Beginning February 3, 1929 (eleven days before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), Chicago Tribune reporter, James O’Donnell Bennett wrote a weekly exposé on “The True Story of Chicago Crime.” The following is the first article describing the Dean O’Banion murder in his flower shop.
Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1929
BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT
“O NO! Swell fellow!” the sunny Dean O’Banion oft would exclaim when the air around him grew red with the curses of his fellow gangsters against a suspected gangster.
“0, no! Swell fellow! .. he would say, in the manner of one who grieved that bitterness should poison the heart and defile the tongue of man.
“Swell fellow” was his slogan to the world. He would bestow it upon you at the same time your address was in his death book. His whim-to call it no more-was that if a suspected colleague were booked to be killed that night why talk rough about him during the afternoon of the fatal date? In the first place there was no class to such language and in the second it bred suspicion.
“Chicago’s Arch Criminal.”
Gangster O’Banion, whom former Chief of Police Morgan Collins once called “Chicago’s arch criminal” and said that he had either killed or seen to the killings of twenty-five men, was a glad hand artist In crIme. He was a chronic beamer and handshaker. He loved to supplement the bright glance of welcome and the warm handclasp with a pat on the back. Sharp observers of his department marked it well, however, that he did not simultaneously bestow the handclasp and the pat on the back. He preferred to keep one hand free. There was a practical reason for that.
After the futile inquest which marked the close ot O’Banion’s life story the pollce told former Mayor Dever of the problems of the tailors who made O’Banion’s fashionable garments was to equip those garments with three capacious and readily accessible pockets in which the three revolvers the gangster carried could find convenient lodgment. The problem was to provide these caches and still keep the garments fashionable. Such were some of the lesser exactions of O’Banion’s principal felonies, which were illicit brewing, beer running, hijacking, and bootlegging—with side line floral purveying from a shop—still flourishing—at 738 North State street, Chicago, opposite the Holy Name cathedral where as a lad he had served as altar boy.
(Left) X marks the spot where O’Banion was killed in his little flower shop on North State Street.
(Right)Crowd ontside the floral shop just after O’Banion’s assassination.
In Cathedral Shadows.
At the fiower shop within the morning shadows of the church he was shot to death by three men—identity still legally undetermined after more than four years—at noon of Nov. 10, 1924.
Thus had come the time when neither Gangster O’Banion’s bonhomie nor his alertness in finding the pockets, overcame angry critics of his methods. He had tried to “muscle in,” as gangdom’s laconic phrase has it, on the territory and trade of other gangsters whose principal felonies also were brewing, beer running, hijacking, and bootlegging.
Consequently he was shot to death, and a long train of murderous reprisals has followed.
The man and his crimes, and the intricate vendettas whIch grew out of his crimes and out of his ambItion to extend his felonies, are a significant phase of the anarchic decade Chicago has lived through since the eighteenth amendment became the parent of bogus prohibition. He and his operatives, his death and his obsequies, gross and grotesque as they were, are an important chapter in the social history of the third decade—the guzzling decade—of the twentieth century.
A Chapter of Shame.
The chapter is unsavory, and the writing of it is disheartening. But the reading of it is essential to an understanding of what ails “the noble experiment” which the incoming President of the United States has pledged himself to investigate and ameliorate, to the end that the noble experiment shall not be a source ot craven hypocrisy, of insane dissipation, and of incredibly bold and gainful defiance of law.
Dean O’Banion—also called Dion, Deany, Don, Danny, and Gimpy, and the last name often spelled with two n’s—was a strange mux and mix of ferocity, childishness, and mawkishness.
In this man there was, as there is in many of his kind, a certain ingratiating bonhomie. Beneath it smolders implacable savagery which flames into action the instant they are crossed or their traffic is hurt.
Blarney and Bludgeons.
Glad hand artistry was a trick O’Banion ha:d picked up from barroom politicians. To them he was useful. In the words of those who both used him and were used by him he “had the bull down pat.” Thus by means of blarney he could bring in some votes. Other votes were persuaded by his threats and his bludgeons. The combination was victorious. It often was said that O’Banion turned a Democratic Dorsey Crowe ward—the Forty-second—into Republican Bob Crowe ward by three to one. This, as events tell, was more to the honor of Dorsey the alderman than to the advantage of Robert the state’s attorney, tor Robert’s inability to convict the most notorious of gangsters was ultimately the cause of his fall.
O’Banion was important tor two reasons. He was important as the north side partner in crime of John Torrio, whose power in gangdom was city and county wide, and he was important as one who could, and did, walk smilingly out ot court”—that phrase is caught up trom newspaper records of 1924—during Robert Crowe’s tenure of office.
Four Golden Years.
O’Banion’s golden years extended from 1920 to 1924, or from the time he was twenty-eight years old untn his death at the age of thirty-two. During those four years everything he touched turned to money—when it did not turn to blood. In 1922 he obtained an interest in William F. Schofield’s flower shop, and that connection was a source of both peace and war prosperity. If you, a peaceable resident of the near north side, went belatedly into the plate glassed and perfume laden establishment at 738 North State street to buy flowers for the dinner table, and if you found that you were short of currency, O’Banion, not knowing you, would nevertheless cheerfully accept your check—accept it with an alacrity which convinced you that not he but you were conferring a favor. Chances were that you would become a frequent customer of so tactful a tradesman. So the peace trade flourished.
Bullets and Banquets.
Revenues from warfare were far larger. When rivals of O’Banion’s fellow gangsters spoke with sawed·off shotguns the mourners replied with armfuls of flowers which they bought from O’Banion. The total of such orders for a single funeral sometimes would run to thousands of dollars. Later the mourners would express their grief with bullets. But first with bouquets.
O’Banion won both ways by being in the flower shop. It was more or less a blind for his less fragrant operations, and it was a substantial revenue producer.
Enter now Ambition.
You may call it so, for highfalutin’ language has been the mode in chronicles of gangdom. As a matter of fact it is Greed that now enters.
Gangsters start from minor independencies—from “jack-rolling,” which is following a drunken man staggering belatedly homeward and taking his money trom him—but most ot them become ambitious to be “a big shot”; that is to say, a gangster with city-wide and country-wide power who can “walk smilingly out of court” and make a state’s attorney lIke it.
The easiest though by far the most dangerous way to become a bIg shot is to cut into the big shot’s territory. That is why rising gangsters, made heady by profits beyond the dreams of a pimp’s or a jackroller’s avarice, get killed. They are killed as punishment for this cutting into tho other
In 1924 O’Banion marked well how the Genna brothers’ gangs of alcohol makers and bootleggers were flourishing on the west side of Chicago and how John Torrio’s and Al Capone’s gangs, with which O’Banion’s gang had worked, were flourishing all over the metropolitan area.
Observation inflamed hIs greed, embittered his heart, and caused his tongue to run without the belt on. That last was his principal weakness; like many of the blithe race from which he sprang, he talk~d too much. This failing lured him to the most
injudicious remark he ever made in his life.
The Fatal Remark.
Grouping the big shots under the general term .. Sicilians,” although only the Gennas were from that volcanic isle, O’Banion said:
O, to hell with them Sicilians!
The words were equivalent to an order for his coffin.
They were followed by direct wrangling with Torrlo and Capone.
Those big shots had decided that corruptible policemen were getting too much money from gangdom’s corrUption fund. O’Banion did not agree with them. Again his gearless tongue tripped him, for he said:
Well, you’ve got your ideas about it. I’ve got mine. We’ll separate.
Too soon! Too soon!
You never “separate” in gangdom and grow old.
If “Hymie” Weiss, an O’Banion gangster whom gangdom finally killed, once said it in nine words:
Once you’re in with us you’re in for life.
In other words, gangsters forget nobody and forgive nothing.
Previous to the actual break between O’Banion and the Italians and Sicilians who had given him his big start in the field of big money, he was disclosing himself to them as what they called “a bad actor.” He was surreptitiously muscling in; he was outraging the sleek code of Torrio and Capone, which was to endure much from corrupt and double crossing officers of the law in order to gain more.
Such a Nice Man!
It was often said of Torrio that he was a successful manager of criminal bands—called “syndicates” by the highfalutin’ chroniclers—because he would spend one dollar to make two dollars. Besides, as the saying also ran, he had “a nice personality.” (Details as to that attribute of Torrio will be given later.) O’Banion, too, had a nice personality,” but the veneer was thin. Swaggery and sheer, inutile
cussedness would break through.
This, for example, happened:
One night two policemen held up one of Torrio’s beer running squads on the west side of Chicago an«1 demanded $300 to release it. The gangsters who were attempting to run the load from brewery to speakeasies telephoned to O’Banion, who had not yet broken with Torrio, the facts of their failure and of the demanded brihe. The wire over which they were speaking to O’Banion had been tapped by the police headquarters and O’Banion’s reply went into the record. It was:
Three hundred dollars! To them bums? Why, say, I can get ’em knocked off for half that much.
Well knowing that O’Banion’s estimate was correct and that he was capable of sending a killer to “knock ’em off” for $150, headquarters hurried out a rifle squad to save the hijacking policemen. But before the squad arrived the beer runners had informed the big shot, John Torrio, of their plight. Forthwith matters moved pleasantly. This message, relayed to O’Banion over the tapped wire. and hence becoming a matter of record. was sent:
Say, Deany, I just been talkin’ to Johnny and he says to let them cops have the three hundred. He says he don’t want no trouble.
There was none.
Some drops of the venom of race hatred—a rabies which, under less squalid conditions, sometimes gets itself acclaimed as patriotism-helped foment O’Banion to rebellion against Torrio and Capone. Ninety-five per cent of the bootlegging and beer running gang leaders were of foreign birth. Of that ninety-flve per cent, eighty-ftve per cent were Italians and Sicilians. The remaining ten per cent were Jews of toreign extraction. That left only a paltry remainder of true blue Americans as beneficiaries of which the profits may be gauged by the single that in the fall of 1923 John Torrio’s pay roll for the chauffeurs, truckmen, bookkeepers. guards, bombers, killers, lawyers, and general handy men required for the operation of the beer racket, was $26,000 a week.
Patriotism Could Not Bear It.
O’Banion could not bear the thought of his laggard compatriots—one hundred per cent Americans who were further endeared to him by the fact that through inheritance many of them were, like him, true Irish lads.
So he made that ill-advised remark,
“To hell with them Sicilians,” and he promoted the fatal words into action by muscling in on a large scale.
Punishment was swift and. definite.
But the evidence as to who inflicted punishment-vengeance is the more exact word—was meager. The lapse
of more than four years has not amplified it. Almost the sole bit of spontaneous, forthright testimony at the inquest was given by Gregory Summers, a good lad of 11 years who, during the noon hour of the day O’Banion was killed, was guiding across the street children from the parochial school at North State street and East Chicago avenue, and by William Crutchfield, colored porter and cleaner employed by Schofield and O’Banion.
“They Looked Like Foreigners.”
Young Summers swore to these four points:
1. I heard several shots and I thought they were fired in Mr. Schofield’s flower shop, just across from
2. I saw three men run out of Mr. Schofield’s and run west in Superior street.
3. Two of them were dark and they looked like foreigners. The other man had a light complexion.
4. They jumped in an automobile and drove west.
The clearest account of what had happened inSide the shop was given by Crutchfield. He said that O’Banion had just told him to brush up the fragrant litter of leaves and petals on the floor of the front part of the shop.
An hour later, when Deputy Coroner Dr. Springer gave him permission, Crutchfield was mopping up O’Banion’s blood.
Before that O’Banion himself was in the rear part clipping the stems of a bundle of chrysanthemums. Three men entered by the front door. One, who walked between the other two. Was “tall, well built, well dressed, smooth shaven, wore a brown overcoat and a brown Fedora hat.” Crutchfield tRought the tall man “might have been a Jew or a Greek,” but the two accompanying him he denominated “Italians,” and said they were “short, stocky, and rather rough looking.”
Shoemaker’s Clever Deduction.
When they entered O’Banlon came from the rear ot the shop, holding his shears in one hand and extending the other to the tall man. From that fact Police Captain Shoemaker made the clever deduction that O’Banion either knew or felt safe with the men who an instant later were to shoot him to death.
“Usually,” said the captain, “when O’Banion was talking with strangers as to whose business he had any doubt he stood with feet apart, hands on hips, thumbs to rear and fingers down in front. Thus his hands were always ready to grasp the heavy automatics in his specially tailored pockets. He was a handshaker, yes, but not with strangers when any stranger might mean death. He was smart.”
“No,” said others, “that ruse of the phone call saying that three men were coming to order flowers for the funeral of Mike Merlo, the Sicilian politician, must have thrown him off his guard. He might not have known them and still not been suspicious of them.”
However that may be, it appears from the narrative of Crutchfield that when O’Banion came from the rear of the shop, shears in one hand and his free hand extended, he did say:
Hello, boys! You from Mike Merlo’s?
Three men entered, O’Branion came from the rear of the shop, shears in one hand, the other hand extended. “Hello, boys, you from Mike Marlo’s?” he said. “Yes,” said the tall man. Then the fusillade—five shots—a pause—a sixth shot.
Dean Shakes Hands with Death.
“Yes,” said the tall man, and extended his hand. Just at that instant Crutchfield went to the rear of the shop. As he passed the swing door—then opened—which separated the front and rear of the shop he glanced back. The tall man was stlll holding O’Banion’s hand.
Then the fusillade—five shots—a hardly calculable pause—a sixth shot.
O’Banion lay sprawling amid the potted plants on the floor. Every bullet had found its mark—two in the right breast—a third through the larynx—a fourth just to tbe left of the larynx—a fifth in the right cheek—a sixth In the left cheek. The police deduced that the sixth and last shot—the one that came a fraction of a second after the first five—had been fired after O’Banion fell. “The left cheek,” said they, “is badly powder burned, you see. It’s likely one of the killers bent over the body after it had fallen and fired that shot at very close range to make the job sure, Those people take no chances.”
Instantly the fusillade began, Crutchfield rushed to the front of the shop. He was in time to see the three men disappearing through the front door, and making for a dark colored, nickel trimmed Jewett car. A man at the wheel awaited them. He stepped on the accelerator. The engine, already running, spluttered into a roar, and the murderers of Dean O’Banion vanished into mystery and safety.
Two sign painters working outside a building next door said they had not even heard the shot—much less marked the scurry of the flight.
All the authentic details there are concerning the manner in which this murder—if you can call the extinction of vermin by vermin a murder—was committed have been given here because in its boldness, in its pitilessness, in its obvious aspect of reprisal, and in the cold sluggishness of prosecutors confronted with the scandal of such violence in a school and partly residence neighborhood, the killing of O’Banion was representative of scores of other murders which gangdom has committed between the years 1924 and 1929, and continues to commit.
Its sequences ere also representative.
A dozen suspects were brought in for questioning—among them John Torrio, Aphonse Capone (alias Al Brown, alias Scarface Al), Hirschie, Davy, Maxie, and Harry Miller, the Genna brothers, and Vincent Drucci.
What a clever reporter described as “the inevitable Italian wall of silence” promptly encompassed the case. Only one of the Italians who might have shed light on the identity of the killers became loquacious but his remarks, far from aiding the police to find a clue, were significant only as illustrating the ferocity of gangdom’s methods and willingness to take a chance with the law as administered in the fourth largest city in the world. This gabby gangster was Lou Alterie, friend and fellow criminal of O’Banion, and he said:
I have no idea who killed O’Banion but I would be willing to die smiling if I only had a chance to meet the guys who did, any time, any place they mention, and I would get at least two or three of them before they’d get me. I want to shoot it out with them at the corner of State and Madison streets.”
In Gangdom Words Drip Blood.
This naming of a definite rendezvous with death was not mere bravado. A later gang murder validated Alterie’s choice of location within one block, tor less than four years afterward Antonio Lombardo, a Sicilian paisan man for gangsters, was shot to death in daylight and amid a throng at the corner of Dearborn and Madison streets.
Days dribbled into weeks and still no progress was made in solving the O’Banion mystery. A month and two days after the murder Capt. Murphy of East Chicago avenue station was groaning to the reporters. “The police are balked in every way and the investigation is now about hopeless.” That was said on Dec. 12, 1924. So, on that day, the coroner’s jury adjourned into the new year, fixing Jan. 12, 1925, tor the resumption of its deliberations. For all that It since has accomplished it might as well have adjourned to Jan. 12, 2025.
“They change their stories so!” was another plaint of the pollce, With whom all the suspects played pretty much as they listed.
In the matter ot securing convictions in this case, as in all other cases of gang murders the police were puny rerformers but as conversationalists they were stalwarts. There was talk—and yards of it.
“You see,” Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes said cozily four days after the crime, “as I figure it at least eleven men know who killed O’Banion and why. It the reports to us are correct there were eight cars parked around Dean’s place in addition to the one carrying the three actual killers. Now, with so many in on a thing of that kind, it stands to reason somebody is going to drop something—intentionally or unintentionally—sooner or later. And when a little lead comes—if it ever does—we’ll speedily clear this whole thing up.”
Could aught be fairer than that?
But—more than four years have passed since that fluent flow of language.
And nobody—either “intentionally or unintentionally”—either “sooner or later”—has been so careless as to “drop something” that would promote Hughes’ sunny speculations into austere fact.
How this mockery of the law was followed by a mayor’s storming and by a funeral that made Chicago a scandal to Christendom will be unfolded in the next chapter.