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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 second article describing the Dean O’Banion funeral.
Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1929
BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT
EVERY stage of the investigation of the killing of Dean O’Banion on that November noon in 1924 was marked by indecencies which showed that there was in Chicago and the county of Cook—as there still is—a power stronger than the law and dreaded by the officers of the law. The inquest at East Chicago avenue station was attended by the dead man’s fellow gangsters who made no concealment of hip pockets that bulged with weapons and who uttered brassy threats against spectators who, in their opinion, might glve damaging evidence.
The police gave Mayor Dever those facts, and the mayor said:
The situation is becoming intolerable. It is time to decide which element in Chicago is going to control. There can be no question as to the outcome in favor of law and its strict enforcement.
Dever Sincere, but No Prophet.
In releasing that prophecy the mayor showed himself a tragic optimist. For there was question as to the outcome and, there still is. THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE of Jan. 8, 1929, contained an extensive news report on the uncovering of gang conditions in Chicago Heights so oppressive and brazen that for months they had made that suburb no less than a fief of crime. THE TRIBUNE of the next day contained a first page news report of the murder of a SiciUan politician and gangster by three gangsters who closed an argument with him in his home with eleven decisive bullets fired Into their victim’s head, neck and shoulders. (Gangsters, by the way, always fire high.) In the same issue were three more news articles on current machinations and crimes of Chicago’s gangsters. In THE TRIBUNE of the next day, Jan. 10, appeared three news reports of the developments of the preceding 24 hours relative to:
① the latest illicit liquor operations,
② the latest murder, and
③ the latest bombing by gangdom in Chicago.
The point is that none of those articles was in a crusading or a review strain. All were reports of current events.
A Mayor Who Would Not Wink.
But William Dever was sincere in his belief that the law could win against gangdom. He proved that by refusing to wink at any political deals between his administration and gangdom. His attitude probably cost him reelection. He was heavily defeated by William Hale Thompson, whom this community knew to be unincumbered by any sterling convictions about anything. It was the firm belief of those who best knew gangdom’s resources that Mr. Dever could have had a hundred thousand dollars of gangdom’s money for his campaign chest in 1927, not by asking for it—gangdom is not so crude as to make high officialdom come crawling to it-but by acquiescing in the gift. Acquiescence would have insured the protection which gangdom requires. It is also the firm belief of those who account themselves specially informed that the hundred thousand which nobody dared offer William Dever was not kept in complete idleness elsewhere.
Reviewing events of thirty anarchic hours, Mayor Dever said:
On one day we have O’Banion, alleged ‘king’ of our underworld, shot down in daylight in his place of business as the result of a deliberate and minutely organized assassins’ plot. And the next day we have the chief man Friday of the ‘king,’ this fellow Louis Alterie, openly boasting of his trigger finger and the number of guns he’s carrying, and daring the slayers of his chief to do battle with him in the publlc streets.
Then the mayor put the question to the community, saying:
The question is: Are we still abIding by the code of the dark ages, or is Chicago a unit of an American commonwealth?
But the mayor’s most acute shock was to come.
A Party with a Penalty.
It came when he was told that in October, 1924, less than two weeks before Gangster O’Banion was slain, Commissioner of Public Works Col. A. A. Sprague, a Dever nonpartisan appointee; County Clerk Robert M. Sweitzer, Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes, and half a dozen police lieutenants had been respectability’s prize attractions at a banquet in the Webster hotel, when O’Banion was presented with a diamond studded platinum watch by his fellow gangmen in crime and in politics.
The mayor ordered an investigation. Hughes’ explanation was that he had understood that the party was to be in honor of Jerry O’Connor, secretary of the Theater Janitors’ union, that as soon as he entered the banquet hall and “recognized a number of notorious characters whom he had thrown into the detective bureau basement half a dozen times,” he knew he had “been framed,” and that he “withdrew almost at once.”
Words! Words! Words!
Mr. Dever, with touching confidence in the go·getlveness of a police force or Which commanding officers were so befuddled as to where respectability’s Who’s Who ended and criminality’s Who’s Who began, closed with this fulmination:
The gangsters are to be disarmed and jailed or driven out of town. Every one of the city’s six thousand policemen is to be thrown into the fight and public opinion is counted upon to
spur municipal and state court judges into cooperation.
“Public opinion counted. upon.”
Hah! There was no public opinion. There was only a sodden public acquiescence supplemented by a legalistic inertia which, from the criminal’s point of view, amounted to extraordinarily practical “cooperation” with him.
The crowning indecency of the O’Banion case was O’Banion’s funeral.
HOW GANGSTER FUNERAL CROWDED CHICAGO STREETS
Mounted police had to clear a path. through the curiosity eekers before the O’Banion funeral party could be started on it’s way. The gang officiating at the services gave orders that no photographs should be taken. They ere taking no risks of identification. According to one newspaper account, Louis Alterie and Hymie Weus “cried as women might.”
The Late Lamented in Epitome.
To estimate the shrieking irony of those obsequies you must briefly consider what O’Banion had been. He had been a jackroller—which, next to pimp, is the most contemptible and cowardly kind of criminal a man can be—safecracker—in 1921 the police caught him in the act of cracking a safe in the Postal Telegraph building, Chicago, but a Chicago jury acquitted him—bootlegger, hi·jacker, illicit brewer, thief, and killer. When as a boy he was a member of the old Market street gang that laid terror upon the Orleans and West Chestnut street neighborhood it was said of him that he would “steal anything movable.” He had a score of hiding places in and near Chicago. Whatever legitimate occupation he had followed—and he had been newsboy, waiter, truck driver, politician, fiorist, and yachts, man—he always supplemented those occupations with outlawry. If he failed to do that when he was acolyte to Father O’Brien at the Holy Name cathedral it was solely because the good man was smarter than the child and could control him within the sacred precincts.
And yet this menace to humankind was laid away with a splendor which would have given distinction—of a sort—to the obsequies of a citizen who had long and faithfully served his city. The funeral travesty makes an important page in the chronicles of gangdom because it did worse than make Chicago disgusting before the world. It made the city ridiculous.
Platoons of photographers, batteries of sob sisters, were assigned to the rites by a hectic press.
Ornate phrases which in other days were reserved for description of the world’s farewell to heroes and statesmen were lavished upon this performance.
The body was described as “lying in state” in the Sharbaro undertaking rooms at 708 North Wells street. The bullet scarred body, from the cheeks of which the stains of powder burns had been obliterated, was, in fact, on view for three days after the killing.
Details of the exhibition were lavishly imparted to an interested public.
“Tufted Cushion Extra.”
The casket,” a word which is popular journalese for the useful receptable called in simpler times a coffin, was described as “his couch . . . a casket priced with a touch of pride at $10,000.” There was disagreement as to the precise amount animating” the touch of pride,” one reporter giving it at $7,500. In any case, this couch, casket, or coffin had come from Pennsylvania “in a special express car that carried only the casket for freight,” and—I am still faithfully transcribing from the ecstasies of the chroniclers it was equipped with “solid silver and bronze double walls, inner sealed and air tight, with a heavy plate glass above and a couch of white satin below, with tufted cushion extra for his left hand to rest on.”
All the mortuary improvements.
THOUSANDS SEE DEAN O’BANION LAID TO REST AT MOUNT CARMEL CEMETERY
① “Dapper Dan” McCarthy, ② Louis Alterie, ③ Vincent Drucci, ④ Mrs. Dean O’Banion, ⑤ Mrs. Charles O’Banion, Dean’s stepmother, ⑥ Rev. Patrick Malloy, ⑦ Frank Gusenberg, ⑧ George Moran, ⑨ William Schofield, ⑩ Earl Weiss, ⑪ Julius Kaufman, ⑫ Matt Foley, ⑬ Jerry O’Connell, ⑭ Sergent Thomas O’Neill.
The Solace of Symbolism.
Again I transcribe:
At the corners of the casket are solid silver posts, carved in wonderful designs. Modest is the dignified silvery gray of the casket, content with the austere glory of the carved silver posts at its corners, dnd broken only by a scroll acrosS one side which reads, ‘Dean O’Banion, 1892-1924.’
I rubbed my eyes, but plodded on with my transcribing, and was richly rewarded. I have read more than once both Thackeray and Victor Hugo on the second funeral of Napoleon; I witnessed in the ancient abbey church at Stockholm the solemn disinterment of the body of the Lion of the North, Charles XII., and I was present at the funeral of Woodrow Wilson in the vast unfinished pile that looks down on Washington from Mount St. Alban.
But nowhere have I encountered more stylish mortuary writing or setting than in this paragraph on the setting in which lay the man whom sober Morgan Collins had called “Chicago’s arch criminal”:
Silver angels stood at the head and feet with their beads bowed in the light of the ten candles that burned in the solid golden candlesticks they held in their hands. Beneath the casket, on the marble slab that supports its glory, is the inscription, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me.’ And over it all the perfume of flowers.
What a pity Molière couid not have lived forever! Satire still needs him.
A rosary lay in the gangster’s hands—”the soft tapered hands that could finger an automatic so skillfully,” sighed a sob sister of sozzly journalism, and her sigh was printed.
She also had appreciative words for the living and, taking a fresh start from “over it all the perfume of flowers,” she swept into this incomparable bathos:
But vying with that perfume was the fragrance of perfumed women, wrapped in furs from ears to ankles, who tiptoed down the aisle, escorted by soft stepping, tailored gentlemen” [you catch that” gentlemen”] with black, shining’ pompadours.
And, softly treading, deftly changing places, were more well formed gentlemen tn tailored garments, with square, blue steel jaws and shifting glances. They were the sentinels.
In the soft light of the candles at the head of the $10,000 casket sat Mrs. O’Banion, a picture of patient sorrow.
And the flowers!
When gangsters disagree the murderers say it with bullets and the mourners say it with flowers. Two days before the funeral of a gangster who ranked as “a big shot” the surviving big shots of his gang, or of gangs that had operated with his gang, will come to their favorite florist and throw down from five thousand to ten thousand dollars for flowers.
Hence the O’Banion rites were extraordinarily floral. One feature piece was a heart composed of American beauty roses and standing eight feet high. There was a huge wreath from the Teamsters’ union. A basket of roses have the card of “Scarface” Capone. There was a blanket of roses, orchids, and lilies measuring seven by ten feet. It was sent to cover the grave in Mount Carmel cemetery, where O’Banion had bought a lot in which he had buried a fellow gangster, John Sheey, who was killed in a brawl at the Rendezvous cafe almost a year before O’Banion was killed. There were other flowers by the truckload including two broken columns, and an arch from which swung two white doves, emblems of peace. In all there were twenty-six truckloads.
Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1924.
Extracting the Sting of Death.
The press had done a good job of sozzle during the three days of “lying in state.”
For the actual funeral they released everything. The high flown terminology which must convince susceptible youth that gang life is the life and gang death rather a stingless dissolution was employed with glib shamelessness.
“The elite of the gun world,” began one account in a reputable newspaper, “gave O’Banion a magnificent funeral, a testimonial of the leadership he had attained in the realm where gunplay makes millionaires.” It was recorded that Louis Alterie and Earl (Hymie) Weiss, surviving gangsters, had “cried as women might” and that “many other had handkerchiefs to their eyes.”
Whatever spectacular features “the elite of gangdom” failed to provide were supplied by a gawking community whose antics also were recorded.
“The sidewalks were jammed with people for blocks to the north and to the south of the Sbarbaro chapel.”—”Hundreds of middle aged women passed by the $10,000 casket”—”Buildings across the street had hundreds of men on the roofs.”—” Mounted policemen had to precede street cars to enable them to pass.”—” For more than two hours the throngs had pressed forward.”—” Five hundred automobiles were at the cemetery awaiting the coming of the cortége . . . and every electric line car that came there was packed.”—” Five thousand people were there before the body left Chicago.
The Practicalities of Gangdom.
Here are two arresting proofs of the foresightedness of gangdom:
The gang officiating at the funeral gave orders that no photographs should be taken. Cameras were snatched from newspaper photographers, plates were smashed, and blows were struck. There was sound reason for this violence. The criminals were taking no risks of identification for deeds committed or in contemplation.
The second precaution was equally practical:
Just before the meager musical service at the undertaker’s establishment detectives from the Chicago police department moved unobtrusively among the bereaved and warned them against any careless display or impetuous use of weapons during the last rites. The grieving gangsters took the hint and partially disarmed for the period of time required for the ride from Wells street to the Roman Catholic campo santo, Mount Carmel, which lies beyond the city limits and, consequently, outside Chicago police control.
Willing hands, however, carried some of their weapons to the cemetery ahead of the funeral procession, so that Alterie and other gangsters who bad vowed vengence against O’Banion’s layers might not be unprepared if homicidal emergencies developed during the trip back to town. “Many persons,” says one account of the day’s performances, “noticed the revolvers being passed to their owners by the advance gunbearers of those who came with the corpse.”
Therefore order reigned in Wells street, “only one man,” the veracious chronicler, James Doherty, wrote, “being disorderly enough to be arrested.”
Cardinal Puts Foot Down.
Only the Roman Catholic archdiocese remained chill to the former acolyte. The gangsters had counted on a requiem high mass for their hero in Holy Name cathedral. The cardinal archbishop put his foot down—and it is an emphatic foot—on that, and the chancellery refused sanction for the burial of O’Banion in consecrated ground. This refusal was not, of course, based on the grounds that “Chicago’s arch criminal” was either a suicide or a convicted murderer who had remained impenitent, but on the grounds, as an ecclesiastic put it, that “a person who refuses the ministrations of the church in life need not expect to receive the ministrations of the church in death.”
The real grounds were that the cardinal archbishop knew that certain ecclesiastics had been far too good natured in performing rites which, among ignorant people, respectablized disreputable characters. Such tolerance, he believed, was scandalous.
So there was no resplendent requiem at the cathedral to which Schofield and O’Banion’s shop was neighbor, and no regular service of committal at the grave.
But the Rev. Father Patrick Malloy, then of St. Thomas of Canterbury church, was on the scene, both in Wells street and at the grave. Not, however, as was pointed out later by the mildly shocked, as an ecclesiastic, but as a friend, a distinction not likely to have convinced the rigid cardinal archbishop. As a friend, therefore, Father Malloy escorted O’Banion’s widow and his father from the coffin to the autos bound for Mount Carmel, and at the grave he recited a litany in Latin, the Hail Mary thrice, and the Lord’s Prayer. But he did not sprinkle the coffin with the holy water, nor did he wear the surplice or the stole.
So the cardinal archbishop was balked only to the extent of a litany, three Hail Marys and a pater noster.
O’Banion’s Double Burial.
O’Banlon was buried twice. On the day of the funeral gangdom lald him In the lot which he had bought tor gangdom and in which he had buried the murdered gangster Sheehy. It was not consecrated ground; “reserved” ground rather being in a part of the cemetery reserved for those who, not dying in the Roman Catholic faith, are so near by relationship to Roman Catholics that their relatlves bury them as close as possible to the consecrated area.
“But, look at him now,” said the withering John Stege, a brave, honest officer of police, who has been an acute annoyance to gangdom for five perilous years, to me a few days ago..
Look at him now! Eighty feet from a bishop!”
And so it is.
Five months after the flrst burial the body was disinterred and was reburied in a lot which O’Banion’s widow had bought. It is consecrated ground. A stone’s throw distant is the granite
mausoleum which Bishop Muldoon began and Archbishop Quigley completed, and in which rest the bodies of Bishop Porter, Archbishop Feehan, and Archbishop Quigley.
On the O’Banion lot was erected a monument inscribed with the words “My Sweetheart.” When the cardinal archbishop heard of that he was as nearly furious as the good man ever allows himself to become, and he ordered the monument removed. That was done. A granite shaft, unadorned with words of endearment, now marks the spot.
“Unhappily,” said Dr. Sheil, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, when we were talking over these matters a few days before these words were written, “it is true that O’Banion is buried about 80 feet from those venerated men.” The bishop’s feeling seemed to be that, as between hunting a fallible mortal out of his grave or not doing that, he would prefer to leave the ultimate adjustments to heaven. He was far from reconciled to scandal, but he was humane.
The funeral, which was the first of gangdom’s highly spectacular antics in the requiescat-in-pace line, had a terrific aftermath.
A MacCartney to the Fore.
The Sunday following the funeral preachers fulminated about it from their pulpits. The utterances of two of them were extremely pungent.
“We have this last week,” said Dr. A. J. MacCartney, pastor of Kenwood church, “witnessed a strange anomaly upon the part of a law abiding community, the burial of a recognized criminal attended by thousands and his grave heaped high with flowers from his partners in crime. What a
tyranny we live under in this city of Chicago! . . . Something is wrong with the whole system of criminal restraint and procedure. Our policemen lay the blame at the feet of the judges, and the judges in turn lay the blame at the feet of the chief of police… Some of these days the righteous minded, law abiding citizens of this metropolis will rise up and refuse to live any longer under the tyranny of an inefficient and law breaking city hall.”
“What,” asked Dr. John Thompson, pastor of Chicago Temple, “are the youth of our city to think about it? . . . No man could go so long in crime without being apprehended and punished if he did not have accomplices and sympathizers. . . . The churches are partly to blame for such a condition because they spend their time in theological controversy instead of getting together as a unit in fighting a condition which all agree is wrong and dangerous. These heresy hunters remind me of a man going out with a machine gun to hunt grasshoppers.”
The O’Banion case epitomized much.
First, it epitomized a great city’s crawling acceptance of lawlessness. Second, it epitomized a juvenile acquiescence in the glorification of worthless, dangerous men. Out of acceptance and acquiescence grew a long. fantastic sequence of indecencies that made the great city a byword throughout Christendom. Directing the indecencies was that “nice personality”—as the saying ran—John Torrio, whom we shall encounter in the next chapter amid a fusillade that plentifully punctured him and just missed scaring all the “personality” out of him.
The bill for O’Banion’s funeral. Flowers not included.
CHICAGO GANGLAND BY JAMES O’DONNELL BENNETT