Robert A. Clifford was in high school when he first learned about the S.S. Eastland.
“As part of one of the history classes, they talked about the most tragic disaster ever to occur in the Chicagoland area,” said Clifford, who attended Marist High School in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood on the city’s far South Side.
As a boy in Bushnell, a town about 230 miles southwest of the site of that “most tragic disaster,” Dan K. Webb heard stories about the events of July 24, 1915.
“I had generally heard, historically, that there was … this awful marine disaster that killed huge numbers of people,” Webb said.
For Anne M. Burke, knowledge of that Chicago River steamboat tragedy just west of Clark Street grew in conversations with her husband, 14th Ward Ald. Edward M. Burke.
“My husband is a historian, and he has talked about the Eastland, the Iroquois Theater (fire) — all of those kinds of events — in our home over the years,” Burke said.
“So I had an idea, but I surely did not know the details — the intricacies that have come as a result of this trial preparation.”
The trial for which Illinois Supreme Court Justice Burke was preparing was one organizers called “The Great Chicago Trial that Never Was” — a mock criminal trial for the Eastland Disaster. The S.S. Eastland capsized while docked in the Chicago River, killing 844 of its 2,500 passengers set to depart for a Western Electric company picnic in Michigan City.
In reality, no such trial was held.
In August 1915, a grand jury indicted six men for their roles in the capsizing: the president, vice-president and two other administrators of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., which owned the ship, as well as the ship’s captain and engineer.
Six months later, a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Mich. — the defendants’ home state — found the defendants not guilty in a bench trial, citing “barely a scintilla of proof to sustain,” according to a New York Times article at the time.
The court then denied extradition of the defendants to Illinois, and though nearly $400,000 was raised for the families of the victims, no one was ever found liable for the deaths.
Among the survivors was 14-year-old Borghild “Bobbie” Aanstad, whose granddaughters were in awe of the story about their grandmother’s tragic day on “the big boat.”
In 1998, a few years after their grandmother died, Susan Decker and Barbara Decker Wachholz founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society with Wachholz’s husband Ted.
“He created a one-page website, bare bones, just to see if there would be any hits,” Barbara Decker Wachholz said. “And there were.”
The three of them built the site and the society from there. EastlandDisaster.org is now a comprehensive collection of timelines, photos, links and news regarding the disaster.
And as the 100-year anniversary approached, the EDHS planned a series of centennial celebrations in hopes of igniting new interest in the event.
“People don’t embrace history unless they are history geeks,” Ted Wachholz said.
“With that being the assumption, we said, ‘What do we do to get history into different forms where people do have an interest?’”
Their answer was three days of ceremonies for the weekend of the centennial, along with a mock criminal retrial held Thursday at the Harold Washington Library’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium.
The trial, Ted Wachholz said, “was all about targeting attorneys and law firms as our targeted audience.”
To help facilitate the trial, the EDHS’s event committee included Donna J. Pugh, partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, and Frank J. Saibert, partner at Nixon, Peabody LLP. Sidley, Austin LLP was the event’s lead sponsor.
For the defendants, three of the six indicted men were charged with involuntary manslaughter — the president, vice-president and secretary-treasurer of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co.
Representing the defendants was Webb of Winston & Strawn LLP. Clifford of Clifford Law Offices served as prosecutor. Burke was the trial judge.
The event reunited Clifford and Webb, who served together as defense attorneys in historic mock trials the past two years, including their defense of Socrates against charges of corrupting youth. Those trials, like this one, were aided by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.
To prepare the trial scripts, students and professors from The John Marshall Law School met weekly for about two-and-a-half months to review documents and case facts. Clifford and Webb then wrote their closing arguments, which Webb called a way to “better improve myself as a trial lawyer.”
“I spent two hours today trying to put together a closing argument on short notice on facts I wasn’t familiar with,” Webb said. “That’s good training.”
Those facts from 1915 were then viewed through the prism of 2015 law.
“A good analogy here would be to take a look at what happens in a commercial aviation disaster,” Clifford said before the trial.
At the time, the civil claims were held to “the value of the vessel,” Clifford said, which was $48,000.
“That’s what the families collectively divided as any compensation,” Clifford said. “Obviously, that would not occur that way today.”
The families also divided money raised by Western Electric, which included proceeds from a Chicago Cubs game a few days after the disaster in which everyone attending the team’s double-header against the New York Giants had to pay to enter the old West Side Grounds — including the players, managers and umpires.
To try to prove the manslaughter charge, Clifford’s prosecution focused on two areas.
The first was the defendants’ alleged negligence in not testing the ship after the federal government mandated additional lifeboats in light of the Titanic disaster in 1912. Those lifeboats likely contributed to the capsizing.
The second was a letter written in 1913 to the U.S. harbor master by a naval architect warning that “structural defects” on the Eastland could lead to “a serious accident.”
Webb objected to the letter on three grounds: that it was hearsay, that Webb’s clients — who purchased the ship after the letter was written — never read it and that the letter’s author was not a witness and hence could not be cross-examined.
Instead, Webb focused his defense on seven “undisputed facts inconsistent with recklessness,” which he delivered in his closing argument. These included the U.S. government certifying the Eastland as “seaworthy” and safe to carry 2,500 passengers.
The closing arguments highlighted both the event’s gravity and congeniality.
When Burke told the six-person jury on stage and the audience that “in the interest of time, I am asking both Mr. Webb and Mr. Clifford to limit their arguments to 10 minutes,” Clifford piped up.
“He doesn’t even get warmed up in 10 minutes,” Clifford joked about Webb.
Audience members were given remote controls that allowed them to vote guilty, not guilty or to split guilt among the defendants. Those were the jury instructions as well.
The audience voted 58 percent not guilty, 29 percent guilty and 13 percent “some guilty.” The jury — all personal contacts of members of the EDHS — voted 5-1 not guilty.
The lone guilty vote came from Carla Gerts, who cited failure of the owners to test the ship after the addition of the lifeboats, which she felt they should have done “regardless of the fact that the federal government said it was ‘seaworthy.’”
The other five jurors focused on the government’s certification of the ship prior to the incident.
“What would have proven ‘recklessness’ to me was if they had gone after the captain and had him responsible,” said juror Dutch Van Verst.
“We had to go by the judge’s instructions of law. And they had all the inspections, the government inspections, and they said the boat was ‘seaworthy.’ All you could do was come to the conclusion that it was one hell of an accident.”