July 21, 2013
Chicago cop struck fear
into South Side from 1934-51
‘Two-Gun Pete,’ known for cruelty, boasted of killing 12
By William Lee, Chicago Tribune reporter
The legend of “Two-Gun Pete,” the cold-blooded cop who shot at least nine men dead on the South Side, began with a gun battle eight decades ago.
Just six months into his rookie year in April 1934, he caught 27-year-old Ben Harold red-handed during an armed robbery near 51st and State streets. What followed was a shootout that brought several bullets dangerously close to the young stockyard-worker-turned-policeman.
When the smoke cleared, four of the cop’s five shots had hit their mark, tearing through Harold’s torso. He staggered several steps before falling dead in a doorway.
After nearly emptying his six-shooter, Pete started carrying a second handgun for backup. He eventually swapped his .38-caliber revolvers for more powerful .357 Magnums, and his reputation grew.
Though he was one of the deadliest police officers in Chicago history, few people without a longtime South Side connection have ever heard of Two-Gun Pete, or the enigmatic man behind the nickname, Sylvester Washington.
The Tribune set out to bring his story to a wider audience, separating facts from myth. The newspaper examined official records, talked to police veterans who knew him, and interviewed his third wife, who was a DuSable High School student when they secretly wed in the 1960s. The Tribune also found a woman who says she owns one of Washington’s guns.
Two-Gun started as an anonymous bluecoat walking a beat, but he ended up as a ghetto superstar — a flamboyant, crooked, braggadocious, womanizing, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed police detective.
He was tasked with clearing out bad elements from every nightclub, flophouse and pool hall in what was then called Black Metropolis, a South Side community mired in poverty and violence, yet bouncing to a jazzy beat.
Washington spent most of his career working out of the old Wabash Avenue police station at 48th Street and Wabash Avenue. By the mid-1940s, his 5th District, with a population of 200,000, led the city in slayings, robberies and rapes, and was nicknamed the “Bucket of Blood.”
But the mention of Two-Gun Pete’s name could clear a street corner in seconds.
“Everybody knew Sylvester Washington,” said Rudy Nimocks, a former deputy police superintendent. “They knew his car. And the prostitutes would go hide someplace when they saw him. He was something else.”
Facing criticism that police were failing to protect black residents, Chicago’s top brass looked to Washington and other tough black cops to get ahold of crime. But the bosses may have made a pact with the devil, entrusting citizens’ safety to a profoundly violent man.
“He was the meanest, cruelest person that I have ever seen in my entire life,” said his third wife, Roslyn Washington Banks.
Pete augmented his fierce reputation with the tools of his trade: a nightstick and meaty hands that he used to slap grown men to the ground like small children.
And there were his sidearms — pearl-handled .357 Magnum revolvers. One had a long barrel, the other a short barrel. Each pistol was holstered in its own belt around his hips, both pearl handles pointing right for the right-handed gunslinger.
“I seldom miss the mark with them,” Washington bragged to Ebony magazine. “I can put 14 bullseyes into a target out of 15 shots, and have made a marksmanship record of 147 out of a possible 150.”
Police officials told the newspapers that Pete had gunned down nine men by 1945. He later claimed the career total was 11. And even later, he added one more body to the pile, telling a young reporter named Mike Royko: “I kept my own count and I counted 12.”
Depending on which number is accurate, Pete was either the deadliest police officer in Chicago history or tied with Frank Pape, a North Side cop who started on the force three months before Pete and killed nine men.
Washington liked to cite other numbers, too, claiming 20,000 arrests in his career. He also earned three cash bonuses for shooting car thieves.
As Pete’s reputation grew, he was promoted from patrol officer to detective. The two guns stayed, but the blue uniform and cap were replaced with silk suits and fedoras.
Pete became a police celebrity, getting special assignments, such as protecting Jackie Robinson at Wrigley Field and guarding the free ice cream for children at the Bud Billiken Parade. He and his pistols were even featured in a small photo in a 1947 issue of Life magazine.
At the height of his legend, he didn’t even have to unholster his guns. He would send troublemakers unescorted to the police station, and they would go, preferring not to have Pete come looking for them later.
A request for Chicago police documents on Washington yielded only two, showing his years of service and listing his commendations and service bonuses. Because of the lack of documents, his chain of victims is difficult to track down. But the Tribune did secure the death records of several men he gunned down.
Two-Gun Pete didn’t fit the central casting description of a Chicago cop, standing about 5-foot-9, with a mustache, and pushing 225 pounds. With cigar smoke billowing from his pencil-thin lips and those two heavy rods on his hips, he may have resembled a locomotive on wobbly tracks as he strutted down the street.
His sad eyes and beer gut disguised a hair-trigger temper that ignited for even minor slights.
Washington shot and killed Willie Lee Matthews in August 1941 as they passed in a narrow passageway near Garfield Boulevard. Washington later claimed Matthews, 33, had tried to grab his gun, though it wasn’t clear why Matthews, a hotel bellman, would have tried to disarm Two-Gun Pete. Still, a coroner’s jury ruled the slaying a justifiable homicide.
More common were the street beatings that Washington handed out, primarily to criminals caught in the act or wisecracking teenagers.
“The real Dirty Harry was Two-Gun Pete,” said playwright and actor Jerry Jones, who wrote a self-published book about Washington in 1988.
As Nimocks put it, Two-Gun Pete “kind of epitomized the worst of policing, where police officers were totally brutal and had no regard whatsoever for some of the professionalism that people demand now. You’d crack a guy, you’d smack some guy in the mouth. You’d knock them down the second they disrespected you.”
Take the night in fall 1945 when Two-Gun Pete was dining at a 63rd Street restaurant and used the butt of his revolver to batter a drunk in front of horrified patrons, according to news reports. The beaten man was charged with felony assault, accused of stabbing Washington. But the judge dropped the charges after three witnesses labeled Two-Gun as the aggressor.
In the black press like the Chicago Defender and Ebony, such negative stories about Washington rarely made it into print. He was portrayed as straight-shooting, fearless and incorruptible. The Afro-American newspaper of Baltimore called him “the fabulous Two-Gun Pete.”
But Washington was decidedly corrupt. He was known to raid nightspots on successive nights only to show up a third night looking for a loan. Then there was that business of his fancy suits and the expensive cars he drove on duty.
As the Great Migration brought tens of thousands of Southern blacks to Chicago, part of Pete’s job was teaching the customs of the big city to “country Negroes,” as the Defender called them. The Southern tradition of neighbors chatting by the side of the road was a no-no, as it was believed to foster crime.
Two-Gun Pete was a product of the migration himself, having come to Chicago from Terry, Miss., with his family at age 14 in 1920. But he had no tolerance for people who hung out on the sidewalk.
“He would come down here and say, ‘Every living ass off the street.’ And I mean everybody faded. He had no (compassion), no pity, you couldn’t say a word to him. He’d beat the people unmercifully,” former Bronzeville resident Marion Hummons said in an oral history of the neighborhood.
Former Cook County Commissioner Chuck Bowen, a former prosecutor, remembers the day Washington approached him and several others standing on a corner in 1948.
“He said, ‘When I come back here, I don’t want to see you all standing on this corner,'” Bowen recalled. “He turned his back and … his nightstick was hidden behind his back. When he turned around, he said, ‘I’m back!'”
By the time he started swinging his club, Bowen and his friends were running in every direction.
At age 84, Nimocks remembers racking pool balls as a teenager in a pool hall near 39th and Cottage Grove when Two-Gun Pete strolled in. Knowing the drill, Nimocks and the others turned, spread-eagle, toward the wall to be searched.
“We were all terrified, because we knew who he was,” Nimocks said. “He came in. That’s the first time I had seen him. And he had on a leopard-skin jacket. I’ll never forget it.”
Crowds outside the hottest spots on the South Side — the Cafe Rhumboogie, Club DeLisa and the Palm Tavern — parted like the Red Sea when Pete’s Mercury coupe pulled up.
One night he came to the rescue of actor Canada Lee, who starred in Orson Welles’ Broadway adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Lee and his date were being hassled by young toughs at a cabaret when Pete intervened.
According to Lee biographer Mona Z. Smith, Pete shouted: “You think you can come in here and spoil things for this man who is an artist? If I hear you doing anything to Mr. Lee, I will kill you!”
Milton Deas, 93, a retired police commander who met Washington after joining the department in 1946, said the times were tough and a cop had to be tougher. Otherwise, he said, the officer would be branded a “punk.”
Music legend Quincy Jones, a Chicago native, was less sympathetic.
“Every weekend we watched a legendary black cop named Two-Gun Pete who carried two pearl-handled revolvers shoot black kids in the back in broad daylight, right in front of a Walgreens drugstore — the kids dropped like potato sacks,” Jones wrote in his autobiography. “We fantasized about making Two-Gun Pete pay.”
The outcry against Pete became louder as more regular citizens became victims of his wrath.
“I know a person is liable to be beaten by hoodlums and thugs, but not when police beat up citizens in the street,” William H. Knight wrote in a letter to the Defender in 1940, claiming Washington assaulted him as he was getting a phone number from a friend under the 58th Street “L.”