The Irish Republican Murder that Shocked Chicago

Gillian O'Brien is the author of Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago, a non-fiction account of the largely forgotten murder of a prominent Irish-American doctor who was also the member of a secretive Irish Republican organization. The book weaves together the story of the secret society, the police investigation and trial, and recounts the international, sensational media coverage of the case. O'Brien, a historian who teaches at Liverpool John Moores University, joins us to discuss the book.

A prominent doctor is found dead in a sewer. An Irish Republican secret society has its dirty laundry aired in newspapers worldwide. And a court goes through more than 1,000 prospective jurors just to find 12 whose minds aren’t already made up. 

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The killing of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin in 1889 and what the subsequent murder trial made public is the subject of a new book called Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago. Author Gillian O’Brien stumbled across the case reading through old newspapers while doing research in Chicago for a different project. 

“I thought, ‘I want to read the book about this case,’” O’Brien said. “I went to look for it and discovered nobody had written one, so I thought I’d write it instead!”

O’Brien spent months doing research at the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum, among other places, looking through newspaper accounts, personal papers, and transcripts of the murder trial. Many of the letters and personal effects of the story’s main characters were lost, and because a major part of the book deals with a secret Irish Republican society, many of that group’s activities weren’t easy to find documentation of.

That secret society – Clan na Gael – is as much a part of the book as Cronin’s murder. 

“[Cronin] doesn’t even get murdered until a third of the way through the book,” O’Brien said. “[The story] of Irish Republicans in America is certainly well-known. But it’s interesting, this specific Chicago story because it’s the murder of an Irishman by an Irishman, both Republicans, was deemed quite confusing.”

So confusing, O’Brien says, that the story didn’t get much coverage in Ireland. But in just about every other English-speaking country in the world – and particularly in Chicago – the media covered the trial of Cronin’s alleged murderers passionately.

“If someone found a body naked in a sewer, that would make headline news today. If you were a journalist in 1880s Chicago, that was about the best news story you can get,” O’Brien said. “After the naked body was found, the first man arrested is the detective in charge of looking for the missing man. If you’re a journalist, it doesn’t really get better than that.”

Cronin’s death had big implications for the judicial system, for Chicago’s police, and for Irish and Irish-Americans in Chicago. But O’Brien says the case has been mostly forgotten. 

“Anybody who was an Irish historian of that period, all of them were aware of the murder of Dr. Cronin, but it’s relegated to just a paragraph in most books,” she said.

Now, with a book of its own, the story of Cronin and Clan na Gael can find a new audience.

O’Brien will be at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on Wednesday, March 18 at 6:00 pm and the Newberry Library on Tuesday, March 24 at 6:00 pm.

Read an excerpt from O’Brien’s book.


Reporter: It strikes me, doctor, that your funeral would be very largely attended.

Dr. C——: Yes, and the cause of death extensively inquired into.

Denslow & Kratzner, “The Discovery of the Body.” Chicago Herald; reproduced in Hunt, Crime of the Century, 131. Collection of the author.

Chicago hadn’t seen its like since Abraham Lincoln’s body had lain in state at the Cook County Courthouse in 1865. When the doors to the First Cavalry Armory on Michigan Avenue opened on the afternoon of Saturday, May 25, 1889, almost twelve thousand people flooded into the building and filed past the coffin. The crowd represented all classes and all ages, “from the child scarcely able to toddle to the aged man, walking with faltering, uncertain steps. Parents took their children and children their grandparents. The day laborer walked beside the well-dressed professional man.”

"How Dr. Cronin Was Found,” National Police Gazette, June 8, 1889. Collection of the author.

The body was too decomposed, its wounds too gruesome, to permit a public viewing. Instead, it was enveloped in a French walnut casket decorated with gold and silver and placed high on a catafalque. Every last detail associated with the public viewing and funeral had been carefully choreographed. The huge, militaristic interior of the armory was transformed into something resembling a botanic garden. The platform upon which the casket had been placed was draped with flags, its edges softened by displays of potted plants; armed sentries from the Hibernian Rifles stood at attention in one corner. The coffin was covered with ferns, white hyacinths, and ropes of smilax. An enormous crucifix of pink roses and daisies lay at its head while at its foot stood an enormous floral harp. A large portrait of the dead man, draped in black, was displayed beside the coffin, and a candelabrum with seven tapers cast its flickering light across the scene.

Chicago and sites relating to the Cronin murder case, 1889.

The following day, Chicago was brought to a standstill as the funeral cortege made slow, mournful progress through the streets. At 10:45 a.m. the casket was carried from the armory and placed in a hearse drawn by four black horses. Several carriages filled with friends and family traveled behind. They were followed by a procession of seven thousand mourners led by Reed’s Drum Corps and members of the Hibernian Rifles, who marched with weapons reversed, the traditional military mark of respect. The funeral route was crowded with upwards of forty thousand onlookers; according to the Chicago Tribune, it took an hour for the entire procession to pass a given point, and all that could be seen from its perspective was one “solid line of humanity” occupying the sidewalks, “lampposts, stairways in blocks [and] the tops of the blocks themselves.

Inside Holy Name Cathedral, a congregation of four thousand squeezed into every seat and crammed the aisles while crowds overflowed onto the streets. Amid a hushed silence the coffin was placed below the altar, which had been draped in black velvet. The Chicago Evening News reported that “the dirges of the bands and the roll of the drums that came in through the window . . . threw a shadow . . . over the funeral vestments of the priests and into the solemn intoning of the requiem service and the . . . responses of the organ.” Several priests concelebrated the Requiem Mass, and Father Peter J. Muldoon, a friend of the dead man, gave an emotional eulogy, praising the deceased’s devotion to others: “He was told that a fellow-man was sick, and instantly, without hesitation, with his heart full of charity, and in his hands the very instruments to bring relief and mercy to a fellow being, he goes forth with good will to his fellow-man and meets what? An atrocious death!”

Cronin’s funeral procession. In Henry M. Hunt, The Crime of the Century; or, The Assassination of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin (Chicago: H. L. and D. H. Kockersperger, 1889), 233. Collection of the author.

At the conclusion of the funeral mass, the procession once again assembled and began its slow march south toward Union Depot. Over 20,000 people gathered outside the station, with a further 5,000 inside. Three trains had been specially hired to take 2,500 mourners from Chicago to Calvary Cemetery in Evanston to witness the interment. Hundreds more took carriages out to the burial site, and a crowd in excess of 3,000 stood in the rain while the casket was placed in a public vault amid a murmuring of prayers.

It wasn’t just Chicago that mourned this loss. The violent death of this man had made global headlines, and the investigation and trial were regularly reported in the New York Times, the Los 

Bernhard Gillam, “Under False Colors,” Judge, June 15, 1889. General Research Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Angeles Herald, the Times of London, the Belfast Newsletter, the Glasgow Herald, Baner ac Amserau Cymru in Wales, the Timaru Herald in New Zealand, and the Sydney Morning News, among many others. His murder sparked an extensive police investigation through the United States and Canada, culminating in what was at the time the longest-running trial in US history. The aftermath of the murder was far-reaching and long-lived. It was, as one newspaper editor put it, “one of the ghastliest and most curious crimes in civilized history. . . . To the horrors of the French criminal history, to the exploits of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in London, or to the darkest and bloodiest mysteries of secret crime in New York resort must be had to find a parallel for this case”—and yet today the story of the murder and its consequences remains, like the victim, buried and largely forgotten. At the edge of Calvary Cemetery, near the junction of two paths, surrounded by large, ornate mausoleums, there lies, half buried in the grass, a small, flat piece of granite measuring two by one and a half feet. It bears a simple inscription: “Dr. P. H. Cronin, 1846–1889. Rest in Peace.

Reprinted with permission from Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago  by Gillian O’Brien published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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