Notorious Chicago | Massacre Cars | Capone Era, Part 1 | Capone Era, Part 2 | Capone Era, Part 3
Chicago Tribune February 16, 1936
Gangster Rule by Bribery and Gun
I am getting too prominent for my own good.
Al Capone, Dec. 16, 1926.
I am not in any rackets; I am an honest real estate lawyer. I wish the newspapers would leave me alone.
Al Capone, Jan. 24, 1927.
Behold Alphonse Capone at the height of his arrogant power; any time between late 1926 and mid-May of 1929.
A gross man, fat, with thick lips and a scar on one check. A powerful man, immune to the penalties of the law that applied to lesser mortals.
When he went abroad it was in an armored car that weighed seven ions. Picture this strong man in his fortresses—the Hawthorne hotel in Cicero, with the metal shutters impervious to bullets; the Metropole or the Lexington hotel in Chicago, where he and his followers held whole floors at a time; or on his seaside estate outside Miami.
No policemen ever raided these places. They knew that raids would be futile gestures. The courts would not hold Alphonse Capone to account.
Picture Capone the politician, shaking hands with judges, calling assistant state’s attorneys his friends, telling representatives in the state capitol and aldermen in the city council (whom he had set in their places) how he wanted them to vote.
The composite portrait Is that of America’s Public Enemy No. 1, the symbol of all the crime the prohibition era produced; of a man above the law; a man who feared nothing -except publicity.
The Capone power had ripened in obscurity.
Already it has been related how he came to be the partner of John Torrio in a business which in 1924 controled bootlegging on the south side, owned a chain of brothels in a crescent of west and southwest suburbs, and operated dozens of gambling halls.
Early in 1924 in front of his home at 7104 Clyde avenue a spray of bullets was directed at Torrio. One leaden pellet passed through his lower jaw. It shattered his courage as well as the jawbone. When he recovered he wanted no more of the game, Hle retired and his mantle fell upon Capone.
That rising young executive also was the target of the men who eliminated Torrio. They poured a withering rain of bullets upon his automobile as it stood in the street. and Capone escaped only because fortune had decreed that he should be at the moment in a restaurant nearby. Promptly he bought the bulletproof car and strengthened his force of guards.
He obtained the absolute loyalty of those guards by making it more profitable for them to be his men Ihan to be anybody else’s. The salary was $100 a week. Also Capone clothed them, fed them, and gave parties for their amusement. He asserted that it cost him $3,500 a week for his personal protection.
In 1924 the Torrio-Capone organization dominated only the south side and the suburbs it had taken over. North side bootlegging was In the hands of a gang of tough men headed by George (Bugs) Moran and Dean O’Banion. On the west side was another gang, of Sicilian origin, headed by the six Genna brothers.
These Gennas were important people. They invented a new technique in the manufacture of alcohol. They put it in the home. Hundreds of their fellow countrymen, each in his own little house, cooked alky. The Genna organization collected each cooker’s output daily and paid cash for the work.
Their importing became a blind through which the materials for making mash could be purchased.
The pay (we find this over and over in tracing the history of the prohibition era) was good. A better grade cooker could earn $S0 to $100 a week.
The production end outgrew the sales end of the Genna enterprise. Its leaders sold some of the product to Capone and Torrio, but not enough. Hence they came to covet the territory of Moran and O’Banion, which overlapped theirs in spots.
A precarious peace had been maintained, however, through the efforts of Mike Merlo, head of the Unione Siciliano. Merlo was no bootlegger or gangster; he was the paternal arbiter of all the actions of his countrymen on the near north side. He had decreed that there should be no warfare between the Gennas and their rival bootleggers.
In mid-November of 1924 Mike Merlo died. A magnificent funeral, with a statue of him worked in flowers to ride on a float behind the herse, was arranged.
BURY MERLO LIKE A KING
Michael Merlo, president of the Union of Sicilian Societies, was buried yesterday (Nov 13, 1924) while thousands of his followers did honor his memory. This effigy of wax and flowers was borne alone at the head of cortege of 100 cars. The casket is being borne from his home 443 Diversey boulevard. The funeral services were held at St. Clement’s church.
It was always a pleasant fiction of the gang leaders that each had a legitimate business. O’Banion, a florid, roundfaced little fellow who walked with a limp, was a florist and had a shop at 738 North State street, opposite the entrance to the Holy Name cathedral. The Merlo funeral meant much business there.
O’Banion, who was not above making an honest dollar, was in that shop on Nov. 19 when three men of dark complexion entered. He dropped his rose trimming and went forward to meet the delegation.
“Hello, boys,” he said, extending his right hand to the man in tlhe center. “You from Mike Merle’s?”
“Yes,” replied the man, seizing the hand in both of his.
While he held it in a viselike grip one of the other strangers – ately fired six bullets into the body of O’Banion. He fell dead in a bower of flowers. The killers went away.
The O’Banion killing and its aftermath gave the first inkling, to the general public, of the power that the gangs had achieved in darkness. The funeral of the bootlegger florist was one of the most magnificent ever held in the city. The coffin reputedly cost $15,000.
But O’Banion did not go unavenged. His associates were quite tough enough to handle the Gennas. It was only a little while until three of the brothers-Tony, Mike, and Angelo-were slain. The others followed Torrio into obscurity.
Into their territory, without much trouble, stepped Capone. His genius for organization was far beyond that of the Gennas. He established big distilleries that could turn out thousands of gallons of alcohol daily. It was impossible, of course, to keep these hidden, but arithmetic showed that one which at work six weeks paid for itself and thereafter returned a handsome profit. Raids, then, were only annoying, not damaging to a great extent.
He established breweries and made working agreements with the already supplying the trade. He strengthened his sales organization and gave it twin objectives; to deliver the goods and to see that rival wholesalers stayed away from the saloons.
Also, Capone lifted the art of protection to new heights. It became understood just how much tribute a truckload of beer or a five gallon can of alcohol should pay the policemen and the politicians. Sometimes the police looked the other way; sometimes they convoyed the delivery trucks to destination.
The rules of the game prescribed that the driver must follow his specified route. If he failed a po- not already “taken care of” would arrest him and take him to a station. Once it had reached that point and the capture had been reported in the newspapers, no one would dare turn the truck and its cargo back.
Capone had able fixers. One was Joe, who had in the old days outranked Capone in the Torrio or- ganization. Another was Dennis Cooney, who acquired and still enjoys a fortune estimated in the millions, which he gathered in the conduct of houses of prostitution. He had the ear of the higher ups of politics.
How Chicago and some of its suburbs were divided up under the rule of various gangs during the bloody years in which Al Capone held sway as the boss criminal.
Also, Capone had able allies outside the Chicago area. There was always a market here for better beverages than the home bathtub crews and the. six-weeks stills could turn out. Through Frank Uale, a Brooklyn gangster, Capone was able to bring in cargoes of imported Scotch for the limousine trade.
In another way the Uale alliance was valuable. He and Capone could, at need, exchange crews of gunmen to handle each other’s enforcement work. Obviously, it was an advantage to have killings done by men who would not be recognized away from their home towns.
Killers, guards, business men, fixers, allies, political friends, huge revenues-all these Capone had in plenty before the summer of 1926 ended. He had gathered them with a minimum of personal publicity.
Still left to oppose him and his schemes was the north side gang, headed by Earl (Hymie) Weiss and George (Bugs) Moran. Its members were individualists, and consequently their setup differed from that of Capone. They organized on tribal lines. They might gather for a battle, but it was – difficult to hold them together for a campaign. Capone was organized for the long pull. His men were as solidly combined as a and could be trusted to carry on over a period of months, or even years.
A desperate attempt to kill Capone was attributed to the cockiness of the north siders. He was attacked Sept. 20, 1926, In his retreat at the Hawthorne hotel (this was before the metal shutters were put up).
Eight carloads of gunmen drove slowly past this hotel. The first one let go a random blast of fire in the street. The supposition was that Capone and his men would hasten to the windows to see what was going on, and that the volleys from the succeeding cars would wipe them out.
The tactics were carried out exactly. Into the first floor of the hotel more than a thousand bullets were poured. Yet no Capone gangster was scratched. That was because Capone thought fast and gave a warning when the first shots were heard.
“Down to the floor, everybody!” he cried.
The bullets zipped through the windows, but the masonry saved the men on the floor. When it was all over Capone arose from his prone position.
“That’s the last we ll take from that mob,” he announced.
On Oct. 5 a young man who said his name was Oscar Lundin rented a room at 740 North State street. Next door was the old O’Banlon place, still a flower shop and still the headquarters of the north side mob. On the same day a young woman rented a room in the rear of 6 West Superior street. It overlooked the rear of the florist shop, as the young man’s overlooked the front.
In each of these rooms three men planted themselves. From behind the curtains they watched the movements of Moran, Weiss, and their cohorts. As they watched they fingered their sub-machine guns. Their orders were to make sure of their quarry-and they did not fail.
On Oct. 11 a car belonging to Weiss halted in front of the shop. In it were W. W. O’Brien, well known as a criminal lawyer; Benjamin Jacobs, a 20th ward politician; Patrick Murray, a beer peddler; Weiss, and his chauffer, Sam Peller.
As they were getting out of the car there was a burst of machine gun fire from the window next door. Weiss, struck ten times, died instantly. Murray also was slain on the spot. The others were seriously wounded. Before pursuit could he organized, or even started, the Ithree men in the room at 740 North State street had fled.
A few days later Al Caponr called Chief of Police Morgan Collins.
“I hear that people are saying Capone killed Weiss,” he stated. “I did not. I am sorry he’s dead. When he was shot I was out of town. But if you want me to come in for questioning, I will be glad to do it.”
Chief Collins told him not to come. “What was the use?” he asked later. “Capone had his alibi perfected. It undoubtedly is a good alibi. He didn’t do the shooting.”
In April, 1927, Assistant Slale’s Attorney William McSwiggin, youthful son of a policeman and a product of the west side, where he became acquainted with many of the youngsters who later were important cogs in the gangland machines, was slain in Cicero. With him died two gangsters who had opposed Capone rule.
There were unofficial assertions that Capone had ordered the triple murder. These at length reached his ears.
“That Is absurd,” he averred. “Billy McSwiggin was my good friend. I am sorry he is dead. And I was in Florida when he was bumped off.”
The police, again, did not question Capone. What was the use?
In May of that year Commander Francesco de Pinedo, Premier Mussolini’s around the world flyer, set his Marchetti hydroplane down in the Grant park. On a millionaire’s yacht was a reception committee. With judges and other officials stood Al Capone.
He was now quite definitly the first of the public enemies. A reporter wanted to know why he had been invited to welcome the distinguished visitor.
“It’s this way,” was the reply. “We heard that there might be an anti-Fascist demonstration. If anything like that was planned, Capone would be more effective in squelching it than a hundred policemen.”
Such appearances were ill-advised. In general, Capone realized this, and while he was often seen in public gatherings-particularly prize fights and baseball games-he never again took part in a public function.
He would have preferred the darkness. But he had grown so great that he could no longer remain out of print. And he had felt the lash of publicity as early as December, 1926, two months after the Weiss killing.
With his entourage he went to California for a vacation. An assumed name failed to conceal his identity or guarantee his privacy. Attempts were made to interview him in the hotel. These were unsuccessful, but the news that so notorious a person was in their midst caused the Californians to cry loudly for his ousting. The perspiring management of the hotel, hearing this public clamor, at length requested that Capone surrender his accommodations.
This so irritated the Big Fellow (this was the name his henchmen used in referring to him) that he really did grant an interview.
“I wouldn’t stay in any town that didn’t want me,” he declared. “I’ll go back to my own city. And I’m going because I want to go. The hotel didn’t ask me to leave, either.”
Returning to Chicago, he made the experiment of organizing himself into a minister of propaganda. He attempted, clumsily, to give the news about Capone a favorable twist.
With his omnipresent guards carefully concealed, he received a reporter in the hallway of sis nominal home at 7244 Prairie avenue. He was a strange appearing Capone. Over his underwear he wore a long pink apron. He had on carpet slip- pers and he held, its one hand, a pan of spaghetti richly drowned in sauce.
“Come in and have a little of this I cooked myself,” he urged. “Let’s quit talking about bootlegging and such things. Positively I have retired. I am a plain business man, and all I ask is that the papers let me alone.”
It was not a convincing picture and the reporter wrote it for what it was, a half comic interlude intended to deceive.
When he first went to Miami, with a huge roll of thousand dollar bills In his pockets, there was a storm of criticism. For a time it appeared’ that his fortune was so tainted that he wouldn’t be allowed to spend it. Hardened now it such matters, the Big Fellow called on the chief:of police.
“Let’s lay the cards on the table,” he said. “I am here to enjoy myself. I ant not a criminal and I have never been in jail for anything. Against me there is nothing but gossip. Does Miami want me as a visitor who’ll mind his own business and spend his money, or do I have to appeal to the courts for my constitutional rights.”
The authorities withheld their decision for a little while. Then they said there was no law that could keep him out. Further, which they didn’t mention, the real estate market was not exactly booming, and there many honest real estate men seeking buyers.
Capone purchased a splendid walled estate on Palm Island. It became a center for gay parties, and the Big Fellow’s parties outshone those of many a winter colonist of ancient wealth and high social position. He kept his pledge to let Florida alone and the only complaint about his menage was that it looked funny to have armed sentinels on guard around the house.
Capone’s Palm Island estate in 1947. Sold for $7,430,000 in 2013.
Thus we find Capone nearing the height of his power. Bootlegging, brothels, gambling paid their trib- utes on a scale something more than county-wide-and the county held more than four million persons. Local governments could not touch him.
Enough, it would seem, for any man. He had, and spent, a million a year. Yet it was not enough for Capone. Like a good many others, he dreamed of dominating Chicago’s labor organizations with strong arm methods.
His first chance to break Into that field came almost by accident. Morris Becker, who conducted several dry cleaning establishments, began having trouble with rivals and with employes. There was a rumor that he had formed a partnership with Capone, and Becked confirmed it.
“That’s right,” he said, “I don’t need the police to help any more. I have the best protection in the world now.”
By this time the Capone methods and resources were too well known for any one to doubt that he would soon try to dominate unions.
George (Red) Barker, an ex-convict, and Murray Humphreys set out on the work. With unerring instinct Capone ordered them to attack the teamsters’ and chauffeurs’ organizations. They got results. How Barker seized the coal teamsters’ union was told later by an official he- ousted.
“Lefty Flynn was our chief in 1928,” said this informant. “Like me, he had come up from the ranks. He knew the game and was useful to the union. But he was not a gunman and he was 60 years old. Barker set out on -a systematic course of terrorism.
“First he tried to kidnap Flynn’s children. That failed. Flynn took his family to a summer home in Wisconsin. Barker followed him there and shot him. ‘If you ever come back to Chicago you’ll be killed,’ he told the wounded man, ‘and so will your whole family.’
“Barker appeared at the next union meeting with a bunch of fellows carrying shotguns. ‘Where does the business agent sit?’ he inquired. Somebody showed him. ‘That’s my place,’ he said. ‘From now on I’m boss here.'”
Barker held on to that prize, too. Humphreys was no less successful in seizing other teamster unions. He even formed one to combat the old Milk Wagon Drivers’ union, whose officials were too strong to be ousted. Legitimate organizations, including the American Federation of Labor, battled against the gangs, but the latter, with the potent name of Capone to fall back on, continued to progress in their campaign even up to 1932.
Only a crystallized public sentiment, it now became certain, would be able to halt the march of Capone to a dictatorship so wide and so strong that few businesses In Chicago would be able to refuse any demands he might make.
That sentiment was being formed, America, the whole world, now saw, Capone for what he was, a criminal, big only as he was evil. Good people everywhere recognized him as the symbol of all the raw lawlessness that went to make up the prohibition era.
Capone did not understand. He went ahead. He played desperately. He scattered money. In two years he bet, and lost, two million dollars on race horses. He gave magnificent Christmas presents to his friends. Apparently he did not know what to do with his money.
Feb. 14, 1929. In a garage on North Clark street were gathered seven men allied with the north side gang headed by George Moran. Still belligerent, still unafraid of Capone, that gang continued to serve its territory with liquor. The seven had gathered to receive a truckload of imported stuff that had been offered to Moran by a supposed friend.
At 10:30 a. m. an automobile with drawn curtains was halted at the curb near the garage. Five men stepped from it. Three wore police uniforms and two were in civilian clothing. The uniformed trio, with pistols drawn, walked into the garage.
They collected the weapons-of the seven, who made no resistance, having accepted the statement: “We’re police officers.” All were lined up facing a wall, with their backs io the door of the garage. Their hands were in the, air. Frank and Peter Gusenberg, John May, Al Weinshank, James Clark, Adam Heyer, and a young doctor named Schwimmer-those were the names, and the Gusenbergs were notoriously haters of Capone.
The supposed policemen stepped aside. One of the other men calmly sprayed the backs of the seven vio- tims with machine gun bullets. They died, all of them.
That was the St. Valentine’s day massacre. Nothing quite so ferocious had ever been known before. even in the gang wars.
At the moment Al Capone was in his stucco villa on Palm Island, taking a lesson in etiquette. A young woman, expert in such matters, Was instructing him how to rid himself of his gloves and stick when he entered a drawing room.
George Moran, he of the charmed life, had been late at the garaged Seeing the car at the curb, he drove away, assuming that it belonged to the police. By so narrow a margin did he miss his own rendezvous with extinction.
“Only Capone kills like that,” he asserted that same evening.
A Map of Chicago’s Gangland from Authentic Sources
Designed to Inculcate the Most Important Principles of Piety and Virtue in Young Persons and Graphically Portray the Evils and Sin of Large Cities
The foregoing is the second of three articles on “Capone’s Decade of Death.. The final article will appear next week.