< --Previous Up Next–>
This is the fourth of a series on the gangsters of boozedom and what they did to Chicago. In previous installments Mr. Bennett has told the stories of Dean O’Banion, Johnny Torrio, and other notorious hoodlums.
Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1929
BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT
THIS JOHN TORRIO who, as you have seen, put boozedom on a business basis, is not the 15 minute egg of gangdom. Dean O’Banion was that. He was for the rough stuff loudly put over. Torrio is the slick article and his ways are sly. “Nize .Johnny Torrio” his fellow criminals call him.
He would sell the community anything it wanted from a harlot for three dollars—he taking two as his share to illicit liquor or a chance to gamble. He organized all that traffic on a wholesale scale. His system not only debauched men and women but it also debauched large areas in communities lying around Chicago—as in Cicero, Stickney, Forest View and Burnham. With him the purveying of vice is a business to be conducted on business lines. With O’Banion and his type it was more of a wild adventure. Torrio is for the trade. O’Banion was for the gang.
Torrio’s code says:
It’s a business. If you do a wrong to me in our business we’ll settle it without going to court. And if you do a wrong you’ll know you’re doing it—and you know the consequences.
Originally that was the code of the Italian gangsters. Now pretty much all gangdom has adopted it.
Torrio’s voice Is soft and low. He has a good vocabulary and no accent. His eyes are blue and his manners mild. A respectable friend of mine who, in the course of his reportorial has frequently visited with him, says, “I never heard him utter a profane or a lewd word. He loves music—loves to take apart phrases and motives in the score of an opera—singing them to illustrate the points he is making. He does not like to talk shop, as O’Banion did and as Alterie does. In the days of his Chicago beginnings he wore a gingham shirt, and was unassuming, quiet, and companionable. He was no night roysterer. At six o’clock he would go home to supper in his fiat on 19th street, near Archer avenue-and he would stay there.”
Colosimo’s Cry for Help
Although born in Italy, Torrio got his training in crime on our shores. From 1900 until 1907 he was identified with the notorious Five Points gang in New York City. He was one of its so-called vice presidents, and a man had to be expert and hard to qualify for that position.
That was a terrible gang.
From it the corrupt New York police lieutenant, Charles Becker, hired the gunmen Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie, and others, who in 1912 killed Herman Rosenthal, a gambler who was about to peach on Becker for grafting off gamblers. That murder was bungled and Becker and, his gunmen were electrocuted for it. Later in Chicago Becker’s crude methods were developed to such perfection that neither the gallows nor the electric chair have had to be dusted as a sequence to any of the murders committed by the gangsters of boozedom.
Big Jim Colosimo, vice purveyor in the 22d street and Wabash avenue area of ChIcago, needed the pitiless and yet personable kind of henchman which the Five Points gang not infrequently bred. He was being badgered by blackmailers with threats of kidnapIng and death. He sent for Torrio. The threats ceased; for Torrio was expert in running down the blackmailers and hard in his punitive measures, which were swift, deadly and often clouded with a mystery which made them doubly terrifying.
“Front Man” Becomes “Overlord.”
He was, also useful and tactfulabove all tactful-as “front man” for bawdy house keepers who ran their dives more or less cn the gang principle-that is, on the basis of common interests that could be best served by cooperation in deviltry. This arrangement gave the stylish reporters another opportunity to coin a high flown phrase. The allied divekeepers became known as “the vice syndicate.” The effect of such phrasing was to make a crew of greasy, pimping scoundrels seem, to gullible persons, rather an imposing array of business men doing their best to keep the community bright and up to date. Of course a “syndicate” had to have an “overlord.” So Torrio, “the front man,” began to find his place in the carefree newspapers as “overlord of the vice syndicate.”
Torrio’s Ticklish Job.
The front man’s job was general oversight of the gang of bawdy house keepers. Had this one failed to pay into the gang treasury his weekly or her monthly assessment for police protection of the gang’s bawdy houses? Then Torrio would say to the laggard, “You must close,” and he could order violent measures to enforce his decision. If a night roysterer were robbed in a panel house, and if he “squawked,” and if he were sufficiently important to be worth bothering about, then Torrio would go to the thieving bawdy house keeper, recover the money and restore it to the squawker.
LEFT: Big Jim Colosimo, vice purveyor on the south side was bemg badgered by blackmailers with threats of kidnaping and death. He sent to New York for Johnny Torrio. Johnny came and the trouble ceased.
RIGHT: William H. McSwiggin, assistant state’s attorney, who was shot down in Cicero while in the company of gangsters. The mystery of his murder, presumably committed by other gangsters, never has been solved.
Johnny Outgrows Big Jim.
Torrio was so smooth and so firm in enforcing discipline, punishments, and keeping venal officials happy that he became a bigger man than Colosimo.
He organized vice in and around crossroad villages that had been decent. The automobile had made them easily accessible. Torrio took his hint from the respectable wayside inns where respectable people stopped for a chicken dinner. If the respectable people liked that, why would not the disreputable people like stopping at places where they could play slot machines and carouse with harlot? Furthermore, the late John E. W. Wayman, then state’s attorney, had taken much of the brightness and profit out of the 22d street vice area by the reform drive of 1912. Many dives were closed. Then began the opening of “call flats” in numerous and widely separated areas in Chicago and its environs. Often nice neighborhoods were invaded. The night prowler would walk into such an establishment. He wauld see no harlot, but one would pramptly be summoned by telephone.
Burnham First Of Vice Villages.
This scattering ‘Of the traffic in women did not suit Torrio. It took many vice purveyors and much money from his control. Therefore, he concentrated his women in suburbs. Burnham, in Thornton township, Cook county, near the Indiana state line, became the first of the Torrio vice villages. It was just a mile square. Its notorious “boy mayor,” Johnny Patton, was a pawn in gangdom’s game, and the town’s police force, though its orders might come from Patton, was working for Torrio. The place became a moral cesspool. The gangs of harlots were worked in three shifts a day and a “30 girl house” was counted on to pay $9,000 a month in profits.
Some of the brothels were built like barracks, with a bar and a large drinking room below stairs and dozens of small bedrooms above stairs. The rough patronage of foreign workers in nearby steel mills was especially catered to in the barracks. As a precautionary measure the seats in the large drinking room of such a place were benches firmly fastened to the walls. This was to prevcmt the revelers from braining one another with chairs When they became fighting drunk.
Grim Fate of “Dandy Joe.”
There were more elaborate dives in Burnham. One of Torrio’s places was the Burnham inn. Ike Bloom, who had run a notorious dive in 22d street, joined the march to Burnham and opened the Arrowhead inn, which he later sold to Colosimo. Other bawdy house keepers entered the square mile—among them Jakey Adler (recently kidnaped for ransom], Joe Grabner (who was known as “the Jew Kid”) and the Guzlks, the last a name of special signIficance because it figures in a demonstration of Torrio’s far reaching political power.
That indecency may properly be cleared away here.
The Guziks-Harry and Alma-were managers of the Roamer inn in the village of Posen, Cook county. It was a Torrio brothel. The Guziks were convicted in 1921 of selling a country girl into white slavery after having enticed her to the Roamer inn under pretense of employing her as a maid, then taking her clothes away from her. Her father rescued her. He said he was offered a bribe by Guzik to prevent prosecution. In every aspect the case was flagrant. In 1923 Gov. Len Small pardoned the Guziks in the face of vehement protests by the Juvenile Protective association and other reform bodies. He pardoned them while the Illinois Supreme court was considering their appeal from the conviction. Pending the decision they were out on bail. Hence they never served an hour in prison.
Rotten Politics Behind It All.
Why was the pardon granted? Torrio brought influence to bear on Springfield. Walter Stevens—then known as “the immune outlaw”—was one of Torrio’s beer runners. And Walter Stevens had been useful in devious ways to the defense during Gov. Small’s trial at Waukegan for having withheld interest on state funds when he was state treasurer. Furthermore, Torrio was persona grata to the Thompson-Lundin machine, which then was playing practical politics with the Small machine. He was persona grata to the Chicago machine because of his substantial contributions to funds that made the wheels go ’round.
The long and short of it is that the slime of the serpent was over everything Torrio touched from his Five Points days to his debauching of the most majestic and solemn power an executive can exercise-the power to pardon.
The Guziks At It Again.
What was the result?
Within less than three months after Small pardoned them the Guziks were at it again and were doing well in a new dive they had built at 119th street and Marshfield avenue, just beyond the city limits of Chicago.
Some gangsters and vice purveyors entered the Burnham square mile and other Torrio vice fiefs without first making sure of a welcome trom Torrio. That was foolish. Yea, it was fatal. One ot them was “Dandy Joe” Hogarty, who got rough at a party in Burnham inn one November night in 1916, and who, among other loose remarks, exclaimed: “I’ll get that Wop!” He did not. A rattle of shots silenced the clatter of jazz and Dandy Joe’s next stopping place was the morgue. “Sonny” Dunn and Tommy Enright were fleetingly detained for this abrupt ending of the party, but were not annoyed with prosecution.
How the Money Rolled In!
And so it went-a careladen life for Torrio, but how the money rolled in! All Torrio’s gains from selling women and running gambling hells were trifling, however, compared with\ his gains after the eighteenth amendment had ended licensed saloons and ushered in the selling by bootleggers of illicit whisky, gin, and beer to speakeasies and to individuals. New Crimes to Beat New Laws.
A new kind of criminality then swiftly develops.
For it is the smooth Torrio who shows O’Banion and his rough type that bootlegging and beer running on a big scale and under organization are far more profitable than safe cracking.
The vital point in Torrio’s scheme of organization is organization based on terrorism. The O’Banion type could be depended upon to provide ample terrorism, however meager their contribution of brains might be. Terrorism was O’Banion’s specialty, as he proved when he helped to swing the Forty-second ward from its status as a Dorsey Crowe Democratic ward to a Robert Crowe Republican ward. He would wander into saloons and open fire with a brace of revolvers, not aiming at anyone or anything in particular but making a chastening racket, “just to show,” as one of his delighted observers put it, “that he really was one hard boiled florist and politician.”
Soon after prohibition, Torrio buys a closed brewery with the idea of transforming it into a bagnio, but he sees the golden dawn coming and changes his mind, saying, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t make beer here.” And he does—for his own bawdy houses. Soon he begins to supply other bawdy house keepers and to acquire more breweries. Others follow his lead. More and more of the old crime gangs drop robbery—or keep it incidental and go into brewing and bootlegging.
But for about three years-say from 1920 until 1923—Torrio maintains strict control. It is the old story of gang organization which he had applied successfully when he was solely a purveyor of harlots. If a co-criminal has a brewery he must go to see Torrio about having it kept open. If he does not the federal authorities soon learn about that brewery, and the brewer’s life becomes a burden. If the proprietor of a speakeasy does not buy his beer from Torrio or his allied brewers he soon learns something highly to his disadvantage in the shape of a bomb that blows the front out of his enterprise. If he persists in rebellion a lonesome death out on the prairie is the final a administration.
Things Torrio Does Not Do.
All this time Torrio follows a certain regularity in his dealings. He keeps his word. If he says he will “be there tomorrow with the fifty grand” ($50,000), he will be there with it. He is neither a squawker nor a talker. He never talks about anybody. The practice of “ribbing”—that is malevolently planting suspicion in A’s mind by saying to A “I heard B say he was going to get you “—is not in his book.
As the money rolls in more and more abundantly Torrio not only ceases to fear officialdom but he also develops a political power that makes officialdom fear him. There had been a time when foreign-born gangsters removed their hats when they walked into a federal building. That was in the days when the government had put fear deep into them by its investigations under the Mann white
slavery act. Once it was revealed that girls were being recruited in eastern cities and sent to brothels in Chicago. “Big Jim” Colosimo’s bagnios were among those drawn into the investigation and he was scared sick.
But under Volstead gangdom’s corruption funds are so large that not all federal deputies stand up against temptation. They ignore operations in many an illicit brewery when theIr noses know what is going on.
Torrio soon discovers that certain city police and ounty deputies are not more rigid.
Hence the plague spots spread gangrene. There had been money in liquor and girls before prohibition. But there are fortunes in liquor and girls under prohibition.
The case of Stickney, a village eight miles southwest of Chicago city hall via Ogden avenue is typical.
Torrio invades it and it becomes a byword for commercia.lized vIce just as the old 22d street area in Chicago had been.
The Alarm Bell Sounds.
Bawdy houses are opened on sequestered side roads and they are connected by electric wire with gas stations a mile distant, and if a detail of “wrong coppers “—meaning honest ones—comes into view the lookout at the gas station presses a button. It sounds an alarm in the brothel, and by the time the investigators reach the place girls and booze have vanished.
With a man of Torrio’s pertinacity, little by little means bigger and bigger.
His next move is to besmirch Cicero. It is a flourishing place of nearly seventy thousand inhabitants. It is the fifth largest community in Illinois, and the seat of the enormous plant of the Western Electric company.
The blight of Torrio has made Cicero a byword. Although he was not actively on that scene after he was shot down by rival gangsters in 1925, his henchman and, to a degree, successor, Al Capone, sustained the vileness of the Torrio tradition.
Unhappily for the decent residents of the community it was, as it still is, under the antiquated village form of government, which was easier for gangdom to handle than a. more highly organized system would have been. It also has a large population of foreign born citizens with far from strict notions either of public order or of the individual’s share of responsibility for maintaining it.
Entering Cicero in 1923, Torrio and Capone had it pretty thoroughly in hand by the close of 1924.
What the Booze Racket Brings.
One hundred and sixty-one saloons were then running wide open and this in ‘the face of federal injunctions against some of them. Dozens of professional gambling houses flourished and nearly every cigar store and candy shop operated a side line of gambling devices. Whisky was sold at 75 cents a drink, beer at 25 cents for a small stein, and wine at 30 cents a glass. This was tbe schedule at Lauterback’s place, a brlck building at 48th avenue and 12th street, where there also was a large gambling room in which, so the experts said, ran the biggest roulette game in the middle west. They whispered, too, that as much as a hundred thousand dollars had been piled on the tables in Lauterback’s at one time.
The gang was appallingly brazen. Outside the Ship at 2131 Cicero avenue, next to the elevated station, stood cappers who murmured to passersby,
“Cash game inside. Step in!”
The big village became so utterly the branded slave of gangdom that the slightest hint of insurrection was terribly punished. In fact, gangdom got drunk with power. Even slick Capone lost his head, took to violence, and slugged one of the village officials as he came out of the village hall after a board meeting a t which the official had said, done, or voted for something that displeased Capone. Another time gangdom did not wait unt il after the meeting to inflict punishment. An official was slugged at the meeting and the meeting was broken up.
The only thing done about either slugging was the effort made to hush them up.
It is sometimes said by persons more exasperated than informed that newspapers are in some measure to be blamed for the loose rein with which the gangsters of boozedom have ridden in Chicago and thereabouts. John Landesco of Chicago, who has made under university auspices the most thorough, exact and philosophic study of gangdom that is in any archives, does not agree with that view. “If,” he said, “it were not for the newspapers, gangdom and its political henchmen and protectors would have stolen this town.”
Certain Torrio and Capone’s gangsters showed that they feared newspers When they were reducing Cicero and parts adjacent to anarchy. They shot and kidnaped Arthur St. Johnh editor of the Berwyn Tribune. He had been valiantly fighting the invasion of Berwyn, Which is just west of Cicero, by the gangsters of boozedom.
Another time Arthur’s brother, Robert, of the Cicero Tribune tried to rescue Patrolman Youngworth of Cicero, whom Al Capone, his brother, Ralph, and Pete Pizzo, once a suspect in the O’Banion murder, were beating into unconsciousness in the street. Robert St. John in his turn was beaten nearly unconscious.
The Cicero election on April 1, 1924, was a riot. That was before Torrio and Capone had really established their reign. Eddie Tancl, gangster and saloonkeeper and once a prize fighter, still held power, and so valued it that he resisted the Torrio-Capone invasion and he refused to buy his beer supply from the Torrio gang. During the election riot Frank Capone, brother of Torrio’s henchman, was killed. In August Tancl was warned by the invaders to get out of Cicero. He did not get out until November. Then he went in a coffin. He had been shot to death on a Sunday in front of his Hawthorne Inn roadhouse by Myles O’Donnell and James Doherty, gangsters. The gun play was furious. Tancl’s last act was to hit his assailant, O’DonneIl, with his emptied revolver and his last words—spoken to one of his waiters—were:
“Kill him! He got me.”
The Routine Aftermath.
The aftermath of the Tancl murder was as per usual. State’s Attorney Crowe was highly indignant and the Chicago crime commission called an “anti-crime conference.” Crowe, then newly elected, said: “Cook county is going to be dry and moral for the next four years. Every saloon and disreputable joint in the county is going to be closed. It is the end for liquor, beer, and vice.”
So Crowe sent squads to raid the plague spots in Burnham, Burr Oak, Steger, Blue Island, and Cicero.
By the time the squads reached the brothels and speakeasies and gambling houses they were dark and empty. The raid had been tipped off to gangdom by the corrupted stratum of officialdom.
After the Tancl murder Crowe, in November, 1924, had promised Chicago and Cook county four years-the length of his term of office-of dryness and morality. Seventeen months later his most conspicuous assistant, William H. McSwiggin, was killed in Cicero by gangsters. McSwiggin had prosecuted gangsters, but he also had a curIous an still unexplained way or fl playing around” with gangsters. He was killed in the company of gangsters, with some of whom he had been school-fellow, and the mystery of the murder has never been solved. Nobody was ever prosecuted for it.
Gangdom’s Grip Relaxes.
The crime had one ben ficml effect. It so concentrated public indignation on the civic corruption, the booze selling, and the gambling in Cicero and thereabouts that even the gangsters were frightened. Their grip on the community was never again as firm. But from early in 1923 until early in 1926 it had been pitiless and the profits had been enormous.
From records which were captured in 1925 at the “business headquarters” of the Torrio-Capone gang, 2446 South Michigan avenue, Chicago, it was estimated that those profits had run at least three million dollars a year for three years; probably more, for the complete records were not captured. Many thousands of dollars in checks of druggirsts and speakeasy proprietors were seized. One for $15,000 was from a large drug store on the north side of Chicago. The gang had its auditors, its lists of booze buyers, of venal police officers and prohibition agents, of sources of booze supply extending from rum row off New York harbor on the north to Miami, Fla., on the south, and its loose leaf ledgers showing the cost systems used in its hawdy houses in Burnham and elsewhere.
“Forget It—and Here’s $5,000.”
“Johnny Patton,” said Police Sergeant Edward Birmingham, who assisted in this seizure of documents, “offered me $5,000 to forget the bookkeeping system.”
John Torrio, you will remember, had shown old fashioned, plug-ugly safe cracking gangdom the way to a golden future when bogus prohibition was unloaded on our country. Outstanding phases of his methods have been unfolded in this chapter; other phases will be described later. For the moment we drop him because while he was bringing his system to perfection in the southern and southwestern parts of Chicago and Cook county the Genna. brothers, hailing from the ancient and opulent Sicilian seaport of Marsala, were developing on the west side of Chicago a phase of the booze racket that produced more vile liquor, more concentrated murder, and more general hell than anyone family not seated on a throne bad ever inflicted upon a bewildered community and an enfeebled officialdom.
That hideous story will be unfolded in the next chapter.
CHICAGO GANGLAND BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT