Voices from the Grave: Frank Cichella — Rockford’s first Italian-American police officer

Frank Cichella (Photo from the Feb. 26, 1927, Morning Star)
Frank Cichella (Photo from the Feb. 26, 1927, Morning Star)

By Kathi Kresol
Local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events

Frank Cichella’s life in Rockford was pretty typical for the early 1900s. He wasn’t from Rockford originally. In fact, he wasn’t from the United States. Frank came here when he was 16 years old, leaving his home of Ferentino, Italy. He traveled on the S.S. Re D’Italia from Naples to Philadelphia to live with his brother in 1907. It is not known when and why he came to Illinois, but he was here by 1912. Frank married Mary Fromo in 1912 in Rockford when he was 21.

In 1917, he is registered as an alien working as a “moulder” at the Eclipse Gas Stove Company. By this time, he and Mary had three children, and they were very active in St. Anthony’s Church. Frank finally became a naturalized citizen Oct. 3, 1922.

Chester Bailey (Photo from the Feb. 26, 1927, Morning Star)
Chester Bailey (Photo from the Feb. 26, 1927, Morning Star)

By 1927, Mary and Frank had seven children, between six months and 13 years of age, and the six little girls and one boy kept Mary very busy. Frank worked a variety of jobs until settling in as a police officer. Frank was the very first Italian-American police officer in Rockford and had been on the force for just more than a year in 1927. He was very popular with the other officers.

Frank borrowed a cousin’s car on Thursday, Feb. 24, 1927. He took it back to his cousin’s house and started for home. He was walking dressed in plain street clothes, not in his uniform. All that is known for certain is that he was passing 822 Corbin St. in the evening when he saw a car and noticed the car was without headlights. Frank walked to the car to speak to the man working under the hood. Chester Bailey had just gotten home from work and was working on the engine of the car when Frank approached him.

Frank announced to Bailey that he was a police officer and displayed his badge. He explained that Bailey was going to be fined for driving without headlights. This is as far as the facts are clear. What happened next depends on who is telling the story. Chester Bailey claimed that Frank began to yell at him and “abuse“ him.

The men were yelling at one another and began to fight. Chester broke loose and ran for his house. Frank was still standing in the street when Bailey returned carrying his gun. Bailey opened fire on Frank, hitting him five times in the abdomen. Frank returned fire and struck Bailey in the neck, chest and stomach.

Both men were rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery in attempts to save their lives. Tragically, both men died from their wounds. They were both conscious long enough to make statements, but they contradict one another and offer no real clarity to what actually happened.

Chester Bailey was an African-American, and the newspapers of the day wrote about the city’s concern for the danger of a race riot. Some of Cichella’s friends, and even other police officers, were threatening to retaliate against other African-Americans. Meantime, friends of Bailey’s were threatening to do the same. City officials asked for cool heads and calm hearts. Both men left small children, and the newspapers begged for people of both races to remember the families of the men.

Frank Cichella funeral picture from the Register Republic, Feb. 28, 1927
Frank Cichella funeral picture from the Register Republic, Feb. 28, 1927

Frank Cichella was honored as a police officer who fell in the line of duty. His funeral procession was one of the biggest in the history of the City of Rockford. Thousands of people accompanied the coffin and family from St. Anthony’s Church to St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Rockford’s Italian immigrants worked hard to take care of Cichella’s family by soliciting donations to help pay off the mortgage of their little house and funds to help support them. The police officers gave many donations as well, and Mary was able to keep her home for her children. Mary died in the house on Montague Street in 1971. Frank and Mary’s children grew up to be adults their father would have been proud of, despite the hardships they had to face without him.

Kathi Kresol is a local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events. Through Haunted Rockford, Kathi gives paranormal and haunted history tours and sponsors other paranormal events in and around Rockford throughout the year. Visit www.hauntedrockford.com for more information.

From the Nov. 19-25, 2014, issue

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