There used to be an “H” word for immigrants from Eastern Europe, a slang expression that could be funny and familiar–or offensive, depending on who was using it.
Back in the 1920s, local newspapers used the “H” word, “hunkie,” to describe young John Buskiewich (Lith. Buskievicius), who at age 23 went on trial for his life in the most sensational murder in years. The hot lights of page-one celebrity, including a following of rebellious teenage “flappers” with their short dresses and bobbed hair, may actually have made John feel important for the first time in his life. For them, he might have been an early James Dean anti-hero.
From “Hunkie John’s” wretched childhood in a dysfunctional immigrant family, one thing is clear: it was through public delinquency and crime that John first chose to make his mark on the world. Although I was initially repulsed by John’s violence, thanks to dozens of additional articles collected by genealogy researcher Tom Mann, I soon developed a more complex view of this young man, his life and times.
The Back Story
According to U.S. Census records, John seems to have been born in 1903 (or 1901) in Bureau County, Illinois, to John Joseph and Anna (Lawson) Buskiewich. Anna and John Joseph were born in Lithuania in the mid-1870s and early 1880s, respectively. They met and married in Shenandoah, Penn., coal country in 1897.
The couple seems to have lived and worked in Bureau, then Macoupin County before moving on to Springfield in the 1910s—by then with children Emily, Edith, and John in tow. We know about the family’s presence in Macoupin County from a record referring to Anna’s work as a midwife in the vicinity of Benld. Around 1910, she was accused of practicing midwifery without a license and brought to court, but none of her immigrant clients would testify against her, so the charges were dismissed.
Witness to Domestic Violence
The first record indicating that “Hunkie John” grew up in a violent home was his father’s arrest on Dec. 30, 1914 on a charge of assaulting and trying to kill his wife, John’s mother. A Jan. 3, 1915 article in the Illinois State Journal says that after the arrest, Anna quickly filed for divorce, accusing her husband of making threats on her life, knocking her against a cedar chest and choking her.
One can assume that it took more than a one-time outburst of violence to motivate an impoverished woman to seek divorce in that day and age. Anna’s bill of divorce also sought an injunction on her husband withdrawing several hundred dollars in savings from the couple’s bank account.
Not long afterwards, newspaper accounts also reveal young John’s first brush with the law. In September 1915, 14-year-old John Buskiewich of 802 N. Ninth St. was arrested with three other boys in the Capitol Theatre, 613 East Washington St., for “shooting pins shoved through a piece of cardboard at the ceiling, to see if they would stick.”
According to the Journal, the behavior was considered disruptive because “many of the pins did not stick and instead fell, endangering the heads of the audience.” The boys were taken to Springfield’s jail annex, but released after “being lectured” by the chief of police.
Mother Achieves, Loses Independence
In 1920, Anna completed the Burnham School to become a hairdresser. In 1921, the newspaper carried a professional notice also listing her as a registered midwife. Even more propitiously, the 1920 U.S. Census listed Anna as head of her own household at a separate, new address on North Ninth Street. (By this time, both of her daughters had married U.S.-born men and moved to Chicago.)
Yet despite Anna’s hard work and initiative, permanent financial and emotional independence were apparently beyond her reach. By 1924, she is back living with her husband and son John at 1505 North Eighth St. Meanwhile, John, Jr., seems to be taking his next step as a delinquent. On August 2, 1924, the newspaper reports that he has been picked up by police with two other men for attempting to rob a soft drink establishment on East Jefferson.
Then on May 29, 1925, when Anna is 45 and her son John is 22, it is reported that she has committed suicide in the family home on North Eighth by drinking carbolic acid. Some of us have doubts about how Anna happened to drink poison almost in front her husband, who goes on to report his suspicious lack of concern to the newspaper. Due to his record of domestic violence, we wonder if John Joseph did not actually force the poison down his wife’s throat by some means. We also wonder why it was a neighboring Lithuanian grocer, Peter Burczik—not Anna’s husband–who belatedly summoned a physician.
All Hell Breaks Lose
A mere two months after his mother’s death, “Hunkie John” makes the headlines by being the first man arrested for the “highway robbery” of C.R. Owens by three men who forced Owens’ car off Peoria Road near the city limits. While one man waited in the getaway car, the other two, allegedly including Buskiewich, threatened the victim with hammers and wrenches to seize his gold watch and $12.96 in cash. Buskiewich is later released on bail.
A rash of armed robberies of local “road houses” in which young Buskiewich is implicated follow. And then, just four months after Anna Buskiewich’s death, in early November 1925, headlines scream of a roadhouse robbery that has resulted in a shooting death. “Hunkie John” is the first of several arrested for murdering Chicago furniture manufacturer Edmund J. Hansen during a hold-up at the Riley (or Reilly) chicken farm on the “St. Louis hardtop” (Chatham Road).
According to initial Journal reports, accomplices “Short- Arm Louie” Schomber and two out-of-town characters known as “Frenchy” (Frank Logan) and “Shorty” (Charlie Miller) are also under arrest warrant. Harold “Piney” Cline is later arrested as the getaway driver. (As the investigation and interrogations proceed, Lee Antie, John Jones, and John Parks, Jr., are also arrested for the hold-up at Reilly’s and/or other road houses in the area.
A Crime of the Roaring Twenties?
Several details make newspaper coverage of the Reilly robbery/Hansen murder interesting. First, cars are fairly new, often referred to as “machines.” And the new mobility that cars provide creates a new vulnerability for isolated highway establishments, making them targets that can be struck suddenly or even spontaneously—with a quick getaway nearly assured. Leveraging the auto for highway hold-ups is at once a no-brainer and a genuine “Roaring Twenties” innovation in crime.
Of course, the new mobility provided by the auto also causes more and more remote highway establishments to spring up. But what, exactly, was a roadhouse? Often nothing more than a private farmhouse serving hungry travelers food and illegal Prohibition-era alcohol in the family dining room, as was the case with the Reilly establishment where Hansen was murdered.
In another “Roaring Twenties” twist, newspaper accounts of the Buskiewich trial refer to a courthouse packed largely with the “fairer sex.” And there’s something special about these girls, called “flappers:” perhaps the first liberated generation of young American women, post-suffrage, who have ditched stays and corsets, bobbed their hair and created their own codes of conduct, which include public smoking. According to the newspaper:
“The thrill seekers were there (at the trial) in greater numbers than they have been in months and months. Among them were many of the fairer sex—chiefly girls in their teens.
“The flappers were by far the most interested of all the spectators. They never lost a question or an answer. Nor were they at all slow in passing with each other their opinions of the importance of the testimony.”
Could so much female attention have come from the fact that the only two men actually charged with the Hansen road house murder were so young (Parks, 19; Buskiewich, 23) and handsome? As he enters the courtroom, Buskiewich reportedly smiles and greets his supporters like a celebrity.
The charisma of youth and good looks is probably only enhanced by a failed attempt by the young men to escape from the city/county jail on Dec. 7, 1925, while awaiting trial. Their plot is foiled when one man in the roadhouse robbery gang, Lee Antie, is caught sawing an escape hatch in the jail’s roof. Although Antie claims to be acting alone, Buskiewich and Parks are considered part of the plot.
The First Trial
The prosecution of Parks and Buskiewich for the Hansen murder in March 1926 hinges on several key factors. First, gang members “Frenchy” and “Shorty” have yet to be caught. Second, getaway driver Cline turns state’s evidence and testifies against them, supposedly with no promise of immunity or reduced sentence (though several years later, he is notably on probation and not in jail). Several men who provided the guns for the hold-up also testify for the prosecution.
According to the state’s case, in the early hours of Oct. 30, 1925, Buskiewich and Parks entered the Reilly home by the front door and Parks fired a sawed-off shotgun blast into the floor to get control of the Reillys and their patrons. Two other masked men (presumably “Frenchy” and “Shorty”) entered through the kitchen at the rear. After Hansen was relieved of the $700 or $800 he had won at the Marion racetrack that day, Reilly suddenly attacked young Parks and knocked the shotgun out of his hands. Mrs. Reilly picked up the shotgun and tried to shoot Parks, unsuccessfully.
Meanwhile, roadhouse customer Hansen sprang into action to protect Reilly, picking up a chair and lunging at the man covering Parks from the entryway to the dining room. That man, the prosecution argues, was Buskiewich, who fell back from Hansen’s assault through swinging doors while firing one shot that goes straight into Hansen’s heart, killing him in front of his wife.
During the police investigation, the newspaper reports, “a dozen (shiftless) youths are rounded up in visits to rooming houses, pool rooms and soft drink parlors.” (Soft drink parlors often served banned booze.) According to the Nov. 1, 1925 Journal, “Hunkie John” has long been regarded “as one of the most hard-boiled members of a gang of youthful police characters.” However, in other articles, “the midget Shorty” is described as the leader of the gang linked to a whole series of armed road house robberies starting several months before the fatal Chatham Road hold-up.
It doesn’t help Buskiewich that getaway driver Harold Cline also implicates him in previous hold-ups of local establishments owned by Tony Colcari and Alex Bucari and the August 1925 robbery of “Boots” Schaefer’s roadhouse 2.5 miles west of Springfield on “the Beardstown hard road.” In that robbery, masked men entered, “cowed 12 patrons with a fusillade of shots, and then escaped with approximately $3,000 is cash and jewelry.” All of the victims are too frightened to identify any of the bandits.
Yet despite being one of the “usual suspects,” was Buskiewich really guilty of the Hansen murder? Was he even at the scene?
The Second Trial
After the first Hansen murder trial ends with a hung jury in March 1926, a second trial is mounted only weeks later, in early April. The same testimony is presented, just to different jurors with more motivation to reach a verdict and to go home in time for Easter with their families.
As in the first trial, the crux of the defense is that neither Parks nor Buskiewich was with the gang that robbed the Reilly roadhouse the night of the murder. Family members, friends, and neighbors provide alibis placing Buskiewich first at the movies, then at home in bed. John’s immigrant father John Joseph testifies to his son’s return home after going to the movies, and two young women report to have seen him out and about at the movies.
Are Buskiewich and Parks convenient perps for police trying to clear the record on a whole string of unsolved road house robberies? It’s hard to know. Certainly Buskiewich had left a trail of prior criminal activity. But since the bandits were masked, neither the Reillies nor the Hansen widow can identify them. And, I can’t help wondering if “Shorty” and “Frenchy” hadn’t skipped town before they could be arrested, could they have been the two robbers identified and tried as the two masked men in the fatal dining room scuffle instead of Parks and Buskiewich?
As early as November 15, 1925, the Journal reports, “With the exception of the Wayside Inn robbery, practically all (local) hold-ups have been cleared, it is believed with the arrest of James Herbert (the gun supplier), Harold Cline, John Buskiewich and John Parks.” (They must have forgotten about “Frenchy” and “Shorty,” still on the loose, the reported planners of additional hold-ups in Pekin and Rockford that were to have occurred after the one at Reilly’s.)
Unfortunately for Parks and Buskiewich, the second trial concludes quickly with two convictions for murder. Parks gets 20 years, and Buskiewich, 30. Prosecutors’ retreat from the death penalty presumably expedites the all-male jury in reaching its verdict.
As Buskiewich is being transported from the courtroom to jail, the April 5, 1926 Journal reports, he declares that he would rather be hanged than spend 30 years in prison. “If it’s up to me, I’ll never serve a day in the penitentiary,” he quips.
Three days later, Buskiewich and Lee Antie (who previously was caught sawing through the jail’s roof), make a break for it during lunch while the doors to the east cell block are unlocked for meals to be brought in. They attack a burly guard with fists and a club made from a broom handle.
The guard overcomes Antie, but Buskiewich escapes. Before he does, he hits the button unlocking the cells on the entire east block before running out the back door right past the sheriff’s wife (the jail’s cook).
If trying to release everybody in his wing weren’t enough, Buskiewich seems only to add to his legend when he is spotted by police and caught only a few blocks from the jail because he has decided to go visit his girl on the way out of town.
Post-Script: It’s likely that whatever purpose or importance Buskiewich had found in crime ended abruptly at the grim Menard (Chester) Penitentiary. It was there that his co-defendant, young John Parks, is stabbed to death in 1932, despite his parents’ 1931 appeal to the governor for clemency.
Buskiewich appears to have been released by 1937, when he is recorded as living with his father again in Springfield. In 1940, the elder John Joseph dies, and the recently freed Buskiewich marries Martha Nickel. His 1969 obituary lists a widow, two daughters and six grandchildren, as well as service in World War II.
Unfortunately, there are also several newspaper reports from the 1940s and ’50s of drunk driving accidents involving John–and grand larceny auto by his daughter Nellie–that point to a certain trans-generational problem with alcohol and crime.