Saturday, August 29, 2009

Death in the Barber's Chair: The Rise and Fall of Sam Amatuna

Unione Siciliana president Mike Merlo had kept the peace between rival alcohol-production organizations in Prohibition-era Chicago through his death in 1924. Over the next year, the violent war between the “Bloody” Genna brothers, operators of a gigantic dispersed distilling operation in Little Italy, and the Northside Gang headed by Dion O’Banion, heated up, and news of assassinations filled the city’s newspapers. Into this tinderbox stepped the dapper Don of the Maxwell Street district, Salvatore Samuzzo Amatuna (frequently known as Sam or even “Samoots”). As head of the powerful Unione, the young Amatuna struck a pose as a political kingmaker and gadabout in the Sicilian community, but he couldn’t bring peace to the underworld, and the bloody beer wars escalated until they claimed Amatuna himself as a victim, as he sat in a barbershop here, at 804 W. Roosevelt Rd.

Amatuna was born in the seafaring town of Pozzallo, Sicily, at the far south end of that island, in 1899. As a teenager, he found his way to Chicago, settling in the “Little Italy” district along Maxwell Street in the early 1910s. Like many young Sicilians in the neighborhood at the time, he found his calling in politics, providing the street-level muscle in the increasingly violent war over the aldermanic seat in the 19th ward, which included Little Italy. John Powers had held the seat since 1888, when the 19th was predominantly populated by Irish, but by the 1910s, Powers was presiding over an increasingly-Italian ward, and the new immigrants had their own rising political stars, including “Diamond Joe” Esposito and former Roman Catholic priest and convicted counterfeiter, Anthony D’Andrea.

D’Andrea ran against Powers’ right-hand man, James Bowler in the aldermanic election of 1916 (in those days, each ward had two aldermen), and the race was close, despite pre-election revelations about D’Andrea’s criminal past. Not all Italians in the 19th supported D’Andrea, however; Powers had made a career out of incorporating potential Italian rivals into his organization over the years. In fact, one of Bowler’s chief political advisors was a Sicilian, Frank Lombardi.

Nothing irked D’Andrea’s supporters more than the defection of Lombardi and other fellow countrymen – Italians constituted a substantial majority in the ward by that time, and easily could have elected one of their own, had they united behind D’Andrea. Just days before the election, Lombardi met two friends in a saloon on Taylor street. As the trio raised their glasses in a traditional Sicilian toast, one of the “friends” drew a .38 caliber revolver from his hip pocket and shot Lombardi dead.

The police advanced the theory that Lombardi was the victim of a “Black Hand” extortion scheme, a common occurrence among well-heeled Italians of the era, but Lombardi’s wife and just about everyone else blamed supporters of D’Andrea. The accusations among those in the know in Little Italy led directly to a hot-headed 17-year old from Sicily, Sam Amatuna.
Amatuna was questioned in Lombardi’s death, but with little evidence and most eyewitnesses unable to “remember” the scene accurately, no charges were ever filed. The murder may even have been counterproductive, as it revived voters’ recollections of D’Andrea’s sordid past, and
James Bowler won the election of 1916.

Regardless of his real guilt or innocence, Amatuna’s reputation as a man to be feared on Maxwell Street was established. Through his connections in D’Andrea’s organization, he also became a close ally of the Genna brothers, especially the toughest and most violent of that clan, Angelo. Both Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna were fearsome characters in the district, but unlike Genna, Amatuna was able to separate business from social concerns, and when not cracking skulls for D’Andrea, he was widely known for his generosity and sunny personality, even gaining the moniker of “Smilin’ Sammy Samoots” in some quarters.

But behind the smile remained a man talented with a gun, and one fearless in using it for his own advancement. As one friend told reporters later, "Sure, if he wanted a guy knocked off, he'd have him knocked off, 'what the hell?' But he was a good guy just the same."

(Pictured: Sam "Samoots" Amatuna)

In 1921, D’Andrea again ran for alderman, this time directly challenging the incumbent Powers. Once again, D’Andrea relied on the force and violence doled out by toughs like Amatuna to help get out the vote, and once again, Italians supporting Powers were a major target (for his part, Powers was never afraid of dirty political tricks either). During May of that year, Paul Labriola and Harry Raimondi, lieutenants in the Powers organization, both met their ends at the hands of a five-man assassin crew, widely believed to have been headed by Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna. Genna was arrested and put on trial, but walked when the prosecution’s lead witness changed his story on the last day before the jury convened.

Again, D’Andrea was unable to capture a seat on the city council, losing the election by 435 votes. Shortly after the election, D’Andrea was murdered, and the Genna brothers took over his organization, turning it from a political enterprise to a criminal one. With their base of Sicilian supporters, they produced massive quantities of (rot-gut) liquor in small stills in basement apartments throughout Little Italy, in the process becoming the key part in the supply chain that ended in the blind pigs and speakeasies run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. The Gennas employed Amatuna as the enforcer for their network of family-run microbreweries. It was “Smilin’ Sammy” who visited those who failed to meet their promised quotas of booze, and few suppliers fell behind the production schedule twice.

Violent and superstitious, the Gennas began butting heads with rival booze gangs, especially the Northside gang, run by the equally-superstitious singing-waiter-turned-florist, Dion O’Banion. O’Banion’s reckless hijacking of Genna deliveries, plus his general disrespect for his Italian competitors, made the blood of Angelo Genna and Sam Amatuna boil. The only factor keeping O’Banion from meeting the same fate as Lombardi, Labriola, and Raimondi, was the word of Mike Merlo, chief of the most powerful Sicilian social and political organization in the city, the Unione Siciliana.

But Merlo’s days were numbered. In 1924, he died of natural causes, and a few days later, O’Banion was dead in his floral shop, shot dead by three men, believed to include the Gennas' masterful assassins Scalisi and Anselmi, plus a third man, who the police believed to be either Angelo Genna or New York-based Unione president, Frankie Yale. When the police brought Yale in for questioning, it was Sam Amatuna who provided an alibi – Amatuna and Yale had been dining at the Palmer House hotel at the time, he claimed. No one was ever charged with the crime.

With the mediating influence of Merlo gone, the bullets flew in Chicago, and in the coming months, three Genna brothers met the same fate as O’Banion. Johnny Torrio was nearly assassinated as well, and he and the remaining Gennas fled the city.

Into the consequent void of power in Little Italy stepped Sam Amatuna. After Angelo’s death, he took two bodyguards and walked into the headquarters of the Unione Siciliana, informing everyone that he was now president. In his attempt at changing from a mere street tough to a powerful political force, he began acting the part of neighborhood Don, dressing in snappy clothes (it was said he owned 200 embroidered silk shirts – the newspapers repeatedly referred to him as the “Beau Brummel of Little Italy”) and buying haircuts and shaves for the teenagers hanging around the barbershop whenever he went in for a trim.

But make no mistake – under the silk shirt beat the cold heart of a killer. A story frequently passed around about Amatuna said that when a certain dry cleaners damaged his clothes, the enraged dandy retaliated by ripping out the stairs connecting the laundry from the street, and put a bullet through the head of the proprietor’s horse.

With the wealth he had amassed from his work with the Gennas, Sam Amatnua purchased a jazz club, the Bluebird Cafe, at Halsted and Taylor, for $40,0000, where he himself often performed, gaining a reputation as an excellent singer and violinist. He also acquired a beautiful home on Lexington Ave., near Damen Ave. (the street has since been vacated in that block). And most important of all, he was engaged to wed Miss Rose Pecaroro, sister to Mike Merlo’s widow. The marriage would make Amatuna peerless as a Sicilian community leader.

It was on a visit to the barber that Sam Amatuna met his end. On the evening of November 11, 1925, Amatuna walked into his favorite local barbershop at 804 W. Roosevelt Rd. He and Pecaroro were to see the opera Aida at 8:00 that evening at the Auditorium building on S. Michigan Ave. Isidor Paul, who had owned and operated the barbershop since 1918, threw a hot towel over Amatuna’s face and sharpened his razor. By coincidence, Amatuna was without his usual bodyguards that evening, and as a show of power, he never carried a gun personally any more.

At that moment, two olive-skinned men, one short and one tall, walked into the shop and drew guns. Paul screamed, and Amatuna jumped out of the barber’s chair, hiding behind it. The Tribune describes what happened next:
Two men walked in as he left the chair in which he had been shaved and massaged in preparation for an evening at the opera, and without waiting opened fire. Eight times their weapons cracked. One bullet took effect and Amatuna dropped: the others went wild as barbers and customers fell to the floor or ran for cover. Then the attackers backed out, ran to a car parked at the curb and escaped.
Two friends helped the bleeding Amatuna into a taxicab. Their first destination was not the hospital, but a cigar shop owned by Amatuna, around the corner at Taylor and Halsted Streets. There, Amatuna briefly met with his brother, Luigi, who had recently arrived from Sicily, likely informing him of the names of his attackers. From there, the trio left for the hospital.

For two days, doctors at Jefferson Park Hospital tried to revive Amatuna, but to no avail. With her planned elaborate wedding just weeks away, his bride was doubly stricken, and Amatuna agreed to a bedside ceremony in case he was unable to recover. With the physicians’ negative prognoses in mind, a priest was called and the arrangements made for just such an event. But before the ceremony could take place, Amatuna fell unconscious, and died at 2:00 a.m. on November 13.

As was customary for gangsters in his time, Amatuna’s funeral was lavish. At his fiancĂ©e, Rose Pecaroro’s home on the North side, $20,000 in flowers filled the home, the yard, and several neighbor’s yards. The casket was made of silver and cost a reputed $10,000. The funeral procession to Mt. Carmel cemetery, where Amatuna’s body was held in a vault for several days before being shipped back to Sicily, stretched for over a mile, snaking through the city past his home, his businesses, and stopping at the barbershop where he died – a visible indication of future retribution. At the gravesite, Luigi Amatuna threw himself on the coffin, beating his fists on it and swearing an oath of revenge in his native tongue.

(Pictured: The scene outside Amatuna fiancee, Rose Pecaroro's home, where Amatuna's funeral procession began)

Indeed, the bloodshed was far from over. Within a week, both of Amatuna’s absent bodyguards were killed – one of them on the way home from the funeral ceremony. Next in line for the presidency of the Unione Siciliana was Tony Lombardo, Al Capone’s personal friend. Lombardo was assassinated in the middle of the day at Madison and Dearborn Streets in the loop. The three succeeding Unione presidents, Pasqualino Lolordo, Joseph Giunta, and Joe Aiello met similar fates. The bloodshed of the 1920s sealed Chicago’s worldwide reputation as the country’s crime capital.

Who killed “Samoots”? The chief theory is that his death was merely another part of the spiraling bloodshed between the Genna-Torrio-Capone organization and the Northside gang. Most historians believe that Amatuna’s assassins were Vincent “Schemer” Drucci, one of the leaders of the Northside group, and Jim Doherty, a key member of the allied Westside O’Donnell gang. It appears Al Capone blamed Drucci and Doherty. A few months later, when Doherty and Assistant State’s Attorney William McSwiggin were seen drinking and gambling in Cicero at the Pony Inn, Capone ordered a hit on crew, in which McSwiggin died, a major factor in turning public opinion against Capone and raising his profile with Chicago police.

An plausibly, though less likely alternative theory is that Amatuna had fallen out with the Gennas in the months before his death, and that Capone ordered his murder in order to make way for his friend, Lombardo, to control the Unione and the Genna distillery network. In Chicago’s gangland, today’s allies frequently became tomorrow’s enemies, and vice-versa.

The barbershop where Amatuna met his fate continued in operation, run by Isidor Paul, until his retirement in 1956. Today, like much of the old Little Italy neighborhood, the building is gone, razed to make way for the facilities of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Until recently, the site was a baseball field for the UIC team, but is currently marked for the construction of a new condominium complex, Roosevelt Square.


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John Ammatuna said...

My great-grandfather is Luigi Ammatuna, Sal's brother. Thank you for posting this. If you are interested in more pictures and information let me know.

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