Showing posts with label Ricca. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ricca. Show all posts

20 September 2019

The Mother Of All Drive-By Shootings


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.

Background

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
By the summer of 1926, Hymie Weiss had managed to forge an alliance with the South Side-based Saltis-McErlane mob. Their territory encompassed what were then known as the Back of the Yards and Canaryville neighborhoods on the Southwest Side. As gang boss Joe Saltis explained to Chicago police captain John Stege, "My district extends from Thirty-Ninth to Fifty-[F]ifth sts., and from the city limits to Loomis st. And I'll kill any [expletive] who cut in on my business." A tough and often murderous saloonkeeper who had branched into bootlegging, Saltis was a fierce fighter who managed to generate immense profits while navigating the violent, rapidly shifting gangland ecosystem of Chicago's South Side. Saltis's partner was Frank McErlane, one of the most feared men in the entire city. An alcoholic psychopath who made even his own gang mates nervous, McErlane was credited with being the first Chicago gangster to use a Thompson submachine gun on his enemies in the late summer of 1925. Although McErlane was currently in Indiana fighting a murder charge, Joe Saltis secretly made a pact with Weiss to move in on Capone around mid-summer.



Prelude

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 Saltis-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.
For decades it has been assumed that faithful bodyguard Frank Rio had saved Al Capone's life by yanking him to the floor of the café once the fireworks began. Judging by contemporary news accounts and modern revelations, it is uncertain that Rio was even there to begin with. Recent research by Chicago organized crime expert John Binder indicates that it was actually Paul Ricca who was responsible for keeping Capone out of harm's way that day. In 2009, Binder interviewed a confidential source close to the Ricca family who confirmed Paul's role in the Hawthorne drive-by episode. Ricca himself vividly remembered the incident in his later years. As he recounted, "One of the men got out of the car and trained a machine gun on Capone in the restaurant, but Capone fled out the back way." The grateful gang boss certainly knew how to repay the favor to Ricca, who was almost immediately moved off the street and put to work directly under Frank Nitto in the upper echelon of the Capone mob's chain of command. Capone would even act as best man at Ricca's wedding the following spring, something he reportedly never did for any of his other associates.

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.



Aftermath

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 Saltis-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 Saltis-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.

In summation, the Hawthorne attack is indeed one of the key events of Al Capone's rise to power, despite the routine exaggerations of the press and the handful of myths that have built up around it (the point car shooting blanks, Mrs. Freeman's eye injury, the bullet and car counts, Frank Rio’s heroism, etc.) The raid showed that Capone was in grave danger as long as both the North Siders and Saltis-McErlane crew were simultaneously gunning for him. It is often said that Hymie Weiss was the only man that Capone was ever truly afraid of, and the Hawthorne attack is Exhibit A for that statement. Despite Capone's immense personal courage, it is obvious that this unprecedented drive-by unnerved him. In an attempt to emulate the tendency of his mentor Johnny Torrio to deal with his enemies peacefully, Capone got word to Weiss that he wanted to talk peace.


Sources

Binder, John J. Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017.  

Burns, Walter Noble. The One-Way Ride: The Red Trail of Chicago Gangland from Prohibition to Jake Lingle. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1931.

Chinn, George M. The Machine Gun, Volume IV: Design Analysis of Automatic Firing Mechanisms and Related Components. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Ordinance, Department of Navy, 1955.

Helmer William J. & Bilek, Arthur J. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: The Untold Story of the Gangland Bloodbath That Brought Down Al Capone. Nashville, Cumberland House, 2004.

Keefe, Rose. The Man Who Got Away: The Bugs Moran Story. Nashville, Cumberland House, 2005.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: Putnam’s, 1971.

Pasley, Fred D. Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man. Pub. 1930. Reprint 1971; Salem, NH: Ayer, 1987.

Schoenberg, Robert J. Mr. Capone. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1992.

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.

Chicago Journal, October 13, 1926.

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

04 November 2017

Evidence of some lingering hostility

Bioff's body lies in the wreckage
of his exploded pickup truck
(Arizona Republic)
On this date in 1955, a former Chicago Outfit member living under an assumed identity in Arizona was killed in a car-bombing. The fatal explosion was linked to an extortion racket exposed more than a decade earlier.

"Fat Willie" Bioff, a native of Chicago's West Side, relocated to southern California before World War II and became an aide to International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) union President George Browne. As he became a union official, Bioff already had a reputation for violence (Chicago police suspected him of involvement in the murder of Wisconsin gang boss Jack Zuta) and for close affiliation with members of the Capone organization. In California, he remained in close touch with the Outfit's West Coast rackets overseer Johnny Roselli.

In the early 1940s, federal authorities became aware of an ongoing Chicago Outfit scheme to extort vast sums from movie companies through control of motion picture industry unions, and Bioff emerged as a central player in that scheme, the main link between the IATSE union and Chicago organized crime. Word leaked from federal grand jury proceedings in New York City that studio executive Joseph Schenck was revealing the extortion scheme.

Bioff
Outfit leaders, trying to assess the damage of the Schenck testimony, quickly got in touch with Bioff through Roselli. Bioff's response to the news - "Now, we're all in trouble" - concerned his higher-ups in the mob. Outfit leaders feared that Bioff would make a deal with the federal prosecutor and reveal their connection to the racket. The underworld bosses wanted to kill Bioff in order to resolve the issue, but Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti talked them out of it. Nitti convinced them that Bioff was a "stand-up guy" and could be trusted to keep his mouth shut.

Bioff and Browne were convicted in November 1941 of extorting more than half a million dollars from movie studio bosses at Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and other companies during the 1930s. (Bioff later admitted that the total profit was more than a million dollars. The figure was subsequently inflated in the press to $2.5 million.) Bioff was sentenced to ten years in prison. Brown was sentenced to eight years. Each man was fined $20,000.

Browne
While in custody, Bioff betrayed his underworld colleagues and provided evidence to investigators. He confessed that he had arranged annual studio payments ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the studio, and revealed that the racket was directed by a group of crime figures. By cooperating, he earned a sentence commutation - he and Browne were released in 1944 - but he also incurred the wrath of the Chicago Outfit.

Bioff grand jury testimony in 1943 resulted in indictments against Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti, Charles "Cherry Nose" Gioe, Frank "Frankie Diamond" Maritote, Johnny Roselli, Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Paul "the Waiter" Ricca (DeLucia), Phil D'Andrea and Ralph Pierce of the Oufit, as well as IATSE business agent Louis Kaufman. Upon learning of the indictments on March 19, 1943, Nitti, friend and staunch defender of Bioff to that time, shot himself in front of witnesses.

The other Outfit mobsters were successfully prosecuted and sentenced on Dec. 31, 1943, to ten years in prison. Gioe, Campagna, Ricca and D'Andrea received early paroles in summer of 1947. Many expected immediate action against the Outfit traitor Bioff. But years passed without any related news.

In 1955, all the past unpleasantness seemed forgotten. Bioff and his wife Laurie were living under assumed names (Mr. and Mrs. William Nelson) in Phoenix, Arizona. There seemed little threat of underworld retribution for Bioff's betrayal. Involved Chicago mobsters had long ago served their prison terms and completed their probations. Most of them were no longer among the living.

Nitti shot himself in front of witnesses immediately upon learning of the extortion indictments. Charles Gioe and Frank Maritote were shot to death in August of 1954. (The FBI determined that their murders were due to Johnny Roselli's suspicions that they had cooperated with federal authorities.) Phil D'Andrea and Louis Campagna had died, reportedly of natural causes, in 1952 and 1955, respectively. (Ricca, Pierce and Roselli lived into the 1970s. Ricca and Pierce died of natural causes, in 1972 and 1976, respectively. Roselli was the victim of an apparent gangland execution in the summer of 1976.)


Evidence of some lingering hostility was seen on the morning of Nov. 4, 1955: Fifty-five-year-old Bioff climbed into his pickup truck inside his home garage. As he stepped on the starter, an explosion suddenly shook the neighborhood.

According to a press account, "The blast threw Bioff twenty-five feet and scattered wreckage over a radius of several hundred. It left only the twisted frame, the motor and the truck wheels. The garage door was blown out, the roof shattered and windows in the Bioff home and several neighboring houses were broken. Jagged chunks of metals tore holes in the wall of a home 100 feet away. The blast rattled windows a mile away."

Bioff's body, minus both legs and a right hand, were found 25 feet from the explosion.


A representative of the local sheriff's office told the press, "I don't know whether this was a professional gangster job or not, but it certainly was an effective one."

Phoenix police had noted a visit to the city of Outfit leader Anthony Accardo a short time before the murder of Bioff but could not meaningfully connect the visit to the bombing. No one was ever convicted for Bioff's murder.

See also:
Sources:
  • Lahey, Edwin A., "Willie Bioff, who sent Capone Mob to prison, should rest easier with Maritote's death," Des Moines IA Tribune, Aug. 24, 1954, p. 13.
  • Lee, Eddie, "Blast in Phoenix kills Willie Bioff," Arizona Daily Star, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • Loughran, Robert T., "Underworld caught up with 'Fat Willie' Bioff," Sheboygan WI Press (United Press), Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • McLain, Gene, "Willie Bioff blown to bits! Bombed at Phoenix home," Arizona Republic, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • Parker, Lowell, "Willie Bioff has reason to complain he'd been 'Peglerized,'" Arizona Republic, May 7, 1975, p. 6.
  • Wendt, Lloyd, "The men who prey on labor," Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1941, p. Graphic Section 2.
  • Yost, Newton E., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI report, file no. 92-6054-683, July 22, 1964, NARA no. 124-10208-10406.
  • "Campagna, Gioe ordered freed in parole fight," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 1948, p. 17.
  • "Blast in truck kills Willie Bioff, once Hollywood racket leader," New York Times, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • "Revenge-bent gang killed Bioff, view," Sheboygan WI Press, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.

19 April 2017

April 19, 1932: Luciano, Lansky nabbed in Chicago

Paul Ricca, Sylvester Agoglia, Salvatore "Charlie Luciano" Lucania,
Meyer Lansky, John Senna, Harry Brown.

On this date in 1932: Police arrested New York racketeers Salvatore "Charlie Luciano" Lucania and Meyer Lansky during their visit to underworld colleagues in Chicago. 

The two men had been under surveillance around the clock since arriving in the Windy City two days earlier. They were picked up by police as they headed out of their hotel to board a train back to New York. Police found them in the company of Chicago Outfit figures Paul Ricca, Sylvester Agoglia, Harry Brown and John Senna.

Chicago Daily Tribune, April 20, 1932.


19 March 2017

Chicago Outfit big shot shoots self

On this date in 1943, Chicago Outfit leader Frank Nitti responded to news of a federal indictment by sending his wife to pray a novena, getting himself drunk and then firing a bullet into his brain. 


Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943.
The indictment was not entirely a surprise. Chicago mob bosses were well aware that their plot to extort millions from the motion picture industry and theater projectionists had been exposed. Willie Bioff - hand-picked by Nitti to oversee the racket - and Bioff's more visible partners had already been convicted in federal court. And it was clear that federal investigators were not done. News from New York suggested that some mob big-shots in Chicago were likely to be indicted. It seemed certain that Bioff was aiding the investigators, but the extent of the damage was not known until March 19, 1943.

Chicago Daily Tribune
Oct. 25, 1941
That's when authorities in New York announced that indictments for racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud had been returned against Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti (real name Nitto), Paul "the Waiter" Ricca (DeLucia), Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Philip D'Andrea, Charles "Cherry Nose" Gioe, Ralph Pierce and Francis "Frank Diamond" Maritote. Bioff's betrayal had been complete.

Nitti had bet his reputation - and, likely, his life - on Bioff's reliability. When the extortion plot first came to light with complaints that mobsters controlled the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees (IATSE), Outfit leaders contemplated severing their most dangerous connection to IATSE by murdering Bioff. Bioff reportedly survived only because Nitti opposed the idea.

On the morning of March 19, attorney A. Bradley Eben (a former assistant U.S. attorney) called the Nitti home at 712 Selborne Road in Riverside, Illinois, and provided his client with news of the indictments. Nitti made arrangements to meet with Eben at his law office that afternoon, but the mob boss actually had other plans.

Nitti told his wife of nine months, Antoinette (known as "Toni") Caravetta Nitto, to begin a prayer novena at Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Chicago's west side. (The Sorrowful Mother Novena was an enormously popular service at the church from the late 1930s into the 1950s.) She left the house at 1:15 that afternoon.

Nitti was next seen by railroad employees at about three o'clock, as he staggered along the Illinois Central tracks near Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road, less than a mile from his Selborne Road home. As the railroad men called out to him, the intoxicated Nitti leaned back against a chain-link fence, drew a handgun and fired it twice, sending bullets through his hat. Positioning the weapon more carefully, he then fired a third shot. The slug entered the right side of his head near his ear and traveled upward, lodging in the top of his skull.

Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943.
When police arrived, they found Nitti's driver's license and Selective Service draft card - both made out in the name Frank Nitto - in his pockets. The documents gave his birthdate as Jan. 27, 1886. The draft card contained his Selborne Road address. The license, however, showed an address of 1208 Lexington Street in Chicago, which belonged to Lucia Ronga, mother of his first wife, the late Anna Theresa Ronga Nitto.

Toni Nitto returned home about a half hour later. "The first I knew of what had happened was when [the police] came and told me he was dead," she later told the press. "I knew something was wrong. There were always strange men watching our house. He knew something was up, too. Frank wasn't well - it was his stomach, nerves I think. They were always after him. They wouldn't let him alone. They made him do this."

Toni's brother Charles appeared at the coroner's inquest to testify that Nitti had been dealing with a number of issues: "He was suffering with a heart ailment and he had stomach trouble. I think he was temporarily insane." Some sources indicated that Nitti was also suffering with physical pain from a serious gunshot wound suffered back in 1932 and with lingering emotional pain from the death of his first wife in November of 1940.

A federal informant provided a more direct explanation for Nitti's suicide: "It was that or be killed. [The Outfit] held Nitti responsible for the problem. Bioff has been his man and it was Nitti who had persuaded the group to withdraw the original 'hit' order on Bioff. It was felt that if they had killed Bioff earlier in the investigation, his death would have silenced most prospective witnesses."

Nitti's estate was valued at greater than $74,000. That was divided between the widow Toni and Joseph, Nitti's son by his first marriage.

What happened to Willie Bioff? Click here.

Sources:
  • World War II draft registration card, serial no. U2138.
  • Yost, Newton E., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI report, file no. 92-6054-683, NARA no. 124-10208-10406, July 22, 1964, p. 18.

  • Fulton, William, "5 aliases bob up to haunt Bioff at extort trial," Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 30, 1941, p. 2.
  • "List gangsters who prey on Chicago unions," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 18, 1943, p. 1.
  • Wiegman, Carl, "Nitti kills himself!," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 1.
  • "Gang leader Nitti kills himself in Chicago after indictment here," New York Times, March 20, 1943, p. 30.
  • "Nitti long held business chief of underworld," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 6.
  • Geserick, June, "Nitti sent wife to church at hour of suicide," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 6.
  • "FBI hunts new clews bearing on Nitti suicide," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1943, p. 3.
  • "Nitti's widow once was secretary for slain Edw. J. O'Hare," Dixon IL Evening Telegraph, March 22, 1943, p. 7.
  • Wiegman, Carl, "Schenck bares Bioff threats; cash paid here," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 26, 1943, p. 2.
  • "Swears Nitti was treasurer of movie union," Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1943, p. 6.
  • "Bioff reveals tributes paid by movie firms," Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 8, 1943, p. 15.
  • "Frank Nitti leaves $75,000 estate," Bloomington IL Pantagraph, Oct. 12, 1943, p. 1.