The History

Who Was Held Responsible?

Public outcry put pressure on the authorities to determine who was to be held accountable for the death of over 800 people. While the authorities boldly and publicly predicted that someone would be held accountable, the newspapers in turn lampooned the inspectors for their incompetence in providing a safe environment for the public.

Summary of Criminal Court Case

Immediately following the Eastland Disaster, the public rightly demanded that the causes be determined and that someone be held accountable.

  • Seven separate inquiries were started to investigate the criminal actions.
  • Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis subsequently issued an injunction that truncated all of the inquiries except that of the Federal Grand Jury.
  • In mid-September of 1915, the Federal Grand Jury handed down 19 separate indictments with one charge being “criminal carelessness.”
  • One week later, Judge Landis issued a bench warrant that changed the charges to “conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship.”
  • The case was assigned to the District Court of Grand Rapids.
  • In February 1916, the defendants were found “not guilty.”

Details of the Criminal Court Case

In response to the public pressure to hold someone accountable, seven separate inquiries were started to investigate the criminal actions.

The Cook County Coroner’s Office acted first and immediately began its investigations. Coroner Peter M. Hoffman convened a jury hours after the Eastland rolled onto its side.

  • By the end of the week, the coroner’s jury had recommended that charges be brought against the ship’s owners, the officer of the company that chartered the Eastland, the captain, the chief engineer, and the government inspectors.

Two days after the Coroner’s jury issued its recommendation, however, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to whose district court the federal case had been assigned, issued an injunction prohibiting anyone from appearing before any hearing other than his own.

  • Judge Landis’ actions had the effect of truncating any further investigations by the Coroner’s jury.

The Illinois grand jury examined the charges submitted by the Coroner’s jury and subsequently brought forth several indictments.

  • The officers of the company that owned the ship were charged with manslaughter and were indicted on five counts.
  • The officer of the leasing company was indicted for manslaughter.
  • The captain and chief engineer were charged with criminal carelessness, with the captain
    being indicted on five counts and the chief engineer on three.
  • The grand jury also voted indictments for the government’s inspectors and ticket counters, but these were dropped because the state courts lacked jurisdiction over federal officials.

Amonth later, State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne agreed to allow the federal action to be disposed of before any state action was taken. This sealed the fate of any state justice being done as no criminal prosecution was pursued and the charges were subsequently dropped five years later.

Federal actions were initiated on July 24 when President Woodrow Wilson wired Secretary of Commerce William Redfield and instructed him to travel to Chicago to initiate a Federal inquiry. Redfield began his inquiry when he arrived in Chicago on July 29. The proceedings continued through July 31.

Just as with the Coroner’s inquiry, this inquiry was truncated by the Judge Landis injunction prohibiting anyone from appearing before any other hearing.

The Federal grand jury began its hearings on July 30. It heard over 100 witnesses.

Two months later the Federal grand jury brought indictments against
the ship’s owners, the leasing company, the captain and chief engineer, the government inspectors, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company, and the Indiana Transportation Company. The indictments included conspiracy to defraud the federal government by preventing the execution of marine laws, and criminal carelessness.
Several days later, a bench warrant was issued by Judge Landis for the arrest of all but the government inspectors. (These men were residents of Michigan.) The original charges – conspiracy to defraud the federal government by preventing the execution of marine laws, and criminal carelessness – were changed to a single charge of conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship.

The case was assigned to Judge Clarence Sessions of the District Court of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The prosecution was carried on by U.S. District Attorney Charles Clyne.

The defendants had individual attorneys, notably James Barbour, who represented the captain, and Clarence Darrow, who represented the chief engineer.

In February 1916, Judge Sessions delivered his decision: The defendants were found not guilty. This was the only possible outcome as there was no probable cause that a conspiracy took place. The District Court also denied the extradition of the defendants from Michigan to Illinois, thus concluding the Federal criminal actions which meant that no criminal trial was ever held in Chicago.

Sessions did not make any judgment about the seaworthiness of the
Eastland, an issue that would loom large in the civil case.