On October 28, 1893, shortly after giving the closing address at Chicago’s wildly successful Columbian Exposition, popular five-term Mayor Carter Harrison was shot to death in his home by erstwhile campaign supporter and self-styled single tax and rail safety advocate, Patrick Eugene Prendergast.
Prendergast visited Harrison’s home that evening and was allowed in by a maid who went to awaken the slumbering Mayor. Mayor Harrison had been asleep on a sofa in the back parlor, and emerged wiping sleep from his eyes to meet his visitor, only to be met instead by three bullets shot point-blank from his young supporter’s .38 revolver.
Though 30 minutes after the shooting, Prendergast came with the murder weapon to the Des Plaines police station and surrendered, he never offered a consistent motive to the police for the assassination. He would alternately cite Harrison’s failure to reward Prendergast’s re-election support with an appointment as Corporation Counsel, and Harrison’s failure to elevate local railway crossings, which Prendergast believed, passionately, were essential to the public safety. The latter was clearly the more sympathetic motive if the defendant’s counsel had to produce a reason why the beloved “People’s Mayor” was a dangerous fraud who needed to be murdered, half-asleep, in his home.
Whatever his motivation, the assassination shook the city to its core. Especially disturbed was a recent Polish émigré and the priest of St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in Chicago’s Pulaski Park neighborhood, Father Casimir Zeglen.
Assassination was a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, but already had a deep impact on the national psyche with the murder of two Presidents in less than thirty years: Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 (in a plot that also intended the killings of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward), and James Garfield in 1881 by Charles Julius Guiteau—the first “disgruntled office seeker” if Prendergast’s other motive was to be accepted. And now the Mayor of America’s second-most-populous city.
One can only imagine that this could have a profound impact on someone like Father Zeglen, so recently invested in the American Dream. He had already been experimenting with the invention of a garment that could withstand the impact of a bullet without penetrating and shredding the vital organs of its target. Mayor Harrison’s assassination encouraged him to redouble his efforts, and he eventually found success with a densely woven silk vest that even a bullet fired at close proximity could not fully penetrate.
After firing tests on a medical cadaver and then a Great Dane who unfortunately had to be sacrificed in the interests of his fellow canines’ current and future masters, Zeglen felt comfortable enough to don the vest and let himself be shot by live fire from an assassin’s distance to prove the efficacy of his invention.
With his wildly popular public demonstrations, Father Zeglen left one cloth vocation for another, founding the Zeglen Bullet Proof Cloth Company. In a world where democracy was increasingly being conducted from the trigger of a gun, this was an idea whose time had come.
Working with fellow Pole and the inventor of bulletproof armor, Jan Szczepanik (whose armor saved the life of King Alfonso XIII of Spain when a bomb exploded near his Szczepanik-armored carriage), Zeglen continued to improve his personal bulletproof garment and market it to vulnerable heads of state.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing a Zeglen vest on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo when he was shot by Gavrilo Princip. Unfortunately, the Archduke was shot in the jugular, illustrating the unfortunate limitations of the Zeglen vest.
In his initial marketing push some 13 years earlier, however, Zeglen has approached the White House offering one of his signature vests for President William McKinley. McKinley’s team thought Zeglen’s vest a very worthy consideration for protecting their President.
They assured Casimir Zeglen that they would address the issue personally with the President just as soon as he returned to the White House from his Labor Day New York visit.
When the President did return to the White House from the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, it was in a casket. Another Pole, Leon Czolgosz, had gotten the President’s attention first, with a bullet in his unprotected abdominal area. Doctors treated the first superficial bullet wound that grazed the President’s rib cage, but were unable to locate the bullet that had passed through his stomach, kidney, and pancreas, and lodged somewhere in his back.
While the Zeglen vest didn’t come to the President soon enough, another new invention that could have saved the President’s life was available that dark day at the Exposition in Buffalo: Thomas Alva Edison’s new X-ray machine.
Use of the machine to find the missing bullet was rejected, however, because the technology was new and untested. The President would die days later of sepsis from the contaminating bullet, dramatically altering the history of the 20thcentury, as well as the geography of South Dakota, as Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States and, later, one of four faces on Mount Rushmore.
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