There are many tragic murder cases that have become lodged in Chicago’s collective memory.
There are also many that have been forgetten, lost to history without a closer look into what really happened.
One of those was the 1976 killing of a teenager named John Hughes, shot from a car in a city park in Canaryville on the Southwest Side. His bright future was snuffed out while he was still in high school, part of a feud between teens along ethnic lines in his neighborhood.
As I learned about the details of the case from retired Chicago police detective Jim Sherlock, it was clear the story of the killing needed a thorough review. What followed was my book, “Murder in Canaryville: The True Story Behind a Cold Case and a Chicago Cover-Up.”
Sherlock found a winding case with tentacles far outside Canaryville and neighboring Bridgeport. There were signs that many in the police department did not want the case solved, and that interest was shared by the Chicago Outfit and some of the city’s most powerful politicians, as the case was investigated at a police station just a few doors from the ancestral home of Chicago’s Daley family.
Sherlock would do his best to give the Hughes family justice, and the book is a best attempt to bring this true Chicago story into the light.
Here’s a look into how the story begins.
Excerpted from “Murder in Canaryville: The True Story Behind a Cold Case and a Chicago Cover-Up” by Jeff Coen (Chicago Review Press, $28.99).
Jim Sherlock sat in a black Jeep Cherokee on a residential street in a town more than fifty miles from Chicago.
The SUV was unmarked, but he had made sure to use a vehicle that you could see had bars of emergency lights lined inside its windows, if you had a reason to look a little closer.
Months of peeling open aging records, jogging the memories of crusty old cops, and finding people who still remembered what happened, and here Sherlock was. There was little more to do than slip the Cherokee into park and watch. The house and the street were still. A typical street in a typical town just beyond the outer reaches of suburbia. The concrete had given way to subdivisions, which had given way to corn, which had given way to this.
He was a Chicago police detective. And yes, people always stopped on his name when he identified himself on the street or at the start of interviews.
“Detective Sherlock?” they would say.
“Right. You’ll have to do better than that, pal. Where’s Watson?”
He didn’t blame them. He had made the jokes himself on occasion.
For years he had been on loan to the FBI, including a stint working cold cases, and for months he had been obsessed with this one. It would be his very last before retirement. It involved a murder four decades earlier, in a neighborhood that he knew well. It had ripped a teenager from his Irish American family and broken them. It was a family not unlike the one Sherlock himself had grown up in.
In many ways, Sherlock knew he was pulling on his final thread. He needed the man in the house to talk to him and tell him about a night more than 40 years earlier. The car. The park. The gun. Sherlock believed the man held the key to the case that had proven to be among the most challenging and the most remarkable of his career. He believed dark forces at the intersection of Chicago government, police, and organized crime had worked to keep justice from being done, and he was out to change that.
But Sherlock’s time with a badge was running out. He would need to work quickly to see this file stamped “Solved”before going on vacation, or moving on to the next stage of his life.
In any event, there was a very good chance the man in the house would already know what this was about and why an undercover police vehicle was sitting on his street. He had probably heard that the case that had dogged him for so many years had been reopened—again.
That was the way the neighborhoods worked.
Start asking questions, especially about a case like this one, and word traveled like an electric pulse across the grid of streets and alleys of Canaryville and Bridgeport. Through the family networks. Through the churches. Through the brick taverns and corner stores. Sherlock had been amazed how quickly he had gotten to the point at which he would call someone about the case and the person on the line would say someone already had told them Sherlock was poking around. Within days. Probably hours. So by now the information relay had almost certainly made it even here, to the town where the man Sherlock was watching now lived. This man had picked up and left Canaryville and Bridgeport for good long ago.
That was not the way the neighborhoods worked.
Clans there spread across generations, and roots ran deep. Irish, Italian, and Croatian families had ridden out good times and bad in Canaryville and Bridgeport and had stayed through the ’60s and ’70s, when African Americans began to move in great numbers into areas around them. The White youths had met that perceived threat with curses and rocks. It was a sad history that carried back to the city’s 1919 race riots, which saw many hundreds of people killed in the area in clashes sparked by the drowning of a Black teen whose raft had drifted too close to a South Side beach claimed by Whites. To many, the neighborhoods were a fortress against a changing city, and they have long been key geography in Chicago’s ongoing struggles with racism.
To most Chicagoans, Bridgeport was an ancestral stronghold of sorts, and a political enclave that was synonymous with the Daleys. But mention many other family surnames in these neighborhoods and their longtime residents could also tell you the street each of those families lived on, whom their kids hung out with in grade school, and probably which Mass they attended. That was the real fabric. Politics, yes. But family first.
Even in the new century, these neighborhoods are old Chicago. That old city fades but never completely weathers away. It’s there in the bricks peeking from a newly opened pothole. There in a painted sign for a long-closed business that slowly disappears on a building. And there in the phantom rail tracks that appear on a side street, forever headed to nowhere.
And of course it is there in the faces and voices of those who lived in Chicago long before meatpackers gave way to tech lofts, the world’s largest Starbucks moved to Michigan Avenue, and international tourists appeared in droves to take selfies in front of a polished metal bean.
The Canaryville and Bridgeport of 1976 were not so glossy. They sat on the near Southwest Side, where Chicago’s work got done. Canaryville was believed to be so named for the swarms of small birds that once flocked to the old Union Stock Yards, where untold millions of hogs and cattle were gathered in a sea of pens and butchered for shipment across America. The neighborhood was home to tidy blocks of bungalows and two-flats owned by laborers, many of them Irish, and functioned more like its own town. Many residents knew as youngsters where they would go to church their whole lives and where they would be buried. The city’s foundation grew here. They were proud of it.
Bridgeport, too, gave its sweat to the yards. Its history is filled with tales of Chicago laborers, many of them immigrants, who toughed out challenging conditions in their new city to make a path for their families. Some historians note that one of the area’s first place names was telling enough: “Hardscrabble,” which could have described Bridgeport for decades. It grew up along the Illinois and Michigan Canal before becoming a political seat of power for the Daleys.
Those, of course, are some of the better things that can be said about it. It was also insular to a fault. “It’s a suspicious neighborhood,” legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote of it in 1971 in his seminal book “Boss”: “a blend of Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish, German, and all White. In the bars, heads turn when a stranger comes in. Blacks pass through in cars, but are unwise to travel by on foot.”
Celebrations in 1976 marked the United States bicentennial. The Sears Tower already spiked above the Loop in the distance as a sign of things to come, but lifelong residents of Canaryville and Bridgeport who were senior citizens that year had lived as children in the Chicago of Al Capone.
No, the secrets would not come easily. Jim Sherlock knew it, and that was fine. Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, Clarence Darrow supposedly once said. Maybe that’s what this was. Whatever truth was buried here, whatever the streets of Bridgeport and Canaryville would dish out, he would take. He was as Chicago as they were—in some ways the perfect person to take this up and not look back.
The town where Sherlock found himself that day in 2019 was called Sandwich, and the name was fitting. He wanted the man in the house across the street from where the undercover car was parked to feel like he was in one.
Sherlock had already spoken to the town’s police chief to let him know what he would be doing there. He had told the chief the man was no real danger to anyone, and Sherlock needed no help or backup. The idea was to be seen and to shake up his target, make him think the investigation was much larger and more active than it was. The man inside the house might start to wonder why this unfamiliar SUV was sitting across from his home, and when the man took a moment to look more closely, he would realize it was a police vehicle.
In fact, this wasn’t the only car Sherlock had used to sit in roughly this spot, hoping it would seem like multiple officers were on a rotating surveillance detail. It had been a silver Dodge on a prior visit. He was hopeful but not sure it was working, or if it would make any difference at all.
But cases like this one—the stubborn ones that lodge themselves in Chicago lore and stay there—those were the ones that were worth the work. Worth the months sifting through dusty files. Worth sitting in a car for hours and doing nothing.
Well, not always nothing. Sometimes Sherlock made it look like he was taking notes or jotting down something important, just in case his target was watching. He glanced out the Cherokee’s window to check the house again.
Sherlock wanted the man inside to look.
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