15 ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE
The day and the month are what people remember. The year of the massacre was 1929. What happened became famous because of the number of dead killed in a single attack, the brutal injuries caused by advanced weaponry, gangsters having the audacity to pose as policemen, the adoption of a military firing squad execution and the date that offered a resonant headline. Four years before Roosevelt approved repeal of the Volstead Act, the end of prohibition was being anticipated by bootleggers. The Al Capone and Bugsy Moran gangs may have remained dependent on the income from selling booze but they were beginning to diversify. This intensified rather than reduced the rivalry. Capone and Moran were interested in controlling the cleaners and dyers union and both operated dog race tracks.
Capone can be forgiven for thinking that his best ideas were stolen by Moran. Not every wheeze of Capone, though, impressed his competitors. Capone had trialled turtle racing in some of his speakeasies. Not surprisingly the amusement failed to generate an adrenaline rush. The initiative was short-lived and soon abandoned. Capone was not Sicilian but, as someone born in Italy, he wanted and benefited from the Unione Siciliana approving his business decisions. To minimise the potential for disputes, Capone had pushed ally Tony Lombardo to be the president of the Unione. After Lombardo was killed the next choice of Capone for presidency was Pasqualino Lolordo. Five months after Lolordo was elected he was also murdered.
Bugsy Moran ran an outfit that had been created by Irish American Dean O’Banion. In a complex, tense and insecure world, Moran developed an alliance with the Aiello gang. Joe Aiello felt he deserved to be president of Unione Siciliana and he had the support of Moran. The twelve killings of the presidents and candidates for the presidency were the consequences of a power struggle that reflected both paranoia and ambition. In addition to the Unione Siciliana struggle there were the usual grievances. ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn had survived two assassination attempts by Frank and Pete Gusenberg, brothers and Moran gang members. The first attempt, which was made as he was in a telephone booth, left McGurn with serious injuries. McGurn recovered but the Gusenbergs then shot at his car. They missed the driver. Sensitive to being shot at while making a telephone call and not without some protective feelings to his driver, McGurn, in conversation with Capone, would have insisted upon a response.
No surprise then that Al Capone is considered by most to be responsible for the St Valentine’s Day massacre. The initial response of Bugsy Moran to the attack is often quoted. Interviewed by the press, Moran argued ‘only Capone kills like that’ but in another interview Moran was baffled as to who had arranged the killing, claiming ‘it came from nowhere’. William J Helmer and Arthur J Bilek are authors of the book, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Helmer and Bilek believe they have evidence that establishes Capone commissioned the killing. More than that they attempt to identify the individuals that carried out the act. What is worth saying is that the businessman inside the head of Capone had too much sense to order the killing of seven men. Capone either understood the importance of public relations or had an innate impulse to be popular. Authors Helmer and Bilek claim that Capone delegated the killing to Frankie Rio and he in turn delegated responsibility to Fred Goetz. If the authors are right and Capone was responsible, hands off management created tragic history. Whether through mishap or intent, seven men were murdered.
The slaughter occurred at 2122 North Clark Street. In 1929 the lot was occupied by a brick garage about thirty feet wide. The window was blacked out with a sign that read S-M-C Cartage.Co. The distance between the address and downtown Chicago is just over four miles. The walk is long, feasible and not unpleasant. Lincoln Park and the famous free zoo are a mere stroll away. In 1929, the area around the site of the massacre was inhabited by Irish and German working class families. Today its proximity to the park, zoo and shoreline makes it a desirable area for homeowners. The site of the garage where the victims gathered is now a car park. The railing that used to keep the car park separate from North Park Street has been removed. The car park can be entered on foot from different directions. Car parking appears to be free. A room in the house opposite the car park was used by the two men that had the responsibility of alerting the gunmen to the presence of Moran. This house still exists and looks remarkably similar to the off the shelf movie set that was used in the Roger Corman movie about the massacre. There is nothing in the area to commemorate the event but the basement floor of the house used by the lookout men has a pizzeria that is doing rather well.
The seven victims of the massacre were Frank Gusenberg, Pete Gusenberg, Albert Weinshank, Adam Heyer, John May, James Clark (real name Albert Kachellek) and Dr Rheinhart Schwimmer. The dog that was tied to a car axle and survived the attack was called Highball. The presence of the Gusenberg brothers on the premises does not need to be explained. Weinshank was a nightclub owner and he had been recently appointed as an official of the Central Cleaners and Dyers Association. Heyer was part owner with Bugsy Moran of Fairview Kennel’s dog racing track. The presence of Weinshank and Heyer is not without significance when we think about the purpose of the meeting. May was the dog owner and car mechanic that was employed by the Moran gang to work on their trucks. Clarke or Kachellik had been convicted of armed robbery in 1910 and was regarded by the police as a hardened criminal and a killer. Reinhart Schwimmer was an optometrist. His exact relationship with the gang has been debated. The initial thinking was that he was nothing more than someone that just liked the company of criminals. The revisionists have claimed that Schwimmer was used as a middle class voice that could articulate various non-criminal issues on behalf of the gang and that he might have even provided advice for certain situations.
Just after 10.30am the sound of gunfire alerted neighbours although none recognised the sound of gunfire. They mentioned ‘popping noises’ to the police when interviewed. Jeanette Landesman lived on the second floor next door and at number 2124. Clair McAllister earned his living as a sign painter. He lived on the floor below. Landesman and McAllister heard the dog Highball howling and between them forced their way into the garage. Neighbours Josephine Morin and Marie Benson had also been alerted by the ‘popping noises’ and they followed Landesman and McAllister into the garage. All the men were dead except for Frank Gusenberg who was taken to the Alexian Brothers Hospital where he refused to give the police any information. Frank died at 1.30pm. Inside the garage, brother Pete Gusenberg was slumped over a chair and the others lay on the floor. John May the mechanic had his head blown apart by a shotgun. The police investigation established that the bullets used in the killings came from two Thompson submachine guns and a shotgun. Apart from Frank Gusenberg the bodies were taken to Braithwaite’s, a private mortuary at 2219 Lincoln Avenue. Dr Frederick M Doyle pronounced the six men dead. Sergeant Thomas J Loftus was in the police station when the call from neighbour Landesman was received. He was the first to arrive but he also picked up four other policemen on the way. A newspaper delivery boy alerted the press. Reporters and photographers arrived and, because they were so prompt, added to the chaos. Headlines and indignation followed. A reward of $10,000 was offered but no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime.
Bugsy Moran only lived a block away from the garage. Being close to his home address, it is possible that Moran would have popped into the garage from time to time. The tale, story or rumour is that someone in the Capone gang promised a delivery of booze and, knowing Moran would be there, set up the killing. Authors Helmer and Bilek dispute this account claiming that the henchmen of Moran were high level gangsters and not dressed to unload a truck loaded with booze. We should have doubts about a tale that became the official version but not for the reason quoted by Helmer and Bilek. The booze would have been unloaded by the two men that would have been in the truck. Or would have been if it had existed. Selling illegal booze was a million dollar industry. It is difficult to imagine Moran feeling it necessary to inspect a single load in a location so busy that even the neighbours knew it was used for the regular transportation of alcohol. More likely is that Moran had arranged an ad-hoc meeting in a location that was convenient for him. Even this, though, encourages doubt. Gangsters like and need to impress, hence the use of swanky hotels. But in the middle of a busy schedule, Moran might have found a nearby location convenient. The attendance of Weinshank the cleaners and dyers union official and Heyer the dog track owner suggests another purpose for the meeting. Nor does the error made by the lookouts convince. Helmer and Bilek suggest in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that the lookouts were residents for a month in the house opposite the garage. A month waiting and watching and yet somehow they mistake someone else for Bugsy Moran? This does not convince. Even if the presence of the lookouts had been no more than a couple of days, their confusion, the delayed arrival of the intended target Moran, the false tale about the purpose of the meeting and the lack of resistance from the feisty Gusenbergs suggests that what really happened on St Valentine’s Day will remain a persistent mystery for most. Authors Helmer and Bilek are the exceptions. They insist they know who, what and why. Their willingness to offer an explanation and name names is why we need to consider their book The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. This will be done in the future.
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.