Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Angelo Genna's Violent Life and Death

Angelo Genna was the toughest, meanest, and most violent of the Genna brothers. Hot-headed superstitious, and quick with a trigger, the Chicago police were so afraid of him, they refused to serve warrants for his arrest. But Angelo Genna got his on May 27, 1925, when he was driving south on Ogden Ave., at the intersection of Hudson Ave. and Menomenee St.

Angelo, who was born in Sicily, came to Chicago with six of his brothers about 1910. The family became involved in running "Black Hand" style extortion plots, in which prominent businessmen, especially Italians, were forced to pay ransom or be killed, and Angelo was the muscle that made certain the payments came in. His ability to make others do his bidding through force made him especially fit for politics, and Angelo and the other Gennas became street-level recruiters for Tony D'Andrea in his ongoing political battle with long-time incumbent 19th ward alderman John "Johnny De Pow" Powers. As discussed in greater detail in this post, the 19th was primarily an Irish neighborhood in the 1880s when Powers was elected, but by the 1910s, was occupied primarily by Italians (especially Sicilians).

While Powers was largely successful in maintaining his hold on power, Tony D'Andrea sought to use the demographic shift in the ward to build a winning coalition of Italian voters. In 1921, he very nearly defeated Powers, but lost by the slimmest of margins. The election was a bloody one, with bombs exploded at Powers' home and at a mass meeting of D'Andrea supporters. The Gennas, who supported D'Andrea, were upset by his loss. They blamed Powers for the election violence, but more so, they hated their fellow Italian countrymen who had voted for him.

A few weeks after the election, on May 6, 1921, one of Ald. Powers' precinct captains and a long-time municipal court bailiff, Paul Labriola, who was Sicilian, left his home on W. Congress St., and walked west towards Halsted St. Labriola had been receiving disturbing telephone and mail threats ever since the election, but considered it all part of electoral politics in Chicago. He had dined with the victorious Ald. Powers just a few days before, and looked forward to enjoying further political spoils.

Before Labriola had walked more than fifty feet from his home, he was greeted by two men coming around the corner. Labriola recognized the men and words were exchanged. Suddenly, three more men came up from behind Labriola, and pistol shots rang out as all five began firing heavy-caliber lead at him. As Labriola fell to the ground, one of the men stood above him and fired three more gratuitous bullets into the bailiff's body, then the assailants dropped their weapons and fled down an alley.

Initially, the police believed Sam "Samoots" Amatuna and Frank Gambina, two prominent D'Andrea supporters, were among the shooters. They could find no solid evidence against the two, however. But then they found an eyewitness who fingered Angelo Genna, the wild gunman of Taylor Street.

The police arrested Angelo, and brought him to trial in October of 1921. The prosecution brought their eyewitness, Peter Eliopulas, to the stand:

"He killed him; Genna killed him!," Eliopulas exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "I was standing near the corner of Halsted and Congress streets when I heard a shot. Running to Congress street, I saw Labriola lying on the ground. A man, Genna, was standing over him. He shot him three times as he lay on the ground."

Eliopulas, who was neither Sicilian nor involved in 19th ward politics, seemed a believable witness, and whispers went around that Genna would be spending the 1920s behind bars. Until, that is, a teenager named Nick Ginopvolous, took the stand for the defense. Ginopvulos explained to a patient jury that Alderman Powers had offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of Labriola's killer. Eliopulas had approached Ginopvulos, he claimed, and offered him a share of the reward if he could provide a second eyewitness account of Genna's presence at the murder scene.

The court was in an uproar. Was Eliopulas just an opportunist, or were the Gennas behind Ginopvulos' testimony? The prosecution tried to staunch the hemmorage in their case by bringing other witnesses to the stand who could testify that Angelo had been in the neighborhood that day, but the damage was done. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and Angelo walked out of court a free man.

(Pictured: Angelo Genna, who stood 5'6" and 195 lbs.)

The death of Labriola, however, set off a blood vendetta between warring Italian political factions in the 19th, which eventually claimed 30 lives over the following three years. One of the earlier victims of this war of attrition was a close friend of the Genna family, Nicola Maggio. Again, Angelo Genna was very upset.

On March, 16, 1922, Paul Notte, a stockyards saloon-keeper who was believed to be close to Maggio's killer, left his home and began walking the half-block to his workplace. In front of his new bride, who was expecting, his wife, and his sister-in-law, Notte was approached by a short, stout man, and a few words were exchanged. Then the stranger drew his revolver and fired five shots and Notte, dropping him to the street before running off.

Notte was rushed to the hospital, where Chicago detective Edward Murphy questioned him.

"You know who shot me," croaked the dying Notte.

"No, I don't, Paul. Who was it?"

"The youngest one of those three brothers who run a poolroom in Taylor street."


"I don't know the name."

Lieut. Murphy rushed to Angelo Genna's home on Blue Island Ave., and not finding him there, went to the Genna headquarters on Taylor street, where he found his suspect. Murphy arrested Angelo and brought him to Notte's bedside, where, in front of his family, doctors, and police, Notte identified Angelo Genna as his attacker. A few hours later, Notte was dead.

Angelo's brothers, Anthony and James, were also arrested, but only Notte's death-bed testimony was considered strong enough to prosecute, so again, Angelo Genna alone stood for trial on murder charges. This time, Genna's attorney cross-examined the attending physicians at the hospital where Notte had died. Were any drugs given to the patient before he died? Yes, of course. Could any of those drugs have clouded his judgment, or made it difficult for him to remember the facts of his case? I suppose, under the right circumstances.

With the dead man's testimony in question, prosecutors decided to nolle prosse the case. Again, Angelo Genna was a free man. After two murder indictments and no convictions, Angelo's legend grew in the Sicilian community. "Angelo the Immune" replaced "Bloody Angelo" as his street nickname. But Angelo's luck, in court and in life, would run out soon enough.

In August of 1922, two Genna family friends, Henry Penna and Philip Maltese stood accused in the sexual attack of a 15-year old girl, Genevieve Court. When it became clear that Court would testify against the two, they kidnapped her and took her to Milwaukee, where they raped her ("mistreated her," in the language of the newspapers of the day) and left her alone in a boarding house with no way to get home. Eventually, a search party conducted by Court's parents located her, and she returned to Chicago.

Again, she was more than willing to testify against her attackers in open court. In criminal court, she fingered Maltese and Penna as her attackers, and each was sentenced to one year in the state penitentiary, plus a $1,000 fine, a relatively minor punishment for a horrific crime. Maltese and Penna considered themselves lucky.

But then, the two were unexpectedly dragged into federal court to be charged with violations of the Mann Act, the 1910 "white slavery" law inspired by the Chicago case of Mona Marshall, which enforced heavy sentences on those convicted of transporting women across state lines for sexual purposes. If convicted, Maltese and Penna would face serious hard time in federal penitentiary.

Again, young Genevieve Court was willing to testify in court. Having done so already, Maltese and Penna realized she would certainly do so again. Two days before her date in court, Maltese, who was out on bail while awaiting the federal trial, and his close family friend, Angelo Genna, paid a visit to Miss Court, threatening her and her family with death if she should testify in the Mann Act case.

On the day of her hearing, Genevieve Court showed up before U.S. Commissioner Lews F. Mason, and walked to the stand. She opened her mouth, but then she looked out over the audience. In the first row, staring directly at her, was Angelo Genna. One look into his dark, terrifying eyes, and a wave of visible fear ripped through Miss Court. She began to sob. It was all a lie, she said: There was no attack, no rape, no kidnapping; Penna and Maltese were completely innocent.

A dumbstruck prosecutor quickly wised up to what had happened. After the hearing, he grilled Genevieve. Had anyone threatened her if she testified against her attackers in this case? With the redoubtable Genna out of sight, Genevieve's courage slowly returned. She admitted that Genna and Maltese had intimidated her.

When the prosecutor brought this fact to the attention of the judge in this case, he signed a federal arrest warrant for Angelo Genna's capture. First, he tasked the Chicago police with serving the warrant, but they knew how dangerous Angelo was, and they "didn't want to take any foolhardy chances" with a police invasion and manhunt in the 19th. With local police officers unable to serve the warrant, a team of U.S. deputy marshals was tasked with instructions to "go into the Nineteenth ward and bring him in."

Within a few days, they did, and in November of 1922, Angelo Genna suffered his first conviction in court, for intimidating a witness (the Mann Act case against Penna and Maltese was not prosecuted further, however). With the "Terror of the 19th Ward" soon to be behind bars, Chicago police chief Fitzmorris held a celebratory dinner, with the marshals who had served Genna's warrant as the guests of honor.

Angelo Genna, free on bail before sentencing, began an attempt to flee the country and return to Italy to avoid prison, but when word of his plans leaked, each witness in the trial was given a personal bodyguard until the sentencing hearing, and the federal judge in the case issued a writ of attachment for "Angelo Genna or his body." Again, a squad of fearless U.S. marshals, armed to the teeth, invaded the 19th ward and captured Genna. A few days later, "Angelo the Immune" was sentenced to one year plus one day at Leavenworth prison.

Prison appears to have slightly cooled the temper of the young Genna, and when he emerged from the penitentiary, he returned to Chicago in a mood to make money and mostly avoid trouble. Helping his brothers operate the massive dispersed Sicilian distilling network throughout Little Italy, which supplied the Torrio-Capone syndicate with a major share of the booze they retailed, Angelo Genna was able to move out of the poverty-stricken 19th ward and up to a cozy $400/month hotel condo overlooking the Lake at Belmont Ave.

In January, 1924, the young vice entrepreneur married into one of the city's wealthiest and most prominent Italian families when he wed Lucille Spignola, sister to Henry Spignola, a top attorney of the time, who was a long-time Genna family friend. The wedding was one of the largest in Chicago history, with 3,000 guests, and offered the biggest cake anyone could remember, tipping the scales at just over 1 ton.

(Pictured: Lucille Spignola, Mrs. Angelo Genna)

In May, 1925, Angelo Genna and his wife were making plans to move to ritzy new home in suburban Oak Park. Genna left his Belmont harbor home, drove south on Sheridan Rd. in his roadster coupe, and turned southwest on Ogden Ave., which at that time extended all the way to Lincoln Park.

As he approached Hudson Ave., a large black touring car carrying four "characteristically 'unknown' assailants," as the Tribune described them, sped up next to Genna's car. The passengers fired a dozen shotgun bullets into Angelo Genna's car, causing him to lose control and crash into a lamppost. As his attackers gunned the engine and escaped, Angelo began to lose consciousness.

Rushed to the hospital, the life was draining out of Angelo's eyes. Police Sgt. Roy Hessler came to his deathbed.

"You're going to die, Angelo. Tell us who bumped you off," he pleaded noirishly.

But Angelo just shrugged his shoulders, and closed his eyes. In his last moments, he continued to adhere to the gangsters' code of silence, the same one that had shielded him from prison throughout his life. The Tribune noted,
...the folks who seem to be in the know about Taylor and Halsted streets, reiterate, quite simply, the formula that has worked in so many of the recent murders since the days of bootlegging.

"You'll know who murdered Angelo when the next big guy in the neighborhood is murdered."
But the next "big guys" murdered were all of Angelo's family members. Brother Mike was killed in a shootout with police just three weeks later. A month after that, brother Tony was gunned down on a West side street corner. Brother-in-law Henry Spignoli was killed the following year, and the Genna reign of terror was over as the remaining brothers wisely fled back to Sicily.

Who was killing the Gennas? The most likely theory is that Angelo Genna's death was one of vengeance for the death of Dion O'Banion in November, 1924. Angelo was considered one of the prime suspects in that case, in which the Northside mobster and bootlegger O'Banion, who had famously feuded with the Gennas, was gunned down inside his N. State Street flower shop and headquarters. In this theory, the shooters in the touring car were O'Banion's followers, most likely including Vincent "Schemer" Drucci, Frank Gusenberg, George "Bugs" Moran, and Earl "Hymie" Weiss.

A more speculative theory, but one that has a certain ring of believability to it, was that Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, putatively partners in crime with the Gennas, were afraid of their growing power, and wanted their own man, Tony Lombardo, to hold political control over the city's Sicilian population and their basement stills. Consistent with this theory, Lombardo appears to have taken over the presidency of the main Sicilian political organization, the Unione Siciliana, in 1925 after the death of its previous president, Angelo Genna. Also, the car used in the attack turned out to have been stolen from a resident at 5742 W. 22nd Street in Cicero, just a few blocks from Ralph Capone's Cotton Club, in the town where Al Capone was practically mayor.

Nevertheless, Angelo Genna's funeral, like his wedding, was one of the grandest in Chicago history. Refused a church burial by Roman Catholic Cardinal Mundelein, he was buried at Mt. Carmel cemetary in Hillside in a vault said to cost $10,000, encased in a $6,000 casket which weighed 1,200 lbs and nearly broke through the back porch of the funeral parlor. The flowers for the funeral were believed to have cost upwards of $75,000, including a grand 8-foot tall piece, heavy on lilies, sent by Al Capone, and a huge vase full of pink and white carnations, courtesy of Johnny Torrio, who was incarcerated in Lake County at the time (this proves little regarding the two's potential culpability, since it was common for gangsters to send flowers to the funerals of both their friends and their enemies). At the funeral, which was attended by thosands, a quartet of police officers from the Gennas' local Maxwell Street station frisked everyone for weapons before they could near the gravesite.

(Pictured: Angelo Genna's 1,200 lb. casket at his funeral)

The Tribune, for its part, used the opportunity of Angelo Genna's death to opine on the inferior traditions and weak-mindedness of southern Europeans, in relation to northern Europeans and "native" Americans (probably not a reference to Navajos).
The funeral of Angelo Genna provides an interesting commentary on our city. This crude yet costly glorification of a man of blood is a straight transplantation from Sicily or Sardinia, where to a simple folk the bandit leader is the prince of heroes. The American of native or northern European tradition must observe such a pageant with a new realization of the gulf which lies betwen his mind and moral system and those of Genna's colony.

That is, in fact, what the gathering at Genna's obsequies represents, not America but a foreign colony imported virtually intact and representing a stage of old world history centuries gone save among the mountain peoples of southern and eastern Europe. Considered as a graphic illustration in the argument for our new immigration policy, the Genna funeral is admirable.
For some reason, the Trib editors seemed to have forgotten the equally-if-not-more-ostentatious funeral thrown for mobster Dion O'Banion, an Irishman, just a few months before Angelo Genna's.

Ogden Ave., where Angelo Genna was driving when he was killed, has been completely vacated on the north side. At the corner of Hudson and Menomenee, where Ogden would have cut through, the diagonal sidewalk through the park (pictured below), harkens back to the road that was once there. For more on the history of Ogden Ave., see here.

At the corner where the most violent of the "Terrible" Gennas was shot, today stands a beautiful and peaceful Buddhist temple.


Anonymous said...

Good work.Very interesting.

There are so many interesting untold stories in Chicago. Someone will capitalize on them and Genna's story will become a movie.

Anonymous said...

salve, sono una vostra parente, mi chiamo giovanna fici e sono figlia di vitina rosaria genna,a sua volta figlia di giovanni genna che era figlio di peter genna e vitina licari; e sono di marsala (sicilia),spero di essere stata chiara, è da molto tempo che desidero conoscere i miei parenti americani, solo ora ho trovato il contatto. voi siete parte della storia della mia famiglia, contattatemi, lascio email

Stephanie said...

Detective Edward Murphy was my Great Grandfather and was killed in the line of duty in 1928. Thanks for including him in this narrative. FYI: He was friends with Al Capone.

Unknown said...

The Genna's were my great-grandmother's cousins and I've heard a bunch of nasty things about their tactics. If they were not killed so early, they could have been as powerful as Al Capone, however, Angelo's temper got the best of him.

Unknown said...

the genna brothers were major bootleggers in the early days of prohibition.

Anonymous said...

None of you know what you are talking about....I am the wife of a Genna and so many facts in your article are wrong and misleading. if you want true facts check out a site called this has the most verifiably true information I have found out there.

Anonymous said...

Im gennas great great great grandson.....

Anonymous said...

My grandmothers uncle is angelo genna..its not anything to brag about.

Slickchick said...

my cousins mothers step-sisters great uncle was Tony Genna's room mate's brother.

Anonymous said...

Ur all liars...cant help it huh?

Anonymous said...

My great grandmother used to give knob jobs to the Genna brothers. They paid a nickel each, which was big money then. She never swallowed though.

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