The normal time taken to make a change in a Mayor’s administration had been two weeks. Tony Cermak executed it officially in forty-eight hours. Application to his duties made sixteen-hour workdays were far from uncommon. With his swift execution of his undeniable responsibilities as a Depression Mayor–he had to save the city from utter financial failure–he made enemies. No job was safe. Everyone would have to be of proven worth to Chicago. Boss Cermak was running City Hall.
The man who shot at President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt and hit Tony Cermak became (despite several sketchy conspiracy theories) a tragic footnote of history. A small, poor laborer from the ghettos of Sicily, Giuseppe Zangara suffered from colitis of the stomach, an agonizing infirmity. Mayor Cermak had traveled to Miami, Florida to discuss aid and assistance for his city with the President-Elect, and while exchanging remarks in Roosevelt’s impromptu motorcade on the Miami streets, the diminutive Zangara took aim at the car with a cheap .32 pistol. Having to stand on a chair to get a clean shot, he was bumped by other bystanders. His bumbled attempt at killing Roosevelt hit the belly of the Chicago Mayor. Although fluctuating speculations still exist regarding Chicago gangsters Al Capone and Frank Nitti, the assassin was confirmed as a sick and slightly retarded man that simply hated the wealthy. “I hate all Presidents,” Zangara said while awaiting a trip to Death Row, “no matter where they come from, just like I hate all officers and everybody’s who’s rich.” Upon Cermak’s death, after weeks fighting a lingering infection and ironically, the same stomach colitis that afflicted his killer, Zangara was deftly executed in the electric chair.
Tony Cermak’s ‘last words’ have been waxed upon for decades. Did he, with a lead bullet settling in his stomach, look into the eyes of FDR and utter such the humble epitaph that appears on his burial vault?
“I’m glad it was me, instead of you.”
This is for historians-and Chicagoans-to ruminate and argue on. What was true was the fact that as champions of America’s Democratic Party, both men were of great importance to each other. What would become FDR’s ‘New Deal’ had been formed strongly on the principles of federal regulation and assistance that Cermak had vehemently professed to an initially obtuse Washington. Mayor Cermak and Chicago were vital to FDR’s presidential election, and to Cermak, Roosevelt was the leader with the acumen and prestige to guide the country out of Prohibition and the Depression.
In the early morning of March 6, 1933, Anton Joseph Cermak died of his wounds. At his end, the Mayor refused to stop working. In the full week prior, from his bed at the hospital, he and his secretary had continuously petitioned President Roosevelt and the Federal Reserve Board for aid to subsidize Chicago’s unpaid teachers.
'Goodbye Mayor Cermak'
Tony Cermak died before seeing the fruits of his great labor against Prohibition. A month after his death, the ultimate national repeal of the 18th Amendment was close, as Illinois and 22 other states now had beer legally for sale. At it’s repeal convention, Illinois voted 50 to zero in favor of ridding the country of the Volstead Act. Biographer Alex Gottfried wrote: “How Cermak would have rejoiced; for in his view, this would have signified the end of the depression and the attendant disappearance of all other ills of society.”
In near zero-degree temperatures, half a million people stood along the street lines to watch Cermak’s body pass to the old Chicago Stadium. Never in history of the city has there been a funeral procession so grand. The service in the stadium was non-partisan and non-religious. Tributes came from around the country. Chicago committeeman T.J. Bowler described Cermak as the “the greatest leader the Democratic party ever had,” and World Fair President D.F. Kelly stated, “Chicago has never had a man whose passing will be felt in so many directions.”