90 years since Antonín Čermák became mayor of Chicago

Antonín Čermák in Chicago, 1932, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13768, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The life of the brave mayor, who saved Roosvelt and was not afraid of Al Capone, is the story of the American dream 

Anton Cermak,  photo: Public Domain

Few Czechs left such an imprint on the world like Anton Jospeh Cermak (Antonín Čermák). Born into a poor family in Bohemia’s Kladensko, he would become one of the most important Democrat politicians in the United States of America.

He arrived in America at the age of two and first worked in the mines with his father, only moving to Chicago in 1890. There he started a business and traded in property.

He became a Democratic Party activist and subsequently was elected as a representative of the state of Illinois. In 1931 he was elected the Mayor of Chicago, which was then the second largest city in the United States with a Czechoslovak minority exceeding 100,000.

Al Capone,  photo: United States Department of Justice,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Chicago was a centre for organised crime at the time, with Al Capone its most important Mafia leader. Cermak declared war on the Mafia and managed to get Capone into jail.

He was the first mayor not to be born in the US and made a significant mark on history when he saved the life of the freshly elected president Franklin Delano Rosevelt. The two men were friends and held the same political beliefs. Cermak was close to Roosevelt when the latter was the target of an assasination attempt. Cermak stood on the US president’s side at the moment when the Italian worker Giuseppe Zangara approached Roosevelt, who was giving a speech to a crowd in Miami, with a revolver.

There were six shots. Cermak fell to the ground, shot through the lung. “I am happy it was me and not you”, the mayor reportedly told the president. The exact circumstances of the assasination attempt are still not known.

Antonín Čermák,  Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  photo: Chicago Tribune

According to one version the hit had been called by Al Capone from prison and was actually intended to target Cermak as an act of revenge. The Czech had made a lot of enemies through his uncompromising style of politics.

Cermak’s health made repeated turns for the better and worse after the shooting, but he eventually died on March 6, 1933. Zangara was sentenced to 80 years in prison for attempted murder. However, he was brought back in front of the court after Cermak’s death and was sentenced to death. The assasin was executed on March 20, 1933 by the electric chair.

Antonin Cermak never forget his home country. He played a role in the foundation of Czechoslovakia, which he visited in 1932. He was always proud of his origins and spoke fluent Czech. Cermak was also an active member of the Sokols and several other Czech organisations.