11 HYMIE WEISS
The real name is Henryk Wojciechiwski. The adopted name Hymie Weiss supports the claim that Wojciechiwski was the shrewdest of all the mobsters. His alternative name does not disguise the ethnicity but is much easier for Americans to pronounce, a compromise that avoids self-effacement. Earl was also added to the name as well but perhaps that happened before Hymie was a walk-tall mobster. The young Weiss became friends or partners with Dean O’Banion and Bugsy Moran. They joined the same gangs, collected debts, and together beat up and robbed the same people. Weiss worked with O’Banion in a saloon on Market Street and, like O’Banion, Weiss learnt how to be a safecracker. Hymie Weiss died when he was twenty-eight years old. At his death he was worth, according to some, almost $2m. He was born in 1898 and arrived in the USA when he was three-years old. The Polish family settled in Buffalo, New York before moving to the north of Chicago. The deceased Hymie Weiss left behind an organisation on the north side of Chicago that his not so talented successor, Bugsy Moran, retained throughout prohibition but towards the end let dwindle. The euphemism ‘take him for a ride’ is credited to Hymie Weiss.
Throughout his life Weiss was a devout Catholic. The likelihood is that faith became even more important to him when he discovered he had terminal cancer. At that point most men would have quit the mob and settled for the few quiet days that remained. Weiss probably thought why bother, business is business and mates are mates. And there was also the need to avenge the killing of his boss and friend, Dean O’Banion. As Pike Bishop said in the movie, The Wild Bunch, ‘When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal. You’re finished.’
Torrio and Capone had ignored transgressions by the Genna Gang against O’Banion. An annoyed O’Banion responded by fooling Johnny Torrio into paying $500,000 for the Sieben brewery. The two men agreed to inspect the premises. Torrio was unaware that O’Banion had given prior warning to the police. The brewery was seized by the police while both men were present. Arrests were made. O’Banion paid a fine considerably less than his $500,000 profit. Because of his record, Torrio would eventually be sentenced to nine months in prison for the offence. In the movies, the mobsters are portrayed as hotheads that react in temper to transgressions and demand swift action. The O’Banion trick with the brewery happened on the 10th of May 1924. The murder of O’Banion occurred six months later and on the 10th of November 1924. Delayed reprisals were not uncommon in the violent conflict that occurred between Chicago bootleggers. The various gangs were not sworn enemies and rivals but supposed business partners, members of a cartel. Before action was taken there were also other allies within the cartel to consider. One theory is that Torrio delayed the killing of O’Banion because he wanted or needed the approval of the Unione Siciliana in Chicago. The Unione Siciliana represented the Italian community but also had Mafia links.
Weiss had fewer people to consider when he responded to the slaying of O’Banion. He waited until just over two months later. Weiss, Bugsy Moran and hot shot driver Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci attacked the car of Al Capone on the 11th of January 1925. The timing was poor. There was snow on the ground, and Capone was not in the car. Two passengers and the chauffeur survived the machine gun bullets fired by Weiss and Moran. The chauffeur had superficial flesh wounds and a ruined overcoat. The two passengers were unhurt. Some writers are hesitant about using precise dates but supposedly twelve days after the unsuccessful attack on the car of Capone an attempt was made to kill Torrio. Whatever the precise chronology, the two attacks occurred in January and snow made an appearance on both occasions. The gun of Bugsy Moran either jammed or he ran out of ammunition, which meant the brain of Torrio escaped a fatal bullet. Interrupted by the arrival of a truck, Moran and Weiss ran to the car and Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci hit the accelerator pedal and did the rest. Enough bullets landed in the face and chest of Torrio to put him in hospital. Capone wiped away his tears and, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, kept guard while Torrio struggled to stay alive. The health of Torrio recovered but the police remembered they had charged Torrio when they caught him and O’Banion in the Sieben brewery. After Torrio was released from his nine month prison sentence, he had a long European vacation with his wife. She had been present when Torrio had been shot. Weiss and Moran observed the code that the families of other gangsters must never be harmed. Although Torrio probably continued to receive remuneration from his business, he retreated to safe ground and handed the management of the business to his second in command, Al Capone.
The spectacular incident on the 20th of September 1926 at the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero has subsequently diverted attention away from what happened before that incident, what occurred between the serious wounding of Johnny Torrio in January 1925 and the attack at the Hawthorne. Business had continued for those eight months. The Capone and Weiss gangs had coexisted or at least made no attempt to put the other out of business. But because the ambitious Gennas had disrupted the business of O’Banion and created hostility between Torrio and O’Banion, the cartel that controlled bootlegging in Chicago was destabilised. Without the Gennas there might have been peaceful coexistence between the Irish and Italian gangs. The suggestion that Weiss and Moran after the death of O’Banion formed an alliance with the Genna gang is doubtful but a short lived truce in the early months of 1925 might have happened.
If there were more violent incidents between the north and south side gangs between January 1925 and September 1926, they were either rare or have been under-reported. One assassination attempt, though, did occur and it enraged Weiss. On the 10th of August 1926, Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci and their entourage were were walking along South Michigan Avenue and near the Standard Oil Building. Gunmen in passing cars fired shots at Weiss and Drucci. Weiss and others ran for cover but Drucci stood his ground and returned fire. Vincent Drucci was the man that had vaulted his car over a raised Michigan Avenue Bridge and a few yards of the Chicago River. Drucci jumped on a running board of the car of a bystander, fired a few shots and ordered the man behind the wheel to drive. A policeman appeared, and Drucci was arrested. The charges were dropped.
The traditional accounts of the subsequent attack in Cicero in September 1926 state that 1000 bullets were fired from a cavalcade of ten cars as they drove past the Hawthorne Hotel. The more sober or killjoys insist that no more than eight cars were used and just 200 bullets were fired. Alternative and more modest versions assume that the Weiss gang would not have possessed sixteen Thompson machine guns. This feels like an arbitrary assumption. But even the minimalists agree that an attack of 200 bullets was exceptional and would have made a hell of a racket. Both Weiss and Moran were present in the cavalcade that passed the front of the Hawthorne Hotel. Each had a gun of some description and fired shots. Hymie Weiss was admired because he was smart and had good telephone skills but also because he was courageous. ‘He did his own dirty work,’ said one of his men.
Capone gang member, Paul Ricca, was shot in the shoulder. Again there is revisionism. Initial reports claimed that Ricca saved Capone by dragging his boss to the floor. The wound to the shoulder and the remarks of Ricca that referred to Capone escaping ‘out the back way’ suggest something different. Perhaps Paul Ricca was shot as he entered the Hawthorne restaurant. Most men would have fled the scene. A gutsy and quick thinking Ricca ran into the restaurant and warned Capone. The reaction by Capone to the attempt to murder him was prompt. Hymie Weiss was gunned down and killed on the 20th of October 1926. It happened while Weiss and his bodyguard crossed from the front of Holy Name Cathedral into the eastside of State Street, the side of the street nearest to the Chicago shoreline. The minimal security for Weiss has attracted comment. Weiss was foolhardy, and he was suffering from cancer. The extravagant assault by Weiss on the Hawthorn Hotel had been a declaration of war. The brutal response from Capone signified a refusal to concede.
Whatever his faults, Capone was not taciturn. Capone said this after the death of Hymie Weiss, ‘I told them I did not want to die. I didn’t want them to die, either. I said it wasn’t necessary. We could find a more sensible way to settle our difficulties. I had sent word to them many times before Hymie died. They thought I was kidding but when they saw I was in earnest, they wanted to talk things over.’ The use of the name Hymie rather than Weiss suggests that Capone had both respect and regret for his victim.
Talk is what the rival gangs did. A conference was held at the Hotel Sherman on the 20th of October 1926. The meeting was not secret. The Chicago press did not attend the conference but they were able to provide reports of the negotiations and the celebratory event that followed the meeting. Capone began the proceedings by admitting to the other participants that ‘we’ve all been saps.’ After the required nods of heads, all eventually agreed that conflict in future would be handled through discussion and not violence. And for a while that was what happened.
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.