- Historic Sites
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
Swinging counterclockwise from O’Banion’s North Side, one presently arrived on the turf of Roger “The Terrible” Touhy, whose headquarters were in Des Plaines and who had little traffic—or trouble, for that matter—with the mob of Capone. At nine o’clock—west lay the precincts of the aforementioned O’Donnell gang, perennial foes of the South Side Italians. At eight o’clock, in the valley between Cicero and Chicago’s own Little Italy, one entered the fiefdom of Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake, pious Irishmen both. Once, hijacking a beer truck parked in front of a Catholic church, Druggan was said to have ordered the bootleggers out of the cab of the truck at gunpoint. “Hats off when you’re passing the House of God,” said Druggan, “or I’ll shoot ‘em off.”
On the Southwest Side, at seven o’clock, near the site of today’s Midway Airport, yet another gang skulked under the leadership of Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane, the latter being regarded by the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice as “the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago.” Like Bugs Moran, McErlane was an innovator, the first gangster in America to demonstrate the superior firepower of the Thompson submachine gun.
Virtually all these mobs, at one time or another in the 1920’s, were aligned against the army of Capone. In fact, there was only one independent organization with which Capone had any strong ties whatsoever, and that was the Sicilian community ruled by the six Genna brothers. Through political connections, the Gennas had obtained a license to process industrial alcohol. They processed it, all right—into bootleg whisky; and soon, under their direction, alky cooking (as Kobler recounts it) “became the cottage industry of Little Italy.” The mash was powerful, the denaturing process resulted in a product capable of blinding the consumer, and in a single lot of one hundred confiscated barrels of the liquor, police were said to have found dead rats in every one. For hit men, the Gennas relied on John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, who, in the mistaken belief that garlic in the bloodstream could cause gangrene, anointed all their bullets against the possibility of a slightly misplaced shot.
Thus were the territories staked out and the players positioned when the great Chicago beer wars broke out in the fall of 1924. Sometimes the action was difficult to follow. As Virgil Peterson perceived it, “the lines of battle were constantly shifting.” No matter. The florists and undertakers had never had it so good.
O’Banion was the first to go. There had been a confrontation with Torrio over sharing profits from saloons. There had been much bad blood between North Siders and the Gennas. O’Banion had ordered the hijacking of one of the Gennas’ alky trucks. He had told the Sicilians to go to hell, and had boasted of outwitting Johnny Torrio. At noon on November 10,1924, three men (two later identified as Scalise and Anselmi) called at O’Banion’s flower shop while the Irishman was clipping chrysanthemum stems. Six shots were fired. None were misplaced.
On January 12, outside a restaurant at State and Fiftyfifth streets, a limousine with Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran at the curbside windows pulled abreast of a parked vehicle. A moment earlier, Al Capone had stepped from that vehicle into the restaurant. Weiss and Moran raked the car with buckshot, wounding Al’s chauffeur. The unscathed Capone later surveyed the damage, then put in a call to General Motors with specifications for a bulletproof Cadillac.
It was Torrio’s turn twelve days later. Standing on the sidewalk near his apartment, he was hit in the jaw, the right arm, and the groin by buckshot and bullets from a passing limousine. At Jackson Park Hospital, Capone came and sat at his bedside, weeping. But Torrio was tough. He survived, and eagerly accepted a sentence of nine months in the Lake County Jail. It was safe there. Having served his time, he announced that he would retire and leave everything to Capone. Then he departed for Italy.
Meanwhile, in May of 1925, the O’Banionites had resumed their reprisals. They struck down Angelo Genna. He was buried in unconsecrated ground at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, within shotgun range of the grave of Dion O’Banion. Capone may have sent flowers, but he shed no tears. The lines had been shifting. He wanted control of the Gennas’ alky industry. Within six weeks, two more Gennas, Michael and Anthony, were ambushed and killed. Scalise and Anselmi defected to Capone’s camp. Both were captured by the police and charged with murder. There were many suspects, but no convictions.
Then the lines shifted again, to Cicero and the West Side. In the first four months of 1926, police recorded twenty-nine gangland slayings. Among the last of that group to die was the assistant state’s attorney, William McSwiggin. He was cut down by gunfire in front of the Red Pony Inn, not far from Capone’s Cicero command post. Capone went into hiding for three months.