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The Bullets Were Real

June 2024
1min read

Big Tim was small potatoes. Convicted as a mail robber, he was one of the earliest gangsters to move on into union racketeering. On the evening of June 26, 1928, he was listening on the radio as the Democratic convention moved toward nominating Al Smith to run for President. Someone knocked on his door. He opened it, saw no one, stepped outside.

He stood where we are standing now. The car rolled down this quiet street. Tim saw it too late. But he knew. He must have felt that he was in a dream himself as he turned and began to run toward his front door. He couldn’t run fast enough. Half a dozen of his gangland enemies fired thirty shots from the car.

Here, on the front of the house, are the holes that tell the story. Of all the shots fired during the 1920s, these are the clearest documented traces remaining. Two of the slugs hit Tim’s body, one shattered his forearm, another tore through his heart.

In the twilight we lift the veil for a second and glimpse the reality. Not the meaning of it, or the moral, but a flash of the notion that this was no game, that the bullets were real.

Chicago as a city continues to look on its criminal past with ambiguity. “Embarrassed,” A. J. Liebling noted, “the way a movie star is bored by being recognized.” But embarrassed nonetheless. The complicity of Chicago’s politicians and police in the fabric of crime remains a scandal to this day. “We’re at the trough now, and we’re going to feed,” said one politician of the era. Judges hefted coffins at gangster funerals, and police rode shotgun for shipments of hooch. The Illinois governor Len Small signed pardons for mobsters as fast as they were convicted.

One consequence of this embarrassment is that the preservation and promotion of the landmarks of the era’s unsavory side have been officially discouraged. Urban slough and renewal have taken their toll. But with some effort and imagination the visitor can get a taste of the decade that roared.

The place to begin a visit to Chicago’s criminal past is a spanking new attraction called Capone’s Chicago. When its creator, Michael Y. Graham, was traveling abroad as a history student, he encountered the “gangsterbang-bang” response that Chicagoans have endured for decades. He decided to cash in on the perpetual fascination with gangsters and at the same time correct some of the stereotypes of the movie and television shoot‘em-ups.

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