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Said Chicago’s Al Capone:“I Give The Public What The Public Wants…”
What the public wanted, it seemed, was a vice and bootleg business netting sixty million dollars a year-and many gangland funerals
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
To what extent Torrio figured in the early underworld education of Al Capone is not altogether clear. Kobler quotes Capone as having said, from the perspective of middle age, that he “looked on Johnny like my adviser and father and the party who made it possible for me to get my start.” No doubt it was Torrio who steered both Capone and Luciano to apprenticeship with the Five Points gang while they were still in their mid-teens. Torrio was a man of eclectic connections and alliances. He commanded the respect of Frankie Uale (alias Yale), who specialized in murder contracts and who for ten years was national boss of the Unione Siciliane , a sort of institutional missing link between the Black Hand of the Old World and the Mafioso of the New. Yale hired Capone as a bouncer-bartender at his Harvard Inn at Coney Island. There, according to Kobler, young Al’s “huge fists, unarmed or clutching a club, struck [obstreperous carousers] with the impact of a pile driver.” In 1918 Capone married Mae Coughlin of Brooklyn. The following year, facing a murder indictment should a man he had pile-driven in a barroom brawl die, he received word from Torrio that his huge fists were needed in Chicago. Though the brawl victim survived, Big Al was already a murder suspect in two other New York cases. To Chicago he went.
It was a good time to be going to Chicago. His mentor, Torrio, was beginning to eclipse Colosimo for control of the South Side rackets. William Hale Thompson, the laissezfaire mayor, was soon to be re-elected. And Congress was preparing to make the nation dry with passage of the Volstead Act. One hour after Prohibition became the law, at midnight January 17,1920, a whisky shipment stamped “for medicinal purposes” was hijacked on Chicago’s South Side. The Anti-Saloon League had promised “an era of clear thinking and clean living.” But it had misjudged the prodigious thirst of the American people. By 1929 the bootleg liquor industry was reaping an annual income of three billion dollars—a sum more than three times greater than the amount paid that year by individual taxpayers to the Internal Revenue Service. By 1930 Chicago had ten thousand speak-easies. Each speak-easy, on a weekly average, purchased two cases of liquor (at ninety dollars the case) and six barrels of beer (at fifty-five dollars the barrel). Estimated bootleg revenues each week came to $5,300,000. And sooner than later every dollar passed through the hands of one or another of Chicago’s multitudinous gangs. Increasingly each year, the largest share found its way to the gang that was headed by Johnny Torrio and Scarface Al Capone.
Torrio had seized control of the South Side as early as 1920. On May 11 he had arranged for a shipment of whisky to be delivered to Colosimo’s Café, and Colosimo himself was to be there to receive it. The whisky never arrived. Waiting in the café vestibule, Colosimo instead received a fatal bullet in the back of his head. Police suspected, but could never prove, that the assassin was Frankie Yale, imported from New York under contract to Johnny Torrio.
With Colosimo gone, Torrio promoted Capone to the unofficial rank of chief field general, installed him as manager of Torrio headquarters at the Four Deuces on South Wabash Avenue, cut him in for 25 per cent of all brothel profits, and promised him half the net from bootleg operations. As Kobler reconstructs it: “They complemented each other, the slight older man, cool, taciturn, reserved, condoning violence only when guile failed; the beefy younger one, gregarious, pleasure-loving, physically fearless, hot-tempered. By the second year they no longer stood in the relationship of boss and hireling; they were partners.”
Among Torrio’s many schemes for extending his operations beyond the South Side was a dream of ruling the nearby suburb of Cicero. Cicero traditionally had been the turf of the O’Donnell brothers and their West Side gang; but Torrio, a master of crafty diplomacy, had managed to secure a beachhead in the community and soon installed Capone in new headquarters there at the Hawthorne Inn.
The final siege of Cicero began in the spring of 1924. It was election time. Joseph Klenha, the corrupt incumbent president of the village board, was facing a challenge from a slate of Democratic reformers. To counter the threat of a reform victory, the Klenha machine made an offer that Torrio and Capone could hardly afford to refuse: Ensure a Klenha landslide, the gangsters were told, and Cicero is yours. It was a task tailor-made for Al Capone.