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What was up with the guy killed by his own bomb in Lakewood/Balmoral?
April 8, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I grew up in the Lakewood/Balmoral area of Edgewater. Circa 1955-56 a bomb was detonated at the northeast corner of Lakewood/Catalpa sometime after midnight. It instantly killed the guy who was carrying it. There was talk it was meant for the house on the southeast corner. We walked past the site on the way to school in the morning. The police and/or coroner had already picked up the larger pieces, but there was enough of the bomber spread around to cause a stir. Do you have any more information about this?

— San Diego Tim, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

You know, Tim, after reading up on your old neighborhood, I'm going to quit complaining about the people across the alley behind me playing loud ranchera music. It's not so much that one guy blew himself up a with a bomb. Rather it's that, in 1950s Chicago, bombs were a routine means of interpersonal communication. Here's how the Tribune described the situation: "The bombing, the fifth this year and the 34th in Cook county since Jan. 1, 1954, is the first to be 'solved' since October, when a boy admitted the 'pint size' bombing of a southwest side residence because the owner chased him off the lawn."  Still, even by old-Chicago standards, the Catalpa Street bombing — in Andersonville! Gentle, progressive Andersonville! — was in a class by itself.

The deceased was Clarence (Mike) Campbell, 59, a former gambler and south side bookie who'd been convicted of murder and kidnaping and spent eight years in prison. Early on the morning of Friday, May 25, 1956, he blew himself to pieces with a dynamite bomb in front of the home of John Olinder, 50, at Catalpa and Lakewood. Apparently Campbell had been carrying the bomb when he tripped over a string fence protecting a newly seeded parkway in front of Olinder's two-flat. Oops. 

Campbell's car, with Louisiana plates, was found parked across the street with the engine still warm and the keys in the ignition. In the dead man's pockets police found a notebook with the license plate numbers of two cars owned by Olinder plus a third car owned by Olinder's neighbor, Gwendolyn Voss, 60. Police speculated that Campbell had intended to plant the bomb against either Olinder's house or one of his cars.

The story was front page news for a week. The following facts emerged:

  • Olinder had been feuding with Voss, who'd complained to police three times the previous fall that Olinder had parked in front of her house, the bastard. On one occasion the cops came by and gave Olinder a ticket for not having a city sticker. Another time Mrs. Voss, clearly the prototype neighbor from hell, had used her car to shove one of Olinder's cars in front of a fire hydrant, resulting in his getting another ticket.

  • For the previous five years Olinder had also been feuding with his sister, Marie Svensen, 54, another Andersonville resident. The nature of this feud was unclear. The Trib said Olinder's sister "had threatened him," although it didn't say with what. Once "she tried to take his daughter, Janet, 5, from his mother." Olinder said he'd worked his way through Northwestern University but "his sister told friends she put him through school, buying his clothes and giving him money." What an outrage! Perhaps more pertinently, Svensen had also accused Olinder of hiding assets belonging to their mother, who had died the previous year.

  • Mrs. Voss and Mrs. Svensen were united in their loathing of Olinder and occasionally talked about it. In one conversation, Mrs. Voss suggested Mrs. Svensen go to court to try to discover her mom's assets. Police learned the two women had spoken by phone Thursday night. Mrs. Voss refused to take a lie detector test.

  • At 1 a.m. Saturday night an anonymous caller told Olinder, "I'll give you just 24 hours." What Olinder was supposed to do in 24 hours wasn't stated.

The last bit was followed by this cryptic paragraph in the Trib:

The caller sounded "like a bookmaker," Olinder said. He explained this was just his "first impression." He said he owed no gambling or other debts and had not bet on a horse race since 1934. He said there is no tavern, only seven cottages, at a summer resort he owns in Chetek, Wis., and there was no possibility of gambling there.

Excuse me. The caller sounded like a bookmaker? What does a bookmaker sound like? And who said anything about there being a tavern or gambling at Olinder's summer resort? I suspected the Trib was engaging in the ancient Chicago journalism practice of "scoop recovery," in which a paper attempted to one-up or refute the revelations of its competitors. However, despite an afternoon reeling through the microfilm of long-departed dailies — in this age of instant information, I felt like I was reading papyrus — I could find nothing more. 

Back to our story:

  • Mary Campbell, 49, wife of the deceased Clarence, was given a lie detector test with inconclusive results. Ordered to testify at the coroner's inquest, she skipped town. The coroner issued a subpoena.

  • The bowling alley owner who was a tenant in Olinder's two-flat also failed to show up at the inquest. The coroner issued a subpoena for him, too.

  • John Costello, 54, who lived across the street from Olinder, said he didn't know anything Campbell or the bombing. However, according to the Tribune, he was a real estate speculator, which in my book makes him a suspect right there. 

  • Despite earlier reports of his feuds with Mrs. Voss and his sister, Olinder testified at the inquest that he knew of no reason why the license plate numbers of his cars should be found on the dead man. When the coroner expressed incredulity, Olinder said, "I can't understand for the life of me why this terrible thing happened." Sure.

  • The Illinois secretary of state, zeroing in on the real scandal, said "thousands" of Illinoisans were evading state auto license fees by registering their vehicles out of state. Evidence of this was the Louisiana plates on Clarence Campbell's car even though he had an Illinois driver's license, suggesting that, had he not been killed, he would have had some explaining to do to the secretary of state.

Other miscellaneous observations:

  • I miss 1950s-style tabloid journalism, exemplified by such Sun-Times headlines as Bride Kills Paraplegic Mate, 3 Kin; LeMay Warns U.S. of Red Air KO by '59; and Bare Feud Among Nudes. I'd also like to know why newspapers quit running crime-scene photos with dotted lines and Xs showing the path and final resting place of the staggering victim, careening automobile, etc.

  • You get the feeling Chicago in the 1950s was a lot more out of control than is now generally realized. Two weeks after the bombing, the Sun-Times had a front page story about a guy who walked into Mickey's Miracle Bar, 1114 W. Argyle, and shotgunned the bartender, a "dice girl," and a patron to death. Other headlines from the same period — and yes, these are all local stories: Cop Terrorizes Family, Gives Up; Kills Wife, Unaware She Had Told Fear to Police; and Police Battle Yeggs.

  • Echoing the Trib, the Sun-Times alluded to "the wave of terror bombing that has afflicted Cook County and Chicago" — a wave that, to my knowledge, has now been completely forgotten.

  • This short item also caught my eye: for the first four months of 1956, the number of people killed on the CTA had dropped from 24 to 12, and only two of those were the CTA's fault.   

So there you have it. A mangled corpse on the lawn. The seemingly innocent homeowner with a knack for making enemies and perhaps a dark secret, even if it didn't have anything to do with gambling or that Wisconsin resort. The cranky neighbor. The disgruntled sister. The bowling alley owner, the real estate speculator, the missing blond wife! All of them, judging from the photos in the newspapers, looking like something out of the Chicago edition of Clue.

Some will say: in a town that saw the St. Valentine's day massacre and countless gangland assassinations, I don't see what's so remarkable about one guy getting killed by a bomb. However, consider the context. Mob killings typically involved professional criminals struggling for control of lucrative rackets. Here we have people getting blown up in an ordinary neighborhood over what, parking spaces? Furthermore, the neighborhood in question was Andersonville, so named for the ethnic origin of its inhabitants, as evidenced by names like Olinder and Svensen. I realize I stray into politically incorrect territory in saying this, but if you're looking for ethnic communities prone to violence and vendettas, do you think: those bloodthirsty Swedes?

Seriously, what was up with these people? Did Mrs. Voss and Mrs. Svensen hire Campbell to teach Olinder a lesson? If so, wouldn't sugar in the gas tank have worked just as well? How did Olinder know what bookies sounded like? Also, not to cast aspersions on the departed, what kind of numbskull gets himself blown up tripping over string?

I can't answer those questions. The last story mentioning the bombing appeared a week after the blast. I scoured the newspaper databases, but as far as I can tell, the incident never came up again.

That's not to say the participants disappeared entirely from public view. Although I found nothing further about John Olinder, Gwendolyn Voss  surfaced again in the Tribune in 1965. By then a 70-year-old widow still living at Lakewood and Catalpa, she returned home one day to have robbers burst from the basement, bind and gag her, ransack the premises, and make off with $21,000 in jewels, furs, and cash.

Coincidence — or payback? I have no idea. All I know is, if you're in the vicinity of Lakewood and Catalpa, watch your back. 

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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