Murder of a Cork Fenian in Chicago

By Pauline Murphy

Philip Henry Cronin was born on August 7th, 1846, in Buttevant, Co. Cork but An Gorta Mór (The Great Fame) was sweeping the land at the time and while still an infant, Cronin’s family set out for a better life across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Cronins landed first in New York City, before finally settling in the mining areas of Pennsylvania. Young Cronin proved to be a gifted scholar and he became a doctor, taking up a position at the Cook County Hospital, Chicago. He became highly regarded in the large Irish community there but, his popularity rubbed some people up the wrong way and thus they put in motion his demise.

Alexander Sullivan was the leader of the Chicago camp of Clan na Gael and he did not take too kindly to Cronin’s ambition to move up the ranks of the secret Fenian organisation. Cronin’s fate was sealed when he stated that Sullivan had been dipping into funds which had been set aside for the dynamite campaign.

Sullivan hit back by declaring Cronin a spy and in 1885, after internal investigation, Cronin was expelled from Clan na Gael and the organisation split between those who supported Cronin and those who supported Sullivan.


The bad blood between Sullivan and Cronin continued into 1889, when Cronin mentioned to his friends in April of that year that he feared his life was in danger. Weeks later he disappeared.

On the night of May 4th, 1889, a man in a distressed stated arrived at the door of Dr. Cronin with news that a worker at Patrick O’Sullivan’s Ice House had been injured and needed help. The Ice House was located in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake View and neighbours witnessed the doctor leave with the distressed man in a buggy pulled by a white horse.

On May 6th, a large trunk was found dumped in a ditch just outside Lake View. The truck was empty except for a bundle of cotton drenched in blood and a piece of a man’s scalp with hair matching the same colour as the missing doctor.

Body found

On May 22nd, workers from the Board of Public Works in Chicago went to Foster Avenue to free a clogged drain. They found the naked body of Dr. Cronin and it was apparent the had endured a violent death!

Cronin’s clothes had been cut from his body and all that was left was a bloodied towel wrapped around his neck. A postmortem revealed that Cronin had a broken neck and several stab wounds to his head made by an ice pick.

Four members of Clan na Gael stood trial for Cronin’s murder, which lasted 3 months. The trial ended with the jury delivering a guilty verdict for the four men – Patrick O’Sullivan, who owned the Ice House; Martin Burke, who rented a cottage where Cronin was killed; Dan Coughlin, a policeman who rented the buggy and horse to carry Cronin’s body, and John Kunzel, the distressed man who arrived at the door of Dr. Cronin to bring him to his doom.

All four were supporters of Alexander Sullivan, who by the way, was never held to account for Cronin’s murder.

On May 26th, 1889, Dr. Cronin’s funeral took place in Chicago. Newspapers stated it was the biggest funeral since President Lincoln as the procession of over 8,000 mourners and various brass and pipe bands made their way to Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Cook County.

The murder of the Cork-born Fenian in Chicago may now be a forgotten episode in Irish-American history but at the time it was called by the press as “The Crime of the Century.”