Thursday, August 08, 2013

Chicago Mike's homecoming

I was at the cemetery yesterday to walk what will be the tombstone trail this fall when the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission sponsors its annual tour, this year entitled "Homecomings." As the title is intended to suggest, the four whose lives will be featured traveled varying distances from their places of initial burial to final resting places here.

One of those featured will be Marko "Chicago Mike" Vucicic, a legendary Lucas Countyan whose remains --- and tombstone --- were located originally in Chicago. The inscription on it is in Croat and translates as "born in Solinu April 23, 1894; died Sept. 26, 1928." Although the photograph attached to the tombstone has sustained damage, it's possible still to see what Mike looked like.

Mike shares this stone with his brother, John, whose inscription is cut into its west face. Mike died young and tragically; John lived to be 100 and some years before his own death during 2002 commissioned Mosher Funeral Home to bring his brother's remains, and tombstone, from Chicago to Chariton so that they could be buried together.

Although Mike is buried under an older spelling of his surname, Vucicic, both brothers used the spelling "Vucich."

Rose Marie Briggs researched Chicago Mike's life thoroughly while writing her fascinating history of Lucas County's most storied ghost town, "Tipperary: Gone but Not Forgotten." So I've just helped myself to information from her chapter about Mike.

If you're interested in Lucas County history, you need a copy of this book, as well as its companion volume devoted to the mining town of Olmitz. You'll find ordering information here.

According to Rose Marie, Mike was born into a family of vintners near the ancient city of Solin in the Dalmatian region of Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea.

Mike and his cousin, Martin, came to the United States in 1912, when he was about 18, to make their fortunes. They worked in Chicago, Colorado and other places --- even putting in time as professional wrestlers in a traveling circus --- before finally alighting in Iowa, where Mike worked in the famous Buxton mine before moving on, perhaps during the fall of 1914, to Tipperary when the shaft was sunk there.

Mike really wasn't that interested in life as a miner, however, especially after he began to tap into his skills as an extraordinarily talented gambler --- craps, pool and whatever else came to hand. Every payday, he relieved miners at Tipperary and other mines --- coal mining was a huge industry in south central Iowa at the time --- of considerable cash. When not gambling on the mining circuit in the south of Iowa, he was gambling in Chicago, which earned him the nickname "Chicago Mike."

By 1921, Mike had enough cash on hand to pay the way to America of his brother, John, and drove to Chicago in his Dodge to bring him back to Tipperary, where John went to work in the mines and as time passed managed Mike's pool hall and other operations.

Mike had the money and the inclination to develop a lifestyle in alignment with his profession, spending money freely in Chariton, Chicago and elsewhere on fast cars and fancy clothes.

He seems to have been liked, admired and trusted for his honesty by those he lived among --- and gambled with. But he also was in trouble with the law much of the time because of the gambling, as well as the distilling operations he developed as a sideline.

Mike fell hard for the beautiful Leona Duffy, whom he met at a dance in Olmitz. They were married during 1923 by a justice of the peace in Chariton and developed a casino-like operation in their Tipperary home as well as operating a still in a nearby cave, accessible via tunnel from the house.

Eventually the strain of a near-frantic lifestyle took its toll on the Vucich marrage, however, and Mike and Leona were divorced. 

But they were riding together with Mike at the wheel in Des Moines during September of 1928 when the Vucich car slammed at high speed into a street car, killing Mike and injuring Leona critically. 

Mike's remains were take to Chicago by family members for burial, where they remained until John retrieved them many years later. Leona eventually recovered from her injuries, but died in a car crash near Harford, along with her latest husband, John Daniels, almost eight years to the day after the fatal Des Moines crash.

John settled down in Chariton, where he married, farmed, operated a tavern called John's Club and lived for a very long time. In 1998, he moved to Phoenix to live with his son and daughter-in-law and died there four years later at the age of 100. And then he came home, too, to join his brother Marko.

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