50 years later, alderman murder still open case

Ben Lewis
January 24, 2013 7:48:59 AM PST
Benjamin Lewis was the first black alderman ever elected in Chicago's 24th Ward, and he was the Democratic committeeman.

Lewis went around the West Side in slick business suits and fancy cars and he liked to be called the "big cat."

But he didn't have nine lives.

His ended 50 years ago.

One of Chicago's greatest crime mysteries is one that few people remember or have even heard of.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was in his second term.

And JFK was alive and well.

On that winter's night, 1963, Alderman Ben Lewis was fresh from his landslide re-election.

The one-time CTA bus driver was alone in his ward office that used to be on West Roosevelt Road.

"Lewis made $8,000 a year as alderman but yet he was living a million dollar lifestyle. He vacationed in Acapulco quite frequently, he was living well beyond his means," said historian and author Richard Lindberg.

Lewis was found by a janitor manacled to his office chair; the 53-year old alderman shot three times in the back of his head. Police said the .38 caliber gun barrel had been pressed against his scalp.

"It was clear he was tortured by his assailant, cigarettes had been burned into his skin, and then he was shot," said Lindberg.

Except for Lindberg and some other local crime buffs, this case seems to have vanished from Chicago history.

No doubt the assassination of President Kennedy, nine months later in November 1963, dulled the memories of Lewis' slaying.

But even backing up time to February 28, 1963, there was no widespread outrage. Newspapers and magazines reported the murder, one calling it "the return of the rubout," gangland-speak for a mob hit.

"The so-called Jewish faction of organized crime-the 24th ward was its home base," Lindberg said. "In those days you had Zucky 'The Bookie' Zuckerman, you had Lenny Patrick you had Dave Yaras, and many others overseeing the gambling in that district and controlling the illegal activities of that region."

Outfit killers Lenny Patrick and Dave Yaras were the killers, according to one FBI informant shortly after Lewis was killed, but the government never made a case.

In 1985, an ex-con boasted to neighbors that he killed Lewis, but that suspect died in a house fire before police could question him.

There is a street named in Lewis' honor, even though it's unclear whether he dishonored his position.

Fifty years later at a new Chicago police headquarters, his old case file is still open.

"This kind of treachery was nothing new to Chicago but the Ben Lewis murder kind of capped off an open lawlessness in the city with regards to its politicians that have been going on really since the time of Al Capone," said Lindberg. "Of course, with Chicago gangland history as it is, there were no arrests, there were no immediate suspects and the case went cold. It was one of 1,000 unsolved murders that was attributed to organized crime."

Chicago history is littered with the bodies of candidates and ward committeemen who lost elections by losing their lives. Lewis was the last politician to be murdered, but not the only alderman taken out.

In one case, 9th Ward City Councilman Michael Gaynor was shot and killed on Election Day 1884. An agitated political rival was quickly arrested and charged.

And to show you how things have changed, in less than two years, his killer was publicly hanged in the town square in Woodstock, Il. where he had been held.


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