- Written by webmin
Editor’s note: In recent conversations with crime writer Rose Keefe, we learned that in 2008 she’d researched the murder of Billy Bate, the first man believed to have been murdered in an automobile. She has generously allowed us to share that story, taken from her pamphlet “The Bate Auto Murder.”
In 1904, Americans regarded the automobile as more of a novelty item than a viable mode of transportation. “Horseless carriages” were impressive but impractical: their intricate machinery was prone to breaking down and the wheels were easily damaged by unpaved roads. When Horatio Nelson Jackson completed his widely-publicized drive across the continent in 1903, it was suggested that the automobile could be more than just a fad or rich man’s hobby. But years would pass before cars replaced carriages on American streets and roads.
On the cold gray morning of November 19, 1904, the automobile acquired a sinister new use. A young chauffeur from Chicago became the first victim of the one-way ride, that form of motorized murder destined to depopulate the city’s underworld during the 1920s and beyond.
It was nine o’clock on the evening of Friday, November 18, 1904. The arc lights that lined Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago pierced the gloomy night and shone on the street traffic, which at that hour consisted mostly of hansom cabs and carriages bringing the city’s aristocracy to late dinners or the theatre. Few pedestrians were about except for those on their way to the Studebaker to see Mabel Taliaferro in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
A man carrying a canvas suitcase entered the lobby of the Auditorium Hotel. The visitor was of medium height and slender build, and his dark hair and moustache were impeccably groomed. He wore a tan raincoat that concealed all of his clothing except for a bright red necktie with a diamond pin. Giving his surname as Dove, he asked the telephone operator, Eddie Slavin, to order him a car from Dan Canary’s garage. When the party who answered quoted a rate of five dollars an hour, Dove mulled it over for a few minutes before agreeing.
Twenty minutes later a dark green, four-passenger Toledo touring car pulled up in front of the hotel. The driver, 21-year-old John William Bate Junior, parked the machine and strode into the ornate lobby, his long, dark coat flapping in the night breeze. Pushing his automobile cap off his forehead, he went to the front desk and told the clerk that he was there to pick up a Mr. Dove.
“Billy” Bate, as his friends called him, was a college graduate who had come to Chicago to work as a chauffeur. His father, John Bate, was superintendent of the Mitchell Motor Car Company in Racine, Wisconsin, but Billy had no interest in the business side of the automobile trade. He loved being behind the wheel: An acquaintance later remarked that he would sooner drive than eat. Bate had been a private chauffeur for several wealthy gentlemen before joining Dan Canary’s troupe of drivers in 1903.
Dove appeared while Bate was still speaking to the desk clerk. Declining an offer to carry his suitcase, the man followed the chauffeur outside. After making sure that Dove was comfortably settled on the car’s plush rear seat, Bate cranked the motor, got behind the wheel, and drove south on Michigan Avenue.
He had no idea that he was about to be murdered.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, Lemont farmer John Freihaus found a Toledo touring car parked at the side of the road running between his place and that of his son Peter. The old man, who was nearsighted, approached until he could make out the form of the driver, who was sitting upright in his seat, head slightly tilted to one side. Believing the man to be drunk, Freihaus shook his sleeve. When he received no response, the farmer became uneasy and hurried to his son’s home a quarter-mile away, returning minutes later with Peter Freihaus and some hired hands.
The younger Freihaus saw instantly what his father’s dim eyesight had missed: blood on the car’s outer door and mud guards. He took one look at the chauffeur’s gore-matted hair and still face, and announced, “This man is dead.”
Billy Bate still gripped the steering wheel even in death. His vacant eyes stared sightlessly at the road ahead. Powder marks ringed the two bullet holes in his head. A cartridge shell was found in a pool of blood on the floor.
Mr. Dove, his passenger, was nowhere to be seen.
John and Peter Freihaus harnessed a team and drove to the nearby town of Lemont, where they reported their grisly find to the mayor and the town marshal. After telephoning Coroner Traeger in Chicago, both officials hurried to the scene of the crime with Dr. J.A. Leahy and Undertaker O’Brien.
Dr. Leahy declared that death must have been sudden as well as instantaneous. Bate was in a natural driving position, with one hand on the wheel and his feet on the pedals. Whoever killed him must have moved the automobile afterward, as it stood on the roadside at an angle and the brass front had glove prints on it.
Documents found in the young man’s pockets disclosed his identity and that of his employer, who was notified of the murder by telephone. A shaken Dan Canary joined two Chicago detectives at the murder site.
The garage owner had checked the log book for information about Billy Bate’s last passenger, now missing and wanted. He believed that a man named Dove had rented his company’s cars before, but could not remember specifics. As for Bate, Canary stated, “(He) was a straightforward, honest young fellow. I never heard of his having any enemies and I don’t believe that anyone ever called (the garage) to make trouble for him.” He added that when the Dove booking was made, no particular chauffeur had been requested, so it was not likely that Billy Bate had been marked for execution beforehand.
Canary believed that the murder resulted from two possible scenarios. The first was that Bate had been killed in an argument over the fare.
“We have a great deal of trouble from a certain class of patrons,” he explained. “A man will order a car by telephone, giving a fictitious name such as John Doe, which may be the name for which Dove was misunderstood. The man will take a party out for a night’s hilarity and along in the morning, when they are all drunk, they will refuse to pay the fare. Then there is trouble. The chauffeur tries to collect by stopping his machine and refusing to go farther. Sometimes there is a fight, but oftener the chauffeur is only one against a gang and can do nothing but submit. Then we lose out on the fare altogether.”
The second theory, which he favored, was that Bate had been killed because he overheard some intrigue between his passenger and another party who joined them during the ill-fated drive. There was no proof that a third person had ever been in the car, but Canary argued that this notion made more sense than the fare scenario.
“Bate was apparently not stopping in a refusal to go farther without pay when he was killed. He was shot while the car was in motion, climbing a hill. He may have refused to go farther away from the city without pay, but he was returning when shot and it is likely the passengers would have let him bring them back nearer the city if it was only a quarrel over the fare. I am more convinced than ever that these fellows were up to some mischief and that they incautiously let Bate overhear their plans. Then they got scared and killed him.”
The automobile’s interior was so bloody that the coroner’s physician, Joseph Springer, believed that more than one person had been killed. The chauffeur’s seat and the floor directly behind it were coated with gore. But there was also a large quantity of blood on the left cushions of the rear seat, over thirty-four inches from where Bate had been sitting. Dr. Springer argued that the driver’s murder alone could not account for so much blood.
Assisted by local farmers, detectives combed the woods and fields of the surrounding countryside for traces of a possible second victim and, hopefully, the killer himself. Barns, sheds and haystacks were searched, and a pond near the murder site was dragged on the off chance that the gun had been tossed in it, but nothing was found.
If there had been a second murder, critics asked, how could Bate have been shot while he was driving and facing ahead? If another person had been gunned down in the rear seat, would the chauffeur not have turned around in response to the noise? Proponents of the dual murder theory replied that Bate must have been killed first. But then why would the murderer hide one corpse but not the other?
Detectives learned that at approximately 10:30 p.m. the night before, Bate and Dove had visited George Welbourne’s saloon at Summit, which stood at the Chicago city limits, and requested directions to Joliet. An hour later, farmer John Seiler was awakened by the pair banging on his front door and asking if they were at Kirk’s roadhouse. Upon receiving a negative response, they left. Mrs. Seiler, who was watching from a downstairs window, thought that she saw a woman in the car with the two men. Her statement led to a temporary speculation that Bate and Dove had been joined by a woman who was later killed along with the chauffeur. Another short-lived theory was that Dove had been a woman, perhaps a jilted lover of Bate’s, disguised as a man.
Lieutenant Ronan of the Chicago Police Department offered a plausible explanation for the inordinate quantity of blood found in the machine. He thought that Bate could have been attacked by Dove after he refused to go further without additional pay. During the ensuing struggle, the chauffeur might have grabbed a wrench or similar weapon and struck his violent passenger on the head, drawing blood. When Dove collapsed on the seat, Bate headed back toward Chicago. With his attention focused on the dark road, he would have been unaware that his assailant had regained consciousness until it was too late.
The preliminary inquest, which was presided over by Dr. Springer and Deputy Coroner John W. Buell, caused a sensation in Lemont. Hundreds of farmers drove into town for the event. The “auto murder” was the number one topic of conversation in homes and public gathering places. When officials went to look at Bate’s car during an adjournment in the inquest, the crowd around the stable where it was being stored was so dense that police had to clear a way through.
Moses Koenigsberg, city editor for William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American, lunged for a scoop the moment he learned of the Lemont tragedy. He assembled a journalistic strike force that he called in his 1941 memoir, King News, “as lusty a band of brigands as ever scuttled a competitor’s scoop or looted a hold of photographs.” Led by veteran “brigand” Jack Lait, the Hearst squad ambushed Deputy Coroner Buell on Monday morning, November 21, and escorted him to a saloon.
“Such records as are available on the subject show that Buell resisted the onset,” Koenigsberg wrote. “But the vigor of his resistance decreased with each quarter-hour in the saloon across the street. While he manfully coped at the bar with two of his abductors, the other two were speeding to the American offices. They carried a bag full of intriguing items that Deputy Coroner Buell intended to deliver to his chief, Coroner Traeger.” The bag contained photos and letters that had been taken from the murder victim’s body. After photographic copies were made, the items were discreetly returned to the coroner’s office.
A two page spread appeared in the next edition of the American. The purloined photos of Billy Bate, his mother, and a girlfriend were reproduced for the world to gawk at, along with saccharine love letters from the girl and miscellaneous pieces of written memoranda. Additional digging into Bate’s past revealed that the young man had been well-known in the Levee, Chicago’s festering vice district. He had worked as a chauffeur for Andy Craig, a prominent gambler and brothel owner, as well as racetrack figure Ed Wagner. There was no evidence of scandalous behavior on Bate’s part, but his prior connection to Levee figures like Craig and Wagner titillated the public and sold newspapers.
On November 30, the coroner’s jury ruled that the “deceased came to his death from shock and haemorrhage following bullet wounds in his head and fired from a revolver held in the hand of some person unknown.” The inquiry concluded, a chauffeur sent down to Lemont by Dan Canary drove the now famous Toledo back to Chicago. An enormous crowd gathered outside the Canary garage on Wabash Avenue, anxious to catch a glimpse of the car when it arrived, and the office phone rang constantly with requests to rent it.
While Dan Canary fended off the curious, the authorities tried to track down the mysterious Mr. Dove. He apparently went to the nearby town of Romeo after leaving the death site: A young man matching his description knocked on the door of Fred Boehm’s saloon at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. When he received no response, he stretched out on a bench on the front porch and went to sleep. At 6 a.m. Mrs. Boehm let him into the kitchen and gave him a cup of coffee, but when he demanded breakfast, her husband ordered him away.
From Romeo the man believed to be Dove took an electric car to Joliet. At seven-thirty that evening, he walked into Fred Hauser’s hotel at 117 South Joliet Street and said in excited tones to Mrs. Hauser, “Give me a room at once.”
“Well, sit down a minute,” the woman replied, slightly alarmed at his agitated state.
“No. Give me a room. A room is what I want.”
Mrs. Hauser called her 17-year-old nephew John Smith, who showed him a room. John later recalled, “He seemed to rush around like a wild man. He told me at the time he lived in Pittsburgh, and that when he was home he did not have to pay for his board. He said his folks were well off, but he did not get on well with them on account of a girl whom they wanted him to marry, but he couldn’t see anything in her.”
Dove complained that he was tired and wanted to go right to bed, but soon after settling in, he left the hotel and walked to a drugstore, where he purchased a bottle of benzene. (The bottle was later found hidden in his mattress.) Its presumed use was to clean bloodstains from his coat.
Fred Hauser and his wife thought that their guest was extremely nervous over something. He paced the floor of his room most of the night, and did not come downstairs for breakfast or lunch. At 4 p.m. Hauser went to his room and asked him if he wanted something to eat. Dove responded that he was not feeling well. As Hauser turned to leave, the man suddenly asked him to go out for a drink, so they went to a saloon down the street. Dove’s hands trembled so much that he could barely hold his glass.
After parting company with Hauser, the man wandered over to a livery stable and tried to rent a horse and buggy. The owner, suspicions aroused by his jittery behavior, questioned him. Dove explained that he lived close by and wanted to take his sister driving. Everyone who witnessed the exchange thought that the man acted insane. When the owner refused him, Dove babbled something about having enough money and pulled out a woman’s gold watch as proof.
When Dove returned to the hotel at 5:30, he asked for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. He offered Mrs. Hauser a large bill in payment. When she said that she could not make change, he agreed to pay the next day. A few minutes later someone knocked on the front door, so Mrs. Hauser went to answer it. It was a uniformed police officer.
At the sight of the policeman, Dove left the kitchen, hurried up to his room, and packed. When he came downstairs, he encountered John Smith. “Get me a drink,” he ordered gruffly. While the teenager complied, Dove laid his grip and overcoat down and reached into his hip pocket. Smith then noticed that the man was carrying two revolvers, and jumped back instinctively. Dove laughed at his reaction and produced a handkerchief instead. Then he slipped out the back door and hurried in the direction of the Rock Island tracks. He was soon lost to view.
The trail went cold after Dove left the Hauser hotel. With each passing day, the likelihood of his apprehension became more remote. Then, at the end of November, Chicago authorities received a tip that a Bridewell escapee named George Hugg not only looked like Dove, but had also used the same surname as an alias on occasion.
George W. Hugg was a petty thief and con man who had once been a newsboy. Nicknamed “Shorty,” he maintained a stand at Halsted and Monroe for years. Then he disappeared. When he resurfaced, he was wearing flashy suits and claiming to be a physician, Dr. Dove.
Milwaukee authorities arrested him for vagrancy on September 5, 1903, after he was caught posing as a medical student and health officer. Hugg’s criminal record included a term at Waupun penitentiary in Wisconsin for theft and a Bridewell sentence for robbery. In October 1904 he escaped from the latter institution, and was still at large.
A detective named Sheehan obtained a photo of Hugg from the Bureau of Identification and showed it to Eddie Slavin, the Auditorium Hotel telephone operator. Slavin, however, was unable to make a positive identification. Undeterred, Sheehan then presented the picture to all the parties who had seen Bate and his mysterious passenger on November 18. Some were sure that it was the elusive Dove, while others were just as emphatic in denying it.
Nothing in George Hugg’s record suggested that he had homicidal tendencies. But his use of the alias Dove and the fact that some of the witnesses identified him as the jittery killer were enough for the police to launch a massive manhunt.
Newspapers everywhere published his mug shot, and reported sightings poured in. But eventually Hugg was dropped as a suspect: Either he was located and satisfied the police of his innocence, or his lack of a violent history caused interest in him to wane.
Chicago detectives worked for months to catch Billy Bate’s killer. Among the suspects brought in for questioning was the notorious con man Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who resembled Dove physically. But the evidence was insufficient to charge any of them, and as time passed, police resources were siphoned into newer, more alarming cases, such as the hunt for serial wife killer Johann Hoch.
The murder of William Bate Junior was destined to remain unsolved. His nocturnal assassination on a lonely country road set an example that Chicago’s gangsters and racketeers would faithfully follow almost twenty years later. Farmers and other rural dwellers soon roamed their fields and lanes with trepidation, never knowing when they would stumble upon the bullet-riddled corpse of a well-dressed stranger. Big city violence spilled into the country in 1904, and the stain was never removed.
Rose Keefe is the author of The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster, which is both a biography of Manhattan crime lord Big Jack Zelig and an examination of his mysterious role in the Becker- Rosenthal case of 1912. Guns and Roses, the Untold Story of Dean O’Banion, Chicago’s Big Shot Before Al Capone and The Man Who Got Away: the Bugs Moran Story are her two other books. She is currently working on her second New York-themed book, the first biography of “Bill the Butcher” Poole, the nativist gang leader who inspired the Daniel Day-Lewis character in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. She appears frequently on television and radio specials to talk about America’s gangster history.