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The 150th Birthday of the Chicago Mayor Who Was Killed by a Bullet Meant for FDR

Daniel Hautzinger
FDR stands next to Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, holding his hand up
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Anton Cermak in Chicago in 1932. Photo: DN-0104850, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the future mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak was born in an area of Austria-Hungary that is now part of the Czech Republic. The above photo of him with Franklin Delano Roosevelt was taken in 1932, a year before Cermak’s death as a result of his relationship with Roosevelt. FDR won the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate against Herbert Hoover at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year.

Cermak was mayor of Chicago at the time, having ended the notorious William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson’s second term as mayor by defeating him in the 1931 election. Cermak won in part thanks to the new coalition he had built as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party beginning in 1928. Whereas the party had previously been dominated by the Irish, Cermak brought in other ethnic communities and immigrants, including Germans, Poles, Czechs like himself, and Jews—many of them opposed to the nativism of Thompson. 

Cermak had a legitimate claim to connection with such working class immigrants. He celebrated his first birthday on Ellis Island, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he worked various hard labor jobs as he grew up in Braidwood, southwest of Chicago—including in the coal mines with his father—and Chicago itself. He eventually became active in politics, becoming a precinct captain and winning election to the Illinois House of Representatives, Chicago City Council, and Cook County Board, where he served as president. (When he was elected for the second time to City Council, he succeeded a fellow Czech, Otto Kerner, Sr., whose son Otto Kerner, Jr. married Cermak’s daughter Helena in 1934 and eventually became governor of Illinois.) 

The powerful Democratic machine that Cermak helped build lasted through the era of Richard J. Daley, who, like Cermak, served as chair of the Cook County Democratic Party—but unlike Cermak, Daley kept that role even while he was mayor. Every mayor of Chicago since Cermak has been a Democrat. 

After FDR’s victory in the 1932 presidential election, Cermak visited Miami with the president-elect. On February 15, 1933, a man named Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate FDR there, but missed and shot Cermak instead. According to FDR’s biographer Jean Edward Smith, a woman standing next to Zangara hit his arm as he fired, ruining his shot. FDR was unharmed, but Cermak suffered in a hospital for several weeks before dying on March 6, 1933, two days after FDR’s inauguration. Zangara was executed two weeks later. (Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which Zangara successfully killed FDR, resulting in the Axis powers’ victory in World War II.)

Cermak was buried in the Czech-founded Bohemian National Cemetery on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Twenty-second St., which runs through a number of formerly Czech areas such as Pilsen, Little Village, Cicero, and Berwyn, was renamed Cermak Road.