Friday, 11 December 2009

American Gangsters, part 1

American gangsters and organised crime, 1919-41
An essay in several parts. Part One

Let's begin with the most famous single incident in gangster history. The place is the garage of the S.M.C. Cartage Company at 2122 North Clark Street on the north side of Chicago; the time, soon after 9 a.m. on February 14th, 1929. A Cadillac pulls up, from which four uniformed police officers and a plainclothesman enter the building. Inside they find six members of Bugs Moran's North Side gang: the brothers Frank and Pete Gusenberg, Adam Heyer, James Kashellek, Al Weinshank and Jack May; plus Reinhart Schwimmer, a doctor who liked hanging around with gangsters (It will be noticed that none of these are Italians: this is a Jewish-Polish-Irish gang). The men have gathered to receive a shipment of bootleg whisky arranged over the phone. When they see the police, they do not resist (major gangsters seldom fought the police, expecting that if arrested they would soon be released on bail); instead they allow themselves to be disarmed and stood against the wall. Doubtless much to their surprise, they are then blasted with shotguns and Thomson submachine guns. The attackers then leave. When the real police arrive, alerted by reports of gunfire, they find Frank Gusenberg still alive with fourteen bullets in him. In answer to the obvious question, he replies, "Nobody shot me. I ain't tellin' no copper", and then dies. But soon afterwards, Bugs Moran, leader of the North Siders, who has avoided the slaughter by the good fortune of turning up late for the meeting, is more forthcoming. "Only Capone kills like that!" he announces.

Moran and all Chicago knew exactly what this was: yet another battle in the great Chicago gang war that had been waged for the last five years. Dion O'Banion, the founder of the North Side gang, had been gunned down in his flower shop in November 1924. In revenge, Johnny Torrio, Al Capone's mentor, had been shot and seriously wounded in January 1925 and had gone into retirement, handing over his organisation to Capone. Five chiefs of the Unione Siciliana, the local Mafia umbrella organisation, had died in as many years. Three of the five Genna brothers, the booze-bosses of the "bloody 19th" ward, were killed, and the others fled the city. There were regular public gun-fights, given suitably military names by the press: "the State Street ambush", "the siege of the Hawthorne Inn", "the battle of the Holy Name Cathedral", "the battle of the Standard Oil Building". "Slaughter Week" was still to come, in 1930. In 1924 Cook County, which includes Chicago, witnessed 350 murders, rising to 399 in 1928. Few gangland killings were ever solved by the police, and insurance rates were three times higher than in Milwaukee. Chicago was gaining a worldwide repuation for gangland violence, which it retains in legend to this day. "Hell, folks are crazy there!" said Lucky Luciano, chief of the Mafia in New York, "It ain't safe to walk the streets!"

So Al Capone was the obvious suspect for the St. Valentine's Day massacre. However, he had an alibi: not only was he in Florida that day, but at the very moment of the killings he was being interviewed in Miami by County Solicitor Robert Taylor. A reward of $100,000 was offered for information on the killings, but without effect. A leading Capone gunman, Jack McGurn ("Machine-gun Jack") was arrested on February 27th, but also had an alibi and was eventually released in December and never brought to trial. The guns were traced to the shop of an arms dealer called Peter von Franzius, but the trail was then lost in a tangle of false names. At the end of the year, police searching the home of a bank robber called Fred "Killer" Burke, from the "Egan's Rats" gang of St. Louis, found two Tommy guns which were declared to have fired some of the bullets used in the massacre. But Burke was never charged with the crime: soon afterwards he was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder in Michigan, and eventually died in prison. Many people in Chicago thought the killers might have been real policemen, and the State's Attorney ordered ballistic tests to police firearms, just to be sure.

So technically speaking there is no hard evidence linking Capone to the crime at all. Neither he nor anyone in his gang was ever charged. But Jack McGurn was shot down in a bowling alley on February 14th 1936, the anniversary of the massacre, and a comic Valentine card was left on his body. Many years later a retired gunman named Alvin Karpis, after serving 33 years in prison, named five contract killers; Burke, Maddox, Ziegler, Winkler and Nugent, all long since dead, as the murder-squad; but a Chicago magistrate, Judge Lyle, named in his memoirs Burke, Scalise, Anselmi, Goetz and Lolordo. So the St. Valentine's Day massacre remains an unsolved crime.

In later chapters of this essay I shall attempt to show how this deplorable state of affairs came about; but I shall also argue that the massacre was not really typical of the higher reaches of organised crime, actually represented not the epitome of gangsterism but its failure, and for Capone personally led to his doom.

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