Feature Articles

April 2001

Ten Percent Tony: The Story Of Chicago's Most Corrupt Mayor

By John William Tuohy

     "Ten Percent Tony" Cermak was born on May 7, 1873 in a Bohemian village about fifty miles from Prague.

      The family immigrated to America in 1884, settling in a Chicago slum on 15th and Canal and later, in 1900, moved to Braidwood in southern Illinois where the elder Cermak worked as a coal miner. Like most of the other children in Braidwood, Tony attended school three months out of each year, so that, at the least, the workers' children could read and write. Like all the other children in Braidwood, it was expected that Cermak would follow his father's footsteps into the mines.

      But the strapping young Tony Cermak had other plans. He was ambitious. He had already started earning his own living at age 11 as a muleskinner, leaving school permanently at the end of the sixth grade.

      Tony Cermak returned to Chicago alone at age 16 and worked on the railroad as a brakeman.

      Cermak was a hustler who saw his opportunity in the rough and tumble world of Chicago's ethnic politics. He organized the huge Bohemian community into a powerful voting machine and before he was old enough to vote himself, the legal age was twenty-one in those days, Tony Cermak was a political power in the area.

      Tony Cermak was also a greedy man who wanted nothing more then to be rich. To satisfy that yearning he formed his own organization called the United Societies, a high sounding name for nothing more than a shakedown operation. Every brewer and booze seller, dance hall operator and saloonkeeper was a member, as were most of the area's gunmen, pimps, prostitutes and gamblers that worked along 22nd street, later renamed Cermak Road. They paid to belong to Cermak's organization because Cermak had the police in pocket.

      While it's true that the pimps and hustlers could spread around the cash as well as Tony could, they lacked the political clout that Tony could provide to an ambitious cop's career.

      In 1902, Cermak went to the capitol as a member of the House of Representatives. By age twenty-seven, he had worked his way up the ranks to speaker of the House. From that position Cermak managed to block every piece of banking reform legislation before the House and for that gesture the State's moneylenders paid Cermak and paid him dearly.

      To make sure that he never took a direct bribe, Cermak formed his own insurance and real estate company and forced the banks and loan companies to direct massive amounts of business through these corporations since, at that time, there was no law against insurance agents or real estate brokers from receiving cash payments or lucrative "finders fees." The Building Trades, Construction industries and Real Estate brokerage houses paid Cermak as well because Cermak knew when and where the state's next highways would be built and new highways determined the value of otherwise worthless real estate. As the House speaker and majority leader, Cermak also had the power to hold up a highway project allowing him to demand even more money once the construction was started.

      During all those years in Springfield, Cermak never broke up the United Societies and he continued to receive shakedown funds from that organization as well.

      After three terms in the capitol, Cermak made so much money that his net worth was over one million dollars, in cash. By the time he became mayor of Chicago at age 56, Tony Cermak, the near illiterate muleskinner, boasted that he was worth seven million dollars although he never had a job that earned him more then $12,000.00 a year.

      Cermak was now an example of the lowest type of machine politics that the corrupt political life of Chicago had yet produced.

      One newspaper man noted: "When issuing orders to his henchmen showing his teeth and snarling at those who proposed that saloonkeepers and bootleggers should obey the law like other people or engaged in his underground operations, Tony felt sure of himself and acted with the authority of a master, but he was without any of the superficial qualities that are essential to the man who would take the part of the hero on this larger political stage. He was uncouth, gruff, insolent and inarticulate...he could engage in no more intelligent discussion of the larger political issues of the day than he could of the Einstein theory of relativity."

      "He appeared to take pride in his lack of polish," Judge Lyle wrote and added, "Tony Cermak, was not a very nice man."

      In personal situations, Cermak was known as an intimidator with a violent temper who never walked away from a confrontation. He liked very few people and he trusted virtually no one and as his power grew so did his paranoia. He wasn't a back slapper. He was elected because he was a political survivor who simply outlasted his opponents and those that he couldn't outlast he blackballed. In the state house, as President of Cook County and later as Mayor, Cermak used wire taps, stole mail, used secret surveillance and informants to get intelligence on the weaknesses of his enemies and he took great care to know who his enemies were. He admitted to authorizing beatings of any one that got in his way.

      In 1920, Cermak took full control of Chicago's democratic party and slated himself to run as president of Cook County board, at that point a far less powerful position than it is today, but it had its possibilities for a greedy and ambitious man like Cermak. Tony won the seat but there was such finagling at the polls that a judge ordered a recount which resulted in a state investigation which led to the conviction of several party officials, but with Cermak's help each one walked away from their sentences without serving a day in jail.

      It was at the start of Cermak's first term as County President that Cermak entered into business with the syndicate in the form of a hustler named Billy Skidmore. In 1925, Cermak set Skidmore up in the junkyard business by assigning a $100,000.00 a year contract to handle the scrap iron from county institutions. For every pound of scrap that entered Skidmore's yard, as in everything else, Tony Cermak got his 10 percent.

      During Cermak's terms as Cook County President, Skidmore would act as his bagman.

      In 1928, Cermak who was still the "spokesman" for organized liqueur interest, decided to become mayor of Chicago.

      The syndicate saw Cermak's entrance into the race as a saving opportunity because the mob bosses knew that if the hopelessly corrupt Big Bill Thompson were elected again that the federal government might step in to restore justice to the streets of Chicago and nobody wanted that. Cermak, the outfit figured, was one of them. They could live and prosper with Tony Cermak at the helm. As for Cermak he was willing to take the mob's dirty money and lead them along for as long as he had to. But Cermak had his own plans. Once, just before the election Cermak met Judge Lyle at a gangster funeral and told Lyle: "The mob doesn't know how I really feel about them." Cermak said, "I think I can get some support from the mob during the campaign. I'll take it. But after the election I'll boot them out of town." Lyle said later, "In effect he was announcing his intention to double cross the Capone mob. It was, I reflected, a dangerous game to play with the Capones."

      On Election Day, April 7, 1931, word went out from higher ups in the Capone organization down to the goons and speakeasy owners to support Cermak. If Cermak won, the bosses said, the reformers would loosen up.

      Cermak did win. He trounced Thompson 475,613 to 667,529 votes, the largest margin ever recorded in Chicago's mayoral election to that date.

      On his first day in office as mayor, Tony Cermak promised the people of Chicago that he would rid their city of its gangsters before the Century of Progress Exhibition opened in the summer of 1933.

      But Tony wouldn't get rid of organized crime in Chicago, he wanted to coral it. To dominate it. To run it. He would own it. He would grow rich from it. All he had to do was to give it another face.

      So while the federal government did Cermak the favor of ridding Chicago of Capone, Cermak and the bosses plotted to fill the vacuum created with an even more organized gambling syndicate.

      Although it seemed to the nation that the people of Chicago had improved their lot by replacing the loutish and clown like Thompson for Cermak, the reality was that Thompson and his boys were second rate amateurs compared to the wholesale systemized looting that would be carried out by the Cermak crowd during their short reign.

      First, he would control the gambling. Cermak knew that the growing national depression and the end of prohibition would result in an end of the flow of beer money into his coffers. He also knew from his days as a ward healer that control of even a small portion of the city's gambling could bring enormous wealth and power. The two things he would need to forward his career on to Washington and perhaps even the White House.

      So Tony Cermak threw his net around the city's multi-million-dollar gambling rackets. The first thing Cermak did was to corner the gambling market by closing down the competition, those gamblers who refused to throw in with Tony Cermak were run out of business.

      The second stage was to control the police department. Without consulting with his police commissioner, Cermak demoted, transferred and banished cops who were on Capone's payroll or who refused to go along with his plan.

      When the police commissioner complained, he was fired and replaced with Cermak's hand picked successor, James P. Alman.

      The purpose of the raid was to send a message to the syndicate. They were no longer the sole rulers over the Chicago underworld.

      Cermak didn't let up. He went on the radio and encouraged the public to send him the locations of gambling dens and beer joints and the public responded with over a thousand calls in three days.

      Cermak announced that the raids would continue and a "special vice squad" was established under captain Martin Mullen, a political player, to go after big time gamblers on the south side.

      As a result of those raids, Cermak established a national reputation for himself as a crime busting public official. A reputation that still lives on today.

      Once Cermak had smashed the gamblers into submission, he would need someone dependable to act as his collector and street boss, the mayor's personal bagman.

      Enter Teddy Newberry.

      Newberry had been making his living off organized crime all his life. In October of 1930 Teddy Newberry, who had been with Bugs Moran and then the Aillos, changed bosses again and moved in with the Capones if for no other reason, because they were winning the war to control Chicago's underworld and Teddy Newberry always went with a winner. Working with Tony Ronano, a Capo in Capone's organization, Newberry took over Chicago's open-air markets for Capone, a racket thought up by Joey Aillo before his demise. The scam was so lucrative that Capone gave Newberry a solid gold belt buckle with Al's initials carved in it and Newberry was seldom seen without it.

      Capone trusted Newberry enough to let him supervise the killing of corrupt newsman Jake Lingle back in 1930 and again a grateful Al Capone rewarded Newberry by handing him an enormous gambling concession on the North Side.

      After several months of acting as Cermak's street supervisor, Teddy Newberry sat down with Anton Cermak in the summer of 1931 and worked out a deal. They decided that it was possible to not only corral organized crime in the city but to dominate it. As Newberry and Cermak saw it, with Capone and most of his top men behind bars or on the run from the law, what was left of the syndicate would easily fall apart.

      The fact that Roger Touhy was winning his shooting war against the mob was another plus for Newberry and Cermak. The way they saw it, all that was left to do with the wounded beast of organized crime was to kill the head and then watch the body die.

      So Cermak and Newberry decided that the quickest way to dominate the mob was to kill the outfit's new leader, Frank Nitti, after that all the other hoods would fall into line.

      Then reality set in. Within six months after hatching their plot, Teddy Newberry was found face down in a frozen cornfield, wrapped in barbed wire and shot through the face and Anton Cermak's life ended when a mob assassin, Guiseppe Zangara, plugged his Honor with a shot in the belly.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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