it," and he was probably less brutal than many, but he helped establish a legacy such that the United Nations Committee Against Torture specifically called out the Chicago police force in 2014, over 100 years later.

Walter Wyckoff was a Princeton graduate, a theology student, who in the early 1890s undertook an experiment; he would live as an itinerant laborer. His wanderings brought him to Chicago, where he labored in the work gangs building the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He arrived homeless, and jobless, and slept on the dirty, lice-infested floor of the Harrison Street Station, depicted above. In one instance at the entrance to the Harrison street station the police stood and questioned the men who came in about where they came from and what they were looking for. He wrote:

None of us, I think, resented much the action of the officer. The policemen understand us perfectly, and in a certain broad, human sense we know them for our friends. I have been much impressed with this quality of natural bonhomie in the relation of the police officers to the vagrant and criminal classes. It seems to be the outcome of sturdy common sense and genuine knowledge and human sympathy. It would be difficult, I fancy seriously to deceive an average officer of good experience. He may not know his man personally in every case, but he knows his type, and he takes his measure with admirable accuracy. He is not far misled by either his virtue or his vice. He knows him for a human being even if he be a vagrant or a criminal, and he has come by practical experience to a fair acquaintance with human limitations in these spheres of life.

The sympathy of which I have spoken is conspicuously innocent of sentimentality. It comes from a saner source, and is of a hardier fibre. Unfortunately it lays open a way of corruption to corrupt men on the force, but it is the basis, too, of high practical efficiency in the difficult task of locating crime and keeping it within control

Wyckoff remembered an officer, with "ruddy wholesome face and generous Irish brogue" who encouraged him to find work: "When I had a chance to tell him of my success, his pleasure seemed as great as my own." But note that in the illustration above, the officer on the right has his hand firmly on the handle of his billy club, and the body language of the men on the left suggests wariness and unease and they shrink away.

Emma Goldman was arrested in 1901 after an anarchist shot President William McKinley. Though Goldman was a famous and committed anarchist, she had nothing at all to do with the assassination. The Chicago police arrested her on September 11, 1901 and her arrest took up nearly all the front page of Chicago newspapers. Police Captains Luke Colleran and Herman Schuettler subjected her to torture. Goldman wrote:

"I had often heard of the third degree used by the police in various American cities to extort confessions, but I myself had never been subjected to it. I had been arrested a number of times since 1893; no violence, however, had ever been practiced on me. On the day of my arrest, which was September 10, I was kept at police headquarters in a stifling room and grilled to exhaustion from 10:30 a.m. til 7 p.m. At least fifty detectives passed me, each shaking his fist in my face and threatening me with the direst things....I reiterated the story I had told them when first brought to police headquarters, explaining where I had been and with whom. But they would not believe me and kept on bullying and abusing me. My head throbbed, my throat and lips felt parched. A large pitcher of water stood on the table before me, but every time I stretched out my hand for it, a detective would say: “You can drink all you want, but first answer me."...Finally I was taken to the Harrison Street Police Station and locked in a barred enclosure, exposed to view from every side....

I woke up with a burning sensation. A plain-clothes man held a reflector in front of me, close to my eyes. I leaped up and pushed him away with all my strength, crying: “You’re burning my eyes!” “We’ll burn more before we get through with you!” he retorted. With short intermissions this was repeated during three nights."

After five days of this treatment O'Neill came and ordered her release. As detailed in the book, this had little to do with respect for Goldman's rights as an innocent person guilty of politically incorrect opinions and everything to do with faction fights within the police force. As described by Elizabeth Dale in Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971, forms of torture remained in use during and after O'Neill's three terms. Dale and John Conroy, in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, describe in detail the the multiple crimes of officer John Burge and his career long practice of systematically torturing suspects If the Chicago police gradually shed the social service-type functions they performed in O'Neill's day, they kept the willingness to use torture.

Organized Labor O'Neill acted multiple times to end strikes, and his third appointment as chief came specifically so he could manage the Teamsters' strike of 1905. O'Neill, as described in the book, acted in both the Pullman strike and the Teamsters' strike as the agent of large employers whose interests he defended in the name of "order." He tended to view organized labor through the lens of "anarchism," a term which could be used to discredit organized labor in general. His son in law, James Mooney, commanded 150 Chicago policemen in the 1937 Republic Steel Strike. When a confrontation developed between police and strikers, the police opened fire and attacked with clubs, wounding more than sixty strikers and killing ten. Mooney blamed communists for the violence, much as a generic idea of "anarchists" had been used forty years earlier. Francis O'Neill was dead by then, and had been retired for 30 years, but Mooney's action reflect how policing had changed. As described in the book, when Francis joined the Chicago police in 1873, business leaders often complained that the police were sympathetic to strikers. By the time O'Neill retired, the police had become much more antagonistic to strikes and to organized labor generally. Here, in an excerpt from an article in the New York Times about Mooney and the Republic Steel massacre, citizens group of 4500 people called for Mooney's dismissal, claiming his testimony indicated "that fixed ideas of fear and hatred dominated the man.” The Chicago press, and city officials, did not agree.


Breandan Breathnach (pronounced "Brannack") was a folklorist and collector who played an extremely important role in recording and preserving folk music in Ireland, He very much admired O'Neill's musical scholarship and, somewhat uncritically, his accomplishments in America. He wrote the first serious if brief biography of O'Neill and included accounts of how much Irish musicians relied on O'Neill's music of Ireland. Breathnach also managed to collect some of the letters O'Neill sent to Ireland: typescripts apparently prepared by Breathnach may be the only surviving examples in some cases.

O'Neill's influence, ironically, was probably greater in Ireland than in the US. Large American cities had dense concentrations of Irish immigrants and a thriving commercial music scene. Large American cities in the 1920s had men and women's social clubs for immigrants from every county in Ireland. They bought records: they met in dance halls and pubs and parlors in cities where they lived in easy distance of each other. By the 1940s O'Neill was largely forgotten in the US.

Irish musicians were often more dispersed and isolated from each other; Ireland remained a very poor country into the 1960s, O'Neill's book contained a wealth of tunes from every county in one convenient, easily shared form. The flute player Kevin Henry, who emigrated to Chicago in the 1905s, had a keen sense of the work O'Neill had done and revived his memory among Chicago musicians.

Above: Tralibane bridge near O'Neill's childhood home.

Nicholas Carolan, a musician and distinguished, meticulous scholar of Irish music, extended Breathnach's account of O'Neill's importance to Irish music with his excellent if largely celebratory 1992 biography A Harvest Saved. He left his research materials for that book to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, which he formerly directed before his retirement.

Recently scholars of Irish music have looked more critically at O'Neill's collecting, and noted--as some critics did at the time of publication--that several hundred tunes in O'Neill's collection had come from previously published work, and that it contained fewer truly unique or unknown tunes than O'Neill sometimes claimed. But O'Neill's collections remain a magnificent accomplishment and in the modern day, as explained in the music section, they offer insights in how tunes were approached and played well over 100 years ago. His biographical accounts of Irish musicians are often the only sources available.

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