|Al Capone (left) and his bodyguard Frank Rio.|
On this day ninety-three years ago, members of Chicago's North Side Gang led an extraordinarily violent raid against their archrival Al Capone near his headquarters in the suburb of Cicero, Illinois. A procession of automobiles raked an entire city block with submachine gun fire to avenge the murder of their boss, Dean O'Banion, two years earlier. This attack was unlike anything seen in the American underworld at the time, and it has become one of the canonical stories of Al Capone's rise to power. Many myths have sprung around it over the years, namely around the number of vehicles involved and Capone's bodyguard Frank Rio saving his boss from certain death at the hands of his enemies. It was a scene tailor-made for the silver screen, where it would indeed end up just six years later. The purpose of this article is to give the various accounts of the Hawthorne attack a fresh examination and create an accurate depiction of this seminal event.
By the summer of 1926, twenty-seven-year-old Alphonse Capone had been at the head of an ever-expanding vice empire that raked in multiple millions of dollars from the manufacturing, smuggling, and sale of illegal alcohol for over a year. Other rackets that fed Capone's coffers included illegal gambling, labor racketeering, prostitution, and protection racketeering. Due to the election of reform mayor William Dever in 1923, Capone headquartered his mob just across the Chicago city line in Cicero. Al and his crew installed themselves at the three-story Hawthorne Hotel at 4823 West Twenty-Second Street (modern-day Cermak Road). The gangsters commandeered the entire third floor for their use; Capone installed solid steel shutters on the windows as a security measure. Al was right to take such precautions as he had plenty of rivals who were eager to see him dead. Capone's former boss, Johnny Torrio, had been shot and nearly killed in January 1925 by North Side gangsters Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran, both of whom were eager to avenge the assassination of their friend and leader Dean O'Banion two months earlier.
Earlier in the spring of 1926, Capone had begun a brief move against a West Side gang headed by the O'Donnell brothers. One foray against them on the evening of April 27 resulted in gangsters Jim Doherty and Thomas "Red" Duffy being shot to death outside of the Pony Inn on Roosevelt Road (police later determined that Capone, eager to try out the newfangled Thompson submachine gun, personally did the shooting). Also killed in the assault was Assistant State's Attorney William H. McSwiggin, known around Chicago as the "hanging prosecutor." McSwiggin had merely gone out to have a few harmless drinks with his pals in the O'Donnell Gang when he found himself caught in the crossfire of gangland warfare. Capone was forced to lay low for a good chunk of the summer while the case against him was fixed. Despite the intense uproar over the killing, the Cicero gang boss not only managed to beat the rap but also to neutralize the threat that the O'Donnell mob posed to him.
|North Side Gang boss Earl "Hymie" Weiss|
The so-called North Side Gang posed the greatest challenge to Al Capone in the summer of 1926. They controlled lucrative bootlegging and vice rackets on the city's North Side. After their previous leader, Dean O'Banion, was assassinated at the Schofield flower shop at 738 North State Street by men believed to have been sent by Johnny Torrio and Capone, the gang was taken over by Earl "Hymie" Weiss. Twenty-eight years old, Weiss was an intelligent, industrious gangster who had long been regarded as the "brains" behind the North Side mob; police believed that he was the one who had steered the crew into large-scale bootlegging. Weiss was noted for intensity that practically oozed from his pores and a hair-trigger temper. When photographers tried to snap his picture, he'd stare at them and say, "If you take a picture of me, I'll kill you." In one interview, Fred Weiss said he had seen his brother Earl only once in twenty years, "That was when he shot me, six years ago." According to his descendants, Weiss suffered from frequent migraine headaches, and in the mid-1920s was diagnosed with arterial cancer. These health ailments, along with the knowledge that he probably did not have long to live as a result, are said to have contributed to Weiss's fearlessness in the underworld. Despite his fearsome reputation, Weiss was known to secretly pick up the grocery tabs of less fortunate denizens of his North Side neighborhood.
|Vincent "Schemer" Drucci|
Backing up Hymie Weiss in the ranks of the North Side Gang was an equally colorful cast of characters. Vincent Drucci was a Sicilian-American gangster who got his nickname of "Schemer" because of his wild criminal schemes and madcap personality. While being chased by police through downtown Chicago in 1922 after trying to dynamite a safe, Drucci came upon the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which was raising to allow a river-going freighter to pass through. The Schemer's response was to floor his car's accelerator and gun his ride Bluesmobile-style up and over the bridge's increasing gap. Unfortunately for Drucci, the cops also managed to make the jump and caught up with him a couple of blocks later. Another top echelon member of the North Side Gang was George Moran, who was often incorrectly said to have been of either Irish or Polish extraction; he was, in fact, French-Canadian. Born Adelard Cunin in St. Paul, Minnesota, Moran was known as being a tough and shrewd criminal who had been moving in North Side gang circles since at least 1917, when the crew was primarily a safe-cracking outfit led by Charles "The Ox" Reiser. Due to his occasional fits of temper, Moran was nicknamed "Bugs."
|George "Bugs" Moran|
On the warm summer day of Tuesday, August 3, thirteen-year-old John Novak was horseback riding with his eleven-year-old brother Joseph in a forest preserve in Palos Township in southwestern Cook County. In the early afternoon, with the temperature climbing, the Novak boys sought to water their horses at a cistern. When their mounts shied away from drinking, the brothers investigated and were shocked to find the body of a dead man submerged in the water. The corpse had been bound hand and foot before being weighted down with stones and bricks from a nearby house that had burned down months before. The deceased was soon identified as thirty-six-year-old Anthony Cirringione, aka Tommy Ross, known as Al Capone's chauffeur. Cirringione (his name is usually misspelled as Curingione or Cuiringione) had been abducted over a month earlier, while Capone was still in hiding over the McSwiggin case. The chauffeur had been beaten and tortured severely (one account says his corpse was covered with cigar and match burns) before his skull was crushed by a blunt instrument (some contemporary news accounts mistakenly say he was shot). What Cirringione's killers hoped to get out of him would not become clear for another month or so. While this murder is usually attributed to the North Side mob, the location of the killing (rural southwest Cook County) and the use of torture indicates that the Soltis-McErlane crew was at the very least involved, if not solely culpable, in the slaughter of Capone's driver.
Capone was convinced that one way or another, the North Siders were responsible for the murder of his friend, and thus began planning accordingly. On the morning of Tuesday, August 10, Hymie Weiss went to the Congress Hotel at 500 South Michigan Avenue to meet Vincent Drucci, who lived in a suite on one of the upper floors. After they finished breakfast around ten o'clock, both men began walking south on Michigan. At East Ninth Street, the gangsters crossed the street and headed towards the Standard Oil Building. The exact business of Weiss and Drucci that morning is still unclear to this day, but the latter had a total of $13,200 cash in his pocket, money that he would later claim was earmarked for a real estate deal. Police would later note that the Standard Oil Building contained the office of the Chicago Sanitary District, known as perhaps the most corrupt pork barrel in the entire city (an impressive feat in and of itself). At that moment Morris Eller, a Sanitary District trustee and alderman of the Twentieth Ward, was in the office talking with Assistant State's Attorney John Sbarbaro.
As the North Side gangsters neared the Standard Oil Building's entrance, the busy morning calm was shattered by the loud sounds of gunfire emanating from two gunmen who were firing at them from a nearby sedan. Pedestrians screamed and yelled, and Weiss joined most of them in ducking for cover. Drucci knelt behind a mailbox, pulled his own gun, and returned fire. Over thirty shots were fired in the adrenalized melee, with stray shots breaking nearby plate glass windows and hitting parked cars. Despite the bad intentions, the only casualty was an innocent bystander named James Cardan, who was grazed in the leg.
The two triggermen jumped from their car and rushed forward to get a clearer shot at Drucci's defilade position. Just then a squad of police hurried into the block. At the sight of the blue uniforms, the attackers' getaway driver evidently panicked, as he hit the gas and left his comrades behind. Weiss and one of the assailants managed to vanish into the gathering crowd. Drucci ran into the street, jumped on the running board of a stopped automobile, and jammed the barrel of his still-warm revolver against the head of motorist C.C. Bassett. "Take me away, and make it snappy," he yelled. Police yanked him away before Bassett could comply with that command.
The cops also managed to catch the second gunman, an Italian man of about thirty who was dressed in a gray summer suit and straw boater. The suspect had smartly ditched his weapon as he ran away and claimed that he had only fled the scene so he wouldn't be hit by a stray bullet. The man gave his name as Paul Valerie and his address as 3533 Walnut Street, both of which would turn out to be false. Police eventually released him from custody when Vincent Drucci claimed to have never seen the man before. For his part, Drucci denied that the gunfight was gang-related, claiming that it was merely a stick-up gone bad. The gangster was charged with carrying concealed weapons and assault with intent to kill. Mary Weiss, Hymie's mother, signed bonds totaling $5,000 for the release of her son's associate.
|A Chicago Tribune rendition of the Standard Oil Building gunfight.|
While the cops may have been in the dark about what the Michigan Avenue gunplay was about, Hymie Weiss and his men had no doubt who his would-be killers worked for. While the sheer number of adversaries and the steel window shutters made Capone's Hawthorne Hotel headquarters virtually impervious to an armed assault, one of the facts that had been tortured out of chauffeur Tony Cirringione was that Capone frequently ate lunch at the Hawthorne Restaurant, located just east of the hotel. In this eatery, on the ground floor and out from behind the steel shutters, Weiss knew his enemy would be vulnerable. After contacting their South Side allies, the North Side gang boss planned a spectacular attack that would not only get rid of Al Capone but strike fear into the hearts of every member of Chicago's underworld.
September 20, 1926
That Monday began fair and cool in the Chicagoland area, with the temperatures peaking in the sixties. Local newspapers were filled with stories about the horrific carnage recently wreaked on South Florida by a large Category 4 hurricane that was presently thrashing Alabama and Mississippi; the so-called Miami Hurricane remains the costliest storm in American history.
Twenty-Second Street was Cicero's main thoroughfare. One hundred feet wide with streetcar tracks running down the center, the streets fairly teemed with pedestrians and vehicles. The Hawthorne Hotel was located on the south side of the street, with the Anton Hotel one door to the west. Also on that block were a barbershop, a delicatessen, and a laundry shop. Another notable business was the Hawthorne Smoke Shop, an ostensible tobacco shop that served as a front for one of Al Capone's lucrative gambling joints.
Capone himself had just returned to town the previous week from a trip to the eastern United States. Two days earlier, he had proudly reopened his gambling joints that had been padlocked during the law enforcement crackdown in the wake of the McSwiggin killing. Today Capone had his eye on the horse races at Hawthorne Park, as the autumn racing season had just begun a week earlier. About noon, Capone left the Hawthorne Hotel and headed next door to the restaurant for a bite to eat before he departed for the racetrack.
Clyde Freeman had just arrived in town from rural Louisiana with his wife and their five-year-old son Clyde, Junior. Freeman was a racehorse owner, and like many of the people on the block today, he and his family looked forward to attending the races. Although the street was extremely crowded, Freeman was lucky enough to maneuver his car into a parking space at the curb in front of the Hawthorne Hotel. Pre-occupied with his family, the Louisianian paid little attention to the muscular, well-dressed gentleman who stepped into the restaurant. In contrast to the Freemans, an anonymous face in the mass of people did indeed notice when Capone entered the greasy spoon for lunch. This individual quickly yet stealthily made their way to the nearest pay telephone, dropped a nickel in the slot, and said that the time had come.
The Hawthorne Restaurant featured about fifteen tables and a lunch counter. Although relatively small, the café was jam-packed with racing fans today. Sometime around one o’clock, Capone was sipping coffee at his table located in the back of the dining room. The gang boss sat facing the door so he could see everyone who entered the place. As the first race did not begin until two-thirty, he was in no hurry. The loud din of conversation hung in the air as patrons ate, drank, or perused their racing forms.
At this moment, twenty-nine-year-old Paul Ricca was walking towards the door of the Hawthorne Restaurant. Born Felice De Lucia, he had illegally immigrated to America from his native Italy with at least two murders on his hands. After arriving in Chicago in 1920 and anglicizing his name to Ricca, he found work in Diamond Joe Esposito's Bella Napoli restaurant as a maître d (his underworld nickname was ‘The Waiter'). Esposito was the Nineteenth Ward political boss and a Chicago underworld figure. By the summer of 1926, Ricca had shifted to Al Capone's crew and was now known as one of his rising stars. Ricca was now on his way to the restaurant to join his boss Capone. As Paul put his hand on the door, his finely-honed survival instincts seem to have been aroused. The young gangster looked down the block and saw something straight out of a bad dream heading right for the hotel.
Then it happened.
The vast majority of Chicagoans in September 1926 did not know what a Thompson submachine gun sounded like. They were living in an era where television did not exist, movies were still silent, and only a fraction of them owned radio sets. Some may well have heard of the weapon, but unless they were a member of the military, law enforcement, or the underworld, the staccato drumming of that gun would have been alien enough that they may have honestly mistaken it for something else. Paul Ricca was another matter completely, as he recognized the song of the Thompson at once. Paul darted into the doorway of the restaurant and shouted a warning to Al Capone, who hit the deck just as all hell broke loose.
Several slow-moving sedans filled with men armed with three or more submachine guns and an unknown number of shotguns began firing into the buildings as they reached the Anton. Passerby screamed and yelled while breaking for cover. Bullets and buckshot strafed both hotels and the five businesses in between. Parked cars were peppered with shots. Trapped and terrified beyond belief, Clyde Freeman and his family screamed in terror as at least thirty slugs raked their car hard enough to make it rock on its axle. The caravan pulled to a stop outside the restaurant, their shots vaporizing the plate glass windows. Straight lines of waist-high and chest-high bullet holes dotted the walls and gouged out chunks of plaster. Dishes, glasses, and coffee cups jumped or outright shattered as they were struck. Patrons in the restaurant hugged the floor and plugged their ears against the loud cacophony of gunfire. Broken glass, porcelain fragments, various liquids, wood paneling, and even ceiling plaster showered down on the cowering diners. Capone remained frozen on the floor.
A man dressed in a khaki shirt and brown overalls stepped out of the second-to-last sedan, a Thompson in his hands. While the others held their fire and kept him covered with pointed weapons, the submachine gunner calmly walked to the front door of the restaurant, knelt in the doorway, and opened fire. The sight of this Angel of Death-like figure seems to have finally broken Capone's inertia, as he peeled himself off the floor and ran for his life. Bullets followed Al every step way until he made it out the café's back door. With his target now out of sight, the overall-clad submachine gunner proceeded to empty the remainder of his one hundred round capacity drum magazine into the already demolished dining room. After this final eff-you salute finished a few seconds later, the gangster walked back to his waiting automobile. A klaxon horn tooted three times and the caravan began to accelerate towards the Chicago city line two blocks to the east. As they went, witnesses noted that the final car was outfitted to look like a Chicago Police detective bureau sedan.
|The scene of the crime not long after it happened. The restaurant in the left center of the photo was the focal point of the attack. Photo courtesy of www.myalcaponemuseum.com|
Slowly but surely, the diners of the Hawthorne Restaurant and the other bystanders in the area emerged from their hiding places. Some women still may have been screaming, but most people were wide-eyed and panting, adrenaline still whipping through their systems. They were in a mild state of shock and still trying to mentally process what had just happened. Some accounts say Al Capone was discovered in a shop next door to the restaurant, while others state that he had re-entered the restaurant after the shooters had left; contemporary accounts make no mention of Frank Rio at all. Wherever he was, Capone was soon jerked out of his reverie by the screams of a woman coming from a nearby parked car. It was Clyde Freeman's wife. Capone instantly ran outside to see what he could do to help.
The police later claimed that the gunmen had fired about one thousand rounds (this seems to have been a bit of exaggeration; a careful review of the available evidence suggests that a total in the mid-to-upper hundreds range is more accurate). A slew of parked cars (thirty-five, by one reckoning) had been hit by gunfire. To this day, it is uncertain exactly how many cars were in the attacking caravan. Witnesses told differing accounts. The first reports filed later that night varied by newspaper, some saying that there were three or five vehicles, with the most reliable witness accounts settling on the neutral "several." As time went on, journalists and authors eventually added more cars to the tally; eight, ten, twelve, a baker's dozen; most modern renderings of the attack are divided between eight and ten vehicles.
Similarly, the number of shots fired in the drive-by gradually grew in retellings; one thousand, fifteen hundred, and so on. One recent venture was that a whopping two thousand rounds were fired that day; to show how logistically unfeasible that particular claim is, the raiders would have had to (at minimum) man a total of twenty submachine guns, each fitted with a one hundred round capacity drum magazine that would empty once. That is, of course, if not one of those drums jammed or misfed during operation.
Another oft-told detail of the Hawthorne drive-by involves a Chicago Police detective sedan rolling a block in front of the caravan featuring a submachine gunner firing blanks, a noisy ruse calculated to disperse bystanders and draw a curious Capone either to the street or the front of the café for easy elimination. The problem with this statement is that the Model 1921 Thompson is a friction-delayed blowback firearm. As such, its basic operation depends on high chamber pressure generated by a propellant to push the breech block to the rear, thus enabling the weapon to chamber and fire a new .45 caliber round. If a blank cartridge is used, there is no bullet traveling through the barrel, and the combustion gases will escape through the muzzle without building up enough pressure to chamber and fire the next round. Thus, the submachine gun will not fire blanks unless a constricting device is attached to the muzzle in order to build up enough chamber pressure to facilitate the blowback action. If the gents in this detective sedan were only looking to make some noise, a far easier solution would have been to just fire standard live rounds straight up into the air. Even more importantly, none of the original witness accounts taken at the scene mention such a vehicle. It appears that the blank-firing point car is one of more than a few canards that would pop up in the wake of the attack.
All outlandish claims aside, the drive-by shooting was indeed a savage event, and it was truly miraculous that no one was killed that day. Three of those injured were the unlucky Freeman family, whose car was turned into Swiss cheese by the assailants. Clyde Freeman's knee was grazed by a bullet, as was the scalp of five-year-old Clyde, Junior. Missus Freeman was hit the worst, as a submachine gun bullet passed cleanly through her arm. Despite their injuries, all three Freemans were given a "clean bill of health" by a doctor later that evening.
Many latter-day accounts claim that a sliver of glass from the car's windshield was driven into Mrs. Freeman's eye by the gunfire, with Capone later generously paying $5,000 for the surgery to save her eyesight. Contemporary news reports filed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting make no mention of Mrs. Freeman having such an injury, and it seems unlikely that she would have been given a "clean bill of health" had she been writhing in pain from a shard of glass lodged in her eye. Additionally, the entire Freeman family had recovered enough to view and dismiss two suspects (Bugs Moran and Frank Gusenberg) that police brought before them just a few hours after the shooting. It seems unlikely that Mrs. Freeman would have been in any condition to visually identify a suspect had she sustained such a grave injury to her eye. All in all, it appears that the Mrs. Freeman eye injury/Capone-financed surgery story is yet another tall tale.
The only other casualty that day was Paul Ricca, who took a bullet in his left shoulder just after he had shouted his warning to Capone. As soon as Chicago police Chief of Detectives Bill Shoemaker laid eyes on Ricca, he identified him as the "Paul Valerie" who was busted while running away from the Standard Oil Building gunfight a month earlier. Despite being in considerable pain from his wound, Ricca was alert enough to give police the new alias of "Louis Barko" and claimed that he was "only a lone wolf gambler" or a "bookmaker," depending on which paper you read. The wounded gangster admitted to seeing the attack from start to finish but claimed he could not identify any of the perpetrators.
|Paul Ricca as he appeared at the time of the shooting.|
In warning Al Capone just as the bullets began flying, Paul Ricca not only showed a bold disregard for his own safety but also loyalty, coolness under pressure, and decisiveness. These qualities would serve Ricca well enough to see him eventually ascend to the leadership of the mammoth criminal organization Capone had built.
|North Side gangsters Frank Foster (left) and Frank (upper right) & Pete Gusenberg were suspected of taking part in the raid.|
Even before the gun smoke had fully drifted away from the 4800 block of West Twenty-Second Street, police suspected that the North Side Gang was responsible for the Hawthorne drive-by shooting. After questioning witnesses and getting license plate numbers of the cars used in the attack, police sent out the call to arrest Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, Bugs Moran, Pete and Frank Gusenberg, Frank Foster, Michael "Puggy" White, and another pair of brothers named Ben and Ernest Applequist. Also suspected of participating were South Side gangsters like John "Dingbat" O'Berta, Vincent McErlane, and George Darrow, known as the torture expert of the Soltis-McErlane mob. Gangster John Touhy was also questioned after police traced one of the caravan car's tags to him. While no one in law enforcement doubted their guilt, none of these men were prosecuted. Paul Ricca repaid the favor that Vincent Drucci had done him a month earlier and refused to identify him or any of the other suspects.
|South Side gangsters John "Dingbat" Oberta (left), Vincent McErlane (upper right) and George Darrow were suspected of taking part in the raid. All three were members of the Soltis-McErlane crew.|
Throughout the city, the Hawthorne raid caused shock and indignation. One newspaper headline blared, "THIS IS WAR!" While Chicago newspapers gave the shooting front-page coverage, editors felt it didn't quite rate banner headline status (such treatment indicates that the attack was indeed embellished by subsequent accounts). A modern examination of contemporary news reports shows that despite the considerable power that Al Capone wielded in September 1926, he had yet to become the iconic crime overlord he is currently remembered as. Most news stories somewhat vaguely referred to him as "Caponi" or "Al Brown," his usual alias. Most of the Chicagoland public still considered him to be a Cicero gangster, even though his influence was increasingly felt throughout the entire city.
Just about all the gambling joints that Capone had recently reopened were closed yet again by a new crime crackdown necessitated by the attack. Capone himself paid for the repairs to all the businesses and automobiles damaged in the raid. As one of his underlings said, "The Big Fellow never wants bystanders hurt." About three weeks later, Capone himself discussed the Hawthorne assault with reporters, "It has shown the authorities that I have no corner on the machine gun market. A machine gun was used to shoot up the Hawthorne Hotel a few days ago, and they can't blame that on me. Why, I'm still paying the owners of automobiles parked in front for the damage done to their cars in that raid, and I am trying to save the eye of the poor innocent woman they wounded sitting in a car in front." In trying to gain some good press for himself, Capone may have inadvertently been responsible for the start of the myth of Mrs. Freeman's injured eye.
In the nine decades since the Hawthorne drive-by shooting, it has been portrayed numerous times in film and television, ranging from the 1932 feature Scarface (where George Raft, presumably in the Paul Ricca role, manages to bag one of the passing raiders with a single shot from a revolver before running out of the café and appropriating the fallen gunman's submachine gun) to the 2016 AMC series The Making of the Mob. Each depiction is a bit different in its make-up, much like the accounts of the witnesses themselves.
|This still is of a scene in the 1967 film The St. Valentine's Day Massacre that depicts the Hawthorne raid.|
Binder, John J. Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017.
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Anthony Cirringione Death Certificate. State of Illinois, Cook County, Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics, Registration #1115, 1926.
Chicago Daily News, September 20, 1926
Chicago Herald & Examiner, September 21, 1926.
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Chicago Tribune, August 4, 11-12 and September 21-23, 1926.
The Hawthorne Hotel at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com
Hymie Weiss at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com
Vincent Drucci at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com