Dexter Park: The House That Murder Built

There’s been a lot of baseball parks in Chicago.  Before there was Wrigley, there was Comiskey.  Before Comiskey, there was the West Side Grounds, and before that, Brotherhood Park, and Southside Park, and Lakefront Park, and others, all the way back to Dexter Park.

Located just south of the Chicago Stockyards between 43rd and 47th and Halsted Streets, Dexter Park was the Windy City’s foremost ball ground in the mid-1860s.  It hosted the 1867 tournament that saw Rockford’s Forest City Base Ball Club shock the previously undefeated Washington Nationals, 29 to 23, on July 25.  The Nationals avenged the loss two days later by hammering the Chicago Excelsiors 49 to 7, and then giving the same treatment to the home-ground Chicago Atlantics after another two-day break, 78 to 17.

With the amateur game giving way to the professional version, the Chicago White Stockings claimed the park in time for the 1870 season.  Twenty-thousand fans are said to have witnessed the home team defeat the visiting Cincinnati Red Stockings in mid-October, 16 to 13.

But before there was Dexter Park, there was Dexter himself.  Described as “high-spirited, nervous, wide-awake and intelligent,” Dexter was America’s most famous horse during his short career.  Racing from 1863 until he pulled up lame in 1867, years before he would’ve reached his prime, Dexter ran 55 times and won 50.  He was Inducted as an Immortal to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1956.

Dexter beat all of the other famous flyers of the time—Stonewall Jackson, George M. Patchen, Jr., General Butler, Commodore Vanderbilt, Toronto Chief, Lady Thorne and others.  Along the way, the equine powerhouse set speed records for the day in mile heats, best three-out-of-five heats, two miles, three miles, in harness, saddle and wagon.

In 1866, Dexter was stabled in Chicago and owned by George Trussell, a notorious Windy City gambler.  One of Dexter’s most-anticipated races was scheduled to be held at the Chicago Driving Park Association grounds on September 4.  Trussell expected a big day.  But torrential rain soaked the Windy City that morning and a three-way $5,000 match against Patchen and General Butler was postponed.  It still turned out to be a big day for Trussell, when Mollie Cosgriff shot him dead.

Trussell spent the last afternoon of his life at the Driving Park, drinking and gambling with friends despite the race postponement. The party moved downtown in the evening with a tour of bars.  It was said that Trussell had a strong attraction to the spirits of the time, and so it wasn’t a surprise when he drifted into Seneca Wright’s tavern on Randolph for a nightcap and a song toward the 11 o’clock hour.

What was a surprise, was when Mollie Cosgriff showed up at the saloon, wanting a word or two with George.  She looked, according to one newspaper, as if she had just come from a dancing party, wearing a striking white moire dress to the occasion, a shawl draped over her shoulders, drunk, and carrying a revolver in a pocket. 

Mollie was no stranger to the tavern side of life.  She ran a well-known house of ill-repute on Fourth Avenue.

George and Mollie were no strangers to each other.  Mollie had fallen into the demi-monde in Chicago after moving to the city from her home in Ohio.   Her attractive figure and alluring beauty naturally gained the temporary attention if not the permanent affection of Chicago’s fast young men, of whom George was no exception.  An affair evolved, and a son by Mollie’s calculation, and the couple drifted apart, but Mollie never lost her devotion to the man.

The lingering feelings were not reciprocal.  George didn’t feel much like talking with Mollie that night, and he tried to usher her out the front door of Wright’s place.  There was some pushing and shoving at the entrance.  Seneca stepped from behind the bar, separated the two quarrelers, and then went back to his duties.  The former lovers continued to scuffle.  One witness said that George struck Mollie.  Others said he didn’t.  Mollie pulled her gun and shot him in the side.

George careened back toward the center of the saloon.  Mollie followed, and fired again, the bullet striking him in the back.  George stumbled toward a side door.  Mollie shot him a third time.  He staggered out the door, into the entrance of Price’s livery stable, and collapsed.

As if just coming out of a trance, Mollie raced out of the saloon and fell on his body, shrieking frantically, “O my George!  My George!  He is dead.”

A notorious gambler and owner of a famous horse, killed in his prime.  A jilted lover, a keeper of a lewd house, a drunken murderess.  Newspapers across the Northeast quarter of the country followed the story with salacious glee.  It was a sensation, pure and simple, and it seemed like it would be a tough act to follow.  But Chicago was a tough town, and racing soon resumed. 

“There is great excitement in sporting circles,” the Chicago Tribune declared on Friday morning, September 21, 1866, “about the great race…between General Butler and Cooley, for a purse of five thousand dollars a side, and set for tomorrow on the track of the Chicago Driving Park Association.”

General Butler was a popular harness horse whose career overlapped the Civil War.  His likeness circulated on Currier & Ives and other lithographs.

Cooley was a black gelding and a favorite on Chicago race tracks.  Locally owned, the fast trotter was described as “a big little horse” with “an eye full of intelligence and kindness.” 

Heavy betting underscored the excitement for the sulky race between the horses.  “The knowing ones seem to be about equally divided in opinion as far as odds are concerned,” the Tribune computed, “though the majority seem to think the General stands the best chance.”

The match between the horses was also a match between the drivers of the sulkies they pulled.  Manager Bill Riley drove Cooley.  Two men would steer General Butler that afternoon—jockey Samuel Crooks for the first two races, and quarter-owner William McKeever the remainder of the way.

McKeever was a cool customer, and a good enough athlete to have played for two of New York City’s premier baseball clubs.  He began as an infielder with the Gotham club in 1859 before taking on pitching duties for the rough and tumble Mutual club in 1863. 

In 1861, McKeever pitched for New York against Brooklyn and the great Jim Creighton in the famous New York Clipper Silver Ball Match.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called McKeever “the most effective medium-paced pitcher in the country.”  Creighton outpitched McKeever that day in Hoboken, but Creighton isn’t called great without a reason. 

Now nearing 30, McKeever had traded away the mound work for the less taxing pursuits of harness racing and gambling.  A half-hour delay after the scheduled start of the Driving Park match drew the disapproval of the crowd of thousands in attendance.  Odds favored Cooley 25 to 10 when the match finally began at 3:30 p.m.

General Butler pulled ahead in the first heat, building a five-length lead at the half-mile post but the horses were equal at the final turn.  A late surge by Cooley earned the win by a neck.

Cooley won the second heat by 15 lengths.  Bettors on General Butler, suspicious of the slow times turned in by Crooks and on the verge of seeing their wagers wiped out, begged McKeever to make a switch.  As the odds climbed to 100 to 25 on Cooley, McKeever took the lines for the third heat.  The move paid off with a win by 20 lengths for General Butler and the odds reversed themselves. 

Trouble began in the fourth heat.  A half-an-hour was lost in fits and starts and ill-words between the drivers.  With darkness rapidly falling, the heat finally reached its start.  Two hundred yards into the race, McKeever suddenly swerved in front of Riley’s buggy, scraping Cooley’s nose.  General Butler won the race by a half-length.  Many in the crowd argued that the foul should have resulted in a dead heat, or the award of the race to Cooley.    Disarray prevailed when the track judges stuck with the win for General Butler.

By the time order was resolved, night had fully fallen and only moonlight illuminated the racing grounds for the fifth and final match.  More argument ensued, with half the crowd for the race to be called off due to darkness, and the other half demanding it continue.  A start was made despite the conditions.  General Butler broke in front along the rail as the horses disappeared in the darkness. 

In due course, Cooley returned to view, heading down the home stretch toward the winning line.  General Butler careened behind, without a driver.  A search quickly located McKeever, bloody and unconscious, face down in the cinders on the back stretch.  He was quickly carried to the home of J. R. Gore, a physician who lived nearby on Michigan Avenue.

Examination revealed extensive fractures to McKeever’s skull, with particular injury to the left temple, as if McKeever had been struck in the head by a hard object.  Gore extracted three broken pieces of the cranium.  Hopes were raised that the procedure would relieve pressure on the brain and allow McKeever to regain consciousness.  It soon became apparent that the patient could not recover from the injury. 

With foul play evident, police launched an investigation.  After taking Riley into custody, suspicion fell on Peter and Tom Hickey, brothers who owned a tavern near the race track.  Police arrived at the saloon at two a.m. Sunday morning and arrested the two after a desperate fight that left the officers and suspects bitten, battered, billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped.

McKeever died Sunday afternoon without ever coming out of his coma.  His body was returned to his brother’s care in New York and internment at Greenwood Cemetery, final resting place of so many of the game’s pioneers. Remembering their former pitcher, the entire Mutual Base Ball Club attended McKeever’s funeral.

Back in Illinois, the Cook County Coroner opened an inquest on McKeever’s death.  Chicago’s sporting crowd packed the Central Police Station to view the proceedings.  A string of witnesses testified. Two said they saw Peter Hickey on the track between the fourth and fifth heat.  There were other figures in the shadows.  Tom Hickey denied any knowledge of the events surrounding McKeever’s death.  Bill Riley testified he didn’t have anything to do with it, either.  He closed with one admission.  “I did say, ‘If I could win the race, I would.’”

The coroner’s jury returned its verdict on October without charges, finding only that a plot existed among unnamed friends of Cooley to prevent General Butler from winning the match, and that the result of this plot caused McKeever’s death.  A later history of the Chicago Police Department named Tom Hickey as the killer.

Mollie Cosgriff went on trial that same month for the Trussell killing.  The charge was manslaughter, for which a sentence of up to life could be applied.  There was no argument that Cosgriff killed Trussell.  The only argument was whether she was justified in pulling the trigger, in fear for her own life when Trussell tried to push her out of Seneca Wright’s tavern.  The jury didn’t buy the entire bill of goods, but came close.  After deliberating just over three hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and the minimum sentence allowable, a year in the penitentiary.

It might be expected that a woman of Mollie’s notoriety and profession would have some connections.  In prison, she was given a private cell and allowed to receive visitors and wear her own clothes, but that was just a nickel ante in a smaller game.  Mollie had bigger cards to play:  she was pardoned by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby after serving just a month of her sentence.  

The Driving Park Association did not survive McKeever’s death.  With its reputation completely ruined by the autumn’s gruesome murders, the grounds were sold at auction in December of 1866 and soon demolished.  Dexter Park, specifically named after the trotter, opened in July of 1867 to replace the disgraced track.  The spacious infield of the racing oval contained the baseball diamond. 

A tobacco card celebrates Dexter

The horse Dexter had a short career.  So did the park named after him.  It burned to the ground in 1871, a victim of the Great Chicago Fire.

William McKeever has never appeared on a baseball card.

Author: Russell Streur

Russell Streur is an Atlanta-area collector. He is a regular contributor to Jay Grochalski's collecting blog Junk Wax Jay https://junkwaxjay.blogspot.com/ and maintains a modest card blog of his own at https://blueheronsbaseballclub.blog/ Streur is also editor and chief bartender of the eco-poetic journal, Plum Tree Tavern, at https://theplumtreetavern.blogspot.com/

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