From the Fort Dearborn Massacre, through the gangland wars of Al Capone, up through today’s first-in-the-nation murder tally, Chicago has long been known as a place where you can get yourself killed, if you’re not careful.
Murder is also a great way to gain notoriety in this town. We remember H.H. Holmes, Capone, Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy, but we don’t know the names of their victims.
So it is with Chicago’s first murderer and his victim. We all remember John Kinzie, who began Chicago’s tradition of murder, because he has a street named after him along Chicago River. We don’t remember Kinzie’s victim, Jean La Lime, although his bones have been preserved by the Chicago Historical Society.
La Lime, a native of Quebec, moved to Chicago in 1792. Acting as an agent for a fellow Canadian named William Burnett, he purchased the farm of the village’s first settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Kinzie moved here from Detroit in 1804 and bought the land from Burnett, his partner in the fur trade. Beginning another local tradition, Kinzie was getting rich off an inside deal with the most powerful man in town, Capt. Nathan Heald, commander of the fort. Writes the Encyclopedia of Early Chicago:
By suspicious means Kinzie in January 1812 formally got the sutler’s contract from Heald who, like his predecessor, prevented the soldiers from dealing with any other merchant who might offer lower prices. Since the soldiers spent about two-thirds of their pay with the sutler, this contract was a valuable one. The United States factor (Indian trader) Matthew Irwin called Kinzie’s arrangement a "monopoly" and wrote that Heald and other officers paid lower prices than the enlisted men, in addition to which Kinzie had increased prices substantially since getting his exclusive deal.
La Lime hung around Chicago, working as an interpreter between Indians and traders at Fort Dearborn. On Feb. 17, 1812, La Lime and Kinzie got into an altercation that resulted in Kinzie stabbing La Lime to death. Kinzie fled to Milwaukee. At the inquest, presided over by his patron, Capt. Heald, Kinzie claimed La Lime had fired a gun at him, and he had reacted in self defense. The Encyclopedia, however, suggests that Kinzie may been trying to prevent La Lime from exposing his sweetheart deal:
Kinzie may have killed Lalime to silence him as Irwin’s informant inside the fort on treasonable activities by Heald, other officers of the fort, and Kinzie himself. Irwin expressed his fear that his life and Lalime’s were in danger; threats had been made. Irwin had been exposing to authorities in Washington Kinzie’s profiteering and corruption, his bribery to get the Fort Dearborn sutler’s contract.
If that’s true, it was a very Chicago crime. After getting away with it, Kinzie lived another 16 years in Chicago, even serving as justice of the peace. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery. La Lime was forgotten until his coffin was unearthed near the Rush Street bridge. His bones are now kept at the Chicago History Museum, befitting his role as the first of this city’s tens of thousands of murder victims.