LOOK, I KNOW I could tell you this straight off, and it would entertain you, too, like the campfire yarn that goes, And then, and then, and then—right through to the finish, where the hero gets the girl or dies. But if I did it this way, you’d forget it, or at least you’d forget the things I want you to remember. So in order for this to have a chance of sticking with you the way it has with me all these years, I have to go against the way I learned my trade, which was to buttonhole you quick, so to say, and then hold on to you until I was done. In the newspaper business this wasn’t very long, even when I was starting out, which was damn near sixty years ago. And it’s gotten a hell of a lot shorter nowadays, what with the carpet-bombing of twenty-four/seven news. A print reporter now is lucky to get even the top of the reader’s eyeball for two whole minutes. In that respect, I’m glad I’m out of it, though I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t miss the hurly-burly of the newsroom, the clackety-clack of the big old black machines, the cigarette smoke and swearing, the pints of sauce the older guys kept stashed in the bottom drawer of their desks. These are probably clichés to you, but before they became that they were the way we lived, and underneath that tough-guy, front-page pose we privately thought being a reporter was pretty hot stuff. I know I did. Even when we were telling each other this was one hell of a way to make a buck—busting your ass to write a story that would be used that evening to wipe up the puppy’s poop or wrap the garbage in—still it was exciting to try to intervene in people’s lives, arrest them, even if it was just for a few minutes, with your story, your version of events. When you come right down to it, that’s what was truly exciting about journalism. It isn’t enough for me now, though. I want more of you than that.
You know how every once in a while you’ll be walking along the street, minding your own business, and suddenly you’ll get a look from a complete stranger, and you’ll take meaning from it, even if you can’t put your finger on just what this is? You walk on, but you can’t get that look out of your head. You keep seeing those strange eyes boring into you, and you keep wondering, Why me? And, What the hell was he trying to tell me? Well, what I want to do here is more like that than the news story I used to write or the campfire yarn.
But right off the bat I have to get something straight between us, which is this: some of this stuff didn’t happen exactly the way I’m going to tell you here. That’s not to say that I’m making it up; I’m no blogger. I have my sources, and they’re an important part of the story. Sometimes I think they’re almost as important as the story itself, as you’ll see in a minute. They took me as close as anybody’s going to get to the truth of this thing. They witnessed some of the events they talk about and took part in many of them, but they didn’t see the whole of it or even know the whole of it. Nobody knows the whole of it. I wish to God there had been some all-seeing eyewitness and that I could have gotten hold of him or her. But there isn’t, and anyway eyewitnesses, who are so highly prized in precinct stations and newsrooms and lawyers’ offices, are actually often a good deal less reliable than you might think.
I was tipped to this years back, when I was just a squirt trying to catch on steady with the Daily News and hanging out at precinct stations on the South Side after the war. There was an old lieutenant at the South Halsted station called Rawhide O’Meara who took kind of a shine to me, maybe only because I was so goddamned green it was funny to him. When I met him old Rawhide could smell the barn, and he was ready for it: his feet hurt, his back hurt, and he was tired of the beat’s relentless bullshit. He couldn’t be bothered learning anyone’s name anymore, so I was Mac, same as everybody else he hadn’t known for at least ten years.
One afternoon I was asking him about a filling station knock-over where there’d been a bystander who positively identified two brothers named Brady as the perps. “See here, Mac,” he said, “that don’t make this any automatic. Not yet, anyways. Sure, we rely on these eyewitnesses when we can get ’em, and we try to use ’em to make the case, don’t ya see. And sometimes they do, if we use ’em right. But there’s a lot more to most cases than meets the eye.” He liked that and haw-hawed, elbowing me hard in the ribs. “There’s a lot more holes in these eyewitness deals than you’d think, and a defense lawyer who knows his stuff’ll find ’em.”
Well, as you see that comment stuck with me, though if I’m going to be completely candid with you here, I should add that I thought old Rawhide had plenty of holes in him, too. He never shut up and claimed to know everything there was to know about police work. Still, as I say, his comment stayed with me, and it came back to me later when I went to a lecture at John Marshall. I don’t make a habit of going to law school lectures at night, but I wanted to hear Phil Keneally and see him in action.
Keneally was notorious. He was an absolutely brilliant criminal defense attorney who not only worked for the Mob but eventually married into it. That night his subject was supposed to be evidence and its uses and misuses. But it turned out to be almost exclusively about eyewitnesses, and he used a case tried by Lincoln in his downstate days. Lincoln appeared for the defense, and if I remember correctly, an eyewitness claimed to have seen his client stab a man to death one night in a field. Well, in his questioning, Keneally said, Lincoln led the witness through the woods, so to say, right up to the edge of the field, where he had him peeping through the trees and witnessing the murder. At which point Lincoln broke off to ask the guy if the moon was pretty bright that night, and the guy says, “Bright enough to see what I saw.” So then Lincoln springs his trap and produces a Farmer’s Almanac, or some such, to show that there wasn’t any moon at all that night—black as the inside of a cow’s ass—which sure as hell cast the shadow of doubt on that eyewitness’s testimony. When I heard that I thought back on old Rawhide, whose funeral I went to not long ago. I’ll come back to Phil Keneally, because as you’ll see he’s a big part of this story, but for now I simply want to say that history depends a lot on eyewitness accounts when it can get them. The full truth of most human stories, though, is a lot harder to get at than just having those firsthand reports and involves other considerations.
My eyewitnesses are like everybody else’s. They tell what they saw and what they think they saw. They tell what they heard. They tell what they remember. They almost never tell you what they forgot or later realized they’d completely misunderstood. So to this extent history—written history, that is—looks to me kind of like a high-stakes gamble, something more or less carefully assembled, depending on the skill and conscience of the historian, and then kind of shoved out there like you’d push a bet through the hundred-dollar window at the track. So here’s my point: I’m betting that what I’ve put together here is a plausible and even probable reconstruction of a very murky story. But I want you to keep in mind that it is a reconstruction, an attempt to reconstruct ev...