12 GEM OF THE PRAIRIE
The shoreline of Lake Michigan is the side that most resembles a straight line but, as it travels south, the eastern edge of the city slopes from west to east or left to right. South of downtown, the Chicago shoreline has a pleasant lakeside path that is not dissimilar to something similar in Whitby. Instead of possessing hilly Yorkshire moorland, the city of Chicago has skyscrapers. Millennium Park is on the south side of Chicago and follows a similar line to the lakeside path but to reach it from the lakeside you have to cross a six lane highway. Patient folk can and do use the pedestrian crossings. Those who continue to walk in the same direction and head west through Millennium Park will arrive at South Michigan Avenue. Parallel and close to South Michigan are South Wabash Avenue, South State Street and South Dearborn Street. In any history of the 1920s gangster wars, these three streets feature more than the others. The St Valentine’s Day massacre happened on the other side of the Chicago river but on North State Street. Lincoln Park is yards away and has a free zoo. A visit to the St Valentine site and the zoo makes a decent day trip. Wacker Drive is parallel to the Chicago river that separates the north and south of the city. Because of the situation of the Chicago river and its proximity to the heart of downtown, a visitor might expect the central point of the grid road system to be somewhere on Wacker Drive. Instead the grid system begins south of the river and at the junction where State Street and Madison Avenue intersect.
In Chicago there are 50 political entities called wards, precincts, local governmental units or whatever just happens to be fashionable. Each ward has an alderman that stands for election every four years. The aldermen sit on the Chicago City Council. This body has legislative powers. The mayor is the chief executive of the city. He or she is responsible for the administration of the various city departments. The present mayor is an African American lawyer called Lori Lightfoot. Her agenda has been described as ambitious. While accepting the need to reduce the budget deficit of $838m she has introduced legislation to improve worker protection, introduce a minimum wage and establish good governance. The mayor reports to the Chicago City Council. The slogan that is attached to building works around Chicago reads. ‘Investing in infrastructure means caring for communities.’ Lightfoot is no Thatcherite neo-liberal.
The people of Chicago or most of them vote Democrat. Cook County contains Chicago and would surround it on all borders if there were no Lake Michigan on the east side of the city. This political allegiance to the Democrats extends throughout Cook County. The area covered by Cook County is divided into 29 townships. Cicero and Oak Park are townships in Cook County. When the Democrat and reformist William Emmett Dever was elected Mayor of Chicago in 1923 the Torrio-Capone gang retreated to Cicero where they not only set up their headquarters but established an open town of brothels, casinos and saloons. Oak Park is to the north west of Cicero. In quiet Oak Park the brothels should be few. Ernest Hemingway claimed that his home town was a place with wide streets and narrow minds. Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, also lived in Oak Park. His house is a museum. Tours of the suburb and views of the houses that Lloyd Wright designed can be booked at the museum. For a while there was a Hemingway museum but that closed. Where he lived remains, and workmen were sprucing up the place when I visited.
The last Republican to be elected Mayor of Chicago was Big Bill Thompson. He was a crook in league with gangsters. Thompson was a man willing to share the profits and sanction violence. Thompson served as mayor from 1915 to 1923 and from 1927 to 1931. Al Capone donated $200,000 to an election campaign of Big Bill Thompson. In the 2020 US Presidential elections, 74% of the votes of Cook County residents were for Joe Biden. Trump received 24%. Cook County has 40% of the residents in Illinois, and 54% of the population of Cook County lives in Chicago. Prior to 1921 there were 35 wards in Chicago but the growth in population necessitated or justified an increase in the number of political wards and aldermen to 50. Aldermen and mayors, like presidents, senators and congressmen, need votes and more than their opponents. Big Jim Colisimo, the gangster, was employed when young as a precinct captain by the Democratic Party. The political parties employ precinct captains to organise the campaign for the aldermen and to ensure that supporters vote. The genial and Italian Big Jim Colisimo was able to work with Irish American politicians like Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna and ‘Bathhouse’ John Coughlin. The connections that Colisimo had with the Irish politicians that ran the 1st Ward facilitated Capone and Torrio having subsequent control of bootlegging in remunerative downtown Chicago during the 1920s. Without Colisimo, the likelihood is that the Irish gangsters would have been the suppliers of alcohol to downtown Chicago. The careers of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone would have been overshadowed by an all-powerful Irish crew. Colisimo was assassinated and the bootlegging of alcohol became the major source of revenue for Chicago gangsters. The favourite suspect for the murder of Colisimo is Johnny Torrio. If Colisimo died a bitter man then no one can blame him.
John J Binder has a website and provides gangster tours around Chicago. One thing leads to another, and he has written the book, Al Capone’s Beer Wars. The title may help sales but it does not flatter the wide perspective of Binder. The book is about much more than Capone. Included in Al Capone’s Beer Wars are two maps that relate the distribution of political wards to the areas controlled by gangsters. The boundaries of political wards and gangster territories might not have been identical. No doubt the odd street was anomalous. The boundaries, though, match up well enough. To encourage the thinking of political wards as geographical units that had specific criminal interest, it might help to think of wards as districts.
Hollywood movies like to create myths whatever the genre. The Chicago prohibition gangster movie myth has three elements. One, the O’Banion-Weiss-Moran gang ran the north side and the Torrio-Capone gang ran the south side. Two, there was conflict because each of the two gangs wanted to take over the territory of the other gang. Three, Al Capone was a megalomaniac that wanted to take over the world. The maps from Binder demonstrate that none of this is true. Regarding point one, the first of the maps by Binder refers to the year 1924. Binder identifies the twelve gangs that operated across Chicago and had links with the political districts. No one gang controlled either the north or south sides. In 1924, the O’Banion gang controlled bootlegging in just eight wards. It is more accurate to describe its territory as the north east side. The Capone-Torrio gang also controlled bootlegging in eight wards. O’Banion benefited from the affluent areas in the north that were close to the shoreline. These suburbs included the area known as the Gold Coast. Capone-Torrio had the saloons in busy downtown. Although none of the other ten gangs had income streams to match O’Banion and Capone-Torrio these gangs at least had 34 wards to exploit. Point two, rather than wanting to control all of Chicago, the O’Banion and Capone-Torrio gangs desired stability. The conflict between these two gangs is well-known. The cooperation, which admittedly was not always successful, is often ignored. The move into Cicero by Torrio and Capone had the benefits of expansion but it was a defensive reaction to the election of reformist Mayor Dever in 1923. The need for stability and to avoid bloodshed was why the casual cartel was formed by the mobsters in 1920.
Right now the richest man in the world is Elon Musk and someone always willing to defend the advantages of monopoly. Musk may take the argument too far but one has to admit that perfect competition was the last thing needed in criminal Chicago. Twelve gangs, none of which were equal in terms of territory, wealth and status, were always likely to create friction and, because of how their leaders were groomed, bloodshed. Point three, if Capone had been the megalomaniacal psychopath portrayed, he had the resources to crush his rivals. In the second map of the 50 wards that Binder provides and which refers to the situation in 1932, the areas controlled by the gangs have changed. Capone in 1932 was running the area previously covered by O’Banion. The sixteen districts within this new area ensured that Capone had both affluent suburbs and downtown Chicago. Rather than him having complete control of Chicago, though, the empire of Capone consisted of no more than sixteen of the 50 wards. The other 34 wards were distributed amongst ten gangs. Four of the twelve gangs that featured in 1924 had disappeared but three other gangs had emerged. The collapse of the Moran gang and the surrender of the lucrative Gold Coast was not a reaction to the St Valentine’s Day massacre, an event for which no one has ever been able to ascribe a satisfactory motive to Capone. The massacre happened eighteen months before the realignment that gave Capone the extra territory. The extent to which the retreat by Moran was a reaction to the friction that existed between him and Capone can be debated. The murder of Jake Zuta has been quoted as a deciding factor for Moran. The judgemental might say that without his mentors O’Banion and Weiss the shelf life for Moran as a gangster would have always been limited. Whatever the differences between Capone and Moran, the latter was paid by Capone $15,000 a month to stay out of Chicago. This arrangement does not qualify as kicking a man when he is down. Neither does the attraction of a cartel to Torrio and later Capone suggest that compared to the other gangsters they possessed gentler natures. If Torrio and Capone had been running smaller territories or fewer and less lucrative wards, their ambitions and behaviour might have been different. No one should attempt to justify Capone and his behaviour but the stereotype of the mindless megalomaniac also needs to be resisted.
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.