7 JOHNNY TORRIO
This Chicago empire builder was born on the 20th of January in 1882. His father died two years later. Many self-made men experience the loss of a parent. Perhaps the premature death of his father shaped the willpower, ambition and self-belief of Johnny Torrio. Maybe it was nothing more than Johnny being clever and having a hard knocks New York background and subsequent business opportunities. His mother was called Maria. The family had a comfortable existence in Irsina, Italy, but after the loss of her husband that changed. Maria brought her infant son to America. The teenage Johnny joined low level New York street gangs. His financial and organisational skills enabled him to accrue enough money to open a billiard parlour. From there he operated loan schemes and gambling. The progress and acumen of Torrio were noted, and he was invited to join the Five Points Gang. This organisation not only owned brothels and saloons but had connections with corrupt New York politicians.
The consensus amongst writers is that Big Jim Colosimo invited Torrio to Chicago because of the extortion threats Big Jim had been receiving from the Black Hand gangs. It is odd that a Chicago empire that ran gambling and prostitution and had close connections with corrupt politicians would have needed to import rough house expertise. Johnny Torrio was good at making money and managing negotiations but he had no objections to others being violent on his behalf. Torrio had been christened Donato. Apart from the self-adopted Johnny he acquired nicknames. ‘The Fox’ and ‘Terrible Torrio’ reveal his authority. If he did not carry a gun, he always knew men that did. He also had a chilly authority that intimidated. One can imagine Johnny Torrio as a master of the awkward supplementary question. But Big Jim Colosimo was not without presence either, and his progress had benefited from his ability to recruit capable people. Big Jim knew how to collect allies. Maybe it was this skill that encouraged Big Jim to recruit from New York. We are entitled to wonder. Our curiosity is not confined to Big Jim and his motives. Little has been revealed about why Torrio wanted to leave the successful criminal enterprises of New York to do more of the same in Chicago. The move, though, was beneficial for Torrio.
In 1920 and eleven years after Johnny Torrio arrived in Chicago the man that recruited him was no more. Prohibition had not long arrived when Big Jim Colosimo was found shot dead close to the cloakroom of his restaurant. This is not regarded as a coincidence. He may not have fired the bullets but Johnny Torrio is the number one suspect in the killing of Colosimo. Neither Torrio nor anyone else was charged by the police for the murder. A witness identified Frankie Yale as the assassin. Later the witness retracted his statement. Frankie Yale was from New York and was in Chicago when Big Jim was shot and murdered. Yale knew both Torrio and Capone.
Torrio had recruited Capone from New York. Capone arrived in Chicago and worked in the Four Deuces, a brothel that was owned by Torrio. Capone was working alongside Torrio and running the business left by Colosimo a mere five months after his arrival in Chicago. Johnny Torrio seized rather than inherited the Big Jim empire. Torrio added large scale bootlegging to the existing gambling and prostitution rackets. In the early years of prohibition the criminals that had territorial rights in the different areas of Chicago cooperated with Torrio and created conditions for peace. Torrio and Capone had moved quickly to take over the breweries of firms that had been legal suppliers of beer. Torrio and Capone did not acquire a monopoly in brewing beer but the capture of the Manhattan, Stege, Pfieffer, Standard, Gambrinus and Hoffman breweries made the two New Yorkers important. Other Chicago gangs used the beer that Torrio and Capone brewed, and Torrio and Capone needed the other gangs to buy the beer. The meetings in 1920 that agreed how business would be divided amongst the various parties were chaired by Torrio and had Capone in attendance. In 1923 the reformist William Emmett Dever was elected Mayor of Chicago. Torrio and Capone transferred the headquarters to neighbouring Cicero. Rather than restrict the activities the move facilitated business expansion by Torrio and Capone.
Although his beginnings were modest, he began by stealing a liquor truck, Dean O’Banion was able to develop a substantial bootlegging business. He was in control of an area covered by seven police districts. Within this area was the affluent north eastern surburbs of Chicago. Capone and Torrio had busy downtown and some suburbs of south and west chicago. The Genna gang operated in an area covered by two police districts. This territory existed alongside the western border of the area managed by Dean O’Banion. The Genna gang encroached into the area covered by O’Banion. Sometimes they tried to market their liquor and on others they would steal O’Banion alcohol Movies often portray the battle between the O’Bannion/Moran and Torrio/Capone gangs as a struggle for total control of the liquor business. Twelve separate gangs had demarcated bootlegging territories in Chicago in 1924. In 1920 the intention of Johnny Torrio had been to establish a cartel in order to avoid violence and destructive conflict. That intention informed all subsequent discussions, disputes and conferences between Chicago gangsters. The violence happened because the cartel was dysfunctional and too many treacherous hotheads were prone to take offence and create borderland disputes.
O’Banion was the son of Irish immigrants. He believed that the disciplinary responsibilities of Torrio included controlling the behaviour of other Italian gangs. Torrio either did nothing to restrain the Genna gang or was ineffectual. The resentment in O’Banion festered, and cartel partners became rivals. The partners in the cartel still had shared business interests. They worked together to control the mayoral election of Cicero in 1924 although even this led to bitter disputes about which speakeasy and brothel belonged to whom. O’Banion was soft spoken but he provoked Torrio twice. He attempted to frame Torrio and Capone with the killing of John Duffy, a man that had murdered his wife and had been attempting to flee from Chicago. When this ruse failed O’Banion pretended later that he was retiring. He offered to sell Torrio a brewery and invited Torrio to inspect the premises. O’Banion knew, though, that the brewery would be raided by the police when they were present. Torrio was arrested and taken to the cells. The stay in prison for Torrio was short but money was lost and pride hurt.
The behaviour of the Genna gang remained a sensitive issue. Torrio, as the coordinator of all Chicago bootlegging, or as head of the cartel, received a percentage of all receipts from bootlegging sales. The receipts from the Genna gang one week were exceptional and either Torrio or Capone decided that the marker on a previous debt incurred by the Genna gang could be ignored. O’Banion insisted that the debt had to be repaid. The Gennas took offence at the behaviour of O’Banion. This detail reveals how business intimacy and not just rivalry existed between the alternative gangs. O’Banion was assassinated. Hymie Weiss was the partner of O’Banion. He decided that the assassination was organised by Torrio and the Gennas. Weiss retaliated by seeking vengeance against both Capone and Torrio. Bugsy Moran and Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci were present at the attack on Torrio. Drucci is famous for an escapade when he jumped his car over a jackknifed bridge. The attack on Torrio and his wife occurred on January 25th 1925, two weeks after the killing of O’Banion. Torrio was left with five bullets in his face and chest. His wife escaped unhurt. Torrio recovered from the shooting but, like the Russian generals in War And Peace that Tolstoy admired, he decided to retreat. Torrio took his wife on a European vacation. His intention was to settle in Italy and perhaps he would have done if Mussolini had not pledged to confront organised crime.
The extent to which Torrio remained involved in the bootlegging business is not clear. He visited Capone in prison and there were periods when he made weekly trips to Palm Island in Miami where Capone lived. The St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 triggered a need for a conference to broker a fresh peace. This happened in Atlantic City. Torrio chaired that conference. He had respect from previous colleagues and has subsequently been described as an elder statesman. That term does not preclude Torrio having investments in criminal enterprises that yielded income or him even operating as a remote manager and benefiting from the high profiles of Capone and other egotists. He is rumoured to have overseen the establishment of the New York criminal cartel called the Big Seven. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky were two of the seven. Johnny Torrio died in 1957 and while being shaved in the chair of his barber. Gangsters were frequent visitors to barbers. Most had a weekly ritual of a shave, a hair trim and gossip. A barber shop would have been a pleasant place to die. Johnny Torrio was seventy-five years old when he died. He outlived Al Capone by a decade. Subpoenas were issued for Torrio to be a witness in the trial of Capone. Torrio attended court but he was not used as a witness. The prosecution team against Capone must have decided that cross examining a man known as The Fox was not without risks. Apart from his criminal activities Johnny Torrio led a quiet life and was a faithful husband. The comforts that were enjoyed by Torrio and his wife were paid for by men and woman who had other needs.
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.