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Reviewed by:
  • Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871–1971 by Elizabeth Dale
  • Sam Mitrani
Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871–1971. By Elizabeth Dale ( DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016. 184 pp. $32.00).

As Elizabeth Dale illustrates, accusations of police torture are almost as old as the Chicago Police Department. And while Dale's legal training comes through in her extreme care not to overstate her case, the litany of abuse allegations and evidence that Dale enumerates leaves little doubt that torture of various forms was an integral part of police practice for the century that she examines. And Dale's conclusion that the practice of torture has been shaped by the racial and class context in which the Chicago police operated should come as no surprise.

Dale uses Robert Nixon's conviction as a case study to examine the intersection of race, class, police torture, and the law. Nixon's was the case on which Richard Wright based his novel, Native Son, and Dale offers a new critique of Wright—his novel takes the case at face value and ignores Nixon's insistence that he was innocent and confessed under torture, a claim that Dale clearly finds believable. The core of this book is Dale's detailed reconstruction of the murder of Florence Johnson; the arrest of Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks for the murder; and Nixon's subsequent prosecution, conviction, appeals, and eventual execution by the state of Illinois on June 15, 1939, when he was just nineteen years old. This examination is finely detailed, and Dale pokes numerous holes in the prosecution's case. For instance, the main witness to the crime, Johnson's sister Margaret Whitton, claimed she saw a man with brown skin in her house, but Nixon was very dark skinned. More broadly, she shows how the prosecution was able to get the judge and jury to discount Nixon's claims of torture by identifying him as a threatening other, using racist tropes and playing on the fears of urban disorder heightened by labor disorder, racial tensions, and the large numbers of men, like Nixon, who lacked regular employment in the 1930s.

Dale places Nixon's case in the broader context of police torture, showing how accusations of police torture both pre- and post-dated Nixon's case. These accusations changed in form, from keeping prisoners in small, enclosed sweat-boxes for extended periods of time in the late nineteenth century to threatening to drop suspects out of windows and beating them with rubber hoses later on. Dale shows how the accusations of torture reported in the newspapers were remarkably consistent from one suspect to the next. Most of the time, the police were able to dismiss the accusations as they did with Nixon, by painting the suspects as dangerous criminals whose word could not be believed. But the sheer numbers of similar accusations and the inconsistencies in police defenses of their practices lead Dale to conclude that torture was indeed integral to policing. Her balanced tone, the weight of evidence she assembles, and the logical way in which she lays out her [End Page 643] arguments, and the links she draws between Robert Nixon and the broader problem of police torture make her conclusions powerfully damning.

While Dale makes her central claim persuasively, this study could be improved in two areas. The first is that it is caught in between being an article and a fully researched book. The core of the book, the Nixon case, is well researched and full of interesting arguments. But the chapters on police torture before and after the 1930s are much less fully developed. These chapters rely too heavily on the searchable but highly partisan Chicago Tribune and read too much like lists of accusations of police torture with insufficient analysis or context. They would be much stronger if Dale fleshed them out more with context drawn from the secondary literature, more exploration of a few of these cases, and more of her own analysis. Alternately, Dale's argument would be stronger if she cut out these chapters and condensed the three core chapters into a focused article with a clear thesis...


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