Those of you old enough may remember movie characters “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Gravedigger” Jones in the Blaxploitation flick “Cotton Comes to Harlem” based on a series of books by Chester Himes…
Fans of the genre also remember Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry”.
Turns out both of those films and roles were likely based after a black cop in Chicago, nicknamed “Two Gun Pete”, AKA Sylvester Washington.
The legend of “Two-Gun Pete,” the cold-blooded cop who shot at least nine men dead on the South Side, began with a gun battle eight decades ago.
Just six months into his rookie year in April 1934, he caught 27-year-old Ben Harold red-handed during an armed robbery near 51st and State streets. What followed was a shootout that brought several bullets dangerously close to the young stockyard-worker-turned-policeman.
When the smoke cleared, four of the cop’s five shots had hit their mark, tearing through Harold’s torso. He staggered several steps before falling dead in a doorway.
After nearly emptying his six-shooter, Pete started carrying a second handgun for backup. He eventually swapped his .38-caliber revolvers for more powerful .357 Magnums, and his reputation grew.
Though he was one of the deadliest police officers in Chicago history, few people without a longtime South Side connection have ever heard of Two-Gun Pete, or the enigmatic man behind the nickname, Sylvester Washington.
The Tribune set out to bring his story to a wider audience, separating facts from myth. The newspaper examined official records, talked to police veterans who knew him, and interviewed his third wife, who was a DuSable High School student when they secretly wed in the 1960s. The Tribune also found a woman who says she owns one of Washington’s guns.
Two-Gun started as an anonymous bluecoat walking a beat, but he ended up as a ghetto superstar — a flamboyant, crooked, braggadocious, womanizing, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed police detective.
He was tasked with clearing out bad elements from every nightclub, flophouse and pool hall in what was then called Black Metropolis, a South Side community mired in poverty and violence, yet bouncing to a jazzy beat.
Washington spent most of his career working out of the old Wabash Avenue police station at 48th Street and Wabash Avenue. By the mid-1940s, his 5th District, with a population of 200,000, led the city in slayings, robberies and rapes, and was nicknamed the “Bucket of Blood.”
But the mention of Two-Gun Pete’s name could clear a street corner in seconds.
“Everybody knew Sylvester Washington,” said Rudy Nimocks, a former deputy police superintendent. “They knew his car. And the prostitutes would go hide someplace when they saw him. He was something else.”
Facing criticism that police were failing to protect black residents, Chicago’s top brass looked to Washington and other tough black cops to get ahold of crime. But the bosses may have made a pact with the devil, entrusting citizens’ safety to a profoundly violent man.
“He was the meanest, cruelest person that I have ever seen in my entire life,” said his third wife, Roslyn Washington Banks.
Pete augmented his fierce reputation with the tools of his trade: a nightstick and meaty hands that he used to slap grown men to the ground like small children.
And there were his sidearms — pearl-handled .357 Magnum revolvers. One had a long barrel, the other a short barrel. Each pistol was holstered in its own belt around his hips, both pearl handles pointing right for the right-handed gunslinger.
“I seldom miss the mark with them,” Washington bragged to Ebony magazine. “I can put 14 bullseyes into a target out of 15 shots, and have made a marksmanship record of 147 out of a possible 150.”
Police officials told the newspapers that Pete had gunned down nine men by 1945. He later claimed the career total was 11. And even later, he added one more body to the pile, telling a young reporter named Mike Royko: “I kept my own count and I counted 12.”
Depending on which number is accurate, Pete was either the deadliest police officer in Chicago history or tied with Frank Pape, a North Side cop who started on the force three months before Pete and killed nine men… more