9 DEAN O’BANION
My mother used to say that a person was in his or her prime at the age of 32. She was reacting to the glorification of youth that arrived in the 1960s. This age of 32 was, according to my mother, when we looked at our physical best. In the next decades and thanks to enhanced grooming, the appearance of the even older improved. None of this, though, concerned Frankie Yale, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. Or if it did, they never said. Frankie, John and Albert pulled out their pistols and shot Dean O’Banion when he was no more than thirty two years old. The killing on November the 10th 1924 led to what has been described as the five year Chicago beers war. Dean O’Banion was the son of Irish Catholic parents. His father earned his living as a plasterer and part time barber and was called Charles. The mother of Dean was named Emma. As a child, Dean lived in the small townships of Marora and Aurora. At least one of those towns was surrounded by corn fields. Emma died when young, and what was left of the family moved to the city of Chicago. The family settled in the tough, corn free and high crime area of Kilgubbin. The need to hustle for extra dollars was ever present, and Irish and Italian American men and their egos clashed on the streets.
O’Banion attended church weekly. He sang in the church choir. The man had a reputation for being generous and welcoming people with enthusiasm. Donations were sent by him to his birthplace, and O’Banion paid the bill when the residents were admitted to hospital. Throughout his short life, though, O’Banion remained the proud Irishman hostile to Italians. His expressions of hostility were not weakened by O’Banion being five foot four inches tall and having one leg shorter than the other. Others may have referred to him as Gimpy but no one said the nickname to his face. The damaged left leg was the result of a street car accident that happened when O’Banion was being a daredevil. Journalists and authors have sometimes reported his name as Dion O’Banion, as if somehow his Irish credentials needed extended endorsement.
Dean O’Banion left school when he was fourteen years old. He joined the Market Street or Little Hellions gang. Neither name requires an explanation. Bugsy Moran and Hymie Weiss were also gang members, and the three young men earned money by beating up newsstand owners that refused to sell the Chicago Tribune. This practice must have been traditional or at least considered acceptable because later the gang switched sides and provided the same service for the Chicago Examiner. Working in the newspaper business, somehow O’Banion met safe cracker Moses Annenberg. In 1909 when O’Banion was 17 years old he was arrested for safe cracking and assault. O’Banion gave his fists a rest when he worked as a waiter at the Liberty Inn. While he served customers he sang Irish ballads. The premature death of his mother when O’Banion was a child might have left him with a sentimental side to his nature. One anecdote that has emerged from those days in the Liberty Inn is that his gang buddies picked the coat pockets in the cloakroom while the customers were distracted by the Irish tenor. The Elvis movie King Creole is set in New Orleans and has a scene that might have borrowed the idea. Back in Chicago the original idea was supposedly extended to O’Banion slipping customers doped drinks and his same mates robbing the duped customers. All this, of course, contradicts sensible commercial practice. The incidents might have been less than frequent. But then the Liberty Inn did have a reputation as a notorious roughhouse.
In 1919, a mere five years before his death and two years before prohibition, O’Banion robbed a liquor truck. The memory or experience perhaps shaped his commercial ambition because two years later O’Banion became a bootlegger. Hymie Weiss and Bugsy Moran helped their long-standing friend to supply booze to the residential areas on the north eastern side of the Chicago river. This area included the lucrative and mansion heavy suburb known as the Gold Coast. O’Banion, the gregarious back slapper, also collected contacts. He established links with politicians and helped organise the Democrat vote. In different circumstances O’Banion might have settled for being a corrupt alderman. On November 1st 1924 the Democrats staged a black-tie testimonial dinner for O’Banion. Reports of the dinner and celebration provoked public indignation. The Public Works Commissioner was forced to resign. Policemen, detectives, Democrat politicians, labour union leaders and city officials that attended the dinner escaped the retribution suffered by the sanctioned Commissioner. The dinner, though, failed to deliver what the Democrat organisers had expected. O’Banion switched to the opposition in his ward and helped deliver for the Republicans a large electoral majority.
The Irish American racketeer Gene Geary has been credited with mentoring O’Banion. Because Irish ballads and guns had appeal for Geary, the relationship between the two men would have offered mutual benefits. On Chicago rooftops Geary taught O’Banion how to fire his gun and how to keep weaponry concealed from others. Pleading at his trial that he was a victim of alcoholism and syphilis the troublesome Geary was committed to a mental institution in 1921. Geary was convicted of murdering Harry Reckas. If not nicknamed Reckless then Harry Reckas should have been, especially in the Chicago of the 1920s. The fracas with Reckas occurred because Geary was dissatisfied with the drinks being served to him in the Horn Saloon. Geary protested that his whiskey was no better than water and the accompanying beer was weak enough to be classified as prohibition approved ‘near beer’. For once the customer feedback was not welcomed.
Friction and hostility may have existed from 1920 when the Chicago bootleggers agreed their casual cartel but the conflict intensified after Torrio and Capone, with some help from O’Banion, moved into neighbouring Cicero and prospered. O’Banion felt entitled to take advantage of the booming Cicero business. He persuaded speakeasy managers from elsewhere in Chicago to relocate on the strip he managed in Cicero. Many of these speakeasies had been located in Capone and Torrio territory. In an attempt to persuade O’Banion to stop importing speakeasies into Cicero an offer was made by Torrio. This consisted of a few of the brothels owned by Capone and Torrio. O’Banion was opposed to managing prostitution. He remembered his Catholic principles and perhaps his deceased mother and refused the offer. Commentators partial to the grievances of the Irish gangsterhood argue that Torrio was prickly towards O’Banion because he was envious of how the north side gang had developed its business in Cicero and extended into other western areas around Chicago.
On the north side the neighbouring Genna gang was still running two wards and a few breweries. Initially their plan to murder O’Banion and expand was not sanctioned by the Unione Siciliana, the community organisation that was dominated by the Mafia. The attitude of the Unione to O’Banion changed after three incidents. These have been mentioned in a previous blog but are worth repeating. Tom Duffy was an Irish American hardcase that killed his wife. Rather than provide safe harbour for the troublesome killer, the decision was taken by O’Banion to kill Duffy and frame Johnny Torrio for the murder. The plan failed, and no one was convicted for killing Duffy.
Prior to prohibition the Sieben brewery had been a legitimate enterprise, established by German born Michael Sieben in 1867. After prohibition ended the brewery reopened as a registered commercial enterprise in 1934. Sieben Brewery operated until closure in 1976. The brewery was capable of producing 35,000 barrels a day. There are older drinkers that remember its Real Lager with affection. O’Banion sold the Sieben brewery to Johnny Torrio for $500,000. The day in spring 1924 when Torrio arrived to inspect the premises so did the police. O’Banion had notified the police about the meeting. Both men were arrested but joker O’Banion only had to pay a $7,500 fine, and that was well covered by the non-refundable $500,000 paid by Torrio. Torrio was humiliated by the deceit but tempers must have calmed. The business relationship between the rival gangs continued. Amongst cooler heads the third and next incident could have been soon settled. O’Banion objected to Capone and Torrio excusing a debt owed by the Genna gang to a casino called The Ship. The casino was jointly owned by Torrio, Capone and O’Banion, and the grievance festered. ‘You can tell those Sicilians to go to hell,’ said O’Banion.
Apart from selling booze, O’Banion owned and worked in Schofield’s Florist Shop. This interest and his way with a tune has led writers to believe that O’Banion had a creative temperament. Whatever the hard feelings between the gangsters, the florist O’Banion had been commissioned to supply flowers for the funeral of Mike Merlo, the ex-president of the Unione Siciliana. Yale, Anselmi and Scalise walked into the florist when O’Banion was supposedly clipping chrysanthemums. O’Banion put down the chrysanthemums and shook hands to welcome his customers. The three men pulled out their guns and killed him. O’Banion had learnt from Gene Geary how to conceal his weapons. The method of his execution has an irony that might have been deliberate. O’Banion was given a lavish funeral. Amidst the extravagant wreaths and numerous mourners were Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. The extent of their culpability in the death of O’Banion can be debated. There are at least three possibilities. These are, one, Capone and Torrio ordered the killing, two, they and the Unione Siciliana both sanctioned a murder desired by the Gennas or, three, Capone and Torrio were merely indifferent to the plans of another Italian gang. If the latter, the indifference of Capone and Torrio and their failure to intervene carried a heavy price. O’Banion had strong business interests and a popular personality. The violent repercussions that followed shaped an identity and reputation for Chicago that persists until today.
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.