In 1925, Antonio Lombardo became president of the Chicago chapter of the Unione Siciliana, a community and political organization of immigrants. In those days, the presidency of that organization was one of the most profitable -- and dangerous -- jobs in the world, and danger caught up with Lombardo on September 7, 1928 near the corner of Madison and Dearborn Streets in one of the most spectacular mob hits of all time.
Tony Lombardo was born in Sicily in 1891, and came to Chicago as a teenager. He built a successful grocery business as a young man, and in so doing, elevated his political profile in the impoverished neighborhoods of his countrymen, including Little Sicily/Little Hell on the north side and the 19th ward on the west side. Lombardo was an associate of the "Terrible" Genna family, which controlled the dispersed network of home distilleries, mostly operated by Sicilians, which supplied the Johnny Torrio – Al Capone syndicate with product during the Prohibition years. Lombardo's wholesale grocery had the lucrative position of supplying bulk sugar (one of the main ingredients in home “alky-cooking” for the Genna network.
(Pictured: Antonio Lombardo)
Lombardo’s partners in the grocery business included Joseph Ferraro and Joseph Aiello. Aiello, one of a large family of brothers that ran a bakery and a candy shop in Little Sicily, was particularly ambitious in growing the enterprise. Lombardo and Aiello operated a major wholesaling operation on Randolph Street near Aberdeen, of which Lombardo made Aiello president.
In 1926, the two, along with Ferraro, purchased land on Kinzie St., between Halsted and Green streets from an old steel yard, intending to open a fruit market. By that time, Lombardo was known as a major figure in the underground liquor trade, having been recently involved in a high-profile case involving abuse of licenses granted to synagogues for sacramental wine. The Tribune reporter included a wink and a nod in the story noting the real estate transfer:
A wholesale fruit market, with an accent on grapes (what does this mean, Watson?), is to be opened by Giuseppi Aiello, Antonio Lombardo and Joseph Ferrara, on an irregular shaped piece of property fronting seventy-six feet on Halsted street, 125 feet on Green street, 252 feet on Kinzie street and 252 feet on a paved court.The three bought the property, which is now covered by the Kennedy Expressway, for $176,799, with a down payment of $45,000. It was shortly after this that Aiello and Lombardo fell out over Aiello's ambitions for greater control in the business (later, a lien would be placed on the property when Aiello failed to pay his share of the mortgage). Aiello also coveted the presidency of the Unione Siciliana, a position Lombardo held at that time.
(Pictured: Letterhead for Lombardo grocery concern on Randolph St., with Aiello listed as president)
The death of Unione president Mike Merlo in 1924 led to the assassination of Dion O’Banion, likely at the orders of Capone and Torrio, and in the subsequent bloodshed, the city’s bootlegging business was divied between rival gangs, with Capone and Torrio controlling the south side and Cicero, and O’Banion’s followers “Hymie” Weiss, George “Bugs” Moran, and Vincent “Schemer” Drucci taking hold of the north side. Lombardo and the Gennas worked with the Torrio-Capone syndicate, with Angelo Genna succeeding Merlo to the presidency of the Unione.
When Angelo Genna was killed in 1925, Sam “Samoots” Amatuna became president of the Unione, but only for a brief period before he, too, was assassinated. Then, it was Lombardo who became “Don” to the city’s Sicilian population. The presidency of the Unione Siciliana, which claimed 15,000 members, involved substantial political influence over an important voting bloc, and so it created the opportunity for the one who held that position to become a “fixer” with connections in city hall. Control of the Unione was thus highly important for the Capone bootlegging business, which relied not only on the network of Sicilian amateur distillers which pledged their loyalty to the Unione president, but also on Unione-connected politicians and police officers to look the other way, or even work proactively against competitors. The Unione presidency was also an position of great community esteem, prominent in resolving disputes and feuds among Sicilians, including “Black Hand” extortion plots, which were especially problematic at that time. Thus, Lombardo was a real-life Chicago version of Vito Corleone.
However, the connection between the Unione and organized crime had become fixed in the public’s mind, and Lombardo sought to change this impression by renaming the Chicago chapter as the "Italo-American National Union" and allowing non-Sicilian Italians to join. The name change angered some, including the president of the New York branch of the Unione, powerful mobster Frankie Uale.
The Italo-American National Union also contributed prominently to charities, including, for example, hurricane relief in Florida in 1926. It attempted to raise its profile as a leading civic organization by inviting important Italian politicians to Chicago. At the time, Benito Mussolini had recently consolidated control of that country, and so Lombardo brought Mussolini’s U.S. ambassador to Chicago for a prominent series of speeches promoting fascism:
God sent Benito Mussolini to an imperiled Italy and did, thereby, a service to all the world, Baron Giacomo de Martino, Il Duce's ambassador to this country, yesterday declared three times during the first day of his three day visit to Chicago. And three times yesterday groups of the ambassador's countrymen, once at the Italian Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Drake, again at the Italo-American union massmeeting at the Coliseum, and last at the union's dinner at the Palmer house -- jumped to their feet and cheered mightily as they shot out their right arms in the Roman salute of Fascism.After his falling out with Lombardo, Joseph Aiello allied himself with the Northsiders, Weiss, Moran, and Drucci. Aiello knew that, with control of the Unione, the North side gang could take control over the entire Chicago alcohol business, and reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. He also coveted the social standing that Lombardo held in the Sicilian community, and the jealousy made him murderous.
In one instance, Aiello allegedly offered $35,000 to a chef to poison Lombardo and Capone. In another case, he offered Torrio-Capone ally Ralph Sheldon $50,000 for each of the heads of Capone and Lombardo. Capone offered peace to the north side gang by offering to divide the city along Madison street, which led to a brief ceasefire, but before long, Aiello’s ambitions on the Unione presidency, and Lombardo’s ruthlessness in maintaining it, led to more bloodshed.
Early in 1927, police uncovered a stash of weapons and ammunition in a sniper nest across the street from Lombardo’s home on W. Washington St., near Cicero Ave., and a similar one at the Atlantic hotel, across from Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna’s post-Volstead headquarters on Clark St., where Capone and Lombardo were frequent visitors. When Lombardo realized the extent of Aiello’s bloodlust, he moved his family out to a more easily guarded single-family home on S. Austin Blvd. in Cicero. But he knew that eventually either he or Aiello would meet an early grave.
After the discovery of Aiello’s weapons caches, the police arrested him on weapons charges and placed him in a cell at detective headquarters. In the adjoining cell they placed three Capone gunmen who had also been caught with illegal weapons while searching for Aiello, and a police officer who spoke Italian hid nearby, listening in on the conversation. The officer’s report refers to Capone’s frequent alias, Al Brown:
"Can't we settle this thing?" Aiello then pleaded with the trio. "Give me fifteen days, just fifteen days, and I will sell my stores and my house, and leave everything in your hands. Think of my wife and my baby, and let me go."Nevertheless, Aiello did manage to escape after the incident, and fled to New York, where he remained for a year, no doubt spending plenty of time commiserating with Frankie Uale about their shared dislike for Lombardo.
The Brown [Capone] gangsters gazed at their subdued foe scornfully and replied, according to the listening policeman:
"You dirty rat, you started this thing. We'll end it. You're as good as dead now."
With Aiello out of town, Lombardo relaxed his guard, and even helped Capone go on the offensive. When, in November, 1927, the gang discovered north side gambling operations on Monroe St., two blocks south of the Madison Street border, bomb explosions there served as a "final warning." When questioned by a reporter about the bombings, Lombardo replied:
"Me, a bomber? Go to the people who know me best. Ask the Italians of Chicago if I am a bomber. Find one of them who will say I am a criminal. You can't do it."
It’s unclear whether this was supposed to be exculpatory, or simply a statement of Lombardo’s absolute power in the Sicilian community.
(Pictured: Antonio Lombardo)
By 1928, Joseph Aiello was back in Chicago, and again plotting a takeover of the Unione Siciliana. Lombardo still stood in his way, but not for long. On September 7, 1928, at 4:30 p.m., Lombardo, his long-time business partner Joseph Ferrara, and a bodyguard, Joseph Lolordo, stepped out of the offices of the Italo-American National Union in the Hartford Building at 8 S. Dearborn St. They walked north towards the corner of Madison St., where a large crowd had gathered. Across the street at the Boston dry goods store, an airplane was being dragged up the side of the building up to the 11th floor by ropes, and into a window, for a store promotion. Practically everyone on the scene was focused on the unusual sight -- everyone except two mysterious men from out of town, dressed in dark gray suits.
50 feet west of Dearborn, on the south side of Madison st., at the corner of the Hartford building, and just in front of a Greek restaurant, Tony Lombardo turned to his bodyguard.
“Look at the airplane,” he pointed across the street.
At that moment, the two men in gray appeared out of the doorway of the Greek restaurant, ran up behind Lombardo, and unloaded their revolvers into the Unione president’s head, also shooting Ferrara in the back, before dropping their guns at the scene and running east on Madison. Lombardo’s bodyguard, Joe Lolordo, took off running after them, while the panicked crowd of bystanders scattered.
Gunmen and policemen ran here and there with waving guns, men and women in the crowded street jumped first one way and then another, wondering from which direction the next bullet might come. People in stores ran out, then ran back in. Which way safety lay they could only guess.A police officer tackled Lolordo, thinking he was one of the assassins, while the real assassins ducked into a nearby shoe store, exiting out the back and escaping the chase. Antonio Lombardo, president of the city’s largest Italian group and a major underworld figure, died on the street, shot to death in broad daylight in front of thousands of witnesses at one of the city’s busiest intersections. In the photo at the top of this post, the spot of the shooting is on the sidewalk, roughly at the right-hand end of the wooden scaffolding.
(Pictured: scene on the street at the site of Lombardo's shooting)
A week later, Ferrara also died of his wounds. Following underworld protocol, he refused to cooperate in the police investigation of the shooting before his decease, but based on identification by another eyewitness, Frank Marco, a New York hoodlum and a known acquaintance of Aiello’s, was charged with the crime. Marco wasn’t located, however, until his bullet-riddled body was found on E. 19th street in New York City in February, 1930. No one else was ever charged with the crime, but everyone assumed the hit must have been ordered by Aiello, possibly with the assistance of Frankie Uale’s gunmen from New York.
After Lombardo’s death, his bodyguard's brother, Pasqualino Lolordo, took over the presidency of the Unione, until Lolordo, too, was shot and killed at his home in January, 1929. According to most sources, Aiello finally did become president of the Unione Siciliana for about a year while Capone was in prison in Philadelphia on weapons charges. But when Capone returned to Chicago in 1930, Aiello made plans to flee the country; however, a sniper's bullet found him first.
The Hartford building, where Tony Lombardo’s Unione Siciliana headquarters were on the 11 floor, and in front of which he was killed, was built in 1893. Standing at 14 stories, it was one of the city’s tallest. It was destroyed, along with all other buildings on the same block, in 1965 to make way for the First National Bank Building, now called Chase Tower.