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Sunny Brutality

June 2024
4min read

On the morning of November 10, 1924, three men walked into a flower shop at 738 North State Street, in the bohemian neighborhood of the near North Side. The announced their intention to pick up a wreath they had ordered for the funeral of Mike Merlo, president of the Unione Siciliana and a prominent leader of the city’s Italian community. One of them shook hands with the florist. The other two reached into their pockets. Four years had led up to the moment that followed.

With the advent of Prohibition, bootlegging became the chief gangster priority. Jostling for territory began as soon as the Volstead Act took effect at midnight on January 17, 1920. Hijackings and low-level gang skirmishes dominated the beginning of the decade. This turmoil continued a tradition of turf battles among the youth gangs and ragtag criminal bands that had long been a fixture of urban America. In the Chicago of the early twenties the alignment of gangs was a Balkan complexity, further complicated by constantly shifting alliances.

The man who first tried to bring order was John Torrio. Labeled the “thinking man’s criminal,” Torrio was to have a seminal influence on the direction of criminal enterprise in the entire country. Small, delicate of build, a lover of opera, Torrio despised profanity, dressed plainly, and followed a clocklike routine. Always eager to avoid strife, his motto was “There’s plenty for everyone.” His roots stretched back to New York’s notorious Five Points gang, a lower Manhattan criminal clique with connections to Tammany Hall. In 1909 he came to Chicago at the request of his cousin, who happened to be married to Big Jim Colosimo. The punctilious Torrio soon took over as Colosimo’s business manager. He ran the Four Deuces, a night spot at 2222 South Wabash that was a department store of vice, offering booze on the ground floor, gambling on the second and third, and prostitution on four.

In 1919 Torrio arranged for one of his Brooklyn protégés to lie low in Chicago after mauling another gang ster. He put the hefty twenty-yearold to work at the Four Deuces as a bouncer. The young man was Alphonse Capone. “I looked on Johnny like my adviser and father,” Al said later.

Prohibition offered Torrio a golden opportunity to put into practice his dream of crime as business. He insisted on substituting negotiation for bloodletting. By 1924 Colosimo had become a dinosaur and met a dinosaur’s fate—and had been treated to the monarch’s funeral that was to become a gangster tradition. Torrio and Capone had reached accommodations with most of the gangs participating in Chicago’s bootleg bonanza. Territories had been allotted. The gangs were making big money.

Torrio’s domain comprised a major part of the city’s South Side. His bootlegging counterpart north of the Chicago River was Dion O’Banion. While O’Banion’s career as an altar boy at Holy Name Cathedral is probably apocryphal, he did possess an angelic tenor that got him work as a singing waiter at McGovern’s Café on North Clark Street. Later he took up safecracking and burglary. He developed a reputation as a ward heeler who could bring out the vote in hardfought North Side alderman contests. With Prohibition, his political connections paid off in spades.

O’Banion grew up in a dismal North Side neighborhood called Little Hell, adjacent to the Sicilian district. Both areas were razed to build the CabriniGreen public housing project, which in its turn has become a forbidding slum. Perhaps as compensation for his drab boyhood, Dion developed a passion for flowers. He owned a half-interest in Schofield’s florist shop, where he spent many hours working on arrangements. A psychiatrist once described his personality as one of “sunny brutality.” He probably killed at least two dozen men.

But at thirty-two, O’Banion was tired of it all. He professed a desire to trade in his Florsheims for cowboy boots and move to Colorado. He offered to sell Torrio his half-interest in the Sieben Brewery at 1464–75 North Larrabee. The price was five hundred thousand dollars.

When Torrio showed up at the plant to effect the transfer, he and O’Banion were caught in a police raid. It was Dion’s first offense, but John, with a record, was sure to do time. The plant was shuttered; O’Banion kept the half-million.

Torrio saw through the coincidence. What was O’Banion, who’d been tipped about the raid, thinking to pull such a stunt? Perhaps he’d been seduced by the velocity of his rise from poverty and felt blessed. Perhaps the mischief of the thing appealed to him. In any case, the incident pointed up the contrast between the methodical Torrio and the roughneck O’Banion.

After Torrio was wounded in revenge for O’Banion’s killing, he decided to step down. He turned his holdings over to Al Capone.

Florists had never had it so good. Gangsters and their political allies were borne to their graves on tidal waves of floral splendor. One hundred thousand dollars might be spent on blooms for a single funeral.

The site of Schofield’s is the first stop for Untouchable Tours. The two-hour bus tour offers the visitor a convenient and entertaining way to cover the city’s most significant crime sites. Begun in 1986, it continues a venerable tradition that stretches back to the 1920s, when tourists would sign up for motorcoach tours that carried them to Capone hangouts, with the possibility of seeing the Big Guy in the flesh.

The west side of the 700 block of North State Street has been demolished. Number 738 stood “about where the handicapped parking is now,” our guide, Don Fielding, points out. On that spot the man who shook O’Banion’s hand kept him from reaching for one of the three pistols he always carried. The others shot him six times.

A few blocks away, at 708 North Wells Street, is the site where Dion was laid out in his ten-thousand-dollar sterling casket. The street is now dominated by art galleries. In 1924 the building housed a funeral home operated by the assistant state’s attorney and later municipal judge John Sbarbaro, a noted gangland undertaker. On the morning of O’Banion’s funeral, scalpers charged one dollar for a vantage point. So many gawkers crowded the roof of the building across the street that the beams began to sag. The cortege stretched two miles, with twentysix cars just to carry the flowers.

Directly across State Street from the site of O’Banion’s slaying stands Holy Name Cathedral. After Dion was laid to rest, his lieutenant Earl Wojciechowski, known as Hymie Weiss, took over the North Side forces. It was the homicidal Weiss who came up with the idea of luring a victim into a car and driving him to his own assassination. He took his first victim for a one-way ride in 1921. In 1925 he severely wounded John Torrio in revenge for O’Banion’s killing, prompting Torrio’s retirement.

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