THE MURDER OF DR. PEACOCK
THE STORY THAT STUNNED CHICAGO
One of Chicago’s most heartbreaking and puzzling murders occurred on this date, January 2, in 1936. It was the brutal slaying of Dr. Silber Charles Peacock, one of Chicago’s most respected physicians. The strange case was made even more confusing by the fact that there was not a hint of scandal or impropriety linked to the 40-year old doctor’s name and despite the fact that his killers were eventually captured, there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, even after all of these years.
Dr. Peacock was born near Beverly in Adams County, Illinois in 1896 and received his early education there. During World War I, he served in the U.S. Army Intelligence unit and worked closely with British Naval Intelligence. When he returned from the war, he attended Knox College in Galesburg, where he met his wife, Ruth Pearce, who was also a student. He graduated from Knox College in 1922 and was married after graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago. He then interned at the Presbyterian hospital before going into private practice. For ten years prior to this death, he spent countless hours researching deadly childhood diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria and maintained a suite of offices in the Uptown National Bank building at 4753 Broadway with three other well-known physicians. He was also on the staff of the Children’s Memorial, Henrotin and Ravenswood Hospitals. By 1936, Dr. Peacock, his wife and their 7 year old daughter, Betty Lou, lived at the fashionable Edgewater Beach Apartments at 5555 North Sheridan Road. Located near the famous hotel of the same name, it was one of the finer addresses on the North Side.
The famed Edgewater Beach Hotel and apartments on Chicago’s North Side.
Peacock was a man of regular habits but was also considered one of the most skillful doctors in the city in the field of pediatrics, which made him often in demand. He was on call 24 hours a day and in those times, it was not uncommon to be called to the bedside of a sick child at unusual times. Peacock was in the process of no longer accepting house calls, which made what happened on the night of his death even stranger.
On the night of January 2, Peacock picked up his wife, who was pregnant with their second child, and his daughter from Union Station. The first of what would be two mysterious telephone calls reached his apartment building switchboard at 7:30 p.m. The caller was a woman and she refused to leave her name with the operator. At the time of the call, the Peacocks were having dinner at a North Side restaurant. His wife and daughter had just returned from a funeral in Bowen, Illinois, which was Ruth’s hometown. They had gone to dinner after Dr. Peacock had picked them up from the train station.
Ruth and her daughter were anxious to settle in for the evening when they finally reached home, but for some reason, Dr. Peacock stepped out of the house around 8:30 p.m. When they had arrived at the apartment, the switchboard operator stated that a call had come in for the doctor earlier in the evening, but the caller had not left a name. Could he have been returning a call? No one knows for sure, but it is known that he did make a telephone call from the payphone in the drugstore that was located in the lobby of the apartment building. There is no indication as to why he left to make the call when there was a telephone in the apartment. This is just one of the lingering mysteries in the case.
A few minutes later, Dr. Peacock returned to his family’s apartment and started to get ready for bed. He was in his pajamas when the telephone rang at 10:15 p.m. The switchboard operator later said that the caller was a man. Mrs. Peacock did not hear the voice of the caller but she recalled afterward the words of her husband’s side of the conversation: “The name… G. Smale, 6438 North Whipple Street.. a sick child.. the telephone number… Oh no, the telephone… usually $5… yes.” Dr. Peacock scrawled the name and address of the caller on a piece of paper near the telephone.
Peacock quickly dressed, grabbed his coat and left the apartment. It was the last time that his wife ever saw him alive. When he had still not returned home by 1:30 a.m., Ruth made a frantic call to Cook County State’s Attorney Thomas Courtney, who was a personal friend of the Peacocks. The police were notified of the situation and a missing persons report was filed. According to the Chicago Tribune, this might not have been the first bogus emergency call made to a doctor. In 1933, Dr. Benjamin Garnitz was lured from his home by a fake call and was shot to death by three young robbers. This must have been a concern of the police when they got the call about Dr. Peacock that night.
Detectives from the Summerdale district tracked down “G. Smale”, whose name Dr. Peacock had written on the paper, but he lived at 6438 South Washtenaw Avenue, 16 miles from the address on Whipple, literally at the opposite end of the city. Neither Smale nor the seven families who resided in an apartment at the Whipple address knew Dr. Peacock.
However, he did apparently arrive at the building. Two of the tenants, Ben Noble and a Mrs. Goldman, said that they heard an automobile outside of the apartment house at about 10:30 p.m. on that Thursday evening. A car door slammed; there was the sound of footsteps in the snow, and then voices in the lobby of the building. Shortly afterward, both witnesses reported two slamming automobile doors and the car’s motor as it drove away. If it was Dr. Peacock that drove up to the apartment building, who had he met there and did that person leave with him? Detectives found six crushed cigarette butts and a discarded matchbook outside of the Whipple Street building, making them believe that someone had been impatiently waiting for the doctor’s arrival. Did he hurt, or kill, Peacock when he arrived?
Another bit of information that also puzzled the detectives was given to them by Dr. Peacock’s private secretary, Katherine Maloney. She told them that Peacock rarely ever answered a night call from a patient, and when he did, it had to be one of his regular clients since he was not accepting new patients at the time. In addition, when he did go out,, his fee for such a call was usually $7, although he mentioned the amount of $5 in the phone conversation that his wife overheard. So, why would he have gone out on this night?
Twenty-one hours passed and then a young man named Jack Dietrich noticed a parked car with its headlights on in front of a three-story building at 6236 North Francisco. Dietrich went over and peered into the window a saw the lifeless form of Dr. Peacock hunched over the steering wheel. The contents of his medical bag were spread across the front seat. He had been murdered by two gunshots to the head and seven separate knife wounds. According to a coroner’s report, Peacock fought his killers. The knuckles of both of his hands were bruised and swollen, as though he had struck several blows with his fists, and a rail behind the front seat of the car had been cracked, apparently after being struck with a heavy object. Detectives surmised that a hard blow had been aimed at Dr. Peacock’s head and hit the rail instead. No bullets were found in the car but there were bloodstains on the hand throttle and the instrument panel. The police believed that Dr. Peacock had been killed in the car, but that the killer had driven it after his hands were stained by the doctor’s blood.
The police believed that the violent nature of the crime suggested that the killer had a personal motive and they began investigating from that angle. Investigators pursued the idea that perhaps the doctor had been killed by a patient, or a patient’s parent, out of revenge, so all of his files were taken from his office to the Summerdale police station so detectives could go through them. There were so many questions in the case that detectives hardly knew where to begin:
- Who disliked the physician enough to want to kill him? As far as everyone could tell, the young doctor had many friends and no enemies to speak of. He was a beloved children’s doctor and was respected by everyone the police interviewed.
- What was the significance of the name “Smale” and the address of “6438”. Peacock had been lured out his home to an address on North Whipple Street and yet the only “G. Smale” in the city lived at 6438 South Washtenaw, at the other end of the city. The real G. Smale was interviewed by the police and not only offered a verifiable alibi, but did not know Dr. Peacock. He gave police a list of every person he had given his business card to, but the lead came up empty.
- Who was the woman that called the Peacocks’ apartment at 7:30 p.m. on the night of his death? To whom did Peacock speak when he made a call from the payphone in the drug store of the apartment building’s lobby? Who made the mysterious “mercy call” at 10:15 p.m. that night?
- Why did Dr. Peacock rush out to answer the call when he usually referred night calls to other doctors and only accepted emergencies from his own patient list?
- Was Dr. Peacock killed by someone who knew him? Or was he lured to his death by thieves? During a canvass of the area around Whipple and Devon, they spoke to a woman named Mrs. Helen Meyers, who told of riding past a car resembling Peacock’s at the corner of Whipple and Devon around 10:30 p.m. on Thursday night. As the driver of her car slowed down to look at a street sign, she said that she noticed two men lurking nearby who “looked like robbers”.
The mystery deepened when a friend of the doctor, Reverend Dr. Kenneth A. Hurst, told police that Peacock had two very influential enemies who wanted him dead. Hurst’s wife was cousin of Ruth Peacock and on good terms with the family. Dr. Peacock had dined with the Hursts while his wife and daughter were out of town, which is when he had told his friend about his personal problems. One of the enemies was a man named Arthur St. George, who allegedly accused Peacock of performing an illegal abortion on his wife, Arlene Johnson Thompson. But when investigators brought St. George in for questioning, they found this was not the case at all. Apparently, Dr. Peacock had been kind to his wife and Arlene had mistaken his kindness for something more than it was and she had left her husband as a result – or so St. George believed. Arlene denied everything and the police found nothing in her story to suggest adultery as a possible motive for the doctor’s murder. The newspapers played up what was thought to be a compelling lead for days, but in the end, nothing came of it.
The killer of Dr. Peacock remained at large.
The real killers turned out to be four teenage street criminals, who had killed the doctor for $20 and the sheer thrill of murder. The killers, Robert Goethe, Durland “Jimmy” Nash, Michael Livingston and Emil Reck, were arrested almost by accident. The police knew nothing of their connection to the Peacock murder until accounts of their past crimes began to unravel, including the murder of a tailor named Peter Payor and the beating of an elderly man named Matthew Holstein and his daughter, Christine, during a home robbery. Two police officers had run into Jimmy Nash on the street on March 25 and had questioned him about a missing girl named Doris Robbins. She was the third girl to go missing on the North Side in a matter of weeks. The other two girls were Evelyn Tveden and Patsy Dean, who was allegedly dating Nash at the time. The cops believed the young man knew something about her disappearance. When questioned about Doris Robbins, the police officers didn’t like Nash’s answers, so they took him to the West North Avenue police station. There, after questioning, Nash said that he didn’t know where Doris was, but that he remembering meeting her at his friend Robert Goethe’s house.
Goethe, Livingston and Reck were also brought in for questioning and the police began connecting them to other crimes in the area, including the robbery of several doctors who had been lured out into the night by phony emergency calls. With the Peacock still being actively worked, detectives were quick to make the connection. The young men quickly confessed to the murder, although Emil Reck had to be taken to the hospital after his confession. The Chicago Tribune reported that an old stomach ulcer began to bleed, forcing him to be placed under medical care. However, it would later be learned that Reck’s bleeding came after he was severely beaten in the interrogation room – a common method of obtaining confessions in those days. All three of the boys had been shuttled back and forth between police stations all night and Reck, who was partially retarded with the intelligence of a child of about 10, began vomiting up blood after repeated blows to the chest and abdomen.
According to the confessions, the four teenagers had met at Phil’s Pool Room on Division Street a few hours before the killing. Goethe had looked through a classified telephone book to find a doctor on the North Side. They had already committed similar robberies and believed that a doctor on the lake shore might carry more money with him. Dr. Peacock had been picked at random and the first time they called, he was not home. It is believed that the switchboard operator believed that it was a woman calling because of the high-pitched voice of one of the teenage boys. Goethe called again and this time, spoke with the doctor and told him that he needed help with a sick child. Nash, who was the first to confess, could not explain how Goethe had picked the address and name. He only knew that the other boy had once lived in that neighborhood and may have remembered it in that way. The boys had stolen a car and after luring Dr. Peacock from his residence, he was beaten and shot to death on Whipple Street after putting up a terrible struggle.
After taking the $20 that the man had in his wallet, Nash told the doctor to walk with them to his car. Nash told police, “This started him to fighting. Gee, he was tough. I hit him with the butt of my gun. Livingston slugged him with his fist. Reck took a knife out of the medicine case and slashed the doctor on the head with it. None of those things stopped him. He hit all of us and kicked Goethe in the groin. He got so tough that Goethe shot him in the head. He went down but he got up again, still battering and hollering: ‘Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me’. I clouted him on the head again and this time he passed out.”
The boys decided not to leave the body in front of the Whipple Street apartment building because it would be found too soon. They wrapped the doctor in his overcoat and bundled him into his car, which three of the boys drove to Francisco Avenue, where it was eventually discovered. Livingston followed in the gang’s stolen car and they drove away. Nash said that he later asked Goethe why they had to kill this doctor when they had only robbed all of the others and he replied, “I been to Bridewell [the new Cook County Jail that had been built in 1929] and I ain’t going back again.”
It was soon learned that Robert Goethe was the son of Rose Kasallis, a brothel madam who was sitting in the county jail after being arrested for running teenage prostitutes and a “school for crime” out of her apartment at 1339 North Maplewood. It came out during the trial that she had plied her son and his friends with alcohol and women and that she was a cunning promoter of theft, vandalism and murder. When she was arrested, the police had taken twenty-five of her girls away in a paddy wagon. In a statement from jail after her son’s arrest, Rose cried that “Bobbie” was a “regular church-goer” who had never been in trouble.
Goethe and Nash both entered guilty pleas and accepted a sentence handed down by the court of 199 years in prison. During the trial for Livingston and Reck, it was established that Goethe had fired the fatal shots that killed Dr. Peacock, but that Reck and Livingston – by their own admissions – had struck the doctor repeatedly. Assistant State’s Attorney John Boyle was demanding the death penalty against the boys and with their guilt a foregone conclusion, defense attorneys shifted their arguments away from the crime itself and focused on what they claimed were illegal extortions of confessions by Chicago detectives. In addition to being beaten, they said, Emil Reck had been kept incommunicado and without the benefit of an attorney for nearly eighty hours. The jury was not impressed by their arguments. This was simply the way that things had to be done sometimes in those days and both Reck and Livingston were convicted on May 20, 1936, barely escaping the electric chair. Having no active role in the murder, Livingston was sentenced to 30 years. Reck’s punishment was set at 199 years, just like the other boys.
But the story of Emil Reck simply refused to go away. In 1961, the American Civil Liberties Union presented oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the mentally challenged man and in a 7-2 decision; the high court threw out Reck’s confession and ordered the case to be re-tried. The new charges against Reck were dismissed for lack of evidence, bringing this strange and tragic case to a close – and leaving behind an impression of brutality and corruption that still haunts the Chicago police department to this day.