Monday, March 23, 2020


March 23, 2020:  I live in Illinois so we are now "sheltering in place" until the end of the Corona Virus Pandemic.  That means there are a lot of people at home looking for something to occupy their minds as we all wait and pray.  It that spirit I have decided to do an "early release" and publish the story scheduled for April 1, 2020 today.  Hope you all enjoy the story of a very interesting woman, Mafalda Capone Meritote.  And in the meantime, Stay Well!

I have written in past articles in this blog about the unintentional victims of criminals - the families, friends and neighbors of people who commit heinous crimes.  I wrote about Jack Franks, the brother of murdered Bobby Franks, and about the family of Nathan Leopold who even changed their last name to "Lebold" to try to escape the stigma of Nathan's crime.  But not everyone related to a criminal is a victim - intentional or unintentional.  This is best exemplified as we take a look at the life and times of Mafalda Capone Maritote, the sister of Al Capone.  She spent her life trying to convince the public that their impressions of her brother were incorrect - that in fact, Al Capone was a kind, generous, loving man - devoted to his family and especially to his Mother.  On May 23, 1929 when Mafalda was only eighteen years old, newspapers reported the following:

Millions of words and thousands of articles have been written about Al Capone  - let's take a look instead at his devoted sister Mafalda.

Mafalda Capone

Mafalda Capone was born January 28, 1912 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Gabriele Fitzgerald Capone (1864-1920) and Teresina Raiola (1867-1952).  In all, Gabriele and Teresina had nine children.  In addition to Mafalda there was:  James Vincenzo (1892-1952), Raffaelo James Sr. (1894-1974), Salvatore/Frank (1895-1924), Alphonse Gabriel (1899-1947), Erminio John (1901-1980), Umberto/Alberto (1905-1980), Amadeo/Matthew Nicholas (1907-1967), and Rose (1909-1909).

Mafalda Capone was named for an Italian princess, Princess Mafalda of Savoy (1902-1944) who was the second daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his wife Elena of Montenegro. The future King Umberto II of Italy was the princess'  younger brother.

Other than her birth, the first public record of Mafalda was the 1920 US Census.  Eight year old Mafalda was of course, living at home which was on Garfield Place in Brooklyn.  Her father Gabriele was an "Out of Work Watchman."  In addition to her mother Teresina, there were four children living at home:  Erminio, Alberto,  Amadeo and Mafalda.  The only one working was seventeen year-old Erminio who reported that he was a "Candy Maker at a Confectionery."

In 1923 the Capone family (minus Gabrielle who died on November 14, 1920) relocated to Chicago.  The story was that mobster Johnny Torrio asked Al and his brother Frank to move to Chicago to help Torrio defend his rackets.  On August 8, 1923, the Capone family moved into 7244 S. Prairie Avenue in Chicago, a typical Chicago two-flat:

7244 S. Prairie Avenue, Chicago

The neighborhood is now referred to as "Greater Grand Crossing."  [Built for $5,000.00 in 1914, the building sold in 2019 for $226,000.00.  The asking price in 2019 was $109,000.00 but due to the notoriety of the previous ownership it sold for $226,000.00] 

The ownership was in the name of Mae Capone (Al's wife) and Teresa Capone (Al's mother). 

Mafalda's brother Salvatore (Frank) Capone was killed on April 1, 1924.  Here is how the story lead in the Chicago Tribune:


At the close of a village election in Cicero, marked by shootings, stabbings, kidnappings, and other outlawry unsurpassed in any previous Cook County political contest, Chicago police yesterday afternoon shot and killed Frank Caponi (sic) notorious member of the "Johnny" Torrio gang. 

Mafalda was a twelve year-old girl when her brother was slain.  Her name was not mentioned specifically in the stories about the death and funeral of Frank but she was surely present at the spectacle described by Wikipedia:

On April 4, 1924, Frank Capone received an extravagant funeral, with $20,000 worth of flowers placed around the silver-plated casket and over 150 cars in the motorcade. Al purchased the flowers from a shop belonging to his North Side Gang rival, Dion O'Banion. Frank was interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery outside Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported that the event was appropriate for "a fitting gentleman". Out of respect for his dead brother, Al Capone closed the gambling dens and speakeasies of Cicero for two hours during the funeral.

The funeral was held from the family home on South Prairie Avenue:

The Chicago Tribune had their own take on the funeral:

As Mafalda grew up, her name appeared in the press more often.  On May 31, 1929, newspapers carried a feature "Gangdom's Czar Leads Peaceful Life When at Chicago Home - Capone Often Dons Apron - Jailed Leader Rates High as a Cook."  Buried in the article was this bit about Mafalda:

And this at the end of the article:

On April 13, 1930, the Capone family participated in the 1930 US Census.  Mafalda was 18 years old.  Her mother Teresa was the Head of the Household.  Others in the house besides Theresa and Mafalda were 30 year-old daughter-in-law Mary, 12 year-old grandson Ralph Jr., and 11 year old grandson Alphonse.  No one in the household was employed.  Teresa said they owned the building, and that it was worth $12,000.00.  They did have a radio.

Mafalda showed up again in the newspapers on July 11, 1930 in a story about her brother being on trial:

The presses really ran overtime when Mafalda's upcoming wedding was announced.  The first announcement was from November 18, 1930:

The speculation started the next day:

Here's a better copy of the newspaper photo:

The groom-to-be, John Maritote (1908-1997) was born Giovanni Maritato on September 23, 1908 near Naples, Italy.  He was one of four children born to Orazio Maritote (1865-1943) and Teresa, nee Piscopo (1871-1939).  Besides John, the other three were Theresa [Mrs. Victor Sarvello] (1897-1984), Francis (1898-1954) and Sebastiano (1911-1912).  Orazio Maritote was a day laborer by trade.  The Maritotes came to America in 1911.  (Note:  John was usually referred to in the press as "John J. Maritote" but he actually did not have a middle name.) 

The wedding took place on December 15, 1930 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Cicero:

St. Mary's Church, Cicero, Illinois

The wedding was unforgettable, to be sure.  Here is the happy couple minutes after their nuptials:

The bride was 18 years old; the groom was 22.  The press, of course, could not wait to share every minute detail with the public.  Here is the Chicago Tribune's contribution:

By Kathleen McLaughlin

Certain exigencies peculiar to his calling yesterday prevented Al Capone from being among those present when John J. Maritote, 23 years old, married Al's young sister Mafalda.  The wedding, described as "a quiet little affair," was held at St. Mary's church, 3010 South 48th court, Cicero, in the recognized domain of the Capones, but far enough from the 22nd street sector to be out of the battle zone.

There was only one untoward event in connection with the wedding, and that was the arrest of five gun toters.  But the arrests were made so quietly that the social aspects of Mafalda's wedding were not marred in the least.  The five gun toters, suspected of being members of the rank and file of Capone's booze army and apparently on guard to prevent any interruption of the ceremony, were arrested by police from the state's attorneys office under the command of Pat Roche, chief Investigator.

Three Seized at Church.

Three of the gunmen were picked up on the outskirts of the crowd outside the church during the ceremony.  The other two were arrested at 1600 Austin boulevard, at the apartment of Nathan Vogel, where a reception was held immediately after the ceremony.  Another reception was held later at the Cotton club, a Capone resort in Cicero.

Some effort had been made to keep the marriage relatively exclusive among the elect of the alky aristocracy, yet a considerable number of the western suburb's residents came to see and remained to gasp.  Nothing quite like this function had heretofore bust upon this neighborhood.  So the crowds made the most of the opportunity, and wrenched necks, mashed toes and bruised fingers marked the big shove toward the marquee that covered the red plush carpet up to the church doors.

Ralph Capone in a Topper.

From the silk topper gleaming on the brow of Ralph Capone, Al's brother, who took time off from his dispute with the federal income tax forces to give his kid sister in marriage, to the white kid shoes of the tiny flower girl, practically every item of the ensemble jibed with the customs of north shore families in sending their daughters to the altar.

Mafalda herself, whose consent to the union, according to outside gossip, was at least partly at the dictates of her powerful brother, was credited with the fact the phrase "neat, but not gaudy," could accurately be applied.  Her taste appeared to run less to the flamboyant than that of some of her associates.

Two o'clock, the time set for the ceremony, found the seating capacity for the church taxed, and a large crowd milling around outside.  Details of Cicero police were clearing lanes and directing the heavy traffic, and crowds of school children were already scrambling back and forth on all fours, to duck under the awning and into the space before the doors.  Those enterprising youngsters were periodically pushed outside by the guardians of the peace, only to be back in a few minutes, peering up under the canopy. 

The first chorus of "ahs" went up at the arrival of a sedan with the six ushers, all in correct formal attire.  The bridegroom and his best man arrived almost simultaneously - dapper young Italians, each with a gardenia in his buttonhole.

The pushing and the gaping became more pronounced when other sedans pulling up to the curb discharged a bevy of bridesmaids, fresh faced young Italian girls, in identical costumes of turquoise blue and shell pink.  Their frocks were decollete sleeveless models of pink taffeta, long and full.  They wore pink duvetyn hats, with turquoise satin bands, moire slippers in the turquoise shade,  and each held a colonial bouquet of pink roses and sweet peas, with a paper frill, tied in pale blue tulle.

The Matrons of Honor.

Mrs. Ralph Capone and Mrs. Al Capone were matrons of honor.  The former, a slim, decided blonde, wore a pale pink chiffon gown with long, full sleeves, and full skirt touching the floor.  The latter, a brunette, wore a beruffled sleeveless model of pink chiffon, with tiny shoulder straps of turquoise and capped sleeves of the ruffled chiffon, edged in silver.

Both wore pink duvetyn hats, similar to the bridesmaids', with turquoise slippers, and carried colonial bouquets of valley lilies, roses, and yellow button chrysanthemums.

Even those inside the church knew, with the chorus of exclamations outside that the bride had arrived.  She stepped from her car with a long wrap of white ermine tossed about her shoulders, half concealing her bridal costume, but as she was giving it finishing touches in the vestibule, it was well displayed.

Mafalda Walks to Altar.

Nineteen years old, plump and olive skinned, Mafalda was a pretty bride.  A full cap of tulle covered her black hair, and caught the filmy veil, which swept behind her for a full three yards as she moved toward the front of the church.  Her gown was of ivory satin, sleeveless, draped at the bodice and fitted almost to the knees, where it trailed away, in a longish train.  She wore long white gloves,  and carried a modernistic bouquet of white gardenias and lilies of the valley.

There was further ado among the crowd outside when her flower girl and boy, small Theresa and Roger Maritote, relatives of the bridegroom, were ushered into the church.  Roger was in a white satin suit and tall hat, and Theresa acted the part of a tiny bride in full regalia, including a billowy Kate Greenaway gown of white tulle and a bridal veil.

Five Seized by Roche.

The marriage ceremony that followed was not interrupted by the arrests made by the Chief Investigator Roche and his men.  The five men taken into custody were rebuked by Roche for the "social blunder" of appearing with guns on their hips.  The prisoners are Tony Greco, Nick Dana, William Pfeifer, Fred Szudcgulwgeski, and Joseph Joblonski.

Maritote is a brother of Frank Diamond, listed with Frank and Al Capone as a public enemy.  Like his bride, the gossip went, he was not consulted too much as to whether he wished to marry.  The marriage was decided by Capone and Diamond, report had it, by way of strengthening their mutual interests and to avoid a feud between their factions.

Whatever the inception of the romance, Mafalda was smiling as she left the church on the arm of her new husband amid showers of rice and the blinding flash of the picture mechanics.  And as a final and authentic touch, her mother, in a mink coat and small black hat, followed her down the red plush carpet with her handkerchief at her eyes.  

The bridal couple will honeymoon in Cuba.

But without a doubt, the most fabulous part of the wedding was the wedding cake served at the reception:

Now that, my friends, is a cake!

Life goes on, even for the sister of Al Capone.  But Mafalda soon found that like Prince Harry and Megan today, everything she did was news.  Here is a blurb from the Murfreesboro, Tennessee Daily News-Journal on December 22, 1930:

If you think I am exaggerating, look at the editorial from the Peoria (IL) Star on December 19, 1930:

Finally the media furor died down and the newspapers were silent about Mafalda during 1931.

However, the notoriety came roaring back when the newspapers announced the blessed event that happened to Mr. and Mrs. John Maritote on April 11, 1932:

The newest member of the family was named Dolores Theresa Maritote (1932-2000).

On May 3, 1932 newspapers reported that Al Capone, recently convicted on income tax evasion and temporarily being held in jail at Chicago would be leaving for the maximum security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.  Before he shipped out his family went to bid him goodbye - including Mafalda:

The new baby Dolores, was not in attendance.

The unwritten law of gangland had always been that the families of mobsters were never to be hurt.  Someone chose to ignore this when on January 25, 1933 they tried to assassinate Mafalda Capone Maritote:

When John Maritote registered for the draft in the 1940s the family was still living at 7244 S. Prairie Avenue in Chicago:

Maritote reported that he worked at the Midway Theater at 63rd and Cottage Grove in Chicago.  He was a movie projector operator.  Here is the only photo I could find of the Midway Theater (it's from the website):

Mafalda Maritote had been born in Brooklyn, New York, so she was of course, an American citizen.  John on the other hand was an immigrant, so in 1945 he applied for, and was denied US Citizenship:

Al Capone was in prison from May, 1932 to November, 1939.  During this time the press didn't write as much about Al Capone, nor his sister Mafalda.  Upon Al's release from prison he took up residence at his villa in Miami, Florida where he lived until he died on January 25, 1947.  Of course his death was headline news throughout the world:

Heart Fails After Stroke of Apoplexy

Buried all the way down in the thirteenth paragraph was this:

Ermio Capone was, of course Al Capone's brother, not his father who had died in 1920.

Mafalda next appeared in the newspaper when her mother died in 1952:

As the memory of Al Capone faded, so did mentions of him in the press.  Like her infamous brother, Mafalda Capone Maritote was now considered "yesterday's news," and therefore did not show up in the newspapers on a regular basis anymore.  The remaining information I have about John and Mafalda Maritote came from various "Capone-related" websites.  Although we know that "if it's on the internet it must be true", I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions.  As a historian I strive for accuracy above all, so if anything I report is incorrect, or if I have omitted anything you consider important, please feel free to contact me.

It was reported that Mafalda Maritote (now called Mae or May) and her husband John (now called Jack) opened a bakery and catering service at 10232 S. Western Avenue in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood.  (A bank parking lot occupies that spot today.)  After the old Italian neighborhood around Taylor Street was decimated by (the first) Mayor Daley to build the Circle Campus of the University of Illinois, many Italian-Americans moved to the far south side of Chicago, so some good Italian cooking and baking was welcomed by the neighborhood.

It was time for some good news for the Capone/Maritotes and that came about in 1954 when Dolores Maritote married Lt. George J. Irvin (1930-2013):  

The article is silent as to the size or shape of the wedding cake.

Nowhere in the article is the name "Capone" mentioned.  This must have been bittersweet for Mafalda.  On the one hand I'm sure she did not miss all the negative press but on the other hand she never tried to hide her connection as a Capone as evidenced by this article from the Chicago Tribune on June 26, 1957 when Mafalda charged a policeman with hitting her in front of her "sandwich shop":

The most interesting part of the article was what it didn't say: A Chicago police captain did not know who May Capone Maritote was until she told him.  And then, after someone checked, the article did say "A Mafalda Capone was married to John Maritote in 1930."

Sometime after 1957, May and Jack opened a much larger restaurant at 9956 S. Western Avenue Chicago.  It is still a restaurant today, Fox's Beverly Pizza Pub.  The Fox family purchased the restaurant from Mafalda in 1965:

9956 S. Western Avenue, Chicago

Although May and Jack were running their successful restaurant business, Jack Maritote kept his membership in the Motion Picture Projectionists' Union active - a move which ended up getting him some negative press in 1959 as part of the so called Movie Union Bribery scandal:

As the article mentioned, John and Mafalda were now living at 10924 Artesian Avenue in Chicago:

10924 S. Artesian Avenue, Chicago, 

In December of 1959 the Capone name was back in the headlines when Mafalda, as Executrix of the Estate of Alphonse Capone, sued Desilu Studios because of the Desilu production of a movie and television show called "The Untouchables."  Mafalda alleged that "The Untouchables" brought distress to Al's widow Mae Capone and Al's son Albert Francis "Sonny" Capone by using Al Capone's image and name numerous times and alleging that he committed hundreds of crimes including murder - none of which he had been arrested or tried for.  You will remember that Al Capone only went to jail because of Income Tax issues.  The family contended that Al Capone had been a "wheeler-dealer" but not a killer.

Ironically years before, Desi Arnaz had gone to school with Al's son Sonny Capone.  The story was that Sonny contacted Desi and asked him not to proceed with "The Untouchables" but Arnaz refused.  

The case dragged on for years until finally on April 30, 1965 the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled against the Capones.  The court held (as has been alleged numerous times by the Find a Grave website) that the dead do not have a right to privacy.  Further, neither Al's wife Mae nor his son Sonny could show any direct damages they suffered as a result of "The Untouchables" beyond "anguish" which the court rejected because it was unable to determine the nature of any damages recoverable.  

In 1965 May and Jack sold their restaurant and retired to Lakewood Shores, Oscoda Township, Michigan to be near Dolores and her husband.  Major George Irvin was still in the military and was stationed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, Michigan.  May was 54 years old and Jack was 57.  

Sometime in the 1980s May's health had deteriorated to the point where Jack could not care for her anymore by himself.  So he had her admitted to a nursing home in Harrisville, Michigan.  

Back in 1930 when their upcoming marriage was announced, many people, including members of the press, intimated that Mafalda's and John's was an "arranged" marriage.  People said John was hand-picked by Al Capone to marry his sister to quell dissent in the ranks of his vast empire.  Anyone who believed the malicious murmurings should have been around in the 1980s when John visited his devoted wife in the nursing home every single day.  Neighbors, friends and staff members all commented how moved they were at the devotion of John to Mafalda.  He would sit with her by the hour just to be at her side.

When the news came through that Major Irvin had been transferred yet again - this time to Sacramento, California, John decided that he and Mafalda would stay in Michigan, believing that the upheaval of a cross-country move this late in her life might kill May. 

Mafalda Capone died March 25, 1988, in Oscoda, Michigan.  She was 76 years old.  Her body was brought back to Illinois and she was laid to rest in the Capone family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hillside:

It's appropriate that Mafalda's tombstone has the Capone name listed last - it was said that Mafalda always proudly considered herself a Capone first and foremost.

Evergreens used to hide the front of the Capone monument to prevent vandalism but several years ago the cemetery decided it was time to remove the evergreens.

There was no obituary, death notice or announcement of any kind that Al Capone's baby sister had passed from this world.  After all these years why stir everything up again?

In 1994 John Maritote sold the house in Oscoda, Michigan and moved to be with his daughter in Sacramento, California.  He was 86 years old.

John (no middle name) Maritote died June 10, 1997 in Sacramento, California.  He was 88 years old.  Unlike his wife, John had a death notice in the Chicago Tribune on Friday the 13th of June, 1997:

He was laid to rest next to his wife in the Capone family plot:

The purpose of this article is not to make any sort of judgement about the activities, real or imagined, of the Capone family.  In the years I have been writing for this blog I have tried very hard to not judge the people I am writing about - just to report the stories as they happened.  

All of us have different sides to our personalities - different "faces" if you will.  The purpose of this article is to tell you about a sister's devotion to her much-maligned brother, and in the end the devotion of a husband to his wife.  When Mafalda Capone said that her brother Al was dear, kind and gentle, I'm sure he was to her.  So, I hope that you never forget the story of Al Capone's sister and you can rest assured that I will never forget that amazing wedding cake!

Mafalda CAPONE Maritote

may she rest in peace.     

Sunday, March 1, 2020


Prior to 1980 if you took a walk or drive along the Evanston lakefront you would have seen a small frame house at 1834 Sheridan Road:

1834 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Illinois

Ultimately owned by and torn down by Northwestern University, the house was built in the 1880s by Lawrence O. Lawson, an old sea salt who became a legend in his own time.  In 1880 he was appointed captain of the Evanston life-saving station, a position he would hold for almost a quarter of a century.  Long forgotten today, Captain Lawson and his crew rescued over 500 souls from the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan.

Before we recall the bravery and skill of Captain Lawson and those Northwestern students who served as his crew from 1880 to 1903, let's see what we can "dig up" about Lawrence Lawson.

Lawrence Oscar Lawson was born Lars Oskar Eskilsson on September 11, 1842 in Kalmar, Sweden to Eskil Larsson (1813-1856) and his wife Johanna Carrie Sjogren (1817-1896).  Lars had two sisters, Elise Marie Eskilsson (1851-????) and Hanna Julia Eskilsson (1854-1868).  Little is know of Lars' early life except for one story he told about himself:

"At his old family home was a grist mill, and one day his love of the water caused him to fall into the mill stream.  He was carried around the mill wheel, and his arm was permanently crippled.  When he was fourteen years old his father died, and four years later the boy went to sea.  In 1861 he came to New York.  From there he shipped before the mast for three years, and was on the first vessel to sail into New Orleans after the capture of the city by Union forces."

The life-saving service at Evanston was established in 1871, as a response to several tragic shipwrecks off the shore of Lake Michigan.  The most notable of these was the wreck of the steamer Lady Elgin in 1860.  Over 300 passengers lost their lives when the Lady Elgin collided with a lumber schooner a few miles northeast of Evanston.  Prompted by this disaster and others, concerned citizens pleaded for a life-saving station that could assist ships in distress.

Consequently in 1871 the U.S. Navy furnished Northwestern University with a 26 foot long lifeboat to be directed and manned by the students.  A red-brick life saving station was built in 1876 on the site of the present day Fisk Hall.  During the early years the captain and crew were drawn from among the Northwestern students.  At the annual graduation exercises, the life-saving boat was handed down by the seniors to the junior class and a new captain was chosen.  As time went on however, it was felt that the work of the student crew would be more effective if a person with more experience and maturity filled the captain's role.   

We do not know when Lars Eskilsson Americanized his name but several things had changed after he returned to New York in 1864.  This time he decided to follow the herd and "Go West."  In December of 1864 the newly named Lawrence Oscar Lawson left Buffalo, New York on the schooner "Tanner" headed for Chicago.

He liked what he saw around Chicagoland so he decided to settle here.  He bought some land in Woodlawn and took up the occupation of a fisherman.  He did not entirely forsake a seafaring life, however, and for two years he sailed the Great Lakes  as a sailor before the mast with Captain Lindgren.

In 1869 Captain Lawson moved to beautiful Evanston, Illinois and continued the life of a fisherman, occupying a shanty near the Davis Street pier.  In 1876 he married the former Petrine Wold (1855-1941) from Norway.  Right after their marriage the newlyweds moved to Ludington, Michigan but by 1878 they returned to Evanston where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

On July 19, 1880 Lawrence Lawson was appointed to be the keeper, or captain of the life-saving station at Northwestern.  A sailor of life-long experience, he was chosen to make seamen of the eager but inexperienced students.  Just shy of his 38th birthday, he also fulfilled the requirement for "maturity" that the job required,

At first fears were expressed that an outsider would not be able to get the cooperation of the student crew and that the appointment of Lawson as captain would be the first step toward the severance of relations between the university and the life-saving station.  Within a short time however, Captain Lawson, because of his superior skills as a seaman, succeeded in winning the loyalty of the crew.  

George H. Tomlinson, a crew member, later recalled, "The most eventful period of the station's history began with the appointment of Captain Lawson, a veteran sailor of the seven seas, as keeper of the station.  He held the post for 23 years and won the love and respect of all who entered the university in that time.  As a member of one of the student crews who worked under him, I can attest to his courage, ability and fineness of character - a rare soul such as does not often come into one's life."  According to Tomlinson, no one was more frequently made the subject of a character study in English classes than the revered Captain.

As time passed, Captain Lawson quickly noticed the necessity for larger quarters as his family grew and grew.  In all, Captain Lawson and his wife would have eight children: Julia E. (1877-1932), Esther Marion - sometimes called Ethel (1882-1884), John Walton (1885-1968), Lawrence Oscar (1888-1890), Raymond Oliver (1891-1973), Ruth Petrine (1893-1977), Charlotte (1896-1982), and Charles W. (1900-1941).

In 1886 Captain Lawson moved the old frame shanty he had been living in at the foot of Davis Street to the lot adjoining the "Club House" a red brick building opposite the life-saving station where it then stood.  Then he began construction on a new house at 1834 Sheridan Road, just across the street from the life-saving station.  According to the Evanston Press of April 27, 1889, "Captain Lawson of the life saving crew. has been occupying his new residence on the drive for some time.  For over three years, the Captain has been building the house with his own hands.  Slowly but substantially, he has added something to it week by week until now it is really beautiful and reflects great credit upon the builder's skill and patience." 

Since they were subject to be called to duty at any hour, members of the student life-saving crew often lodged in the Captain's home.  One crew member later recalled, "No one who has not had the privilege of waking (Captain Lawson) in the middle of the night to report some emergency could envision him coming out of his bedroom into the hall with his long white nightgown and his long graying beard, with one hand scratching his ribs, either for the answer or to help him awaken, and the other hand twisting his beard back and forth."  Each crew member served a two hour watch at the life saving station, so that there was always a man on duty.  In addition, the Evanston shoreline was patrolled twice each day, once just before midnight and once at dawn.

How much was someone like Captain Lawson paid by the government for overseeing the life-saving station?  Official reports from 1891 listed his salary as $700.00 per year which translates to $21,672.51 in today's funds.  A meager salary to be sure for someone with so much life-and-death responsibility.  It was said that he supplemented his income by catching and selling fish.

During Captain Lawson's quarter century of service, the life-saving crew was responsible for the rescue of over 500 persons from the stormy waters of Lake Michigan.  One such rescue occurred on the evening of May 9, 1883.  A schooner, the Kate E. Howard, unloaded her cargo of lumber at the Davis Street pier in Evanston and moved three quarters if a mile into the lake for a more secure anchorage.  Struck by a sudden violent squall "resembling a cyclone", the boat rolled over.  The hull sank at once, but the crew managed to cling to the masts.  Because of darkness, the watchman at the life-saving station knew nothing of the disaster.  On bare suspicion that something was wrong, Captain Lawson ordered the surf-boat launched and pointed east.  They succeeded finally in locating the wreck in time to rescue the five sailors, who were almost exhausted and quite hopeless of relief.

The most notable rescue by the crew occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1889.  The Calumet, a steam propeller ship, with 18 crew members, was driven aground near Fort Sheridan during one of the fiercest winter storms ever witnessed.  According to the Calumet's chief mate, "I have been a sailor on the lake for 33 years and I want to tell you that never in all that time have I seen waves run so high as they did last night, or heard of such heroic work as that of the lifesaving crew from Evanston."  This thrilling story of heroism was related in the Evanston Press of November 30, 1889:  "As those seven men leaped into the icy boat, in the most fearful sea that this locality has known for years, probably few even of the spectators realized the wonderful bravery of the act...With infinite difficulty and in spite of the fearful breakers, the brawny and plucky boys, guided by their skillful captain, gradually made their way to the eighteen freezing and despairing men who were clinging to the pilot-house, the only part of the ship not swept by the waves. The captain of the ship said that they had no hope of being rescued when they saw the crew launch the boat...Three trips they made through that roaring surf, and brought every man - eighteen in all - safely to shore."

In recognition of their rescue of the Calumet crew, Captain Lawson and each member of his crew received a gold medal of honor, authorized by a special act of Congress.  On the medal was inscribed: "In testimony of heroic acts in saving life from the perils of the sea."

Newspapers reported that this was the first time that every member of a lifesaving crew was awarded a medal - this honor was usually reserved to the captain of the life saving crew.

The 1890 US Census for Evanston is unfortunately lost, but we do have the Lawson family in the 1900 US Census.  The family is, of course, living in the house the Captain built at 1834 Sheridan Road in Evanston.  First there was 57 year old Laurence Lawson, who reported that he emigrated in 1861 and was Captain of a life saving station.  Then there was his 44 year old wife Petrina who emigrated in 1863.  They both reported they had been married for 23 years.  Petrina reported that she had given birth to 8 children, and that 5 were still alive in 1900.  The five living children in 1900 were: Julia (23), John (15), Raymond (9), Ruth (6) and Charlotte (4).  As mentioned above they also reported that they had two in the life saving service living with them:  24 year old Clarence Thorne and 29 year old Edwin R. Perry.  Lastly, they also had a minister living with them in 1900:  24 year old Alfred E. Harris.

On the occasion of Captain Lawson's 20th year of service in 1900, the Evanston Index noted, "The Evanston life-saving crew has made a remarkable record under the leadership of Captain Lawson during the last 20 years.  It is one of the institutions that Evanstonians point to with pride, and its praises have been sung over and over again for the gallant services it has performed on different occasions.  While these successes are due in large measure to the material of which the crew has been composed, those who are acquainted with its methods are quick to give the credit to the captain.  He has been faithful and active and at all times of a disposition that commanded the respect of the students who were associated with him.  this popularity has given to him the hold he has held upon them.  To it is attributable the remarkable performances that have been accomplished under his leadership."   

In 1902 the Chicago Tribune noted that "while railroads and labor unions are considering the "age limit" problem, there is a man in Evanston who works hard at 60.  He is Captain Lawrence O. Lawson of the Evanston life-saving crew."   But trouble was on the horizon for Captain Lawson.

The Chicago Inter-Ocean reported about the problem on April 4, 1903 under this portrait if Captain Lawson:


Hoary-headed and storm beaten, but still sinewy and agile and as efficient in the rescue of human life as in his younger days, Captain Lawrence O. Lawson of the Evanston life-saving crew, is awaiting the announcement of his retirement from the service on account of a slight defect in eyesight.  As anxious as the Captain himself are the citizens of Evanston, who think with regret of the prospect of the sturdy old seaman's removal.  Familiar with the veteran life-saver's marvelous record during his thirty years of service at the Evanston station, they are urging upon the department at Washington the desirability of his retention, in spite of his failure to pass every test in the recent examination.  Captain Lawson himself is eager to remain at the post he has held so long and declares that he is able to fulfill his duties now as well as ever.  Since he took charge of the Evanston station in 1880 not a single life has been lost along that coast.  All told, he and his crew have rescued 500 people from the lake.  In 1889, the year of the Calumet disaster, 101 men and women were saved by Captain Lawson's men.  For this unparalleled record the captain wears the coveted gold medal, presented only in cases or extraordinary merit.

In their Sunday April 12, 1903 edition, the Chicago Inter Ocean outlined more of what was going on with the matter of Captain Lawson:

The unfeeling machinery of civil service is about to retire another hero from the nation's roll of workers.

For twenty-five years, Captain Lawrence O. Lawson of Evanston has faithfully watched one of the outposts of the life-saving service.  Only a few less than 500 lives for as records of his vigilance and bravery.  Forty-seven athletic built young men in different parts of the country, and of all professions from the ministry to the stage, revere him as the molder of their habits of devotion to duty and self-sacrifice.

These count for nothing with the civil-service machinery. This worker, who had grown old in the service, is as brave as ever, as ready to dive into the lake and rescue a swimmer or pull an oar as the surf boats cuts through the breakers to a wreck.  His judgment is unimpaired, but his eyes have grown old.  He can still see as far across Lake Michigan; the binoculars reveal as much as they ever did over the watery expanse, and the signal lights sign as brightly to him as they did a quarter of a century ago.  But he could not pass the optical test.  The test letters on a white card were occasionally blurred to the eyes of the old mariner.

It is a critical weakness.  Can a man rescue drowning men and women or guide a surf boat through the darkness to a foundering vessel if he cannot pass the test which is undergone in the rear room of a jewelry store, amid an order of varnish and watchmakers oil.  This is the question that the government civil-service answers negatively. 

All of the plaudits and shows of support came to naught when on July 1, 1903 the government announced that effective immediately, 30 year old Patrick Murray would be the new captain of the Evanston life-saving crew.  The gold-medal career of Captain Lawrence O. Lawson was over.

After the Captain's retirement, William E. McClennan, a member of the crew from 1882 to 1885 remarked, "His 23 years of service have in themselves demonstrated his marked ability, courage, faithfulness and extraordinary resourcefulness.  he has never been know to give up the most forlorn hope so long as human lives were in danger.  It is doubtful whether the annals of life-saving will reveal a more resourceful and masterful mind than that of Captain Lawson.  Denied the advantages of a technical education, he is nevertheless a great man -- and as good as he is great.  Without  him as a leader through almost a quarter of a century, the Evanston life-saving crew could hardly have won for itself much more than average fame."

As is usually the case with the truly great who never seek out fame, Captain Lawson was not mentioned again in the newspapers until he died in the home he built at 1834 Sheridan Road on October 30, 1912:

Here's an account of his funeral:

As mentioned, Captain Lawson was buried at Graceland Cemetery.  He is in the Knolls Section, Lot 69, Space 1.

When I started this article I was under the impression that Captain Lawrence Lawson had been virtually forgotten today.  That is partially true.  After Lawson's house was razed by Northwestern, there was a move to name the small park next to Lighthouse Beach after the Captain.  Lawson Park was dedicated July 10, 1988:


It looked a little more bleak when I visited on February 27, 2020:

The park dedicated to Captain Lawson was a nice idea, but nowhere in the park is there anything that says who Captain Lawson was, or why a park on the lakeshore was named after him.  In fact, the name "Lawson Park" does not even specify which Lawson the park is named for.  

Captain Lawrence O. Lawson was not forgotten however, by the US Coast Guard.  Here are some photos of the United States Fast Response Cutter Lawrence Lawson, commissioned March 18, 2017:

The Lawson's crew members were heavily involved in the creation of her seal, researching her namesake and incorporating Keeper Lawrence O. Lawson’s brave actions into the seal.  For example, the shield on the seal is purple and white, the colors of Northwestern University, representing Lawson and his heroic student volunteer crew from Northwestern.  This is just one of many aspects of the seal that symbolize the harsh yet successful rescue on that Thanksgiving Day.

Here's what the Coast Guard has to say about Captain Lawson:

Named for a Hero

The new cutter’s name is attributed to U.S. Lifesaving Service Station Keeper Lawrence O. Lawson, keeper of the Evanston, Ill. Lifeboat Station. Lawson and his crew gained notoriety for rescuing the 18-person crew of the Calumet on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1889, as the steam vessel was in distress during a raging storm on Lake Michigan. Lawson and his crew, made up entirely of volunteer students from nearby Northwestern University, navigated through 15 miles of blizzard-like weather by train, horseback and foot. They attempted to fire a line to the vessel but failed twice, then decided to launch a surfboat. The crew was finally able to launch in the near-impossible icy conditions, and recused all 18 members of the Calumet after three successive trips. Lawson and his crew’s actions did not go unnoticed, as they received the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroic actions that day. Cape May’s newest FRC is named for a true hero.

It is appropriate that Lawrence Lawson is still saving lives on the water.

So now you know the story of one of Evanston's true heroes, Captain Lawrence O. Lawson, who rescued over 500 souls from the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan, no matter what the weather or peril to himself.

May he rest in peace.  

Special thanks to Evanston historian extraordinaire Mike Kelly who provided much of the material for this article. 

Thanks also to Ron Sims who provided the following two photos:

The first is an aerial view of  Northwestern University Evanston Campus, circa 1907.  The lifesaving station is on the lower right.

This photo is from the Library of  Congress:  item/2007663913/ 

The second photo shows the lifesaving station in the shadow of Fisk Hall in 1910.  The lifesaving station was originally on the site of Fisk Hall and moved further south when Fisk Hall was built.  Photo is from the following source:Chicago: Its History and Its Builders [ed. by] J Seymour Currey. Chicago, S J Clarke, 1912. Vol. 2, plate laid in btw 350-351.