1914 homicide still unsolved

By Marlene Cook

LANSING, Ill. (November 13, 2022) – Many Lansing residents remember the restaurant Bohemian Joe’s, which opened in 2016 and sold to Dixie Kitchen in 2018. (See Bohemian Joe’s says goodbye, published April 2018.) Bohemian Joe’s was located at the northwest corner of Torrence and Thornton-Lansing Road, in the building that used to be known as Popolano’s Restaurant.

Bohemian
Bohemian Joe’s restaurant (17940 Torrence Avenue) was owned by the Paliga family. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma, 2018)

What residents might not realize, however, is that Bohemian Joe’s restaurant was named after an actual person in Lansing history — Joe Sorna, commonly known as Bohemian Joe. And Bohemian Joe was an ancestor of Chris Paliga, owner of the 2016 Bohemian Joe’s restaurant. Paliga chose the name to honor Lansing history, but also his family’s history in the food and hospitality business. Chris Paliga is the son of Jerry and Carol Paliga, who owned Popolano’s. Carol Paliga’s great-grandmother was Catherine “Katie” Sorna, Bohemian Joe’s second wife.

Bohemian Joe Sorna owned Bohemian Joe’s Hotel and Saloon in Bernice, Illinois, in the late 1800s.

Bohemian Joe Sorna also has the distinction of being the victim of the first recorded murder in the Village of Lansing.

Serving the brick workers

Bernice, Illinois, was a one-street town to the north of Lansing with a train depot, three saloons, brickyards, and boarding house. Bernice, along with the the town of Oak Glen, become incorporated as part of Lansing in 1893.

Bohemian Joe
Bohemian Joe Sarno outside his hotel and saloon in Bernice, Illinois, with his wife Katie and step-son Charles Zitek, who later became Chief of Police in Lansing. The photo is believed to have been taken between 1912 and 1914. The building was located on the south side of Bernice Road next to where the railroad tracks used to be (Photo taken from Lansing Bicentennial Reflections 1776-1976)
Bohemian Joe
The railroad is gone, and the town of Bernice is gone, but street signs in Lansing serve as reminders of the past. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The largest employer at that time was the brick yards, and brick workers were paid 86 cents per hour. On payday, the men would go to Bohemian Joe’s to cash their checks and probably do some imbibing. Bohemian Joe, in preparation, made a habit of going to the Lansing State Bank to withdraw large sums of money to accommodate the men.

On November 25, 1914, as on any other payday, Sorna harnessed his horse to his rig and headed to the bank in downtown Lansing. He withdrew more than $1,000, putting $800 in his overcoat pocket and $250 in his hip pocket.

A robbery gone bad

It was about 10 a.m. when Sorna began to make his way back home via a secluded road now known as Chicago Avenue. Around that time, three unknown “suspicious-looking Italians” were seen loitering around the area of Ridge Road and Chicago Avenue near the bank. They were later seen walking down Chicago Avenue toward Bernice. Farther down the road they hid in the underbrush until Sorna reached them.

Chicago Avenue is no longer as secluded as it used to be, but it still connects Ridge Road to the site of Bohemian Joe’s Hotel. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

One of the men jumped onto Sorna’s buggy with intent to rob him. Sorna put up a desperate fight and was stabbed three times — above his heart, on his hand, and on the side of his neck, severing his jugular vein. The murderer tossed Sorna’s body from the rig and left him on the roadside near St. Ann churchyard. He then sped off with Sorna’s horse and buggy and $250, leaving his cohorts behind. It was reported later that the thief missed the $800 in Sorna’s overcoat pocket.

Witnesses

About a half-hour later, the body was discovered by Anton Matuszewski, another saloonkeeper and neighbor to Sorna for the past 17 years. Matuszewski was driving along the same route about a half mile behind Sorna.

Matuszewski left the body as he found it, but he notified residents. Former County Commissioner Alfred Van Steenberg, Constable William Busak, Postmaster Fred Gldik, and Dr. William A. Potts took up rifles and shotguns and organized a posse to search for the murderers. Several witnesses said they saw an “Italian guy” driving Sorna’s buggy toward Indiana. Four other witnesses said they saw two Italian men running through a cornfield toward Indiana about the time of the murder.

(Sidebar)

Ironically Matuszewski and several other respected men had been arrested in August 1912 for contributing to the delinquency of a girl under the age of consent, who happened to be Sorna’s adopted daughter Hattie. Sorna was said to be the wealthiest man in Bernice, and he had named Hattie heir to $30,000 if she behaved properly. But Hattie left home to live with Max Wagner and care for his children. (Wagner’s wife had run out on him and their four children.) The case was dismissed when Hattie’s father refused to prosecute Wagner even though he admitted to wronging Hattie, and the state failed to prove Hattie was under the age of consent.

The Times reported, “Little Hattie Sorner [notice different spelling], the Bernice girl who involved half the population of small towns with her charges, has been taken to the Cook County Girl’s School at Chicago. She will be kept there until she knows right from wrong. In the meantime, the men who ruined her are scott free and their adventure is the subject of many a merry quip. They have the game, and the girl has the name and the penalty. The state’s attorney did not even take steps to prefer minor charges against the defendants.”

(Hattie’s tombstone, which is the same stone as her parents, records her birth as 1886 and death as 1923. That would have made her 26 years old in 1912, and old enough for consent. But it doesn’t reveal how long those activities were going on).

On the trail

Villagers telephoned surrounding areas to alert them of Sorna’s death. A station agent in Maynard recalled seeing two men walking down the railroad tracks and said that one of them had come into the station asking for a drink of water. He phoned the constable in Schererville, and in response the constable and two deputies were waiting for the two culprits as they walked into town.

Rocco Calanoires, 31, and Allen Pinto, 25, were arrested and taken to the state line where they were turned over to Illinois detectives. One had only $6 on him, and the other had $2. They claimed the third perpetrator, an unidentified Italian barber from Gary, Indiana, planned the murder and ran off with the loot.

There was some journalistic dispute over who captured the two villains. The Times published a rebuttal to the Chicago Tribune’s article claiming that the credit belonged to four local men:

“Fred F. Henderlong, deputy sheriff of Schererville, Indiana, received a dispatch from Lansing as soon as the churchyard murder was discovered and commandeered an automobile. He caught sight of the two Italians running across the Pennsylvania railroad tracks and gave chase. In an open marsh at Hartsdale, Henderlong, Jake Bartel, William Hillbrich and Charley Boney overtook the two and placed them under arrest. It was an hour later when they were turned over to the sheriff of Lake County.”

The Times got in their digs when they wrote, “Chicago papers whose reporters always hand the palm to some police sergeant with whom they are friendly, did not give credit where it belonged.”

Still at large

On December 2, 1914, The Times reported that the third man was still at large. It’s not known where the culprit abandoned Sorna’s horse and buggy, but the horse had the good sense to find its way home on its own.

The killer was last seen in Hammond boarding a streetcar. It was believed he made his escape to Chicago, “where he is was probably hiding in the widely scattered Italian district,” according to the Times article.

The other two assailants, who claimed to live in Gary, Indiana, were still being held as suspects. It was reported they would remain in custody until the third man could be captured.

The paper trail ends there. It is not known if “the Gary barber” was found, or how long the other two remained in custody, or whether they were ever charged. The first reported murder in the Village of Lansing remains a mystery to this day.

More about Bohemian Joe

Bohemian Joe Sorna was married twice, first to Anna Killieck, 17 years younger than he. His second wife was Catherine “Katie” Zitek, who was 19 years younger than Sorna. Katie had been married first to a Zitek, and they had one son, Charles, who later became Lansing’s Police Chief. She married a second time after moving to Colorado and is rumored to have had another child. When Katie came back to the Lansing area, she visited Bohemian Joe’s saloon and met Joe, and they were soon married. Katie is the great-grandmother of Carol Paliga.

Joseph “Bohemian Joe” Sorna (1849–1914), his wife Anna (Killieck) Sorna (1866–1912), and daughter Hattie (1886–1923) are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Hammond, Indiana.

Bohemian Joe
(Photo from Find-a-Grave website)

Catherine “Katie” Sorna (1868–1923) is also buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

(GOOGLE-SUPPLIED ADVERTISEMENT)

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great story! Who’da thunk?
    I still miss Bohemian Joe’s restaurant on Torrence & Thornton-Lansing Road.

Comments are closed.