#641: The First Murder in Chicago

June 1st, 2016

The door is open at the old Jazz Record Mart. You can see inside, see the bandsaws and construction equipment that will turn the shuttered store into whatever comes next.

The building’s having a lot of work done. The outside is covered in scaffolds and tarp. There’s a bookstore there, a Thai restaurant nearby. The Chicago Reader is a stone’s throw away.

This spot where Illinois Street cuts under Wabash is or is nearby the purported former resting spot of Chicago’s first murder victim.

Jean Lalime (or La Lime or LaLime, but he wrote the second L lower case in his signature, so I’m going with that) was a trader and interpreter who worked closely with the Potawatomi tribe and the military base of Fort Dearborn.

John Kinzie was a local landowner, scumbag and future father of the city.

In June of 1812, John Kinzie murdered Jean Lalime, stabbing him to death.

It wasn’t the first killing in the future city of Chicago, of course. Heck, a band of Ho-Chunks killed two tenants of Lee’s Farm just two months earlier. But racism and history don’t call it murder until one white man kills another.

Lalime and Kinzie, who had known each other for 20 years, met outside a little swinging gate by the fort’s west edge.

Witnesses said they argued. Lalime had a gun. Kinzie brought a knife specifically to kill Lalime, he happened to have a knife on him or Lalime fell on his own blade. Stories varied, even among the few witnesses.

We do know that Lalime was dead and Kinzie wounded. He fled to the woods and later Milwaukee and later still Indian Territory. He would later return to the future Chicago.

It was self-defense, a hearing in Kinzie’s absence found. Early resident Gurdon Hubbard (yes, Hubbard Street) believed that account, based on the highly educated Lalime’s friendships with the fort officials. They wouldn’t side against their friend, even in death, unless the evidence was clear, Hubbard felt.

One site I found believes that Kinzie was cleared so the government would have leverage in pressuring pro-British Kinzie to become an American informant in the days leading up to the War of 1812. That’s too speculative for my tastes, offered here just to show the level of confusion and surmise that surrounded Jean Lalime’s death.

No one knows what they were arguing about.

They were arguing about Kinzie forcing Lalime out of the old DuSable Home.

They were arguing about Lalime acting as informant to U.S. Factor Matthew Irwin in exposing Fort Dearborn’s rampant corruption, smuggling and illegal trading to Secretary of War William Eustis.

“The Interpreter,” as Irwin called Lalime in letters east, had been getting death threats as early as 1809.

However much speculation you want to put into it, Jean Baptiste Lalime died June 17, 1812. The War of 1812 started the next day. Two months after Lalime’s murder, the 15-minute Battle of Fort Dearborn left 58 men, women and children dead and Fort Dearborn burnt down at the hands of the Potawatomi. It would be rebuilt in 1816.

Lalime had nothing to do with President Madison signing the war declaration, of course, but he did have good relations with both the fort and the Potawatomi. Lalime’s wife was a Potawatomi woman named Noke-no-qua. They had one child. Jean Lalime could have eased tensions maybe. We’ll never know.

They buried Chicago’s first murder victim in his murderer’s front yard. John Kinzie, by all accounts, took excellent care of Lalime’s grave.

Workers digging a cellar at what became Illinois and Wabash uncovered a coffin in 1891. It was identified as Lalime’s body. It ended up in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum.

Members of the Jewish priestly class shouldn’t visit the museum.

The peak year for murder in Chicago was 1974, with 974 murders, although a 2014 investigative piece by Chicago Magazine calls recent Chicago Police Department record-keeping into question. That, coupled with Chicago’s documented history of police corruption, in my opinion make much of the historical data suspect.

The FBI doesn’t like it when people use their Uniform Crime Report to rank cities, but people do it anyway. As of last October, the highest murder rate for cities with more than 250,000 people is in St. Louis, not Chicago. For all our rep as a murder capital, we don’t even crack the top 10.

We get headlines for our murders, running tallies (252 as of Wednesday), even Spike Lee movies. The New York Times parachuted in over Memorial Day weekend, Facebooking our blood as spectator sport.

If it hadn’t been Jean Lalime, it would have been someone else. If it hadn’t been Kinzie’s knife, it would have been some other blade, gun or heavy rock. People don’t not murder.

But Jean Lalime happened to be our original sin, and the Eden we were expelled from just a gray corner by the old Jazz Record Mart.

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More on John Kinzie

For a complete change of pace, I review a 1960s sex guide on a different site

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