Chicago Tribune February 9, 1936
Persistent, sensational publicity, therefore, suppressed Al Capone, just as it did the Everleigh sisters, the labor racketeers, the kidnappers, and the Dillingers.
It was the uncompromising crusade of publicity that aroused the public to rebel against Capone and his outlawry. The systematic exploitation of his crimes in the newspapers brought the official action that cost Capone his empire and his freedom. It was NEWS, persistent and sensational, day in and day out, that rid Chicago of its archcriminal and ended the lawlessness he inspired.
Joe Howard leaned back in his chair behind the cigar case in Heinie Jacobs’ saloon at 2300 South Wabash avenue. The calendar on the wall behind the bar showed the date to be May 7, 1923. The clock said six. Only a spoonful of bourbon remained in old Joe’s glass as he sat back to tell the boys about his hijacking triumphs night before last.
Heinie slouched across the wood. He, an aged carpenter named David Runelsbeck, and a mechanic named George Bilton seated near by, having a drink and a smoke before going home for supper, were Joe’s audience.
“The second heisting job was even more of a cinch than the first.” Joe was saying, his eyes glistening with pride and alcoholic blear. “We took the punks right in their front yard, an’ we was off in less than two min—” At that instant the swinging doors swung inward from the street. Two men entered. One of them was familiar to Joe, and Joe stopped talking to greet him.
Then things began to happen. As Runelsbeck remembered it: “‘Hello, Al,’ cried Joe, putting out his hand. The man he spoke to stuck out his hand, but it held a revolver, and he fired six times. Joe keeled over dead, still grinning.”
In a flash the murderer and his partner disappeared out the door.
Thus came Al Capone’s debut on the front page of Chicago’s newspapers.
The authorities in Chicago knew that it was Al Capone who had killed Joe Howard for interfering with the Capone-Torrio bootleg beer business. To obtain enough evidence to convict Capone seemed a simple matter. And so, thirty minutes after the murder, a general order was flashed to all police stations to arrest him.
But Al Capone was nowhere to be found, and at the inquest the next day the witnesses to the crime were all stricken with mysterious ailments. Heinie Jacobs thought it over. Then he took the witness stand and testified as follows:
I was called to a rear room to answer a telephone just before the shooting. I don’t know nothing about it.
Runelsbeck quiveringly insisted:
I wouldn’t be able to identify Capone even if brought face to face with him.
Bilton could not be found. Two other possible witnesses to the killing, said to have been in Jacobs’ saloon at the time, were Tony “Mouth” Bagnola and one Clifford Waton. Both denied having been there, and no one could give proof to the contrary.
The inquest had to be continued indefinitely, and a month later, when thing had quieted down, Capone sauntered into the Cottage Grove police station to remark to Captain McMahon;
I hear the police are looking for me. What for?
The captain hustled Capone down to the Criminal courts building to be questioned by a young assistant state’s attorney named William H. MvSwiggin.
“You’re wanted for the murder of Joe Howard.” said McSwiggin.
“Who, me?” replied Al with a puzzled look. “Why, I’m a respectable business man. I’m a second-hand furniture dealer.”
May 7, 1923
This was in 1923, after the pork-faced Capone already was well on the road to success. How was he able to fix the witnesses so surely that he could walk into the hands of the police a few weeks later without the slightest fear of taking the rap? What was his background? What sort of training qualified this man to win out over all others in the frenzied scramble to control the $60,000-a-year bootleg liquor business which started with the advent of prohibition in a city that was five-to-one wet? What factors shaped the career of this extraordinary being who in a different age and environment might have been a Mussolini or a Napoleon?
He was a sleek, solidly built boy who caught in to things quickly in school and was a help to his mother. He lived near the corner of Broadway and Flushing avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y., in an Italian tenement and was known to the boys as Al, son of Capone the barber, who had recently migrated to America from Naples.
While still in the fourth grade Al quit school to help his parents in their struggle for existence in the slums. Only then, his function was to bring home firewood or any other useful supplies he could collect. He seemed affable and soft-spoken except to the few who knew him in anger.
He was smooth as a dancer and frequented a hall then known as the Broadway Casino. He also became one of the best pool players in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. He was never afraid of a fight and cold hold his own against the best of them.
At the age of twenty-one he had never been arrested. But he was too close to the gang life to be immune for long. The world in which his associates moved was a world mostly of opportunism, a world in which cops were one’s natural enemies and anyone carrying money or valuables one’s natural prey.
It happened one evening when Al was listening in a political rally. A fellow from his favorite poolroom came up.
“Hey, Al!” he said. “You gotta come back to the point right away. We need you. A pool shark came in a couple of hours ago an’ has been cleanin’ us out. Altogether we owe the guy about eight hundred dollars—that is, we did when I left. He’s stuck-up as hell, but we all know you could take him. You gotta hurry, though, Al.”
Capone hurried to the spot. The boys were overjoyed to see him, for they knew he never drank and that he could be relied on in an emergency. There was one thing that worried them, however. The time was already a quarter to 9, and Al followed an ironbound rule about going home at 10:30.
“I’ll lay two hundred on a game of straight,” proposed Al to the confident slicker. “Want to play me?”
“It’s a bet,” grinned the other. “How about a hundred more on the fifteen ball?”
“O.K.,” said Al.
The two set to work. The spectators peered excitedly from adjoining tables. By 10:30 Al had the $800 back and $150 of the stranger’s money—and then he said he must go, as he was due home. The stranger was naturally resentful at being left in this humiliating position and demanded that Al remain, but Al put on his coat and smooth gray hat.
Without a word the stranger pulled a long-bladed knife from his pocket, opened it, and gave Al to understand he’s play pool or else! Al did not hesitate for a second. His right shot out to the man’s chin with all his 200 pounds behind it. The man dropped and lay motionless. Al ran for home.
Twenty minutes later a misinformed friend from the poolroom arrived to tell him that his late opponent was dead. There was excitement and weeping in the Capone home. But Al thought of his tough cousins in the Five Points gang in lower Manhattan at the other end of the Williamsburg bridge. The Five Points gang in lower Manhattan at the other end of the Williamsburg bridge. The Five Points gang was then considered the best training school for hoodlums in the country. Surely the Five Points boys would know what Al ought to do.
They did. They assured him he had better get out of town immediately. They said they could help him to the extent of trying to get a former captain in the gang, Johnny Torrio, to look out for him when he got to Chicago. Torrio had gone there to be associated with “Big Jim” Colosimo, a politician and vice overlord of a section in the southern part of Chicago’s First ward.
Al Capone took their advice. He came to Chicago in his best new suit, and sure enough, Johnny Torrio fixed him up. Torrio got a job for the oversized boy from Brooklyn as a watcher for a house of prostitution in Burnham.
Johnny Torrio (1882-1957)
Following his 1936 arrest for tax evasion.
While young Capone watched dutifully at his post in Burnham, with his neat scar (said to have been received in a Brooklyn saloon) for his chevron, Big Jim Colosimo was enjoying the lucrative fruits of his political success in the 22d street district. Big Jim had come to Chicago in the nineties and got himself a job as a water boy on a railroad section gang. His next job, pushing a broom through the streets of the First ward, gave the ambitious youth much better social opportunities. With broom in hand he met such colorful personages as Alds. Michael (Hinky Dink) Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, and it was a natural development for Jim to shift from broom-swinging to vote-swinging. He rose to prominence in the street sweepers’ union and organized his fellow whitewings into a social deliver as a unit at election time and was a bridle-wise as a riding-school nag.
“Some day I’m going to run this ward,” Colosimo once said to a fellow sweeper, “and I’m going to build a club that will be the talk of Chicago.”
He meant it, and shortly sold his broom for a job in a café. He already was learning how to turn his friendships with “Bathhouse John” and “Hinky Dink” into a golden egg-laying goose, and on short order he owned his own poolroom. A year or two later saw young Jim a precinct captain with various privileges appertaining to the old levee district located within the boundaries of the ward and bisected by the night-life whoopee spots of 22d street. From poolroom proprietor he became honkytonk owner, then partner in certain red-light enterprises, and finally Big Jim of his own Colosimo’s café at 2138 South Wabash avenue.
Eventually Big Jim became the acknowledged boss of the south side underworld, and his revenue came not only from the resorts he owned himself but also in the form of tribute from all other illegal resorts in the district.
But wealth brought with it both comfort and complications. Big Jim was victimized by the American Mafia. He received letters threatening kidnapping for ransom, then threats of torture and death. He decided to get himself a bodyguard and went to New York for the purpose. This was about 1910.
He brought back a 29-year-old gunman named Johnny Torrio whim he had known as one of the older fuglemen of the Five Points gang. Of Torrio it was said that he was:
No ordinary ruffian…He had executive ability, business sagacity, and a practical imagination. He was skilled in the duplicity of politics. He was proficient in the civilities—smooth of tongue and adroit of manner. He had a plausible front. And he was…ambitious.
On Torrio’s arrival in Chicago, Colosimo’s persecution ceased—at least temporarily. Torrio lived by the gun. It was his profession. When shortly after his arriva; three Black Handers demanded that Colosimo meet them with $25,000 under an Archer avenue viaduct, Torrio sent four men to the spot with sawed-off shotguns. When the Black Hand leader approached the dark touring car, asking, “Where is our package?” he suddenly found himself looking down a 12-hauge muzzle. Gor the Black Handers it was a rendezvous with death in the shape of lead slugs at a range of six feet.
As Torrio felt his power his ambition grew apace. Big Jim Colosimo was prosperous, fat , nearly forty, and growing contented with the status quo. The boundary of his ambition was the southern border of the First ward. But not so with Torrio. Torrio had his eye on the whole city and then some. He was heard saying to a procurer friend one night on 22d street:
I’m sick of the First ward. There’s no money in it. I’m going to start operating wherever I get a chance all over the city and in the suburbs, too, even if Jim won’t come along. A monopoly of all Cook county is the only way to handle this business so it’ll really pay.
And Johnny acted on his idea.
Torrio towns sprang up. Prairie centers that had once gone to bed at dusk and risen at cockcrow now had to sit up all hours with Torrio’s growing roadhouse industry.
The first of these towns was Burnham, eighteen miles southeast of the loop and readily accessible to couples and parties driving from southern Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Calumet, and other places for an evening’s entertainment. Dance halls, gambling dens, and night clubs of all descriptions arose and ran wide open under the charge of Johnny Patton, the famous “boy mayor,” who considerately sae eye to eye with Torrio, for reasons best known to himself.
And then—on May 11, 1920—Colosimo was murdered. A mysterious lone assassin, who has never been identified, secreted himself in the vestibule of Colosimo’s café in the early hours of the morning, waited his chance to fire the fatal shot.
Outside of Colosimo’s café
May 11, 1920
With Colosimo gone, Torrio was released from the limitations of his late boss.
Prohibition, coming along at about this time, had caused the closing of the 15,000 legalized oases in Greater Chicago. This gave Torrio something to think about. He was not a little dazzled at the thirst-quenching possibilities in addition to the other business he aspired to control. The two breweries he had leased to supply his private resorts soon were unable to fill the orders that came in from outside. Liquor prices soared. Torrio, the business man, shrewdly left the retail business to others and began to expand a vast wholesale business which rapidly took on the proportions of a south side monopoly.
To operate an industry big enough to satisfy Torrio’s ambition would require able lieutenants and a policy of ruthlessness toward all opposition. Who could Torrio get to help him? Torrio was an experienced manager, and he thought the problem over carefully—then picked the sleek Neapolitan boy who had been doing so well in Burnham. Torrio knew that Al Capone was big and strong and quick in action, that he was intelligent, that he drank little, that he could be smooth on occasion, and that he was a natural leader of men.
“How would you like $25,000 a year,” said Torrio to Capone one evening in the rear of a 22d street dance hall,” and be my oartner in the beer and booze business? We’ll split the liquor profits fifty-fifty. What do you say?”
“O. K., Johnny,” grunted big Al.
The deal was on. Capone stepped into his new position with confidence and alacrity. Soon he began to make his mark. Men learned to fear and respect him. He never asked a man to do anything that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. He could be as tough as a mad elephant one moment and as playful as a puppy the next. The collection of ill-assorted crooks and criminals that he and Torrio were able to enlist from all over the city quickly took on a measure of discipline under his drill sergeant brand of leadership. His remarkable flair for organizing built up a machine admirably suited to the task set for it. The drivers, sharpshooters, spies, watchmen, lawyers, and others on the payroll knew what was expected of them and they did it. Few ever deserted of turned traitor. They not only respected their boss but they feared what he would do to any man who crossed him. The mind behind that massive, heavy-lipped face was unfathomable. Capone did things as if by magic. One day he ordered one of his own brewery watchers to “Lay off gabbin’ with that Joe Pizzito, You know he’s not with us.”
“How dis the big feller know I’d been talkin’ with Joe lately?” the man asked his watch partner that night.
“O. Al’s got spies everywhere,” came the reply.
When it became necessary to do away with the various rival gangs who contested the Torrio-Capone monopoly over all Cook county’s liquor and vice business Capone did not hesitate to send his army out to meet the enemy. His orders were:
Wait till they get where you want ’em, then let ’em have it.
The headquarters of the Capone-Torrio organization in these early days was an unobtrusive four-story structure at 2222 South Wabash avenue known as the Four Deuces. It looked like a rooming house from the outside, but it actually was a den of iniquity of the first order. On the ground floor were the Torrio-Capone general offices and a saloon and café. The second and third floors were devoted to gambling and the fourth to the demi-monde. The place was widely known to have been the scene of twelve murders, all unsolved.
The Four Deuces
2222 South Wabash Avenue.
Having proved the efficacy of his methods in the Joe Howard case, Al adopted ruthlessness as a basic policy in eliminating business competition, The following September, 1923, in the process of expanding his south side territory, he encountered the opposition of a gang known as the south side O’Donnells. Spike O;Donnell, the leader, had for partners his brothers, Steve, Walter, and Tommy, as well as three thick-skinned henchmen named Jerry O’Connor, George “Spot” Bucher, and Georgia Meeghan. The O’Donnell method of expanding their wholesale territory was to invade a speakeasy which had not been buying their liquor, let the proprietor see their artillery dangling in belt holsters, and put the question, “Who are you buying from?”
After listening ti the answer, which they knew already, they would tactfully suggest, “Well, how about going along with us?”
The worried man in most cases would ask time to consider, in which case the O’Donnells would grant a twenty-four-hour stay, at the end of which, if he was still stubborn, they wpuld emphasize their argument with fists or revolver butts. Few speakeasy owners held out further.
An exception was Jacob Geis, who said, “I buy my beer from Capone and Torrio, and I’m satisfied with it.”
Even fists could bot change Jake’s mind, for his burly frame was a little too much for O’Donnell’s two drummers, who got bounced elaborately out Jake’s door. So three O’Donnell brothers, with O’Connor, Meghan, and Bucher, called at Geis’ neighborhood saloon at 2154 West 51st street early in the evening of Sept. 7, 1923, with the result that Geis was taken to a hospital with a fractured skull and lay at the point of death for weeks. After their argument with Geis that evening the aroused O’Donnells invaded five other recalcitrant beer sellers, administering various treatments, and then repaired to Joseph Klepka’s saloon at 5358 South Lincoln street, a sort of headquarters, to partake of refreshments.
It was while they were relaxing in Klepka’s place that five men entered and the leader, brandishing his .38, roared:
Stick up your hands or I’ll blow you to hell.
The O’Donnells scattered for the doors, and were pursued closely to the street, where shooting wildly at their attackers, they made their escape—all except Jerry O’Connor, who lay dead on the sidewalk, shot through the heart.
In the official records Jerry O’Connor’s death is indexed as the first killing of the bootleg war. It was followed ten days later, Sept. 17, by the murders of his associates, Meeghan and Bucher.
The repercussions of the O’Donnell purge, however, would have been enough to worry a commander of lesser stature. The late William E. Dever, then six months in office as mayor, was so shocked by the killings that he revoked the licenses of 2,000 “soft drink parlors,” summoned Chief of Police Collins to his office, and assumed personal charge of the situation, His official statement said:
The police will follow this case to a finish as they do all others, This guerrilla war between highjackers, rum rummers, and illicit beer peddlers can and will be crushed.
It was a brave utterance—but it was almost equally futile. There were to be 9 more killings similar to that of O’Connor in the fall of 1923, 16 in 1924, 46 in 1925, and 64 in 1926, Mr. Deever’s last year in office. In this total of 135 gang murders during the rise of the young pool player from Brooklyn only six men were to be brought to trial. Of the six all were to be acquitted save one—Sam Vinci, who chose the occasion of a coroner’s inquest to dispatch John Minatti with a .45-caliber automatic. His explanation was:
John killed my brother Mike, and I thought the jury was going to free him.
Vinci was sent to Joliet penitentiary for twenty-five years.
The situation already was beyond Dever’s control. In the fall of 1923 Capone had no fewer than 700 men on his payroll, and there was a genuine stampede of criminal opportunities to his camp. He soon formed an alliance with the south side O’Donnells. The wholesale liquor industry was flourishing. Money, which last year had been measured in C’s ($100 bills), now was lightly discussed in therms of the “grand” ($1,000). And the impecunious young pimp, who had been delighted with an annual salary of $25,000 a couple of years before, now handed out in the booze traffic alone some $25,000 a week in pay rolls.
The foregoing article of a series of three on the rise and fall of Al Capone. The second will appear next week.