December 12, 1996
Were he able to try it in the high-tech world of today, it is unlikely that Chicago's most memorable fugitive, "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor, would get very far.
He would have surely earned unwanted attention from TV fugitive shows and groups that pay rewards to tipsters, plaster the pictures of fugitives in public places and offer toll free phone numbers in newspaper ads, billboards, even on milk cartons.
Chicago FBI Agent Jack Daulton believes that is because whatever twists and turns O'Connor may have taken to avoid recapture after his daring escape on the wintry Sunday of Dec. 11, 1921, occurred from afar.
"It seems likely," reasoned Daulton, associate special agent in charge of the FBI office here, "that he wasn't caught perhaps because of a willingness on his part to either go to another part of the country and stay there or leave (the country) altogether."
In O'Connor's case, he had plenty of reason to go far away: vigilante revenge had been threatened by fellow officers of Sgt. Patrick O'Neill, whom he'd fatally wounded. And, if they didn't kill him, the hangman's noose surely would. (It wasn't until 1929 that the electric chair was plugged into Cook County Jail, then located at 54 W. Hubbard St.)
O'Connor was born in 1890 and brought to this country from Ireland by his parents two years later. Having already been charged, then freed, in two other killings before 1921, he was well known to police when five of them were sent to arrest him on a murder warrant in February of that year.
Gunfire broke out and O'Neill fell mortally wounded.
O'Connor was convicted of the officer's murder and sentenced to hang. But only three days before his scheduled execution, he somehow obtained a pistol, tied up his guards and climbed over a 20 foot-high jail wall. He then jumped onto the running board of a passing car, abandoned his ride and dropped from sight.
For the next 56 years, the noose and the gallows remained in wait for the one man who had cheated them. Finally in 1977, with little hope of finding O'Connor alive and with termites eating the gallows in the basement of the Criminal Courts Building, a judge ordered the old timbers destroyed.
But before the order could be carried out, a buyer bought what was left of the platform and turned it over to the Seven Acres Museum in Union, Ill.
Harry J. Busch, the unwilling getaway driver who went on to become a well-known local trial lawyer. remembers his brief meeting with O'Connor with clarity but not necessarily fondness.
"My God," he thundered when asked about it Wednesday. "Will that piece of history never die?"