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This is the third of a series on the gangsters of boozedom and what they did to Chicago. In the first two installments Mr. Bennett told of the killing of Dean O’Banion and of the splendor that marked his funeral
Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1929
BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT
CAUTERIZE it! Cauterize it!” moaned John Torrio the afternoon in January, 1925, when gangdom had pumped four shotgun slugs and a pistol bullet into him.
“Cauterize it,” he kept moaning to surgeons who bent over him in Jackson Park hospital, and he tried to point to his shattered jaw.
The plea not only showed a lively appreciation of the blessings of antiseptic surgery on the part of Chicago’s most powerful gangster, bootlegger and bawdy house keeper, but it also shed piercing light on the grisly methods of the warfare waged by gangsters against one another.
John Torrio knew—none better—that a practice of gangdom’s killers is to boil bullets intended for their victims in a decoction likely-although not guaranteed—to cause gangrene. Some say that a large ingredient in this witch’s brew is onion and that after the boiling the missiles are rubbed with garlic. Dr. M. W. K. Byrne will tell you that garlic in contact with gunpowder creates a poison.
Terrors of a Hunted Man.
In any case. John Torrio was apprehensive not only that his wounds might prove fatal. but also that he might die of poison. As a matter of fact, infection did develop in his wounded jaw. Illustrative of his sagacity amid stress and terror was the further fact that he commanded he be laid In no bed overlooked by a window, a fire escape, or other means of access from the outside.
Having llved for twenty years in Chicago and having alI that time been engaged in nefarious occupations, he thoroughly understood the uncertain nature of the thread by which life hangs in our midst.
He feared, in short, that the two gangsters who had failed to kill him on his doorstep—and almost at his wife’s side—would hunt him out in the haven of healing and complete the job they had left unfinished when something frightened one of them away as he was about to fire the decisive bullet into the prostrate Torrio.
This attempt on the life of the richest and most successful vice purveyor and bootlegger operating in the United States was made in daylight of Jan. 24, 1925. The scene was the sidewalk in front of his residence, 7011 Clyde avenue. It is a nice neighborhood, not far from the South Shore Country club.
Gangdom Behind Schedule.
Readers of the first two chapters of these annals of the most murderous and most thoroughly organized scoundrels that ever infested an American city may recall that Dean O’Banion, co-criminal of Torrio until they quarreled, had been shot to death by gangsters on Nov. 10, 1924, in the florist shop which was his blind.
Thus the repercussion of the O’Banion success had been eleven weeks in coming—which was away behind gangdom’s regular schedule of reprisal.
But the gangsters who had set out to avenge O’Banion—whose death had already taken its place in police supposition as “a Torrio crime”—had not been idle all that time. What was called” Torrio’s bravado” had steeled him to attendance upon O’Banion’s wake. Investigation by the police showed that immediately atter that function he had disappeared. So had severa! of O’Banion’s closest and most ruthless henchmen, who, the police believed, had traIled Torrlo to Hot Springs, Ark.; then to Havana, Cuba; then to St. Petersburg, Fla. But he was well guarded, and he arrived sound if not safe in Chicago. The alleged O’Banion trailers arrived a few days later.
Torrio knew the men who had fired the five shots into him in front of his home, but he refused to tell the police.
Gangdom almost never does tell the police. Telling them is called squawking and is considered a most contemptible—as well as an extremely perilous—infraction of gangdom’s code. One of the few recorded instances when a dying gangster’s disclosure of the name of his assailant reached the ears of the police is extremely dramatic.
“Who got you, Tony? Tell me,” whispered Gladys Bagwill, a vaudeville performer, as she bent over the hospital bed in which her affianced, Tony Genna, gangster, lay dying of wounds received in a gang reprisal.
“Get the Cavallero,” gasped the dying man. The police on guard by the bedside overheard the words. But they did not get “the Cavallero,” which was gangdom’s nickname for Joseph Nerone, alias Antonio Spano. Gangdom itself attended to the getting at its leisure. Tony was shot down in daylIght of July 9, 1925; “the Cavallero” was shot down in daylight of Aug. 19, 1926.
John Torrio, horribly frightened though he was, was true to the code. In the evening of the day Torrio was borne to the hospital Assistant State’s Attorney .John Sbarbaro asked him whether he knew who had fired on him.
Left-Johnny Torrio was so badly frightened when his jaw was shattered by shotgun slugs and pistol bullets that he never again appeared in his role as Chicago’s most powerful purveyor of vice.
Right-O’Banion gangsters were credited with attempting to avenge the murder of their chief when Johnny Torrio was shot down in front of his bungalow on the south side. The underworld baron’s car was riddled with bullets.
None of the Law’s Business.
“I know who they are,” said Torrio, adding, “It’s my business. I’ll tell you later.”
But he never did.
Then Sbarbaro turned to Anna Torrio, the brave little red headed Irish wife who had tried to shield her husband when the fusillade began.
“I won’t help you,” said she. “What good would that do?”
Five days later Torrio was still closemouthed “No use,” said he to Lieut. Charles Egan, who was bringing suspects to his bedside for identification.
“No use bringing anyone here. I won’t ‘rap’ them.”
To “rap” a suspect is to identify him as the guilty man. A false identification is “a bum rap” and is a diabolical trick much employed by gangsters when they have fallen out among themselves and are attempting further to foment bad blood. If you say falsely, “So and So called you such and such a name,” that also is “a bum rap” for So and So. But if you say it and it is the truth, then that is” a right rap.” Gangsters, however, spend more effort and money in and out of court fighting “a bum rap” than fighting “a right rap,” because the bum rap is the more perilous in that it leaves them more helpless. They are fighting in the dark.
Again” the Wall of Silence.”
Torrio’s co·criminal and leading henchman, Al Capone, whom the stylish reporters called “field marshal of the Torrlo forces,” imitated his master’s reticence when it came to telling the authorIties anything of moment. It is true that when he stood sniveling in the corridor outside Torrio’s room Capone did exclaim to Mr. Sbarbaro, “The gang did It! The gang did It!” but he quickly added, “I’ll tell you more When he gets well.”
But he never dId.
Two days later Capone told PolIce Captain Schoemaker that he would not name the gunmen because to do so might result In his own death.
Despite the silence of the Torrio couple, of Capone, and of Robert Barton, who was driving Torrio’s car and who was wounded in the knee by the fusillade, there was an identification of one of the suspected assailants. It was made—and made twice—by Peter Veesaert, aged seventeen, son of a janitor living a few doors from the Torrios. He was an eyewitness to the shooting. The police took him to the detective bureau. Suspected, George Moran, known as “Bugs” Moran and O’Banion’s successor as leader of north side bootleggers, was placed with eight other prisoners in a room at the bureau. They were ordered to march around, to turn at command, to halt, to take off their hats and to put them on again.
During this march and countermarch, Capt. Schoemaker and young Veesaert were looking through a peephole opening into the room.
“Do you recognize any of them?” the boy was asked.
“Yes, the fifth one from the east end.”
That was Moran.
Then the prisoners were taken into another room and were marched and counter marched under a strong light, Moran now being fourth in the line. Veesaert was facing them.
“Do you see, here and now,” Capt. Schoemaker asked, “any of the men you saw in the shooting of last Saturday afternoon?”
“Yes, that fourth man.”
Again it was Moran.
Why Gangdom Hates Photogs.
“Me!” growled Moran at the boy who was afraid but did not weaken. He gave the police a detailed statement. He told how he had had a good look at Torrio’s two assailants, how he had watched the gunplay with dumb amazement, and how Moran had been the first to jump from an automobile and fire a revolver at Torrio.
Thus dId Veesaert not only twice make an eye to eye identification but he also made a preliminary identification from a newspaper picture that showed Moran as one of the pallbearers at Dean O’Banion’s funeral eleven weeks before.
Now you see how shrewd the gangsters were in forbidding—as was related in Chapter II—the taking of photographs at that funeral. It was due solely to the courage and enterprise of the much abused guild of newspaper photographers that photographs were taken in the face of threats and blows.
Now comes the usual bit of irony:
Three days later Judge William J. LindsaY’ freed Moran on bonds of $5,000 in the face of a request by the police that he be held a little longer, “pending the uncovering of more evidence.”
A Contrast in Judges.
Moran was not further annoyed and the identity of Torrio’s assailants became another of the mysteries of gang warfare. In passing, a five thousand dollar bond is to gangsters what a dinner check for two would be to you or me. When they are in good humor they give a bellboy a ten dollar tip for bringing the ice and ginger ale setup.
On the same day that Judge Lindsay, who ran for state’s attorney on a reform platform last autumn against Judge Swanson, had freed Moran on bond of $5,000 Judge John H. Lyle held gangster Joseph Smith in bonds of $50,000 on a charge of carrying concealed weapons in a federal court room where rum-running litigation was in progress. The high bonds made Police Captains Schoemaker and Stege so happy that they heartily commended Judge Lyle and protested his removal to a civil court, which bad just been orderea by Chief Justice Harry Olson.
Stege’s Sterling Gift.
Stege, with his sterling gift for blunt epigram, summed up in these words the balking of and paltering with the law which made the legal aftermath of the Torrio attempt a typical Chicago scandal:
You can figure out gangdom’s murder. and attempted murders with a pencil and paper, but never with a judge and jury.
And so nobody was indicted for the attempted murder of John Torrio.
This was the first time he had been fired on since the beginning of his Chicago career in 1905 as organizer of bodyguard, runner down of blackmailing letters, and general handyman for “Big Jim” Colosimo, keeper of bawdy houses and disreputable restaurants, who was murdered in the least disreputable of his restaurants in 1920. Torrio took good care that the first attempt should be the last. He was thoroughly scared, as who with sense would not be?
“Johnny,” said Moses Lamson, who thoroughly understands the man, “is like a lot of fighters in the ring they can dish it out but they can’t take it.”
Michigan’s Way and Chicago’s.
While Torrio’s wounds were healing he had two of his own gunmen on guard outside his room in Jackson Park hospital and two more outside the building. Two officers also stood guard, for the wounded man was a prisoner of the federal government when he was well enough to e moved he was taken to Lake county jail in Waukegan to serve a sentence of nine months for illegal operation of the Sieben brewery1 in Chicago. In Michigan today they give some forlorn old woman or some dazed upper peninsula foreigner a life sentence for making a millionth part of the poisonous slop John Torrio made at the Sieben brewery.
When he lett the hospital, on Feb. 9, to begin his sentence in Waukegan he made his exit by way of a fire escape, in order to avoid any possible repetition of the Jan. 24 bombardment. By arrangement with the government he need not have gone to jail until Feb. 27, but the security of a jail seemed sweet to the man who could “dish it out, but not take it.” So he did not tarry in the open. It was also by arrangement with a tender-hearted government that he was finally sent to Waukegan jail instead of Du Page county jail at Wheaton, al! originally intended.
His lawyer, Robert W. Childs, dropped in at the United States district attorney’s office, where he once had been first assistant district attorney, for a friendly chat with Capt. William F. Waugh, then first assistant. In the course of that chat Childs discoursed on the dellcate condition his client was in, the better sanitation at Waukegan jail as compared with Wheaton, and-blah-blah-blah-the transfer was made.
Quite a contrast to the Michigan method of dealing with petty bootleggers is the Chicago method of dealing with “vice kings” who have “field marshals.” Each method, says satire, leaves IOmething to be desired.
Even so, the jail in Waukegan did not suit Torrio and he had to spend money on it. He had bullet proof screens fastened over the two windows of his commodious cell. Over the screens were hung black shades which could not d1sclese his shadow to murderous prowlera on the outside. He furnished bJa cell With a large bed, a thick carpet, and a dressing table. One more detail and he was set to serve the nine months’ sentence: He hired two extra deputy sheriffs to guard the jail against prowlers.
Having served his sentence for operating and running beer from the Sieben brewery, Torrio vanished from the Chicago scene. He was then (1925) fortY-eight years old. His life of peril had palled. He had lost his nerve. Some say he is living quietly in New Jersey; others that he is in Italy.
But Italy, under Mussolini, is not so salubrious as once it was for Italians who have left other countries for those countries’ good. The duce’s police agents have a way of appearing at unearthly hours of the night before a suspected sojourner’s dwelling. There is an abrupt command that the sojourner appear at a front window. He expeditiously does, for the duce’s police are not so credulous of alibis as the Chicago police are. There is a further command that the person under surveillance hold a light to his face. Having been thoroughly identified, he is ordered back to bed. Even with millions of dollars in evilly gotten American gains such a life is not so jolly.
1470 Larrabee Street
1886 Robinson Fire Map
Volume 3, Plate 18
But Torrio’s Gang Remained.
But, wherever Torrio is, he left Chicago his organization of gangsters, and it continues to kill rivals, to make and sell needled beer and poisonous whisky and to bomb saloonkeepers who buy their supplies from rival gangs. Al Capone, whom Torrio brought to Chicago from New York to be his handy man just as Colosimo had brought Torrio here for that service, is now head of the gang organization Torrio founded.
Organization and complete shamelessness were John Torrio’s strong points.
Enters Now “Big Business.”
Torrio’s story is not solely an underworld story. If it were it would not be the important chapter it is in the history of the moral and economiC disturbances which have grown out of bogus prohibition.
Big business comes into Torrio’s story.
Astor street and Lake Shore drive come into it—and Astor street, short and not pretentious, has a more authentic appearance of being the abode of gentlefolk than any other street in the older Chicago.
On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1924, the Chicago Daily News came out with a front page article under these headlines:
Next morning THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE epitomized the high spots in the News’ one column article by means of these exact quotations, to which it gave front page, top of column space:
John Torrio and a Chicago brewer are the twln kings of commercialized crime in Cook county today. . . . And the brewer is so completely above the law, so thoroughly protected from prosecution, that it is unsafe to mention his name, though; the police and the prosecutors know quite well who he is. . . .—From the Chicago Daily News of yesterday.
THE TRIBUNE, with an impatience of the portentous which is perhaps its most endearing characteristic and most useful attribute, then said:
In the toregoing selected excerpts from the Chicago Daily News there are contained the elements of mystery. perplexity, and doubt. A great and unsolved detective story is thrown at the public . . . all the ingredients that lure the readers to the back of the book, only to find that little Willie baa torn out the last chapter.
In order to supply the missing chapter . . . the facts are here given . . . because it is considered good form to print news, if there is any, and not to hold out on the subscribers, for whom, after all, the newspaper is published.
The name of the master brewer who enjoys the felicitous position of being not particularly unfriendly to the purposes of Johnny Torrio, and some interesting data concerning him, are substantially as follows:
Residence—1218 Astor street .
Occupation—Listed in the Chicago telephone directory of June, 1924, as a brewer.
Stenson, “The Silk Hat.”
The names of the ten breweries in and near Chicago in which Stenson was “popularly believed” to hold an interest were then given. Further TRIBUNE contributions to the Stenson record were:
Mr. Stenson has not been convicted of being a twin king of commercialized vice. He is the silk hat for the crowd. There are avenues into the federal building that he knows well. He furnishes the money, buys the breweries, and makes the connections necessary to undisturbed brewing. Having financed a brewery, he installs as president, secretary, and board of directors a number of healthy, good natured young men. These gentlemen operate at a high price and in return they take the fall when there is trouble.
Taking the fall consists in being defendants when there is prosecution. Of course only the officials of a brewery are legally responsible. Which lets Stenson out.
. . . The mystery is solved.
‘Mid Pleasures and Palaces.
Subsequent to the publication of those extremely saucy and pungent details Stenson moved to the Lake Shore drive.
Thus illicit brewing and the peddling of illicit beer were getting on a basis both social and economic. They were getting on such a basis that John Torrio, go-between for bawdy house keepers, had at last established a partnership with a business man whose name, an important newspaper insisted, “it is unsafe to mention” in connection with that partnership.
The partnership was made in 1920. Stenson’s and Torrio’s profits were enormous.
Again THE TRIBUNE bustled to the fore with details of names and figures. The sedate traditions of Astor street did not seem to cramp its style. It spoke right out in meeting of Frank McErlane, Tom Hoban, and Eddie Fitzgerald as “gunmen beer runnersbfor Joe Stenson’s string of breweries.” It said that Torrio and the Stensons—for now it dragged in brother Edward—were a combination which, “organized on gangster rule, had in four years bullt up an industry with assets of more than $5,000,000 and an invested capital of approximately $25,000,000, and had compiled up profits conservatively eatlmated at $50,000,000.”
Detail Piled on Detail Now.
Although making discretion the better part of valor by omitting Joseph Stenson’s name from its front page exposé, the Daily News was otherwise as brave as Lucifer in giving grim detail about him.
“They,” said the newspaper, mean Torrio and Stenson, “are the men back of the O’Banions and the Druggans, the guns and the gangs. They are the organizers, the directors, the ‘fixers,’ and the profit takers.
“A strange pair. Torrio is … a postgraduate pupil of the late Big Jim Colosimo. His colleague is the youngest of four brothers Who Were rich brewers before prohibition. While Torrio was learning the rewards of sin in the old 22d street district and later in Burnham, his twin king of crime was living pleasantly on what is called the ‘Gold Coast,’ the son of a wealthy and established family.
A Twelve Million a Year Racket.
“They have made organized crime pay tremendous dividends. The brewer’s earnings from the syndicated beer ‘racket’ (he works under political protection) have been reckoned at 12 million dollars a year since 1920. . . . They are joint rulers of the underworld today. Nobody can rule beer in Chicago without seeing (and paying) the beer king …. Immune from prosecution themselves, the two kings of crime can count on the law as well as on their own gunmen when they want an intruder driven out. And they have the power to protect their henchmen from prosecution when murder becomes necessary, as it sometimes does. And the brewer is so completely above the law, so thoroughly protected from prosecution, that it is unsafe to mention his name, though the police and the prosecutors of crime know quite well who he is.”
The words which I have italicized nre the words which infiamed THE TRIBUNE-God bless it!—to its “Is-zat-so?—Here’s-his-name” outburst the next morning.
Journalism Watches Its Step.
“To suggest prosecuting them, ” continued the News awesomely, still referring to Torrio and Stenson, “would be almost blasphemous. They are the friends of judges and public officials.
“They hold the tremendous powers of money and votes and guns in their hands. . . . Their dovetailing abilities put crime on its new basis. In partnership they Babbittized banditry. . .. The brewer knew the methods of modern business and applied them to syndicated beer running. Torrio knew gangsters and recruited them. . . . They all dance when Torrio and his colleague pull the strings—gansters, gang leaders, and politicians.”
The Beer War’s Death Toll.
The methods of this wicked partnership of crime and commerce were as violent as its takings were huge. If rival gangsters tried to sell to brothels and speakeasies that were taking “Torrio beer”—Stenson’s name was kept under cover—they were killed, or attempts were made to kill them. If they were killed, the survivors in their gangs killed, or tried to kill, the Torrio gangsters. These reprisals and counter reprisals became known as “the beer war.” In it, and in other boozedom fights, 215 gangsters murdered one another during the four years ending in October, 1926. During the same four years the Chicago police killed in running battles, 160 of boozedom’s killers.
Even the most befuddled humanitarian can hardly set down those 375 dead men as a loss to the community. But the slaying of them did create a substantial loss which it will take years to repair. It was destroying the community’s good name. It is often said that Chicago “became a byword.” That is an easy slinging of language that may mean little or much.
In this instance it means much.
What Torrio Cost Chicago.
We did become, and we still are, a byword. In a just published book on an important and picturesque phase of American history—the use of the Mississippi as a carrier of commerce—I come upon this figure of speech:
. . . where the river Is all tangled up with more islands than there are gunmen in Chicago.2
The book is authoritative. The writer of it a recognized man of letters. The book will endure. And there we are-pinned into it for an indefinite future to contemplate. The illustration I have caught up from Mr. Russell’s new volume is not trivial. It indicates more tellingly than columns of crime statistics could the enormous damage Torrio and his gangs did to Chicago when Chicago, because it was wormeaten with base politics, allowed them to run feee and shoot feee.
What is the devastating Torrio like as to personality? Not like—not at all like—the image which you, I fancy, have formed of him. What he is like and how he started will be told in the next chapter.
1 Sieben Brewery, 1470 Larrabee street, was raided on May 19, 1924 by the Chicago Police.
2 A-Rafting on the Mississip’, Charles Edward Russell, 1929.
CHICAGO GANGLAND BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT