Czech Republic Magazine

On this Day, in 1933: Czech-born mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak died after being shot at Miami event


On March 6, 1933, Anton Joseph Cermak, the Czech-born mayor of Chicago died in a Miami hospital from wounds sustained during a suspected assassination attempt against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Born in 1873 in Kladno, a city north-west of Prague in then Austria-Hungary, to a family of miners, Antonín Josef Čermák and his parents immigrated the following year to Illinois during one of the first big waves of Czechs immigration across the Atlantic.

An enterprising young Bohemian in Chicago

After following in his father’s coal mining footsteps during his teenage years, he moved to Chicago at the age of 16 to try his luck in a string of odd jobs in a city where the Czechoslovak minority exceeded 100,000 at the time. Successful and full of energy, he soon started his own haulage business, on top of various other enterprising ventures.

“He really took like a duck to water in the cosmopolitan atmosphere [of Chicago]”, historian Josef Opatrný explained in a Radio Prague interview. “He quickly realised that the differences between the numerous ethnic groups living there could prove to be politically important. He started to get involved in the Democratic Party.”

A Democratic Precinct captain, Cermak rose through the ranks quickly: he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1902, served as alderman of the 12th Ward and chairman of the Cook County Democracy Party, but unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in 1928. Credited with overhauling the Democratic Party’s local presence, he managed to gain the support of top African American politicians and appeal to key minorities living side-by-side in the multi-ethnic city.

The peak of his career came in the troubled early 1930’s, when Chicago was facing the combined effects of the Great Depression, Prohibition, and organised crime violence.

Going against the political power structure which had until now largely favoured Irish Americans, he was elected mayor of Chicago on April 6, 1931, with 58% of the vote, beating his Republican opponent and quickly making powerful enemies due to his tough stance on Prohibition and organised crime syndicates.

A fateful shooting and many questions

During a public event in Miami on February 15, 1933, Cermak was shot in the lung and mortally wounded by one Giuseppe Zangara while shaking hands with President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to the most common version of events, Zangara, an Italian-American anarchist, had been aiming at FDR, but missed his shot after a bystander hit his arm with her purse. Four other people were injured in the shooting.

Others however claim Cermak was indeed the target, and that the assassination was a direct result of the mayor’s pledge to clean up Chicago’s streets from organised crime syndicates, and possibly ordered by Al Capone himself, then imprisoned. “I think that it was most likely an attack on Mayor Cermak. But of course, American historians have been arguing about this [for decades] and still haven’t come to a conclusion,” professor Josef Opatrný admits.

Cermak died at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital on March 6, several weeks after the shooting. Although it is believed that the gunshot wound was indeed the cause of death, other factors may have contributed. His personal physician claimed that Cermak died of ulcerative colitis, saying “the wound had healed […] and the other complications were not directly due to the bullet wound.” Others suggest that Cermak would have survived the incident had it not been for errors committed by doctors.

Originally sentenced to 80 years in prison for attempted murder, Zangara was sentenced to death after Cermak passed away, and executed by the electric chair on March 20.

The second mayor of Chicago to be assassinated, Cermak was interred in a mausoleum at the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago. A commemorative plaque was installed at the site of the incident in Miami’s Bayfront Park, with the words “I’m glad it was me instead of you”, words allegedly uttered by Cermak to Roosevelt, although their veracity has long been questioned as well.

Although having left his homeland when he was only 1 year-old, Cermak spoke fluent Czech and maintained regular contacts with what had become Czechoslovakia after the First World War. He is still seen today as one of the most prominent Czech Americans in history.

Find out more about Central European history in our On This Day series.