(Above) Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke presides over a mock trial of owners and crew of the S.S. Eastland. Photo by Rich Kolar. (Click on images to view larger versions.)
The mock trial has no legal bite, of course, but through theater, it tried to answer haunting questions about the 1915 disaster and raise money for commemoration of its 100th anniversary.
22-Jun-15 Though not alive to claim they are without any blame, owners and crew of the S.S. Eastland were legally absolved for the disaster 100 years ago at a mock trial held Thursday in the south Loop.
After listening to prosecuting attorney Robert A. Clifford, principal partner at Clifford Law Offices, and defense attorney Dan K. Webb, chairman of Winston & Strawn LLP, six jurors returned a split verdict. Five voted for not guilty and one for guilty. The audience agreed, with 58 percent voting not guilty, 29 percent voting all guilty, and 13 percent voting some guilty.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke was the presiding judge.
The event, held at Harold Washington Library Center on South State Street, was part fundraiser, part legal whodunit, pondering what might have transpired if the Eastland Disaster had happened today and not on July 24, 1915. At 7:30 a.m., on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets, the Eastland docked with more than 2,500 passengers on board rolled over, killing 844 people, including 22 entire families.
Six people the president, vice president, and two administrators of the company that owned the Eastland, along with the ships captain and engineer were indicted but a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, found then not guilty.
Ted Wachholz, executive director and chief historian of Eastland Disaster Historical Society, which co-hosted the event with John Marshall Law School, says he is pleased with the outcome this time.
We took two steps forward, says Wachholz (left), the on-stage jury of six returned a split verdict…and the audience also returned a split verdict.
He says months of planning by dozens of volunteers went into the trial, with EDHS working with Clifford Law Offices, Winston & Strawn, and The John Marshall Law School.
We now know so much more about the legal system and how the results of the original trials came to be. We now know what has to be demonstrated, and what is different today than 100 years ago. Incredibly, an admiralty law that weighed heavily in the original civil suit reads pretty much the exact same way today.
(Above) 75 minutes after it capsized on July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland is seen here on the Chicago River east of LaSalle Street. The building on the other side of the river is Reid Murdoch Center.
Civil judgment would stand better chance today
In 1915, judgments in civil claims were limited to the value of the vessel, which in the Eastlands case was $46,000, the equivalent of $1.08 million in 2015. Wachholz believes if a civil trial was held today, there would be no such limits and a judgment would be closer to $200 million.
Clifford for the prosecution and Webb for the defense each wrote their own closing arguments. The rest of the trial was scripted, written by John Marshall Law School professors who met every week for more than two months to review documents.
Wachholz estimates that 90 percent of audience members at the mock trial were employees of various Chicago law firms.
(Above) After the Eastland rolled over, some lucky survivors were able to walk to safety aboard the S.S. Kenosha.
Ceremonies planned for weekend of 100th anniversary
No less than three ceremonies are planned for the weekend of July 24-26 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Eastland Disaster.
On Friday, July 24, a ceremony, open to the public, will be held at 1 p.m. on the Chicago Riverwalk between LaSalle and Clark Streets, the site of the 1915 tragedy.
Another public ceremony will be held at the same location the next day, Saturday, July 25, at 11 a.m. This one will include speakers discussing various aspects of the Eastland Disaster, and performances of two songs written about it, one from 1915 and the other from a musical that was produced in 2012 by Chicagos Lookingglass Theatre Company. That will be followed by a memorial at which people with a direct connection to the Eastland will toss rose petals into the Chicago River.
A candlelight memorial will be held that evening. At 8:44 p.m. on July 25, families connected to the tragedy will light 844 candles in memory of the 844 victims. Three songs from the 2012 musical will then be performed.