John Peter Altgeld

By Maris Rosenfield, Loyola University Chicago

John Peter Atgeld, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, there are many monuments dedicated to significant figures in history. Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and more stand tall within the expansive park. Among these historical giants stands a monument to John Peter Altgeld, a governor of Illinois who fought for justice reform and pushed his progressive views during his term. Altgeld’s legacy is one of restitution, as he has been described as “the most abused and reviled man of his generation” [1]. His monument may sit humbly in Lincoln Park, but his character and his contributions to society make him a quiet but significant influential player in history.

John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany in 1848. His family traveled to the United States, settling in Mansfield, Ohio when John was three months old. His father worked on a farm, upon which John began to help when he was 12. Despite the workload and his illiterate father’s lack of support, John excelled in school. After various moves westward from Ohio, Altgeld settled in Chicago in 1875. He first focused on real estate by buying lots and building office structures. But his interests in politics and law caught up with him, and he was elected governor of Illinois in 1892.

Engraving of Haymarket Affair, originally published in Harper’s Weekly, 1886

Altgeld made several then-controversial decisions during his governorship, but his boldest move was to pardon the three men still serving time for the infamous Haymarket Affair. On May 4, 1886, a bomb went off at a Chicago labor meeting that resulted in seven policemen and four workmen’s death and seventy others injured. Eight men were accused, arrested, and tried—all eight were found guilty and five were hanged. Seven years later, in 1893, Altgeld pardoned the remaining three men.

The trial was riddled with controversy and injustice. In his pardon, Altgeld insisted that “the jury was not chosen by chance as required by law but from a panel collected personally by a special bailiff who boasted that he had called only those men who ‘he believed would hang the defendants’ ”[1]. Overall, in his 18,000 word pardon, Altgeld argued that the trial was unjust and that the evidence presented could not have rightfully convicted the three remaining defendants [2]. When his party reacted negatively to his decision to pardon, Altgeld is to have said:

“No man…has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice” [3]

The public did not take kindly to Altgeld’s decision. He, along with the three men pardoned, were deemed “anarchists” by the public and press, with various news outlets denouncing Altgeld and attacking the pardon. The Chicago Tribune went so far as to compare pardoning those involved with the Haymarket Affair to the states that seceded from the Union during the Civil War, writing: “The Chicago Tribune, characteristically a pioneer in such matters, led the outcry. ‘Never’ said its editor, ‘did the Governor of an American State—with the exception of those Southern Governors who issued secession proclamations—put his name to so revolutionary and infamous a document.’ On the next day, the editor, noting the widespread denunciation of Altgeld with satisfaction, remarked that ‘the political remains; of Altgeld would draw the salary of governor for forty-two months longer.” [4]

The decision to pardon the three remaining “anarchists” effectively ruined Altgeld’s political career. While he still had speaking engagements, he was not re-elected as governor nor to any other political office. He died in 1902 at the age of 54 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

For someone vilified by the press and general public, it is hard to imagine why he would have a monument in one of the largest parks in the city. After his death, however, the public opinion of Altgeld began to shift. In 1913, more than a decade after his death, $25,000 was appropriated for a monument to Altgeld. With a design competition to choose the sculptor, the city of Chicago that once tried to destroy Altgeld began to make amends. [5]

The final monument, designed by Gutzon Borglum, is made of bronze and shows Altgeld standing with a man, woman and child crouched at his side. The figures around Altgeld’s legs seem to represent that he was an advocate for the working class, as well as his upbringing as such. This symbolism is further realized in the fact the monument itself was dedicated on Labor Day in 1915. Altgeld, while known for his pardoning, was also deeply involved in leading “…progressive reforms such as workplace safety and child labor laws” [5]. To unveil this monument on Labor Day was symbolic considering Altgeld’s work while adding to the acknowledgment of all he did for the working class during his legal and political careers.

Monument of John Peter Altgeld, courtesy of Paul Burley

While this monument may not be the most grand, nor have the most exciting history, it is an excellent example of honoring someone who fought for what he or she thought was right despite popular opinion. It is often the case that monuments have controversy surrounding them, as with the Confederate statues in the South, or even the Balbo Monument here in Chicago. But John Peter Altgeld deserves his place in Lincoln Park, as he represents morality and dignity even when it seems the world is against you. The monument to Altgeld is one of the only remnants of his legacy, which is a shame. He is often left out of the historical narrative, as it has been written:

      “Altgeld in history books is usually one of the unusual statesman of America who was attacked by big corporations and promoted interests of farmers and workers and gave ‘an outstandingly able, courageous, and progressive administration’. Even a book claiming to provide ‘essential facts of her political life’ and insisting that America was different because it was populated by people ‘who believed in restricting oppression rather than submitting to it’ mentions Altgeld only marginally, though it is established fact of history that Altgeld stood for rule of law and sacrificed almost everything for not submitting to injustice and oppression.” [6].

The next time you stroll through Lincoln Park, be sure to stop by and see this shred of the legacy of John Peter Altgeld. His perseverance in the fight against injustice, especially to the working class, makes him worthy of his bronze statue.

 [1]Madison, Charles A. “John Peter Altgeld: Pioneer Progressive.” The Antioch Review 5 (1945): 121–34.

 [2]Parsons, Albert R. Gov. John P. Altgeld’s Pardon of the Anarchists and His Masterly Review of the Haymarket Riot . Chicago, IL: Lucy E. Parsons, 0AD.

[3]Sampson, Robert D. “Governor John Peter Altgeld Pardons the Haymarket Prisoners.” Illinois Labor History Society. Illinois Labor History Society, January 23, 2016.

[4]Wish, Harvey. “Governor Altgeld Pardons the Anarchists.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 31 (1938): 424–48.

[5]District, Chicago Park. “John Peter Altgeld Monument.” Chicago Park District. Accessed November 2020.

[6]Varma, L.B. “History and Historical Fiction: A Study of Howard Fast’s ‘The American’.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 48 (1987).

Adelman, William J. “The Haymarket Affair.” Illinois Labor History Society. Accessed November 2020.

Busch, Francis X. “The Haymarket Riot and the Trial of the Anarchists.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 48 (1955): 247–70.

Paretsky, Sara. “John Peter Altgeld.” Statue Stories Chicago : John Peter Altgeld. Accessed November 2020.


A Wall of Hope: The Berlin Wall in Chicago

Front view of the wall, facing the west. Photo credit to the LSRCC.

Have you been at the Western Brown Line Station and noticed a large slab of concrete standing near the entrance? Well this 3-ton piece of rock was once a part of the Berlin Wall [1]. The city of Chicago was offered a piece of the wall by the Berlin government back in 2008 [2]. This donation symbolizes a gesture of gratitude towards the United States for helping secure the freedom of Berlin and the reunification process. While this gesture of goodwill is much appreciated, some may wonder why it was placed in a CTA station. Like so many other important historical artifacts, perhaps the wall should be kept at a museum or even a public library. However, the city decided to place it in Lincoln Square, a historically German neighborhood. Today, we’ll be looking at the history of Lincoln Square and why the Berlin Wall was placed there.

Lincoln Square saw its first settlers as far back as 1850 [3]. A majority of the settlers were farmers from Switzerland, Germany, and England. They would grow their produce and drive along Little Fort Road (Lincoln Ave.) to the market in Chicago. With Little Fort being a high traffic area, shops began to appear along the road. It wasn’t long until investors started building up the area and promoting it for commercial use. The area soon grew in popularity and saw tremendous growth in the early 1900s [4]. In 1907 the first elevated train made its way to Lincoln Square [5]. With the new train came even more residents and immigrants to the area. Over time, Lincoln Square was transformed from a small farming town to a thriving metropolitan area. And finally, in 1920 the town was annexed and became a part of the city of Chicago [6].

            During the large influx of immigration, numerous German families moved to Lincoln Square. When the town saw an increase in businesses they were primarily German-owned and operated. This encouraged even more German immigrants to move to the area. It is no surprise that German immigrants would want to move where there was a high concentration of German-Americans. Not only were they able to speak their language among their people, but they were able to shop for the items they used back home. Thus, over the years Lincoln Square earned the reputation as a historically German area. Even as the demographics of the area changed and became more diverse, the city promoted an “Old World flavor with European-style shops” [7]. Lastly, there are multiple German-American events that take place in Lincoln Park. The most famous and popular event that takes place is the German-American Oktoberfest. For one weekend in September, Chicagoans and visitors alike gather in Lincoln Square to celebrate everything German. The goal of the festival is to celebrate German heritage and help keep old traditions and culture alive. From this example it is clear to see just how prevalent German-American history and culture remains in Lincoln Square today. So when it came to the Berlin Wall being put on display, it seemed like the natural choice to place it in Lincoln Square.

            While this explains why the wall is in Lincoln Square, it does not answer why it was placed in the CTA. In 2009, the former Alderman of Lincoln Square, Gene Schulter, was interviewed by the McCormick Freedom Museum. The Alderman explained how he wanted it to be put in a prominent area so that it could inspire future generations. Not only would the monument help kids to understand the importance of the Berlin Wall but also teach them why it should never happen again. In the end, the Berlin Wall Monument is “a celebration of the true meaning of unity and liberty” [8]. Also, the citizens of Lincoln Square were thrilled to have the monument installed in the station. When an important monument, such as this one, is placed in a public area, it feels more accessible to the residents. As the Alderman puts it, having the wall in a public space demonstrates the more human side of it and how the Berlin Wall continues to affect people’s lives.

            This is not the only piece of the wall that was placed in a public area. Ever since its fall in 1989, the Berlin government has divided up the pieces to be donated to countries and cities around the world [9]. As of 2020, the Berlin Wall resides in over 40 different countries [10]. These pieces can be found in museums, libraries, businesses, parks, and even schools. Locations include the Berlin Park in Madrid, the Berlin Plaza in Seoul, and the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In this way, the question of why the Berlin Wall is placed on the CTA changes to a question of why not? The Berlin Wall has always been about the people. While it was initially meant to divide the Communist East Berlin from the Democratic West Berlin, it has come to symbolize much more. This symbol of hatred has been re-imagined as its worst fears, a symbol of hope, liberty, and freedom.


A segment of the Berlin Wall in New York on East 53rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues in Paley Park, later relocated to the lobby of the
building to the park’s right. Gaurav1146, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To this day, there continue to be celebrations of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what it means to the city of Chicago. In 2019, the Dank Haus German American Cultural Center hosted a celebration for the 30th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s dismantling [11]. The celebration took place at the Berlin Wall Monument for a rededication ceremony. Speakers included Consul General Wolfang Mössinger from Germany and Dank Haus President Dagmar Freiberger. Once the ceremony concluded guests were invited to share their stories about the events leading up to and eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall. This dedication and remembrance demonstrate the significance the wall has today and why it continues to be important to the city of Chicago.

            If you haven’t seen the wall, you can visit it at 4648 N. Western Ave, the Western Brown Line CTA Station in Lincoln Square.

Jen Cimmarusti, Loyola University Chicago

            [1] McCormick Freedom, “Berlin Wall in Chicago,” produced by the McCormick Freedom Museum, November 9, 2009, accessed November 22, 2020.

            [2] B, Mona,“A Piece of Berlin in Lincoln Square,” Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce (LSRCC), May 28, 2012, Accessed November 22, 2020.

            [3] “Cultural Information,” Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, Accessed November 22, 2020.

            [4] Ibid.

            [5] Ibid.

            [6] Ibid.

            [7] Seligman, Amanda, “Lincoln Square,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, Accessed November 22, 2020.

            [8] McCormick Freedom, “Berlin Wall in Chicago.”

            [9] Ziv, Stav, “Where in the World Is the Berlin Wall?” Newsweek, November 11, 2014, Accessed November 22, 2020.

            [10] Hernandez, Alex V, “30th Anniversary of Berlin Wall’s Demise to Be Celebrated At Monument In Lincoln Square,” November 1, 2019, Accessed November 22, 2020.

            [11] Hernandez, Alex V, “30th Anniversary of Berlin Wall’s Demise.”


“About Us.” German-American Fest. Accessed November 23, 2020.

B, Mona.“A Piece of Berlin in Lincoln Square.” Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. May 28, 2012. Accessed November 22, 2020.

Chandler, Susan. “A German Flavor Lingers in Lincoln Square.” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2000. Accessed November 22, 2020.

“Cultural Information.” Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. Accessed November 22, 2020.

Hernandez, Alex V. “30th Anniversary of Berlin Wall’s Demise to Be Celebrated At Monument   In Lincoln Square.” November 1, 2019. Accessed November 22, 2020.

McCormick Freedom. “Berlin Wall in Chicago.” Produced by the McCormick Freedom  Museum. November 9, 2009. Accessed November 22, 2020.

Seligman, Amanda. “Lincoln Square.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, Accessed November 22, 2020.Accessed November 22, 2020.

Ziv, Stav. “Where in the World Is the Berlin Wall?” Newsweek. November 11, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2020.


“Berlin Wall in Lincoln Square.” Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. Accessed December 6, 2020.

A segment of the Berlin Wall in New York on East 53rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues in Paley Park, later relocated to the lobby of the building to the park’s right. Gaurav1146, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 17, 2021.