Constable James Quinn
During the last year the Chicago Police Department has been asked to review the existing
research into the facts of the death of Constable James Quinn. This review is to
determine if his death on December 5, 1853 was in the discharge of his duty and
therefore should be considered a line of duty death. This would make James Quinn the
first Chicago Policeman killed in the line of duty.
The last time this issue was examined by the Chicago Police Department Awards
Committee it was determined that Constable Quinn’s death was not in the line of duty.
Since that time Rick Barrett, the major proponent of Constable Quinn’s campaign for
recognition, has provided new research. Mr. Barrett, a retired Drug Enforcement Agent, is
a fine researcher and his work is valuable. I believe some of his passion for this issue cost
him credibility with the committee. His accusations against Dennis Bingham, a fine man
and a wonderful archivist, became personal and unfair.
About six weeks ago Jim Sheehan called and asked if I, per your recommendation along
with Commander Perry, could re-review all the old research along with newly discovered
material that had not been available at the end of the last review. Since that time I have
attempted to take a fresh look at all the material. I have attempted to put it in order, weigh
its significance independent of any prior opinions or conclusions, and make findings of fact
that would be persuasive one way or another to our Awards Committee. I believe I have
done that. This report serves to advise you of all the relevant facts and to help to
determine whether another presentation should be made before the Awards Committee on
this important issue.
On March 1, 1853 James Quinn was elected Ward Constable from Chicago’s Ninth ward.
Quinn was a naturalized citizen and was of Irish Catholic descent. He was a fully elected,
sworn member of the Day Police, assigned to the Police in the North Division.
On March 14, 1853 Constable Quinn took his official oath of office becoming a fully sworn
law enforcement officer with full police powers. His authority was defined by written rules
and regulations which are very similar to current regulations. Section One of the Police
Rules stated that all police officers shall devote their whole time and attention to the
business of the Police Department, and not follow any other calling. Although certain hours
were allotted to each man’s duty on ordinary occasions, all the officers were mandated to
be prepared to act at a moment’s notice whenever their services were required. Other
relevant sections stated that Constable Quinn was duty bound to respond to any immediate
breach of the peace. He was also empowered to arrest or pursue any on view
misdemeanants or any felon, if he reasonably believed a felony had been committed.
On Friday night December 2, 1853 Constable Quinn made a lawful arrest of an individual
wanted on an arrest warrant. As he was making this arrest Constable Quinn was assaulted
by William Rees. This allowed Quinn’s prisoner to escape. Quinn suffered a blow to his
head during this initial assault. Constable Quinn refused medical attention and reported for
duty the next day.
On Saturday, December 3, 1853 Constable Quinn went looking for the prisoner who
escaped from him the night before. Quinn encountered William Rees who again assaulted
Quinn, this time viciously. The Constable suffered a broken rib and a punctured lung which
began to fill with blood.
On December 4, 1853, he was treated by doctors, his conditioned worsened and
congestion began to set in. At 11:40 a.m. on December 5, 1853 Constable James Quinn
died. An autopsy was performed and the Coroner’s jury found that the cause of death was
congestion of the brain resulting from the assault.
William Rees who had been arrested for the assault for prior to Constable Quinn’s death
was then charged with manslaughter.
Two months later Rees was tried for killing Quinn. He was convicted and sentenced to
prison for five years. He was pardoned after three years. (There was no parole in
existence at that time.)
On December 12, 1853 the Common Council (which would be our current City Council,
including the Mayor) passed Order # #1277A. This was an order designed to suppress
crime in the north district of the city. The order stated “Whereas a Member of the Police of
the City has been lately killed in the discharge of his duty.” This order (a precedent to the
same theory as “Just Cause”) makes clear the City Council’s opinion that Constable Quinn
died in the discharge of his duty. The order was voted on and passed.
In March of 1854, three weeks after Rees’ trial the widow of Constable Quinn filed a
petition with the Common Council stating that Constable Quinn died while faithfully and
honestly discharging his duty as an officer of the City of Chicago and seeking financial
relief. On March 6, 1854 the Committee of the Judiciary accepted and concurred with the
petition and awarded the Widow Quinn a sum of $ 50.00.
These two orders, one passed before trial and one after the trial are the most timely and
accurate accounts and indications that Quinn died during the execution of his duties. The
request petitioning the stipend contains a recitation that reads as follows;
“That about the second day of December he was employed in the discharge of his
duty as such Constable in the Service of process and arrest of William Rees. That
the said Rees resisted the service and arrest and so hereby maltreated and injured
the said Quinn that he died of his injuries on or about the 5th Day of December.
It was this recitation of facts that appear of record and were approved by the Council.
In the review of all the facts involving the death of Constable James Quinn a number of
concerns have been raised by current members of the Chicago Police Department. Each of
these concerns need to be directly addressed in the review of this case.
The first question is: Was Constable Quinn on duty?
Considering all the available reports convincing evidence does exist that indicates that
Quinn was on duty. The police department in 1853 was very different from todays force
and because of the culture of the time, followed very different customs and practices.
Constable James Quinn was an elected Constable. He held the position, not as
employment, but as a sworn official of the fledgling Chicago. His responsibilities were full
time. He was mandated to have regular business hours but had no partners, no
supervisors, no watch, no transportation, and no police station. His oath was to enforce the
law at any opportunity. There are no records that exist that contradict this view of his
Morever on the night that he was attacked and received the injuries that would prove fatal
he was on official police business. He had been given a warrant to serve. It was in the
service of that official legal process that led him to the location where he was injured.
When Constable Quinn entered the tavern not only was he “on the clock” he was
performing a duty he was obligated to perform as a policeman.
When Quinn failed to make an arrest at the tavern he was confronted by William Rees.
Rees was unprovoked but began an unprovoked attack on the police Constable. It was
clear from the evidence that Quinn tried to avoid the altercation, tried to keep the peace,
and by resisting violence fell victim to his attacker.
Nothing in the summaries of the trial transcripts makes even the slightest hint that Quinn
was off duty. It was not part of the State’s case, nor more importantly, the defendant’s
case. It appears clear that Quinn’s duty responsibilities brought him to the location of the
The second important question is whether Constable Quinn had been drinking that night. It
is clear from the record that Quinn went to the tavern to serve a warrant and to make an
arrest. He was unable to do this. The record is unclear how long he remained in the
tavern -one piece of testimony is contrary to others - but no one at the trial testifies he
was drinking, or that he was drunk at the time of the beating. The post mortem exam
makes mention of alcohol only in two respects. Quinn drank on the day he died-which was
Monday-as he struggled with the pain and lethality of his injuries. He also had a liver that
upon post mortem exam was in bad shape. The best guess to make is that Quinn was an
alcoholic but there was no evidence in the trial transcript that he was drinking. In fact even
the defense witnesses that were called to “dirty Quinn up” were unable to swear that he
was drinking that night. The best inferences to be made from Quinn’s unwillingness to
fight Rees is that he was not drunk. His behavior and response was restrained and
Therefore it can be stated - Quinn was in a tavern but on duty and performing an
assigned police function, when he became involved in a collateral altercation, during which
he was killed by an unjustified, violent aggressor. Confronted with this scenario, which
resembles the death of First Deputy James Riordan among others, it is reasonable to
believe that Constable James Quinn died in the line of duty.
Another concern which raised is whether Constable Quinn was performing a legitimate law
enforcement act at the time he was killed.
The evidence is less clear about this aspect of the altercation but it is very clear that
Quinn was trying to keep the peace. Rees had attacked Quinn on a prior day, allowing a
prisoner to escape. Rees was a popular high profile personality on the Sands. The Sands
was the tavern - infested, low life, area of the City. Quinn was alone when he was
attacked, was mortally wounded, then stumbled home to die. While no formal police report
was filed, Quinn was unable to write one. It is unclear whether at the time it was required
to write a formal report. The information about the attack was immediately communicated
to someone in authority because Rees was arrested for the assault prior to Quinn’s death
the next day.
In consideration of current day standards one of the questions traditionally considered is
the following; Would someone be charged with performing the acts that caused the death?
As in Officer Michael Gordon’s death, where the specific intent cannot be proven, it still
remains a death in the line of duty. Rees was charged and sent to prison. Officer
Gordon’s killer died in the same wreck as his victim.
Finally, any review of this case must also include any prior ruling, orders, proclamations, or
agreements made by Chicago or its officials that may serve as precedents. Remarkably
there are two events directly impacting this current decision on Officer Quinn that have
survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Within days of Constable Quinn’s death the Common Council of the city passed Order #
1277A which called for “the suppression” of Houses of Illinois in the North District of the
Sands”. This was the area in the Sands where Quinn had been killed. This, it could be
argued was the initial “Just Cause” operation in that is was issued in district response to
the murder of a police officer.
Most importantly it can also be argued that this order would not have even existed if
Constable Quinn had died in an unsavory manner, drinking and fighting in a tavern.
Instead of the order in paragraph #2 explicitly states “ whereas a member of the Police of
the City has been lately killed in the discharge of his duty” and directs the Mayor and City
Marshall to conduct raids on houses on the Sands. This language, close in time and exact
in subject matter, clearly stated the fact that Constable Quinn’s death was in the discharge
of his duty. Further there is no equivocation in the wording, no subsequent changes or
amendments or no retraction after all the facts of Quinn’s death are fully examined and
contested during the trial of William Rees.
After the trial the Widow Quinn files a petition with the Common Council stating Constable
Quinn died while faithfully and honestly discharging his duty as an Officer of the City of
Chicago and sought financial relief. On March 6, 1854 a separate body of the Common
Council also ratifies the notion of Quinn’s line of duty death by accepting and concurring
with the petition. It is clear that this award was not made because of largess or generosity
but because as the Committee on the Judiciary they were obligated to do so.
These two findings are of great significance. First, they clearly state the position of the
highest levels of government in Chicago. Secondly, they are issued at a time when all the
facts were clearly known. Third, they were issued both before and after the trial where all
the facts of this case were fully uncovered, presented and argued. Furthermore they
express the findings that are consistent with the guilty verdict as well. It must be recalled
that at the jury trial (Potter Palmer, in fact, was one of the jurors) all the facts indicated
that the only rift between Constable Quinn and William Rees were the unlawful acts of
Rees committed because Constable Quinn was making an arrest on the initial
confrontation, and serving a warrant on the second.
Most importantly after a complete review of all the research of there is absolutely no
indication that there was any act, order, retraction, or dissent that would change in any
way the view of the Common Council. There is no indication in any record that there was
ever an attempt to change the findings or in any way alter the record.
These two writings provide the very best evidence that Constable James Quinn died in the
line of duty. Therefore this current generation of officials must presume them to be true
and valid or must show sufficient evidence that would now allow the Chicago Police
Department to overcome the presumption of their validity. There is no such evidence to
overcome that presumption. Therefore the City believed then and the Department should
believe now that Constable Quinn died in the discharge of his duty.
The only question remaining is one of historical significance but not material to the finding
that Quinn died in the discharge of his duty. Why was Quinn not honored at the time? The
answer might not include the lengthy political arguments about the “Know Nothing” party
espoused by Mr. Barrett. It is probably simpler than that. Chicago was still new and not yet
a City. While it had 65, 000 residents it was still a ramshackle, unsophisticated port city.
Its Constables were elected and consisted of a handful of men. Most importantly in 1853,
death was commonplace - in fact Quinn died of a broken rib after being treated with a
mustard plaster. The pomp and circumstance, and overwhelming ritualization of death, even
heroic death had not taken root in America. This was pre-Civil War times. Life expectancy
was low. Childbirth had a high mortality rate. The death of a Constable which had never
occurred meant a City resolution but probably little more. Also when the Chicago Fire
occurred in 1871 the prior history of Chicago was every bit as diminished as the records
that were destroyed . Chicago history in rich and full detail begins in 1871. The prior
history, like Quinn’s legacy, was burned in the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire.
In conclusion - as time passes, as culture and standards change, and as stars are added
to the Superintendent’s star case, all evidence points to the fact that one more police star
can be placed in this hollowed place so that Constable Quinn can be remembered and
honored by the citizens a century and a half after his sacrifice.
It is my recommendation that the Awards Committee be convened, that each of these
facts, be evaluated and argued and that a true and just decision be made as soon as
Thomas E. Epach
Executive Assistant to the Superintendent