5 VAMPIRES AND LEFTIES – BIG JIM COLISIMO
The TV series Boardwalk Empire recreated Big Jim Colisimo as a buffoon, an anachronism outshone by sharper, younger and more ambitious men that understood better the 20th century. This is simplistic storytelling shorthand. Big Jim was 42 years old when he was murdered. He laid the foundations for the mob that by 1932 would dominate all gangland activity in Chicago. His energy, charm and immorality enabled a criminal Italian money-maker to integrate his operation into the corrupt network created by the Irish and Democratic politicians of the first ward of Chicago. If the ascent of Big Jim Colisimo required help and favours, so did the rise of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, his successors. Without Big Jim there would have not been the opportunities for Torrio and Capone.
Big Jim was born Vincento Colisimo in 1878. His birthplace was Colosimi in the Province of Cosenza in Italy. His father, stepmother and Big Jim emigrated to the USA in 1895. At 17 years old, Big Jim earned money by delivering newspapers and shining shoes. He was soon supplementing his income by petty thieving, pickpocketing and pimping. Bored with being arrested he took a job in the sanitation department and cleaned the streets. He was promoted to foreman and organised the street sweepers into a social and athletic club that later became a union.
There are 50 wards in Chicago. Over the years the boundaries have been adjusted rather than redefined. A ward is also the area covered by a police precinct. The shared local responsibilities of the police and politicians and the close links between them explain the familiar scenes in film noir movies where the police lieutenant complains about pressure from his superiors. Big Jim was a street sweeper in the first ward. The first ward is located downtown and in the near south side of Chicago. The crooked politicians that ran the first ward were Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna and Joe ‘Bathouse’ Coughlin. At some point these two fast talking charmers decided that organiser Big Jim had potential. They made him the precinct captain for the Democratic Party. Responsibilities of a precinct captain or delegate included voter registration and making sure people voted. ‘Hinky Dink’ and ‘Bathouse’ were taking a cut from the profits of the first ward brothels and casinos.
Big Jim married brothel owner Vittoria Moresco in 1902. He was 24 years-old. Vittoria is usually described as a woman that was attractive when young but obese when she met Big Jim. The profits from the brothel the couple owned increased enough for the Colisimos to open another and then another. Their business empire expanded to include 35 brothels. Big Jim Colisimo also made money from casinos, opium dens and racketeering. The big time and his earnings of $50,000 transformed Big Jim into extravagant Diamond Jim. He wore belt buckles, cufflinks and tie pins that were all adorned with diamonds. The poverty in the city provided a regular supply of prostitutes but there were plenty of customers. To cope with demand prostitutes had to be imported from outside Chicago. The American cities are separated by huge distances. White slave trafficking would have consisted of facilitating transport for the willing and brutal coercion for the rest. Those tempted to give Big Jim the benefit of the doubt should note that his racketeering included extortion and using thugs to break up labour disputes.
Black Hand gangs operated in Chicago. The term Black Hand describes a criminal activity rather than an organisation. The Black Hand gangs that did exist consisted of three or four men. The name Black Hand came from the letters issued to victims. These letters threatened violence and the signature was a hand dipped in black ink. The letters that have been retained for posterity are crude, childish and illiterate. The Black Hand gangs preyed on naive and innocent immigrants. Black Hand criminals should have looked to Big Jim for employment opportunities. It is difficult to imagine wheeler-dealer Big Jim being threatened by small time Black Hand gangs but at least two confrontations between Black Hand criminals and Big Jim or his mobsters led to executions.
Almost as surprising are the reports that Johnny Torrio was brought in from New York to deal with the repeated Black Hand extortion threats against Big Jim. Although ruthless and callous Torrio was a man that never carried a gun. He was valued for his business acumen. Torrio could have been used to hire thugs but Diamond Jim, an accomplished networker, could have done this himself. We are entitled to wonder if Torrio was recruited to manage the business but, when subsequent Black Hand threats were received, the task was delegated to Torrio.
Big Jim opened in either 1910 or 1914 a large swanky restaurant called, no surprise, Colisimos. The restaurant was located at 2126 South Wabash Avenue which is located in what is today known as the south loop of downtown Chicago. In the evening the restaurant became a nightclub. Big Jim was shot dead in 1920 but if he was lucky he might have just seen and heard Sydney Bechet. The great New Orleans jazz clarinettist performed at Colisimos during the 1920s. And, if you believe Steven Spielberg then one of the waiters in Colisimos was Indiana Jones. In 1919 a brothel called the Four Deuces was opened next door to the restaurant. Torrio is credited with opening the brothel but he was still working for Big Jim in 1919. Capone is supposed to have worked in the Four Deuces as a bouncer when he arrived in Chicago. Capone could have worked in the Four Deuces from its opening. This does not suggest that Torrio recruited Capone to be his deputy. Torrio left Chicago in 1909 when Capone was ten years old.
Big Jim was assassinated on the 11th of May 1920. A month before his death, Big Jim was already divorced from his wife. He married Dale Winter who was younger, charismatic and, compared to Vittoria, sophisticated. The day he was killed Big Jim went to his restaurant to oversee a delivery of booze. When the booze failed to arrive an impatient Big Jim decided to leave, On the 11th of May that year it must have been chilly because Big Jim had arrived in an overcoat. He walked into the cloakroom to find his coat. A waiting gunman shot Big Jim twice. A message was left on the corpse. The message said, ‘So long vampire, so long Lefty.’ Left wing vampires are anything but numerous, and the meaning of the letter has not been explained. Nor is leaving helpful notes typical of mobster killings.
Johnny Torrio and Al Capone were the men that benefitted. The theory is that Big Jim had become an obstacle to the plans of Torrio to diversify into remunerative bootlegging. And because Big Jim was enraptured by Dale Winter and inattentive to business, he was no longer considered a suitable business partner. This could well be true but it invites two questions. If Big Jim was so opposed to bootlegging, what was he doing in Colisimos waiting for a shipment of booze, and why was his organisation operating an illegal underground still elsewhere in the city? A waiter did identify a Torrio sidekick from New York as the killer. The sidekick was Frankie Yale. The waiter subsequently refused to be a witness in any court proceedings. If Torrio was behind the murder then the influence of Dale Winter on Big Jim must have been considerable. The couple had only been married a month. The infatuation, though, could have begun as early as 1914. Dumping hefty wives and replacing them with younger alternatives is not associated with superior male responsibility but, because the infatuation has been interpreted as weakness, the decline of Big Jim might be exaggerated.
Long after the event, Capone admitted to a journalist that he had killed Big Jim. Capone might have but he also liked to tease journalists. In 1920 a young Capone was not long in Chicago and operating at a low level in the mob run by Torrio and Colisimo. Choosing the young Capone, a brothel bouncer, to assassinate the head of the mob would have been a risky choice. But this is where we go round in circles. The rise of Capone within the Torrio mob was extraordinary. Torrio was impressed by something that Capone did. Torrio has to be the main suspect for the murder of Big Jim. No one was convicted, and Torrio inherited the organisation. Torrio soon revamped the organisation to take advantage of prohibition. The accounts of the murder should still, though, make us wonder and ponder. If Torrio was responsible for the assassination, it might have been no more than a clash of egos.
There are two alternatives to a henchman of Torrio being the murderer and both are inspired by the letter that was left behind. The reference to vampire indicates a definite grievance. Perhaps the murder was connected to the wrath of an abandoned wife and the note left by the corpse was an expression of spite. In this instance the name Lefty possibly referred to a nickname that Big Jim had acquired from ex-wife Vittoria because of his organisation of street cleaners. Vittoria would have had sufficient memories of not so prosperous Big Jim to regard him as a vampire. The second explanation is that Big Jim had either crossed or betrayed an employer that had paid out money to have a union broken. In this instance Lefty is a slur that implies Big Jim through sloppy work had enabled a union to secure a foothold in the company that had hired the thugs of Big Jim. Perhaps the rich of Chicago decided that Big Jim had inadvertently given hope to political radicals. Frankie Yale acting to further the ambitions of Torrio is the favourite explanation for the murder of Big Jim. Yet it is possible, if not likely, that the motive behind the killing had nothing to do with whatever was happening between Torrio and Big Jim. People talk and do favours. Even if Torrio had more subtle plans to steer the business towards bootlegging, he was an opportunist that could have been willing to recommend Frankie Yale to the person that wanted Big Jim dead.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.