Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Captain Jim Kolian Chicago Gang Leader

Captain Jim Kolian ran a gang of nine ghetto kids on Chicago’s west side. But the Captain wasn’t a kid; he was twenty-one and worked the kids for his amusement and profit. Some boys said he stood over them with a whip, threatening them if they didn’t do as he commanded. One time, he handed one of the boys a gun and told him to stand guard. “Shoot anyone who tries to interfere” was the order.[1]

 

Ike Khan and Sollie Cohen  (Chicago Tribune. November 15, 1901.)
Most of the boys were under twelve years old—some as young as seven. The Captain taught them how to steal, then sent them to the big stores downtown to grab what they could. He’d assembled a band of nine neighborhood kids in less than a year, among them—Sollie Cohen, Isador Kahn, Isaac Kahn, Charlie Meyers, James Klosiek, Charles Hadda, and Joe Kufner.

 

The only thing in the way of growing his operation was Policeman Francesca S. Capparelli, the truant officer. Capparelli kept rounding up Captain Jim’s kids and taking them back to school.

 

Things came to a head in November 1901 when the Captain decided Capparelli had to go.

 

“Jim told me to go to Rothschild’s store and take Ike Kahn,” said Sollie Cohen. “He told us to steal a revolver. When we got to the store, we couldn’t take anything because the man was watching us. He put us on the elevator and sent us downstairs, and said if he saw us in there again, he would have us locked up.

 

“When we went back to the Captain and told him, he was mad. He said he’d give us another trial. If we got the gun, he’d give us money, but we didn’t get it. We used to steal lots of times. We took lead pipe and other things, and then we would sell them and divide the money. Jim was mad at Capparelli.” He said, “if he made Charlie Myers go back to school, we would kill him.”

 

“I heard him say he was going to kill my father and Mr. Capparelli because they made him go to school,” said thirteen-year-old Katie Kahn. “He said they would not let the boys and him steal horses and wagons and other things, which they sold to the junk dealers.”

 

Katie overheard her brothers talking about murdering Capparelli. She told him the next day, but she had a hard time convincing him the boys wanted to kill him—Capparelli thought it was her imagination. Still, he investigated the tip.

 

The police rounded the boys up the next day. They quickly broke down and talked. Captain Jim bullied them. He threatened to kill them if they didn’t follow his directives.

 

The boys had been robbing west side houses and wagons for the past six months. Captain Jim sold the booty to area junk dealers. Typically, he’d keep at least half the profit for himself.

 

After they confessed, the police took the boys to the Juvenile Detention Home at 233 Honore Street, run by Reverend A. C. Dodge.

 

Truant Officer Francesca Capparelli. (Chicago Tribune. November 15, 1901.)

When the police picked up Kolian, he tried to bs them and said he was seventeen. He’d worked as an elevator operator in the Jefferson Building until a week ago. The police suspected he was much older, but Kolian knew he could escape a sentence to Joliet by saying he was seventeen. Seventeen was the magic number that would earn him just a short stay in the Pontiac Reformatory.

 

 “I did not conspire to murder anybody,” Kolian told detectives, “I never had anything to do with taking parcels from wagons or robbing houses.” Kolian said he quit his job at the Jefferson Building, although the owner’s story was somewhat different. They said Kolian was a useless slacker. They booted his ass out for not doing his job.

 

Kolian finally admitted he taught the boys to rob and steal on his command. They snatched lead pipe from vacant buildings and brass castings from railroad shops. He sent them to the downtown stores to steal what they could or plunder empty houses on other days. The police later arrested M. Kroot, a junk dealer who bought much of the merchandise the boys stole.

 

“He used to send me and the other kids to the big stores downtown and tell us to take whatever we could pick up,” Sollie Cohen told Justice Prindiville. “Once, I told him that Mr. Capparelli was looking for the kids and going to send us to school. This made him mad. He told me to steal a pistol. He would shoot Mr. Capparelli.”[2]

 

The following January, the police nabbed another group of thieves from the Foster School. Eighteen-year-old Joe Bernstein, alias “Lefty,” alias “New York,” was the man who led them into crime. His lieutenant, Benny Snyder, was also arrested during the investigation. Bernstein eventually confessed that his real name was Oscar Balleck.[3]

 

The boys told detectives that Bernstein held a “revolver to their heads and threatened to shoot them if they refused to obey his orders.”[4]

 

“He put a big gun right into my ear,” said Robert Patrick, “and said if I didn’t go in and get some stuff, he would croak me.”

 

“Once, he pushed the gun right against my stomach,” Charles Silberman told Superintendent Bodine, “an’ I thought it was all off with Charlie.”[5]

 

Unlike Captain Jim’s crew, the boys stole exclusively from the big stores downtown. Bernstein coached them on how to steal and how to get away. They never worked alone. Always in pairs.

 

The Chicago Tribune featured Sollie Cohen in a full-page story two years later.[6]

 

At that time, Sollie went to school at the Chicago Paternal School at Bowmanville, a few miles west of town.  The school system sent him there in December 1902 after a tussle with truant officers.

 

His parents were Polish Jews. His father came to America ten years back. After seven years, he’d saved enough money to bring his wife, young Sollie, and his two sisters to Chicago.

 

Captain Jim Kolian. (Chicago Tribune. November 14, 1901).

He had a big brother and big sister who worked to help support the family. But under Illinois law, Sollie couldn’t work until he turned fourteen. That left school, which he didn’t care for, and the streets to fill his time.

 

At eleven years old, Sollie Cohen stood four feet two inches tall and weighed just sixty pounds. He had lived a hard life in Poland and never learned to smile or laugh, so he always had a sad, sullen look on his face. As a result, he had very few friends.

 

Sollie turned his life around and became a standout student at the parental school. He planted the best garden there, got along with the other kids, and conformed to the school’s discipline. Sollie did so well, the authorities released him three years early. Unfortunately, that put him right back on the street where he’d gotten in trouble several times before.

 

Sollie told the reporters, “I wasn’t a bad boy in school but was bad outside because I went with bad boys.”[7] Two years ago, he and Ike Khan wanted to go to school and lead honest lives, but they were afraid Captain Jim would kill them, so they skipped school and did his bidding.[8]

 

Maybe this time, it would be different. Maybe not.



[1] The Inter Ocean. November 14, 1901.

[2] The Inter Ocean. November 15, 1901.

[3] Chicago Tribune. January 11, 1902.

[4] Chicago Tribune. January 10, 1902.

[5] Chicago Tribune. January 10, 1902.

[6] Chicago Tribune. August 9, 1903.

[7] Chicago Tribune. August 9, 1903.

[8] The Inter Ocean. November 14, 1901.

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