BY ROYAL COMMAND
JOHN Edward Robinson was born on December 27, 1943, in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois, the third of five children. His father, Henry Robinson Sr., worked as a machinist for Western Electric and his mother Alberta was a homemaker, bringing up John, his elder brother Henry Jr., younger brother Donald and sisters Jo Ann and Mary Ellen. The Robinsons were a typical family in Cicero, a largely blue-collar neighborhood on the western border of Chicago.
Cicero has a long and distinguished tradition of crime, dating back to the Civil War. Bribery and corruption had always been rife among police officials and politicians, who aligned themselves with criminals and prospered from rum-selling, robbery and prostitution.
“The human scum of a hundred cities swarmed [in] from all over the country,” noted local historian, Herb Asbury.
Cicero became world-famous as the headquarters of legendary gangster Al Capone, who ran his criminal empire from the old Hawthorne Arms Hotel on 22nd Street, just a few blocks away from where John Robinson was born.
Brooklyn-bred “Scarface” Capone was first drafted into Chicago in 1919 by underworld boss Johnny Torrio, to help run the rackets. A year later came Prohibition and, operating out of Cicero, Capone turned illegal alcohol into a multi-million-dollar business. It took Capone just five years to transform Chicago into the crime capital of America, with a chain of speakeasies, supplying willing patrons around the clock with prostitutes, gambling, illegal whiskey and beer.
In 1924, when Henry Robinson Sr. was eight years old, police chased Al Capone down Cicero Avenue, killing his brother Frank in a hail of bullets. A year later Capone hit back when the body of Assistant State’s Attorney General William H. McSwiggin was found dumped on a Cicero street.
Capone’s infamous Hawthorne Inn fortress had steel-shuttered windows, electronically operated doors and squads of fully-armed sentries. It would become the blueprint for all mob hideouts in the newly popular gangster movies that John Robinson loved as a young boy.
Al Capone’s reign finally ended when he was found guilty of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. On his release in November 1939 he moved to a secluded Florida estate, where he died a broken man seven years later of paresis, a brain-destroying disease caused by syphilis.
As John Robinson grew up, his parents would capture his vivid imagination with their own thrilling recollections of Capone and the Chicago gang. The Mafia and corruption were still part of everyday life in Cicero, and as a small boy John set his sights on becoming a gangster if the priesthood didn’t pan out.
Most hard-working Cicero residents liked the Mafia, which was seen as reassuring insurance against street crime by outsiders. The general feeling was that the gangsters were good to the kids and only hurt their own kind.
It was a staunchly working-class town with corner bars and elm tree–lined streets, where men carried lunch pails to work and returned home at 5:00 p.m. after a hard day to find their dinner on the table. Years later John Robinson would tell a Kansas Department of Corrections psychiatrist that his father was a binge-drinker who left it to Alberta to discipline the children.
At the heart of Cicero was the Sportsman Park Racetrack, which drew gamblers and drinkers from all over Chicago. The monotonous strains of the track announcer on the public address system could be heard blocks away, and became part of Cicero folklore.
Growing up in the post-war years, John Robinson knew the streets of Cicero well, often walking past Capone’s now-faded Hawthorne Hotel. His father worked nearby at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works, its huge towering smokestacks belching thick black smoke into the sky, often obscuring the sun.
It was a bleak, depressing place to grow up in and there were few opportunities for an ambitious boy like John Robinson to break out into the world outside.
One escape was the Boy Scouts and his father, who was active in the Chicago scouting scene, encouraged the twelve-year-old to join Pack 259, which was sponsored by the Holy Name Society of Mary Queen of Heaven Roman Catholic Church.
“There wasn’t much to do in Cicero,” said James Krcmarik, who belonged to the same scout group. “Scouts were the way out for us to get swimming, canoeing and the outdoors.”
Krcmarik remembers John Robinson as a “weedy little guy” who was “quiet and nondescript.” He was a loner with few friends but already felt superior to everyone else and was not afraid to tell them so.
In the fall of 1957, the cherubic-faced Robinson seemed to live up to his boasts when he was accepted at the prestigious Quigley Preparatory Seminary. The Chicago Tribune even reported the story, citing his “scholastic ability, scouting experience and poise.” This was quite an achievement for a working-class Cicero boy and the Robinson family was very proud.
The Quigley Seminary was in the very center of downtown Chicago and resembled an imposing gothic cathedral. Just a stone’s throw away from the landmark Water Tower, it was founded in 1905 by Archbishop James E. Quigley with a mission to educate the city’s future priests. It would later become one of the top schools of its kind in America.
In the beginning there were just fifty-two high school freshmen, but by the mid-fifties when Robinson enrolled, the student body had grown to over 1300. Plans were already underway to enlarge it even further with a new high school, which was finally completed in 1961.
The seminary provided a five-year course for young Catholic boys looking for a good education before joining the priesthood. Robinson often spoke of having a true vocation, saying that one day he wanted to serve the Vatican. Even as a boy John Robinson had a silver tongue and could argue convincingly about anything.
On November 3, 1957, Robinson, who was senior patrol leader of his troop, was named an Eagle Scout along with James Krcmarik—the only two Cicero scouts to attain this ultimate scouting achievement. To make Eagle, both boys had had to pass a total of twenty merit badges, including mandatory ones in nature, first aid, swimming, lifesaving, canoeing and rowing.
There was a big ceremony for the new Eagle Scouts at the J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, which was attended by John Robinson’s proud parents. Making the presentation, Leland D. Cornell, scout executive of the Chicago Boy Scout Council, told the 126 new Eagle Scouts, from all over the Chicago area, that they were “elite” future leaders.
“The kind of a city that Chicago will be is in your hands,” he declared. “It can be beautiful or ugly, clean or filthy, honest or corrupt.”
After the ceremony John Robinson proudly showed off his Eagle Scout badge to everybody and even upset some by his immodesty.
“He was bragging to everyone that he was the youngest guy ever made Eagle Scout,” remembers Krcmarik. “I said, ‘That’s fine, buddy. I don’t really care.’ ”
Two weeks later John Robinson flew to London and led 120 boy scouts onto the stage of the London Palladium to perform for the Queen of England in a Royal Command Performance. How he had come to be chosen as the sole American scout representative in the annual Ralph Reader Gang Show remains a mystery. But the event made the front page of the Chicago Tribune on November 19, 1957, under the headline “Chicago Boy Scout Leads Troop to Sing for Queen.”
According to the article, Robinson, who was lauded as the youngest American ever to perform at the world-famous home of London vaudeville, was extremely cocky. He even traded jokes before the show with fellow performer Judy Garland in her dressing room.
“We Americans gotta stick together,” Robinson told the superstar.
“You’re right,” said the delighted Garland, giving him a big kiss on the cheek.
He also charmed legendary English actress and singer Gracie Fields during rehearsals, and she took the smiling scout from Cicero under her wing.
“You’re a mighty handsome youngster,” she told him. And to the amusement of Chicago Tribune reporter Arthur Veysey, Robinson instantly agreed with her.
When Gracie Fields asked if he planned to visit Italy, where she lived on the Isle of Capri, off the coast of Naples, he replied that he planned to study for the priesthood after he graduated Quigley, and would then come to Rome. Scooping the little boy up in her arms for a hug, Fields extended an open invitation for him to visit her anytime.
Then, as the London Palladium curtain went up, John Robinson, wearing a bright scarlet uniform, led the scouting ensemble onto the stage, as Queen Elizabeth applauded enthusiastically from her royal box. He then bowed and sang a special tribute to the Queen, as the sole American scout in the show: “You are the emblem of our flag, red, white and blue.”
After the show the young American was asked by reporters if he had been nervous, appearing in front of the Queen and meeting Judy Garland.
“I wasn’t scared,” he declared, “but I was surprised, all right.”
For the next four days he was feted as an ambassador of American scouting, staying at the home of an English scout and getting a guided tour of London.
Ironically, John Robinson’s first-ever appearance on the front page of a newspaper was alongside the gruesome story of infamous Chicago serial murderer and self-confessed cannibal Ed Gein, who ate the body of one female victim and was suspected of killing at least ten others at his farm in Plainfield, Illinois.
John Robinson’s brush with greatness was brief, as were his aspirations for the priesthood. The rest of his school days at Quigley were undistinguished and he was seen as an average student. In 1958, at the age of fourteen, he appeared in the Quigley Seminary yearbook, Le Petit Seminaire. But although he looked like an angelic altar boy, his dark hair cropped short over the ears, he wore a sly, enigmatic smile, like one of the alien children in the science fiction movie Village of the Damned. This would be his only appearance in the Quigley yearbook.
Richard Shotke, former public relations director of the Chicago Boy Scouts, still remembers Robinson as an above-average student, “not brilliant” but already cunningly manipulative.
“[He was] a good kid,” Shotke recalled. “He didn’t talk a great deal, but when he did talk, it was to produce an effect that he wanted. He was shrewd.”
In his late teens John Robinson visited Canada on a boy scouts’ singing tour. After one performance he met a pretty young girl named Mary White (not her real name), who was four years younger than him. The two teenagers started talking after the show. They discovered that they had a lot in common, and exchanged addresses. On his return to Chicago, Robinson and Mary became pen pals, regularly exchanging letters over the next several years, becoming life-long friends.
In 1961 Robinson finally graduated at the age of seventeen with average grades, doing well in science but not in math. He had given up the idea of becoming a priest, enrolling in Morton Junior College in Cicero to prepare himself for a future career.
Opened in 1924, at the height of the Al Capone era, Morton Community College helped pioneer the community college movement, which aimed to make inexpensive high-quality education available to everybody. It taught a general education course up to a bachelor’s degree to students who couldn’t afford four years’ college tuition.
With five children to feed, Henry Robinson’s machinist job at Western Electric left little money for the luxury of education. So after his son John’s disappointment at Quigley, he was given one final chance at Morton, where he trained to be an X-ray technician at the college’s continuing education program.
With his usual delusions of grandeur, John Robinson now determined to become a doctor. Although he was a poor student, dropping out of Morton after just two years with no qualifications, he resolved not to let that stand in the way of the distinguished medical career he now envisaged.
Over the next few years he would continually lie about his qualifications, claiming to have received his medical training at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park Hill, Illinois. He would even proudly display elaborately framed degree certificates on his office walls at several medical establishments he tricked into employing him. But West Suburban Hospital officials have no records of ever certifying Robinson, or indicating that he ever registered with their state licensing board.
In 1964, at the age of twenty-one, John Robinson married a local Chicago girl named Nancy Jo Lynch. The twenty-year-old attractive willowy blonde had fallen for the smooth-talking X-ray technician, who was now working in a Chicago hospital. When the tall, boyish-looking Robinson proposed on one of their first dates, she accepted. Before long she was pregnant with his child.
They married in a Cicero church at a Catholic ceremony attended by both slightly embarrassed families. Henry and Alberta Robinson now hoped their troubled son would finally settle down and meet his new responsibilities with a wife and a baby on the way.
But within months Robinson was in trouble, suspected of embezzling money from the hospital where he was working. He finally agreed to repay the money in full on the understanding that his bosses did not go to the police.
John and Nancy now left Chicago under a cloud. It was whispered that he had been a low-rung member of the Chicago mob since he was a teenager and involved in many illegal rackets. Eventually, said the gossip, he had been caught stealing from one of the bosses and fled with his now-heavily-pregnant wife, fearing for his life.
Years later Robinson would boast to friends that he had been run out of Chicago by the mob, hinting that there had been a contract out on his life. It would be several years before he set foot in Chicago again.