February 9, 2011

Lost Milwaukee #2... Eight Days of Terror in 1935

For eight days in the fall of 1935, Milwaukee was gripped with panic. Five vicious dynamite blasts in five days had turned public buildings into armed camps. Newspaper accounts of the time say the city was nearly put under martial law. Then, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the reign of terror ended in one final, deadly explosion.

It started on the night of October 27th. A dynamite bomb placed in a drainpipe underneath Shorewood’s Village Hall (3930 N. Murray) rocked the building, damaging the foundation and shattering nearby windows. The panic began less than 24 hours later when two braches of the First Wisconsin National Bank were bombed. The first was just past six o’clock, causing structural damage to the 3602 W. Villard location. The second was a half-hour later at Farwell and North (now a US Bank branch).
The police were now certain the crimes were connected with the recent theft of 150 lbs of TNT from a local CCC project site. The next two nights were quiet, but on Halloween evening the panic would reach a pinnacle as two police precincts were targeted. At 6:45 the fifth district station at N 3rd and Hadley was hit, a bomb blowing a hole in the wall and nearly injuring several officers. Fifteen minutes later, the third district station at 12th and Vine suffered minor damage from similar attack.

Armed guards now stood watch over Milwaukee Police stations as detectives worked feverishly to track the stolen dynamite. Hundreds of tips poured in. A southside poolhall was raided but none of the forty-five men brought in were able to provide any clues. Wild rumors flew that the bombers were driving a stolen police cruiser. All the while the city held its breath.

A warning letter from the bomber sent two days before his death

The campaign of terror came to an end in horrific fashion. The bombers, twenty-one-year-old Hugh “Idzy” Rutkowski and 16-year-old Paul “Shrimp” Chevanek were building a massive ‘super bomb’ in a sheet iron shed behind 2121 W Mitchell St. One of pair was attempting to set an alarm clock that had been rigged up as a timing device when it went off. The explosion ignited some of the stolen dynamite stashed in the shed, nearly one hundred pounds worth. The two bombers were killed instantly, reduced to bits of flesh and bone. A nine-year-girl in a neighboring house, Patricia Mylnarek, was also killed. 11 people, including several members of the Mylnarek family suffered serious injuries. The blast tore through the block, damaging 40 buildings and shattering windows for blocks in all directions.

Rutkowski’s motives were never fully explained. Described at the time as the leader of a small gang and a social misfit, he was a petty crook with a rap sheet ranging from car theft to “parking.” He was unable to find work and his family suspected he had lost his mind. Found after the blast were barely-literate letters from Rutkowski to the police, demanding cash to stop his spree. He mocked the cops in broken sentences like “Polis gard sity ha ha ha – poooey on g mans.” The letters led police to believe he had intended the bomb for downtown… possibly targeting a movie theatre.

Journal illustration of the damage

It was four days before the cops could positively identify Rutkowski as the bomber. They finally matched his fingerprints to those of a severed and charred hand found on a garage roof a block away from the blast. It was found the same day little Patricia was laid to rest. 2,400 people attended her funeral service at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Another 25,000 filed past her casket during a two-day wake.

Patricia Mylnarerk, 9-year-old vicitm

The mangled remains of the two bombers were also put on display. They were held at the county morgue and according the Journal, were “visited by thousands.” That Saturday, the two were buried in a single casket at Forest Home Cemetery.

1 comment:

  1. My folks lived east of that site at 5th & Mitchell (Lapham St.) and I remember them telling us of that blast and carnage.