In January 1990 the Chicago Reader did something unlike itself: It launched a crusade. But though John Conroy’s “House of Screams” was the first of 23 articles he would write on Commander Jon Burge and police torture, at the time he and the Reader would not have guessed there would even be a second. The subject of police torture was so sensational Conroy assumed the dailies would take it on and take it over.
“House of Screams” was Conroy’s meticulous account of the troubles of someone it was just about impossible to care about. Andrew Wilson was arrested in 1982 for the murder of two police officers who’d pulled his car over. Absurdly, Wilson emerged as victim number three. He insisted that after his arrest he’d been brutalized at Area 2 police headquarters, electroshock being the most sinister of the techniques employed. The scars on Wilson’s body backed him up. Moreover, his lawyers, from the People’s Law Office, discovered other suspects in unrelated investigations who claimed they’d been similarly tortured at the same place.
Like Andrew Wilson, they’d been convicted of murder. Unlike Wilson, many weren’t necessarily guilty. “Guys on death row!” says Conroy today. “We were so sure the dailies were going to pick up on this.”
Wilson sued the city, the suit went to trial, and after six weeks the first trial, in 1989, ended in a mistrial. Conroy was there every day of it. The retrial lasted eight weeks, and the jury came to a bizarre conclusion: Yes, Chicago had a de facto policy of abusing suspected cop killers; and yes, Wilson’s constitutional rights were violated. But no, they weren’t necessarily violated because of this policy—the jury foreman told Conroy the tell-tale scars were probably due to the cops’ “emotional outburst.” Burge, who’d commanded the violent crimes unit at Area 2, and the other defendants under his command were all acquitted.
Should the mere finding of systematic police abuse have sent the mainstream media springing into action? Of course. But beyond the Reader, whose staff was exhilarated by Conroy’s reporting, the response to “House of Screams” was apathetic. Police torture in Chicago was a subject hardly anyone but the victims and their lawyers seemed capable of taking seriously. In that era, Conroy remembers, “the level of suspicion of the police was virtually nil.” In 1993 the police board fired Burge, and that might have been that.
So Conroy decided to keep writing. From 1996 to 2007 he wrote 22 more stories, most of them for the Reader’s front page. And as obsessiveness is not a popular trait at newspapers, where institutional wisdom holds that belabored themes send readers fleeing, Conroy ran into opposition from within. “After he wrote the first one,” Mike Lenehan, the Reader’s editor at the time of “House of Screams,” recently told the Reader’s Mark Jacob, “he wanted to keep hammering at it—which he did, thank God he did—but I didn’t want to do the story again. He came with the second one, I said, ‘Aw, come on John, we’ve done this already.’”
Conroy allows that his second piece, “Town Without Pity,” hot off the press in January 1996, did go over some old ground. But it needed going over. “Police torture,” the subhead read. “The courts know about it, the media know about it, and chances are you know about it. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?” And after that, Conroy produced one or two new stories a year, introducing new victims: Darrell Cannon, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley; puzzling over the city’s inertia (“The next state’s attorney to investigate police torture in Chicago will be the first,” said a subhed in 2003); trying to fathom the perpetrators. In 2004 Conroy, drawing on his 2000 book on torture, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, explained that what torturers everywhere have in common is the belief they’re doing the right thing. A 2005 piece reported that Burge became familiar with electroshock techniques as an MP in Vietnam.
I had a small piece of the action. I was one of Conroy’s editors, and as months went by between his stories, the arrival of each new one was an event. I’d drive out to Conroy’s home in Oak Park early in the evening, arriving soon after his wife, Colette Davidson, brought tarts and a Bundt cake out of the oven. And I’d feast, as Conroy set a huge binder of documents on the kitchen table and, page by page, hour upon hour, we’d double-check everything he’d written.
That wasn’t the end of it. Each story was vetted by David Andich, our lawyer, and although Conroy claims generously not to remember his good nature being tested those last nights before publication, what I remember is my shuttle diplomacy between Conroy on the phone and editor in chief Alison True in her office a few steps from mine as they negotiated, past everyone’s point of exhaustion, changes I wasn’t sure mattered. We can’t go on like this, I’d think as, eventually, past midnight, I dragged myself to the State and Grand subway station.
And we did. Journalism, even at its highest level, can be a painful slog.
This year Chicago’s Invisible Institute created an online “torture archive” where it’s claimed that Burge and his men committed violence against more than 100 African Americans during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. In 2016 the city paid $5.5 million to 57 victims, as new names continued to dribble in. But there’s been no videotape, no George Floyd-Derek Chauvin or Laquan McDonald-Jason Van Dyke moment to galvanize the public, and no criminal trial of any officer for physical abuse. Yes, in 2011 Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, but that was for lying under oath in a civil case, not for anything he did or countenanced in his “house of screams.” Nobody else has been prosecuted.
In 1990, when Conroy wrote the first of his torture stories, the Reader was fat and prosperous. By November 2007, when he wrote his last, the world of journalism had changed. The collapse of classified advertising was gutting the paper’s finances, and just four months earlier it had been sold by the founding owners to Creative Loafing, an alt-weekly chain based in Atlanta that would declare bankruptcy a year later.
Creative Loafing slashed True’s budget, and Conroy’s slow, methodical investigations became unaffordable. In December, True dismissed four of her best reporters, and Conroy was one of them. He covered Burge’s trial four years later as a blogger for Vocalo.
By the time True herself was fired in 2010, the Reader was controlled by an investment firm in New York. “House of Screams”—by now in-house shorthand for Conroy’s nearly 18 years of reporting—stands as the icon of Reader investigative journalism, but Conroy wonders what it actually accomplished, and grants that editors who suggested he find a new subject had a point. “I was blowing on the same horn over and over again,” he says wistfully, recalling a conversation with True. “Nothing had changed. We’d said this over and over and nobody’s listening, and could we have more effect doing something else?”
“He’d come to me with another case and I’d say something awful like ‘People will stop caring. We can’t just write about another victim.’ I was afraid readers would get numb. And once the abuse became well-known, an accepted fact in other media, we needed to find ways to emphasize the larger group of people who were responsible. He kept hitting higher up the chain, culminating in a Who’s Who feature that spelled out what they knew and when they knew it.”
Some of the who’s who in that 2006 story had been police superintendents. Others had been state’s attorneys. One of those state’s attorneys was now, during the years Conroy wrote about police torture, the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley.
“Bad cops needed to be stopped,” True reflected, “but once their pattern of tor-turing confessions out of detainees had been exposed, revealing the underlying network of enablers became the most important thing we could do. There were hardly any repercussions—only one guy [Burge] ever took the fall, and it was over perjury. I always wonder if things would have been different if the outrage could have gone viral. The other offenders were able to retire from the police jobs on the public dime, or even have second careers, and the higher-ups who knew about the practice have never been held to account. And of course the racism that explains the entire scandal is still rampant.”
It was Conroy’s pending book project on torture that led him to “House of Screams.” A play he wrote on police torture, My Kind of Town, led from it; it was performed by TimeLine Theatre to high critical praise in 2012. But too often, the journalism itself seemed to be not only its own but its only reward. Conroy, who worked from home, says he didn’t even know until now how proud his reporting had made the Reader’s rank and file. At least his wife Colette could be sure of the triumph of her Bundt cakes.