A Riveting Look at the Unsolved Milwaukee Police Station Bombing of 1917

The nation’s largest loss of police lives, prior to 9/11, happened a century ago, here in Milwaukee. How it came to pass is a whodunit that may never be solved.

On Nov. 24, 1917, a bomb exploded at the central police station at the corner of Broadway and what is now Wells Street, killing 10 – nine of them police officers – and leading to the swift convictions of 11 others for a crime they didn’t commit.

This past May, at the annual Greater Milwaukee Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony, the nine police victims of the 1917 bombing were honored. Florence Ann Timm, then 85, granddaughter of Detective David J. O’Brien, who died in the explosion, was walked down the aisle by a Milwaukee officer who placed a wreath in O’Brien’s honor up front.

“My father didn’t like to discuss it,” she says, of her grandfather’s death in the blast. She found the autopsy report, and then she understood why.

Published reports from that day a century ago start in the morning, when the young daughter of the cleaning woman at a church in Milwaukee’s Third Ward spotted a paper-wrapped package unattended near an exterior wall. The cleaning woman brought the package into the Italian Evangelical Mission Church at 355 Van Buren St. It was heavy, maybe 20 pounds. The cleaning woman did nothing until the arrival that afternoon of Maud Richter, an assistant to the church’s Rev. August Giuliani, who was out of town. Alerted to the package, Richter took it downstairs to the basement.

“I imagined it was some sort of instrument to harm us,” she later told a reporter, “so I called the police headquarters.” There had been bombings before in the Third Ward.

If harm was intended, the likely target was Giuliani, a Methodist minister (and former Catholic priest) who emigrated to Milwaukee from Italy after meeting and falling in love with a visiting American Protestant missionary, Katherine Eyerick, in Rome. The couple married in 1911 in Milwaukee, where Eyerick was doing her missionary work.

Giuliani embraced Protestant evangelism with a fervor. He marched undaunted into Catholic Italian Milwaukee neighborhoods and delivered his Protestant message from street corners, sometimes accompanied by music. His words were also patriotic, pro-American. Giuliani offered English language classes as well as other assimilation assistance. The flock at his Third Ward church grew.

It didn’t happen without controversy. There were Italian neighborhoods in Milwaukee then where neither of Giuliani’s messages – converting Catholics to Protestantism and encouraging Americanization and patriotism – were well received. Few Italian immigrants had found the streets in America paved with gold. They were called names, regarded as unclean. As for Catholicism, they might have had their differences, but their allegiance went back centuries.

“There were people in his church who adored him,” says Bobby Tanzino, author of The Milwaukee Police Station Bomb of 1917, which was first published in Italian. “One guy I spoke to who was alive at the time said Giuliani had been very good to him. He’d helped people get jobs. But there were others who felt he was stirring up trouble, and disrespecting people’s religious and political beliefs.”

Giuliani redoubled his evangelical efforts after the death of his wife in 1916. These efforts took him to Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, a few miles from Giuliani’s Third Ward church, on three consecutive Sundays in late summer 1917. None of those recruiting missions went well. The last was a disaster.

Rev. August Giuliani
Rev. August Giuliani; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Bay View at the time was home to roughly 150 Italian families, most from the central and northern regions of the country. Many spoke only Italian. Some saw capitalism as inherently corrupt, and distrusted the government. A few may have been anarchists, or sympathetic to that cause, though “anarchism” as a label, as Dean Strang observed, “was a term no more illuminating than ‘terrorism’ is today.” Strang, a Madison attorney and Milwaukee native who gained a measure of fame himself defending Steven Avery in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” wrote a book on the Milwaukee bombing, Worse than the Devil. It’s also worth noting that to be an anarchist – the short definition might be someone against government, and in favor of a voluntary cooperative society instead – was not in itself a crime.

On Giuliani’s third visit to Bay View, Sept. 9, 1917, a melee broke out. The pastor had been evangelizing on the corner of Bishop (now Wentworth) and Potter Streets. His assistant, Maud Richter, played accordion while another congregation member, Sam Mazzone, played cornet. A few police detectives and officers were also on hand. Giuliani requested them after the response to his first two trips to the neighborhood was less than welcoming.

As Giuliani spoke on visit three, a meeting broke up in the back room of a saloon one block to the south. A group of Italian men, some with anarchist leanings, came out of the bar, heard Giuliani and headed north. Shouting ensued, and fisticuffs. Shots were fired. When it was over, two Bay View Italians were fatally wounded. Two police officers had minor injuries.

The authorities canvassed Bay View. Eleven Italians were eventually arrested for their roles in the riot, accused of assault with intent to murder, and faced up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Some felt Giuliani, by pressing the issue with a third visit, had invited trouble.

“By the second time,” says Anna Passante, Bay View historian and author of Anarchy in Bay View’s Little Italy, “he should have understood it was a volatile situation. He should have backed off.”

Trial for the Bay View 11 was set for Nov. 28. But before it could happen, an immense explosion changed everything.

map of MilwaukeeHaving brought the package left outside Rev. Giuliani’s church into the basement, Maud Richter called the police. It was between 5 and 6 p.m., Nov. 24.

Told that an officer would come immediately, Richter became concerned an hour later when no one had arrived. She directed Sam Mazzone, the young cornet-playing church member, to take the package to the police station, about six blocks away.

Mazzone arrived at the central police station somewhere between 7:15 and 7:30. According to the account of Tanzilo, Mazzone put the package on the floor next to the front desk sergeant, Henry Deckert, and said, “This is a bomb, I found it under the church.” Strang’s account does not include this quote, but notes that the sergeant was immediately suspicious of the package, and before long placed it in the squad assembly room.

Moments later, the bomb blew, an explosion so vast and deadly that the loss of police life was greater than any single incident in America for the next 84 years – until the 9/11 attacks.

“Glass, plastering, clothes, arms, legs, papers covered the floor,” read the story in The Milwaukee Journal, describing the scene in the squad room. Fingers were blown from hands, rings from fingers. It was unimaginably gruesome.

Deckert was among the nine police dead. The others (listed on a monument in MacArthur Square): Frank Caswin; Fred W. Kaiser; David O’Brien; Charles Seehawer; Edward Spindler; Stephen Stecker; Al H. Templin; and Paul J. Weiler. One civilian, Catherine Walker, at the station to file a complaint against an extortionist ex-boyfriend, also died.

The big banner headline on the front page of the next day’s Milwaukee Sentinel: “ANARCHIST’S BOMB EXPLODES IN POLICE STATION – KILLS ELEVEN.” This initial misidentification of the number of dead also speaks to the terrible power of the blast – some early remains were too scattered for an accurate count. Maud Richter told the Sentinel the Bay View Italians had been upset with Giuliani and the church since the Sept. 9 riot. “I do not doubt that they meant to destroy our little church,” she said.

This linking of the Bay View Italians with the Nov. 24 bombing while the police station was still smoldering meant that the 11 people – 10 men and one woman – soon going to trial for their role in the Sept. 9 Bay View riot might instead be held accountable for the bombing, which of course happened while they were behind bars awaiting trial.

No matter. In the eyes of much of Milwaukee – the press, the public, eventually the jury – the riot defendants were anarchists, and that was enough. “The trial was a proxy proceeding on the bombing,” Strang says.

The riot trial came just days after the bombing. The two events were now joined in the public mind. That no member of the Bay View 11 on trial for the riot could have possibly planted the bomb was merely an inconvenient truth.

“The whole city was up in arms and everybody talked against these Italians,” wrote Bill Rubin, a prominent Milwaukee defense attorney who represented 10 of the 11 Bay View defendants (unthinkable today because of the inherent conflicts of interest) in a letter to a friend not long after the trial, “and the common expression was even if they are not guilty, let’s convict them. Maybe by convicting them, the problem will be solved.”

The mood in the courtroom reflected that in the city.

It started with Judge A. C. Backus refusing defense attorney Rubin’s request for a change of venue – the proceedings would go forward in Milwaukee. Backus also gave great leeway to District Attorney Winfred Zabel, prosecuting for the state, even looking the other way when Zabel, early on, referred to the 11 defendants as “a bunch of anarchists.”

To what degree the 11 defendants individually participated in the Sept. 9 melee was never really resolved. Some were likely just bystanders. Others were anarchists who may have welcomed the clash. That they were lumped together at trial is insupportable. It’s also worth asking if even the most militant among them deserved a lengthy prison sentence.

The jury – all male, as women couldn’t serve in Wisconsin until 1921 – was out 17 minutes. The verdict against all 11 defendants: guilty of assault to commit murder.

“All of you are aliens,” Judge Backus stated prior to sentencing, “in this country but a few years. You have cast aside all of the American institutions which have offered you advancement…. Your purposes are destructive and ruinous and the court must measure out such punishment as commensurate with the crime which all of you have committed.” He sentenced all of them to 11 to 25 years in prison.

Emma Goldman, Clarence Darrow, Bill Rubin, Winfred Zabel
Photos courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Societ

Among those troubled by the Milwaukee verdicts was Emma Goldman, the most famous anarchist in America. Goldman was in Chicago in late 1917, free on bail after being convicted of giving anti-military draft speeches in New York, a crime under the Espionage Act. Goldman eventually was deported, but after learning of the case she wrote a piece for the Mother Earth Bulletin, “The Milwaukee Frame-Up,” in which she suggested that Giuliani and the police conspired, as Tanzilo noted, “to hatch a plot to entrap the Bay View hecklers.”

According to Strang, Goldman was especially taken by the fate of Maria Nardini, the lone woman among the defendants, whose 4-year-old son had been placed in a home for dependent children. It was likely Goldman who sought out Clarence Darrow to help with the appeal of the convictions.

Darrow’s name resonates today; he’s widely regarded as one of the towering trial attorneys in American history. But when Goldman found him in Chicago, he was not riding high. His most famous moments were yet to come – a battle with William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and a passionate anti-death-penalty argument in the Leopold and Loeb murder case in Chicago.

In taking the appeal, Darrow brought the case to a national stage, as did Goldman’s involvement. Rubin, the original defense counsel, was out. Darrow argued the case in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in March 1919. The court’s opinion, written by Justice A. J. Vinje, seized on an element of the original 11 convictions: that a conspiracy among defendants needed to be proved to find many of them guilty, and it wasn’t.

In the end, the court granted the appeals of nine of the 11. For the other two – Vincenzo Fratesi and Amedeo Lilli – the court upheld the convictions, though their prison sentences were commuted by the governor in 1922. All 11 were released from prison, and most were deported. At least three came back to the U.S., Tanzilo says, including Maria Nardini, though none returned to Milwaukee.

Still, the question remains: Who did plant the bomb at the church?

For a century, it has been officially unsolved, and no one was ever charged, although recently a certain consensus has emerged on the likely culprits.

Paul Avrich, a historian and authority on American anarchists, died in 2006. In his book Sacco and Vanzetti, he wrote that the men most likely to have placed the bomb outside Giuliani’s church were Italian immigrants Mario Buda and Carlo Valdinoci, bomb makers well known in the anarchist movement. (Buda is often mentioned as the likely perpetrator of the deadly 1920 Wall Street bombing; a year earlier, in 1919, Valdinoci blew himself up while attempting to place a bomb in the home of the U.S. attorney general.)

The 1917 Milwaukee bomb, Avrich wrote, was placed at the church in retaliation for the deaths of the two Bay View Italians in the Sept. 9 riot, which Buda and Valdinoci blamed on Giuliani and the police. Avrich places Buda and Valdinoci in the Midwest in November 1917. Of the Milwaukee bomb, Avrich wrote, “Possibly it was the work of local anarchists; more likely, however, Buda himself was responsible together with Valdinoci.”

the Bay View Eleven

It was a case and a story for the ages, so perhaps appropriately, 90 years later, it took one last strange and startling twist.

In 1922 – the year the last of the Bay View 11 were released from prison – the prosecutor of the case, District Attorney Winfred Zabel, requested a state grand jury investigation of rumors of corruption in his office and elsewhere in law enforcement.

It was not tied to the Bay View 11 case, but rather to widespread rumors in Milwaukee’s legal community that Zabel was corrupt. Facing re-election in fall, Zabel used the grand jury – which had a special prosecutor – as a preemptive strike against those rumors. He’d welcomed the inquiry. What could he possibly have to hide?

In the end, the grand jury issued no indictments, though Zabel lost the election in fall 1922 anyway.

The transcripts of that investigation ended up at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, and Strang, researching his police bombing book, discovered them. They likely hadn’t been looked at in almost a century.

One portion of the voluminous transcript brought a stunning revelation.

Frederick Groelle, Zabel’s top assistant in the Bay View 11 case, testified in front of the grand jury in October 1922 under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Both Groelle and Zabel had been threatened with physical harm during and after the Bay View 11 trial. In Zabel’s case, two bombs were discovered outside his home in April 1918 – at least one apparently identical to the police station bomb. Zabel was clearly frightened.

Groelle testified that he and Zabel took a train to Chicago to meet with Darrow, who was handling the appeal. They had a plan, summarized by Strang (from Groelle’s testimony) in his book:

“If Darrow agreed to intercede with Chicago anarchists and persuade them to call off the attempts on the lives of Zabel and Groelle, the prosecutors in turn would agree to fix the record on appeal so that the convictions of the Milwaukee eleven likely would be reversed in the state Supreme Court.”

According to Groelle’s grand jury testimony, the meeting with Darrow in Chicago ended with an implicit agreement.

“If Groelle told the truth,” Strang wrote, “the question of whether the plan to fix the appellate court record went forward remains unanswered.”

We do know the appeal was largely successful. And Zabel was not blown up by anarchists. Instead, having lost the 1922 election, he went into a law practice with Rubin, his formerly bitter foe.

It was one more curiosity in a story filled with them.

At one point during his research, Tanzilo considered turning the material into a novel, then decided it might not work.

“It was interesting, baffling, exciting and crazy,” he says. “You couldn’t make it up.” ◆

Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer whose co-authored autobiography of former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson is due out next year.

‘A Deadly Blast’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.