A Wrongful Conviction from 1936

In August, 1936 a young Black man named Rufo Swain confessed to committing a murder that had perplexed Chicago’s police for several days. On Saturday, August 15, an equally young white woman, Mary Louise Trammell, was choked to death in a hotel room on State street in Chicago. Her husband, who worked as a steward on a dinning car that did a Chicago run, found her body the next day, when he arrived in Chicago. At the scene, the police discovered a notebook that seemed to contain policy numbers, which had a laundry check in its leaves.

Early Wednesday, Swain went to a police station to claim the notebook. He told the police that the notebook was either lost of stolen from him as he slept in a nearby park. According to reports, when police captain Dan Gilbert ridiculed his explanation, Swain quickly lost his nerve and admitted that he had killed Trammell, breaking into her hotel room through a window off the fire escape in search of money. A team of officers, led by Captain Gilbert, put Swain through a “re-enactment” of the crime in front of a series of reporters, who reported somewhat dubiously that the “powerfully built” Swain took a running jump off of a canopy that covered a basement stair, leaping onto the fire escape to pull it down so he could climb up it to Trammell’s room.

At trial, Swain and his attorney’s challenged the police theory of the case. The police claimed that whoever killed Trammell used the water pitcher; Swain’s lawyers argued that the pitcher would not have left the deep wound that she died from. The lawyers also challenged the confession the police offered against him, claiming that Swain only confessed after he was strung up by handcuffed wrists at police headquarters.

There are good reasons to believe Swain’s claim that he confessed under torture. The photograph of Swain (below) taken the day of his arrest seems to show a face that is bruised and swollen.

More to the point, several other men in who were in police custody in the mid 1930s made claims of torture very similar to his:

  • In 1936, seventeen-year-old Michael Livingston, one of four white teens charged with murder in March 1936 claimed the head of the detective unit strung him up and beat him until he confessed to playing a roll in the crime.
  • A year later, Arthur LaFrana, who was white, claimed a police captain hung him from a door by his handcuffs until he confessed to committing murder during a robbery.
  • In 1938, another Black teen, Robert Nixon, claimed several officers at police headquarters hung him by his wrists and beat him until he confessed to the murder of a white women.

And at least one man arrested in the 1940s, sixty-five-year-old Hector Verburgh, who was arrested and questioned by Sergeant Frank Pape, claimed he was hanged by his wrists during an interrogation. Three other men arrested in the 1950s made similar claims: one, Wayne Adams, who was accused of robbery, and two, Paul Crump and Richard Zielinski, who were accused of separate murders.

(Verburgh was later released when the police admitted he did not commit the murder they were investigating. He sued, and the city paid him to compensate him for his injuries. The others were all tried and convicted for the crimes they were accused of.)

The jury heard no evidence of the police department’s extended history of torture during interrogation. So they disregarded Swain’s evidence and his lawyer’s claims. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Too poor to afford to file an appeal, Swain was killed in the electric chair in February 1937.


Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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