Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Terrible Genna" Headquarters

The Genna brothers, Pete, Sam, Jim, Tony, Angelo, and Mike, organized the massive dispersed labor force that produced distilled spirits for the Torrio-Capone syndicate during Prohibition. Their warehouse and headquarters, disguised to almost no one as an olive oil and cheese import business, was located on this parking lot, at 1022 W. Taylor, in the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy. The Gennas were the most crucial element in the liquor supply chain, and control over their operations was largely the source of the bloody Chicago Beer Wars of the 1920s.

There were seven Genna Brothers born in Sicily, and six of these came to America in 1910, settling in Chicago. They represented the worst of the dark, superstitious, and vengeful stereotypes of that island, and most everyone – the police and even other violent gangsters included – was deeply afraid of them. They got their start as Black Hand extortionists and as enforcers for Italian politician Tony D’Andrea in his long-running and violent feud with rival 19th ward alderman Johnny Powers. After D’Andrea’s assassination in 1921, the Gennas took control of the old D’Andrea headquarters at 1022 W. Taylor, known as the Italian-American Educational Club, and began reorganizing D’Andrea’s constituents into a massive and dispersed distilling organization.

Jim Genna was the oldest and the leader of the clan. Pete started as a saloonkeeper on the Westside and was the master of operations in the business. Sam was the political connection, Angelo supplied the tough guy muscle, and Mike was the runt of the family, subordinate to the others. Tony was a self-styled aristocrat, working as an architect and living at the posh Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue. He publicly disdained the criminal activities of his brothers, although when needed, he helped out in the family business as well, and in fact, he eventually gave his life for it.

The photo below shows the Genna family at the height of its power. From left to right, the men in the picture are Sam, Angelo, Pete, Tony, and Jim. Mike was likely the photographer.
The purpose of the Volstead Act, otherwise known as federal Prohibition, was to reduce alcohol consumption, which it did to a mild degree: a study of cirrhosis death rates indicates that alcohol consumption declined around 10-20% during the 1920s. At the same time, Volstead had a number of important unintended consequences, particularly for the way illegal alcohol was produced.

Since large distilleries would be difficult to keep hidden from law and revenue enforcement officials, and because a single raid on such an outfit could have a major impact on profits, the Gennas devised an ingenious method of dividing up their operations among thousands of small back-room stills. They offered $15 per day (a pittance of their profit, but roughly three times average unskilled labor earnings at the time) to each Sicilian family that would keep 50 gallons of corn sugar alcohol “cooking” in their home. Largely illiterate and impoverished, but accustomed to the home distilling process from life in the Old World, these families were more than willing to comply, and so all the streets of Little Italy reeked with the sweet smell of Genna mash. Through the inability to take advantage of the substantial economies of scale in distilling, Prohibition led to an enormous waste of societal resources, including the labor of thousands of immigrant Sicilians, drawn into the industry by the Gennas.

Prohibition also severely limited the ability of alcohol producers to brand and advertise their product and so build public reputations for quality. In doing so, it eliminated incentives for producers to engage in quality controls common in legal industries. Indeed, the Gennas’ product was disgusting and often deadly. Ordinarily, scotch and whisky achieve their amber hue and smooth flavor through a lengthy process of aging in wooden casks. Genna spirits, on the other hand, were no better than industrial quality, colored with food dye, and cut with glycerol in order to make it swallowable. Police raids in later years found dead rats and other impurities in the liquor barrels stored at the warehouse. These issues led to frequent alcohol poisonings, blindings, and deaths in Chicago that, in a legal market for booze, would have turned the Genna brand name to mud and scared customers away.

A third consequence of Prohibition was increased levels of violence as alcohol producers could no longer rely on the legal system to adjudicate disputes with employees, suppliers, and each other. The Gennas were among the most violent gangsters in Chicago history. In May, 1921, Angelo Genna was arrested for the murder of Paul Labriola, a supporter of Tony D’Andrea’s political rival. Twenty-five witnesses from the Club the Gennas later controlled as their headquarters testified that Angelo had been at the Club during the shooting. Moreover, on the last day of the trial, the state’s chief witness changed his story and claimed he had been paid to finger Angelo Genna as the killer. Genna went free.

Less than a year later, Angelo Genna was again arrested for murder, in this case of Paul Notte, in a long-running family feud. Notte named Angelo as his assassin with his dying words, but the testimony was thrown out of court when it was revealed that Notte was under the influence of medication at the time of his death. Again, Angelo went free.

He was not quite so lucky later in 1922, when he was arrested for threatening to kill Genevieve Court, a 15 year old girl who was prepared to testify in a Mann Act case against a Genna family associate, Henry Maltese, that Maltese had kidnapped her to Milwaukee and raped her before attempting to sell her into prostitution. Angelo Genna told Court that she and her family were marked for death if she testified. On the day of her testimony, Angelo sat in the gallery directly opposite the witness stand and gave her the famous Italian “Look,” reminding her of his threats. She recanted on the stand, but later admitted to police what Angelo had done. So fearsome was Angelo’s reputation that in this case, local officials refused to enter Little Italy to serve his arrest warrant. Federal marshals, however, did arrest Genna, and he was convicted and served one year at Leavenworth prison. Angelo Genna is pictured below:

Corruption of public officials was another inevitable consequence of Prohibition, and Genna headquarters was so frequently visited by police officers receiving bribes that it became jokingly known as “the police station.” The Gennas paid out over $8,000 per month in bribes to over 300 officers, mostly from the nearby Maxwell district stationhouse. After the Genna empire tumbled, police “raided” the headquarters and produced a few barrels of liquor for the press, but the true purpose of the raid was to destroy as much evidence of their graft as possible (and to steal and sell the rest of the booze in the warehouse).

By 1923, the Gennas' alky-cooking labor force had become the source for most of the distilled spirits sold by the Syndicate run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Though neither Torrio nor Capone were Sicilians, they cultivated close ties with Mike Merlo, the president of the Unione Siciliana, a political and community organization widely trusted among Little Italy’s Sicilian populace.

One person upset by this partnership was Dion O’Banion, the leader of the Northside gang, which was nominally connected to – or at least at a truce with – Torrio and Capone. Like the Gennas, O’Banion’s gang specialized in spirits, and when the Gennas began selling on the Northside, the former alterboy-turned-singing waiter-turned-florist-turned-gangster O’Banion sought revenge.

“To Hell with the Sicilians,” he was heard to say, and he began hijacking trucks distributing Genna liquor. The Gennas probably would have killed O’Banion immediately, but Torrio and Merlo imposed peace for the sake of business interests and profit.

However, after O’Banion framed Johnny Torrio during the May, 1924 raid on Seiben Brewery, and after Mike Merlo died from natural causes on November 8, 1924, no one was left to shield the Northside Irishman from Sicilian vengeance. Two days after Merlo's death, on November 10, 1924, Mike Genna and two feared Sicilian hitmen, John Scalisi and Alberto Anselmi, killed Dion O’Banion in his flower shop on State St., starting a feud between the Northsiders and the Torrio-Capone Outfit that would last the rest of the decade, culminating in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The end of the Genna empire came quickly and spectacularly. In May, 1925, Angelo Genna was shot while driving his car, sending him careening into a lamppost on Ogden Ave. One month later, in June, Mike Genna (pictured below) was in a car with Scalisi and Anselmi that ended up in a wild high-speed chase with police through the streets of the Southside. After the car carrying Genna crashed, a shootout took place which ended the lives of two police officers and Mike Genna. The next month, July, saw Tony Genna, the aristocratic architect, murdered on a Westside street corner. With their ranks thinned by 50%, the three remaining brothers quit the Chicago rackets and fled back to Italy.

The murders of Tony and Angelo, and the rationale for the battle that killed Mike, were never known with certainty. The most likely theory involves revenge attacks by O’Banion’s followers, who blamed the Gennas for their leader’s death. At trial, Scalisi and Anselmi, who survived the gunplay that killed Mike Genna, claimed they had been involved in a shootout with Northside gangsters “Schemer” Drucci and “Bugs” Moran earlier in the day; thus, they mistakenly believed the police cruiser tailing them was Drucci and Moran pursuing a continuation of the battle, and the shooting of the two police officers was thus self-defense (they also conveniently claimed the shooter was the dead man, Mike Genna).

An alternative theory is that the Gennas had become powerful and rich enough to do without Capone, and were planning a takeover of the Big Fellow’s operations. In this theory, Capone became aware of the plot and hired Scalisi and Anselmi to kill Angelo and Tony, and to take Mike Genna “for a ride,” which they were doing when they were surprised by the police, starting the shootout.

In any case, the “Terrible Genna” reign of terror in Chicago was over by the fall of 1925, although there were other gangsters only too happy to pick up where they had left off. Jim Genna (pictured below) continued his criminal behavior in Italy, serving two years in prison there for jewel theft. Later, he entered into respectable business, operating a vacuum repair shop in Rome. Pete and Sam lived the rest of their lives in anonymity.
Public outrage over the Gennas’ crimes, and the Sicilian community’s complicity, reinforced political attempts to limit Southern European immigration. Even the Tribune cited the example of the Gennas in a 1926 editorial, published during Scalisi and Anselmi’s trial, using rhetoric that just as easily could have come from commentators in some quarters today:

As long as this country permits the importation of murderers, so long will it make little progress in suppressing murder. The city and state officials are not chiefly to blame; the responsibility falls directly upon the federal government. The immigration laws are not enforced. The examination of prospective immigrants is not sufficiently rigid. The sifting process is bungled. The meshes are too large and the work is too hasty. Men whose criminal records might easily have been learned are permitted through carelessness or indifference to enter the country. If by chance a criminal is excluded at Ellis Island he is able without much difficulty to cross the border at another point. There are countrymen of his within the gates to give him a helping hand.
After Prohibition, the Genna headquarters building was converted into a hardware store owned by the Chiarugi family, which remained until the mid-1960s, when it was demolished in urban renewal efforts (the Chiarugis moved their shop a few blocks west, where it exists today). The spot holds a parking lot today. The Little Italy neighborhood, far from the impoverished slum it was only a few decades ago, is a desirable and gentrified town-and-gown neighborhood, home to many students and faculty from nearby University of Illinois at Chicago.


Unknown said...

the genna brothers were legends of the prohibition era.

Unknown said...

My great grandmother was first cousins with the Gennas. Would love to connect with relatives in Chicago. My email is

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Anonymous said...

My father was a friend, through work, of Tony Henna who was, apparently a son of one of the brothers. When I was very young in the 50's, I remember going to an apartment on West Taylor Street to visit. The grandma was there, and there were always lots of people and plenty of food!

Anonymous said...

My father was friends, through work, of Tony Genna, who was, apparently a son of one of the brothers. I remember going to visit at an apartment on West Taylor Street in the 50's. There we're always a lot of people there and plenty of food!

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Unknown said...

After the shootout with the police, Mike Genna ran down an alley and attempted to hide in the basement of my husband's grandparents house at 5941 Artesian St. My grandmother-in-law Elenaor Knoblauch testified at the trial for the defense. The family story is that the gangsters later thanked her for her assistance with a diamond stick-pin.

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Unknown said...

The Genna brothers were my great great uncle's, my grandfather told many stories about his uncle's and their Tommy guns and fast cars.

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