Friday, 15 January 2010

American Gangsters; part 4: Chicago

If Arnold Rothstein was the founding father of modern organised crime in New York, his equivalent in Chicago was Johnny Torrio, who has even been dubbed, provocatively, "The one man of true genius to emerge in America in the 20th century". He was a New Yorker of Neapolitan stock, who began his career with the notorious "Five Points" gang of contract killers based near the southern end of Manhattan (the original "downtown" district). In 1909 Torrio was called to Chicago to help out his cousin, "Big Jim" Colossimo. Big Jim had begun as a street sweeper, but had risen to own a string of nightclubs and brothels, centring on "Colossimo's Cafe"; an upmarket joint on South Wabash Avenue where he hobnobbed with city aldermen and entertained the great Italian tenor Caruso on his visit to Chicago. Big Jim had an income of over $1/2 million and successfully paid off the police and politicians, but was threatened by a kidnapping gang called the Black Hand, who were believed to have murdered at least 90 people who refused to pay their demands. So Torrio was called in to help, and quickly disposed of the Black Handers by ambushing and shooting them.

When Prohibition came in, Torrio at once saw the possibilities, but Big Jim did not. He was too set in his ways, besotted with his latest mistress, an obstacle to progress. In May 1920 Big Jim was gunned down in the foyer of his own nightclub: a crime that was never solved. He was given the most lavish of funerals; his coffin borne by three judges, two congressmen, eight city aldermen and the assistant state's attorney; though the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago was less apppreciative and refused the use of a church for the service -- because Big Jim had been divorced! Torrio now took over the running of the organisation and brought in some bright young men from New York to assist him, one of whom was an unprepossessing-looking, rather pudgy chap in his twenties, with a scar across his cheek. His name was Al Capone.

Despite this start, Torrio was never a man of unnecessary violence. He knew that Chicago was too big to be run by a single gang, that pointless wars over territory achieved nothing, and that if too many bodies were left littering the sidewalks the public would be upset and might even force the cops to take action. It wouldn't do to get crime a bad name! So in 1922 he called the gang leaders together and spoke of the advantages of peace: there was enough money around to make them all rich provided they could behave sensibly, keep to agreed frontiers and settle disputes by arbitration instead of by gunfire. The trouble was that Dion O'Banion and his North Side gang refused to play ball. "Tell them Sicilians to go to hell!" said O'Banion. He had to be eliminated. The great Chicago gang war began when three hired killers shot O'Banion dead in his flower shop in November 1924, and continued up to and after the St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929. Torrio did not stay till the end: after he himself was shot and seriously wounded in a revenge attack in January 1925 he retired back to New York, handing over his operation to Al Capone.

In 1919 Capone had only been a bouncer in a brothel, in which trade he acquired the long scar across his cheek that he always tried to conceal from the photographers. Now he headed an organisation of around 700 men with an annual turnover of $100 million, of which more than half came from alcohol (and of which at least a quarter was distributed in bribes to police, politicans and other interested bodies). He also ran, amongst other operations, the Coal Drivers' Union and the Motion Picture Operators, and was big in the dry-cleaning business. He was effectively the dictator of the borough of Cicero; in reality just a suburb in the west of Chicago, but legally outside the city boundaries. It was all very impressive for a young man still in his twenties, from a poor background and with little formal education; and suggested to some contemporaries that he had all the necessary talents to be high-powered business executive: clearly no organisation this size could be run by thuggery alone. But Capone was a man of extreme violence too, and his reign was marked by continuous warfare on the sreets of Chicago as he tried to eliminate his rivals: not just the North Siders but also the Gennas, Aiellos, O'Donnells and other local crime families.

The other reason Capone became the most famous gangster in America, or even the world, was that he was a relentless publicity-seeker. He was always ready with a quote for the press; he loved hanging around with sports stars; he flaunted his exotic lifestyle and gave ostentatiously generous public donations to charities. It was almost as if he saw himself as a kind of tourist attraction for the city, which of course in a sense he was. Crowds flocked to see him drive through the streets in his seven-ton armour-plated Cadillac with bullet-proof glass in the windows. He never made any attempt to conceal his bootlegging: what, he would ask the journalists, was the problem with that? He was only supplying the public with what they wanted, like any businessman would do!

Johnny Torrio would not have approved of all the publicity, nor would he have approved of the shootouts on the Chicago streets. To his mind, gangsters should always keep to the shadows and avoid the public gaze as much as possible: anything else was asking for trouble. And of course Torrio would have been right. Attempts to covict Capone for his numerous murders (at least 70 being attributed to him) had always failed, but the St. Valentine's Day massacre was the last straw as far as the government was concerned, and the order went out from President Herbert Hoover himself: "Get Capone!"

Capone's downfall began just weeks after the massacre. He was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon, and found to his surprise that the Deputy Sherrif's badge he showed the police carried no weight outside the state of Illinois. He was sentenced to a year in prison: his first-ever spell behind bars. Meanwhile back in Chicago Eliott Ness, aged just 26, was making a nuisance of himself closing down Capone's speakeasies, and in 1931 Capone's political ally "Big Bill" Thompson was defeated in the mayoral election. Furthermore, the federal authorities had come up with an ingenious new scheme: to prosecute gangsters for non-payment of income tax!

Now Capone found himself on trial under this charge, and his lavish public lifestyle proved his undoing: it was clearly shown that for several years he had spent enormous sums of money yet had never filed a tax return. Capone's lawyers had no answer to this. In October 1931 he was sentenced to eleven years' imprisonment for tax evasion and was dispatched to the dreaded gaol of Alcatraz. It can hardly be doubted that the severity of the sentence was wholly disproportionate to the offence, and was imposed purely because he was Al Capone, the world's most famous gangster.

Capone did not serve out his full sentence. By the late 1930s his brain was becoming fogged; a mental degeneration caused by untreated syphilis. It was reported he now had the mentality of a six-year-old, and in November 1939 he was released as no longer any threat to society. Back in Chicago an enterprising reporter asked the gang's old business manager, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, whether Capone would resume his role as boss of the organisation. "Nope!" said Guzik, "Al is as nutty as a fruitcake!"

Al Capone died of a stroke at his home in Florida in 1947, failing to reach his fiftieth birthday. By contrast his old mentor Johnny Torrio died peacefully at the age of 75. It is Torrio, not Capone, who really merits the title of the world's greatest gangster.

(The best book I have read on this subject is Kenneth Allsop: "The Bootleggers" My next chapter will deal with the Mafia in New York)

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