Showing posts with label bootlegging. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bootlegging. Show all posts

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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aiello & Co. Bakery

Joe Aiello had broken troth with his former business partner, Antonio Lombardo, and was actively scheming to kill Lombardo and his colleague in crime, Al Capone. On May, 28, 1927, Aiello’s bakery, located here at 473 W. Division St., took the brunt of Lombardo and Capone’s ire when it was riddled with over 200 machine gun bullets from in a gangland drive-by shooting.

Giuseppe Aiello, known as “Joe”, was born in 1890 in Sicily, into a very large family. Most accounts claim he was the oldest of seven brothers, but others indicate up to ten Aiello brothers, plus an unknown number of cousins, uncles, and nephews. Most of the family emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 1900s, including Joe, who arrived at New York in 1907, then moved west to Chicago shortly after.

Food was the family business, and Joe operated first as a cheese-maker and grocer in the Little Sicily enclave on the near North side (also known as “Little Hell” for the poverty and violence that infested its streets). With his brothers, he also opened a wholesale bakery specializing in supersized wedding cakes and Italian breads, Aiello & Co., at 473 W. Division, near the corner of Clybourn Ave. He also held part ownership in a candy shop near Oak St. and Cleveland Ave. (then known as Milton St.), the original “Death Corner,” a popular Black Hand meeting (and “disposal”) ground.

At the onset of the 1920s, the Aiello clan was already prominent in the Sicilian-American community. National alcohol prohibition raised their profile further. During Prohibition, grocers played a particularly important role in the production of bootleg alcohol, since they could purchase and store large quantities of important distilling ingredients, such as sugar and grapes, without arousing the suspicions of police. Joe Aiello used his position as one of the neighborhood’s top grocers to become deeply involved in the business of illicit booze.

He joined forces with another prominent Sicilian grocer, Antonio Lombardo, and the two opened an import business on Randolph Street and purchased property on the west side at Kinzie and Halsted for an even larger operation. At the time, Lombardo was also president of the Unione Siciliana, the primary Italian organization in Chicago, a position that made him the most respected man in the immigrant community, and a political “fixer” with connections in city government and law enforcement. The Unione was a key element in organizing the massive, dispersed network of tiny home distilleries that supplied the low-quality liquor that was eventually retailed through Al Capone’s syndicate.

(Pictured: Giuseppe "Joe" Aiello)

Together with Lombardo and Capone, Joe Aiello ruled Chicago’s illegal alcohol trade into early 1926. The decline and fall of their fellow Sicilian booze entrepreneurs, the “Terrible Genna” brothers, in 1925 gave Aiello and Lombardo an even more important role to play in this business. But Aiello was too ambitious to be just one important part of the machine. He needed to control it all. He was especially jealous of Lombardo’s position at the Unione and the respect it earned him among their countrymen. And he despised Capone, a non-Sicilian he considered untrustworthy and undeserving of his wealth. Aiello’s constant attempts to control more of the alcohol syndicate eventually led to a break with Lombardo in 1926, and an all-out war for the control of the Unione and the Little Sicily neighborhood.

Aiello began working closely with the Northside Gang run by George “Bugs” Moran and Jack Zuta, while Lombardo remained close with Capone. Both Lombardo and Aiello keenly courted Sicilian grocers, demanding their loyalty and supply capacity. For his part, Aiello openly put price tags on the heads of Lombardo and Capone, offering up to $50,000 each to a series of hitmen in return for their lives.

In one important case, Aiello made a $35,000 deal with a cook at the “Little Italy” restaurant, located at 22nd and Cicero Ave., in the suburb of Cicero, to spice Capone and Lombardo’s soup bowls with prussic acid. The cook wisely decided against fulfilling the task and confessed the deal to Capone.

Other Aiello family members were also involved in warfare with Capone and Lombardo. Tony Aiello, Joe’s brother, was positively identified by a boy eyewitness as the murderer of Antonio “The Cavalier” Spano, a Capone associate operating out of Chicago Heights, who met his end just a block away from the Aiello brothers’ bakery on Division St. Tony managed to beat the rap despite the witness’ identification.

(Pictured: Tony Aiello)

Joe Aiello also attempted to hijack the Unione from outside, sending a gaggle of his brothers and nephews to St. Louis in an attempt to build a rival organization that he could eventually bring to Chicago. Their attempts to consolidate power in that city led to a dozen murders in 1927, including the deaths of two Aiello brothers while sitting in a restaurant in Springfield, Illinois.

Lombardo and Capone realized that Aiello would stop at nothing to gain control of the Unione and the alcohol business in Chicago. On the evening of May 28, 1927, just after nightfall, a curtained touring car filled with four Capone gangsters cruised past the Aiello bakery on Division St., produced machine guns, and carpeted the building from side to side with a tremendous fusillade. By the end of it, over 200 bullets had lodged in the roof, floor, and walls.

At the time, Joe was in the bakery with his brothers, Dominic and Tony, along with two employees. Tony was hit in the neck, and dropped to the floor screaming “I’m dead,” while one of the employees was also shot in the side. Dominic and Joe were upstairs and managed to dodge
the bullets. As soon as their assailants departed, Joe and Dominic helped Tony out of the building and into surgery under the care of a friendly family physician (Tony survived). By the time the police arrived, only one employee remained in the bakery to tell the tale. Officers were unsurprised to find that Aiello & Co. was one of the city’s most well-armed cupcake retailers – a case filled with shotguns was discovered in a back room.

(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery, facing the mirrored back wall, which was shattered by bullets)

One Joseph Paglisia was arrested for the crime a few days later, as he was spotted driving through Little Sicily with a Florida license in a car similar to that from which the bombardment of the Aiello bakery had originated. It was a custom with the Capone organization for particularly spectacular hits to be performed by gunmen imported from outside Chicago. Nevertheless, the police were unable to find any further evidence against Paglisia, and he was released. No one else was ever fingered for the crime.

The attack at Aiello & Co. raised the stakes in the feud over the Unione, and that summer, nine Italian grocers were found dead, likely caught in the war between Aiello and Lombardo. Aiello also stepped up his attempts to kill Lombardo. Instead of attempting to procure a hit, he decided to organize one himself. Police discovered machine gun nests across the street from Lombardo’s home on W. Washington Blvd. (an event that caused Lombardo to move his family out to Cicero), and across the street from Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna’s cigar shop on S. Clark St., a common meeting place for Capone and Lombardo.

In retaliation, Aiello and his Northside Gang allies saw bombs explode at several of the businesses, including a brothel located at Adams and Halsted – Capone territory – and a disorderly hotel at Madison and Western. The violence in the city produced by the feud in late 1927 was tremendous. The police organized roving groups of officers, armed with automatic weapons and with orders to kill on sight any known gangsters. Chief of Detectives William O’Connor (who took over that position after Michael Hughes was demoted for being too chummy with gangland figures), took an especially hard line on crime:
The machine gun is a much better weapon than the law to fight gangsters with. If we would hold more murder trials in the street rather than trust timorous juries to convict killers, Chicago would not now be facing a gang crisis.
1927 also saw Joe and Dominic Aiello build a beautiful new home for themselves and their wives, far from the Little Sicily slums where they grew up, in Rogers’ Park, overlooking Indian Boundary Park. That building, 2553 W. Lunt Ave., is still there, though it has since been
subdivided into flats.

(Pictured: 2553 W. Lunt Ave., as it stands today (above), and in 1930 (beneath). During the 1920s, this was the home of Joe and Dominic Aiello. The building appears to have changed little over the past 80 years, although the landscaping has improved).

In January, 1928, the Aiello bakery was again targeted. This time, it appears that Dominic was the target of an assassination plot. On the evening of Jan. 5, two men, armed with pistols and shotguns, walked into the building on W. Division, expecting to see Dominic at his usual post. In fact, Dominic had left the business at 4:00 that afternoon, but one of the bakers was still there, and began walking towards the door to greet them. Suddenly, the two opened fire, pouring all of their ammunition into the walls and ceiling, particularly the place where Dominic usually stood. They took no consideration of the baker, who was now cowering behind a glass case, though in full sight. Having emptied their guns, the men dropped their weapons and left the building as quickly as they had arrived. Likely they did not know that, while Dominic had left for the day, his wife, Grace, and their three children were just in the adjoining room. All escaped injury.

(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery after the Jan., 1928 shootout there. Arrows point to bullet holes in the walls and ceiling)

The summer of 1928 saw continued warfare between Aiello and Lombardo. In June, the bullet-riddled corpses of two Capone henchmen, John Oliveri and Joseph Salamone, were discovered at Death Corner, a half-block from the Aiello confectionary on Oak St. A month later, one of Aiello’s bodyguards, Anthony “Tough Tony” Califura, met his end in a drive-by shooting at North Ave. and Wells St. Four days later, an Aiello uncle was murdered in his Little Sicily grocery store, just south of Death Corner.

Finally, on September 7, 1928, Antonio Lombardo was murdered in broad daylight near the corner of Dearborn and Madison, in the full view of thousands of pedestrians. His killers escaped, but no one doubted that the Aiellos were behind the hit.

After the death of Lombardo, Joe Aiello saw an opportunity to finally gain control of the Unione Siciliana, but Capone and other allies managed to install Pasqualino Lolordo, a Lombardo associate, as president instead. To Joe Aiello, this simply meant one more bullet was needed, and in January, 1929, Lolordo was killed by three assailants while sharing drinks at his North Ave. apartment. At police headquarters, Mrs. Lolordo, who was preparing dinner in the adjoining kitchen at the time of the murder, was shown a photo lineup of potential assassins. She screamed when she saw Joe Aiello’s picture. While he was likely not one of the actual assassins (later evidence suggested the three assailants were Northside Gang members Frank and Peter Gusenberg, plus James Clark – all three later died in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), there was no doubt that Joe Aiello had organized the hit.

Finally, in 1929 and early 1930, most sources indicate that Joe Aiello finally did fulfill his long-time dream of becoming Unione Siciliana president. During this time, Al Capone was incarcerated in Philadelphia on weapons violations charges (he likely entered prison under his own volition as a way to protect himself from the spiraling violence on the streets of Chicago). For his part, Aiello spent much of his term as president hiding out in Northwest Indiana, a fugitive from police who wanted him for questioning regarding the Lolordo murder.

By late 1930, Aiello had returned to Chicago, but so had Capone, and old rivalries die hard. Joe Aiello was killed in an ambush on the far west side, near the Cicero border, on October 23 of that year. The rest of the Aiello family remained active in the underworld, eventually mending fences with the remnant of Capone’s organization, the Outfit, in the 1930s. In New York, the Aiellos are associated with the Bonanno organization, one of the “Five Families” in that city.

The old Aiello bakery remained in the family into the 1940s, serving as the headquarters for the San Giuseppi di Bagheria society, an Italian community organization focused on Bagherian immigrants (the locale in Sicily where the Aiellos originated). The building was destroyed in the early 1950s to make way for the Cabrini housing projects. In the 1990s, most of the major Cabrini-Green projects were razed, and replaced by upscale condominiums and mixed-income public housing. Where Aiello & Co. once baked wedding cakes and planned a takeover of Chicago’s bootlegging industry, a condominium building has recently been constructed.

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.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Antonio Lombardo Killed in the Loop

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 TorrioAl 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."

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."
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.

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.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lookout Nest for St. Valentine's Day Massacre

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, on the morning of February 14, 1929, established forever Chicago's international fame for brutal criminality, and turned the ire of an enraged city against its apparent mastermind, Al Capone, eventually leading to his downfall and imprisonment. Most historians believe, moreover, that the crime was essentially bungled by the lookouts, who occupied a rented room here, at 2119 N. Clark, across the street

This much is known: On the morning of February 14, 1929, seven members of the Northside gang, which was at the time led by George "Bugs" Moran (its former leaders, "Hymie" Weiss, "Schemer" Drucci, and Dion O'Banion having already been killed), arrived at the garage of the S.M.C. Cartage Company, a spot the gang often used for deliveries of illegal liquor. Moran himself was planning to join them that morning, but had not arrived yet.

When the lookouts across the street saw the men enter the garage, they gave the signal to a group of assassins, who drove two sedans equipped with sirens, intended to give the impression of police cruisers. Two men in police uniforms and two men in trenchcoats alighted from the vehicles and entered the garage, where they apparently used machine guns to fire off over seventy rounds, killing six of the Moran gang members immediately in the bloodiest murder scene in Chicago's history. The dead were Pete Gusenberg, a street-level tough for the Moran gang, John May, a mechanic who worked with the gang, James Clark and Adam Heyer, two ranking members of the gang, Albert Weinshank, a labor racketeer who organized laundry businesses for the gang, and Reinhart Schwimmer, an optician who was associated in various gambling operations with Moran. A seventh man, Frank Gusenberg (Pete's brother), lived for another three hours before expiring in the hospital.

After the shooting, the two men in police uniforms marched out of the garage, pointing their guns at the two men in trenchcoats, who held their hands above their heads until they re-entered the cars they arrived in and drove off.

That much is known. Who precisely the shooters were, and why they committed the crime probably will never be known.

The most common theory is that "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, one of Capone's lieutenants, conceived the plan as a way to kill Moran, eviscerate the Northside gang's rival liquor operations, and to retaliate against the Gusenberg brothers for a previous attempt on McGurn's life. Under this theory, McGurn hired Harry and Phil Keywell, two members of the Purple Gang, a vicious Detroit-based operation, to rent rooms at 2119 N. Clark St., and to operate as lookouts. When the six men arrived, the Keywells, who knew Moran only from newspaper photos, mistakenly believed Weinshank was Moran, and gave the signal to attack.

The photo below shows Clark Street at the time of the Massacre. The short building on the left side of the street marked with an 'X' is the garage where the murders took place; the tall building also marked with an 'X' in the foreground is the building at 2119, the lookout nest.

According to the most common theory, the Capone syndicate's two favorite assassins, John Scalisi and Albert Anselmi, who had risen to power in the Genna operation and had previously been involved in the Weiss and O'Banion killings, were among the four assassins, along with Fred Burke, a hired killer from the Egan's Rats gang in St. Louis, and another man, possibly McGurn himself or future Outfit leader Tony" Joe Batters" Accardo, but more likely Joseph Lolordo, who was the brother of the Unione Siciliane president Pasqualino Lolordo, who had recently been assassinated by the Northsiders.

Moran, who had overslept that morning, arrived on the scene late, saw the police cars, and fled the scene, avoiding death by a few minutes.

Al Capone himself was in Miami at the time, conveniently being questioned by that city's district attorney on gambling-related matters, providing a perfect alibi. McGurn claimed to have been with his girlfriend, Louise Rolfe, in a hotel room at the time. After the police determined he was the mastermind of the murders, they attempted to make Rolfe testify against McGurn in court, but were outwitted when, in a dramatic turn frequently repeated by criminals on Law and Order and CSI, McGurn married Rolfe, allowing her to claim spousal privilege against testifying. Seven years and one day after the Massacre, McGurn was assassinated in a bowling alley, and a sarcastic "Valentine's day card" was pinned to his dead body.

Fred Burke was connected to the crime when, several years later, he was arrested for a murder in Michigan. When the police tested two machine guns found in his home, the ballistics matched the bullets found at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Burke was sentenced to life in prison for the Michigan murder, but never served time for the Chicago killings.

While the above describes the most common theory of the Massacre, there have been endless revisionist histories. Some claim that Capone and McGurn would have been too smart to attract attention to themselves with such a sensational crime, and that the Purple Gang was entirely responsible, retaliating against Moran for failure to pay them for liquor they had imported from Canada to be sold in Chicago. Others claim the hit was Capone syndicate labor racketeering leader Curly Humphrey's idea, and that Moran was not the target at all. Instead, Albert Weinshank, who was standing in Humphrey's way in monopolizing the city's lucrative laundry business, was the intended victim. The "valentine" pinned onto Jack McGurn's body after his killing made a oblique reference to laundry.

The true killers and motive will probably never be known with certainty, but at the time, all fingers pointed at Capone, either as the mastermind of the plan, or at least a silent assenter to McGurn's plot. After the sensational killings, Capone's reputation truly became international, attracting constant attention from the press, the police, and worst of all, the IRS. If it wasn't for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Capone probably would have continued to fly under the radar for at least a few more years (Capone was, in actuality, a sick man who had only a few years left before senility took hold). Instead, the tax revenue men took aim at Capone's gambling operations and imprisoned him in 1931, ending his career as a gangster.

While the S.M.C. Cartage garage, where the killings took place, was razed in the late 1960s, the lookout house at 2119 N. Clark still stands. Over the years, it has remained a rooming house with a restaurant at street level. One of Chicago's first sushi restaurants, Samarai Sushi, opened there in the early 1980s, and an Italian restaurant occupies the space today.

(Pictured: the S.M.C. Cartage garage at the time of the Massacre, with a crowd of curious onlookers)

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.