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Cicero

May 2024
3min read

The towns that ring Chicago’s city limits are referred to as suburbs. In fact they have long been as built up as the adjacent city neighborhoods. What distinguished the town of Cicero in the mid-1920s, when Capone made it his headquarters, was the pliancy of its government. It was a pliancy Capone himself engineered. In 1924 he descended on the town with a band of hoods and stole the election for his candidates. Frantic officials called out a squad of Chicago police officers and deputized them as special agents, but Capone men pistol-whipped and intimidated enough voters to decide the results. It was during this campaign that Al’s brother Frank was shot dead by police. It has gone down as one of the dirtiest elections in American history.

The Capone gang ran Cicero along the lines of a feudal dukedom. When the president of the village board, Joseph Z. Klenha, balked at one of his orders, Al personally slapped him around and shoved him down the steps of the town hall. A police officer looked on but dared not interfere.

Out on the south side of Cermak Road, just west of Cicero Avenue, LeVell and I stop in front of the Anton Hotel, once owned by Theodore (“The Greek”) Anton, a close friend of Capone. In 1926 Anton was snatched from the door of his own joint and beaten to death. Al claimed he wept inconsolably. Others speculated that Capone had ordered him murdered. Today the name has been changed to the Alton, but the original designation remains carved on the facade. The building, all that’s left of Capone’s Cicero headquarters, once housed the Hawthorne Smoke Shop, a prominent gambling den that government records showed turning a $587,000 profit for the Capone outfit in less than two years. Next door was the Hawthorne Inn, from which Al ran his burgeoning crime empire in the middle twenties. Bulletproof steel shutters guarded his windows.

We stand in front of the Anton and imagine a Monday afternoon in September of 1926. The town was crowded with race fans. (The nearby Hawthorne Racetrack still runs its meet in the fall.) Al Capone and his bodyguard Frank Rio sat in a crowded restaurant near the southwest corner of Cicero Avenue. A car roared by, sounding a gong and spraying gunfire from its window. It continued on. Al joined the curious patrons who moved toward the window. An alert Rio leaped to pull his boss to the floor.

Ten sedans followed at a leisurely pace. Starting with the Anton, they raked every storefront down to the corner with machine-gun fire. Plate glass shattered. Screaming bystanders lunged for cover. A man dressed in brown overalls emerged from one of the cars, walked over to the restaurant, and calmly let loose a hundred-shot canister from a Thompson gun.

When the dust settled from what the police estimated to be a barrage of a thousand bullets, only minor wounds were recorded. A Louisiana family in town to watch the horses were inadvertent victims, the husband and fiveyear-old son grazed, the wife shot in the arm and injured by flying glass. Capone paid five thousand dollars to save her eyesight.

The motive for this attack, the mother of all drive-by shootings, is puzzling. Did the perpetrators—almost surely Hymie Weiss and his North Siders—know of Capone’s exact whereabouts? Then why shoot up the whole block? Were they trying to kill him as payback for O’Banion? An exceedingly sloppy approach. Was the fusillade a shot across Capone’s bow? If so, it was a reckless and ill-advised maneuver. Three weeks later gunfire tore up North State Street, Holy Name Cathedral received its famous scars, and Weiss was taking his own one-way ride to Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Remodeling has covered over any evidence of gunfire left on the facade of the Anton, where today transients look out at us through dirty windows. On the building’s brick wall we can barely decipher the painted hieroglyphics of another age: “Soft drinks served … cigars … pocket billiards.” Just to the east the Hawthorne Inn remained a mob hangout until 1970, when it burned down. It’s been replaced by a bank.

We drive north on Cicero and turn onto Roosevelt Road. A block to the west, at 5613 West Roosevelt, is the former Pony Inn. Today it’s a bar and restaurant called Sarno’s. In 1926 it was the site of one of the most notorious killings of the era. That year a group led by the West Side O’Donnells (no relation to Spike) tried to expand their beer territory in Cicero at Capone’s expense. William (“Klondike”) O’Donnell eschewed the soft sell; he preferred to break down sales resistance with a punch in the eye. Capone, in spite of his desire for peace, knew he couldn’t display weakness and survive.

“People who respect nothing dread fear,” he said. “It is upon fear therefore, that I have built my organization.”

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