16 THE CHICAGO PIANO
Roy Orbison had the nickname ‘The Big O’. The liner notes on one of his albums stated that the nickname was evidence of esteem and affection. Well, like me, whoever wrote the liner notes had to start somewhere, which is why the remark is remembered here. Not often but sometimes a nickname implies affection. Many of the nicknames that Chicago gangsters acquired were created by local appreciative reporters. The criminals in their city provided good stories and kept the reporters in employment. There used to be a strong tradition of witty nom de plumes amongst Liverpool dockers. Although nowhere near as impressive the nicknames of the Thompson submachine gun can produce a sly smile. Tommy Gun, Tommy Chopper, Trench Broom and Trench Sweeper were presumably invented by men in battle. Chicago Typewriter and Chicago Piano suggest local if not civic pride. The initial term used for the Thompson submachine gun in development was the Annihilator. If none of that sounds heartfelt to the critical, there is the clarion call and title of the book by William J Helmer, ‘The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar’. Verification of the claim that machine guns were used in 11% of the killings in Chicago in the 1920s is difficult. There is agreement, though, that the use of machine guns in the windy city far exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the USA.
The jovial gang leader and backslapper Dean O’Banion is credited with introducing the Thompson submachine gun to Chicago. O’Banion took a holiday on a Colorado ranch called the Diamond D. The ranch was owned by ‘Two Gun’ Louis Alterie. No prizes for guessing how Louis relaxed in his spare time. O’Banion was impressed by how the Thompson submachine gun had proved useful to employers intimidating strikers in the Colorado copper mines. On the way home from his satisfying vacation, O’Banion paused in Denver and bought three Thompson submachine guns. The generous nature of O’Banion may not have extended to exploited miners in Colorado but he was willing to lend his three machine guns to the Saltis-McErlane gang. The Saltis-McErlane gang controlled most of the south west of Chicago. Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane were keen to recover territory previously lost to the Spike O’Donnell led South Side O’Donnells. Saltis and McErlane have been described as allies of the Torrio-Capone outfit. Those who consider the territory of the Saltis-McErlane gang as an extension of the southside wards dominated by Torrio and Capone need to be cautious. Admittedly alliances between the gangsters shifted during the 1920s but the claim that Capone and McErlane were allies is undermined by the O’Banion loan of machine guns to McErlane.
Even when not carrying a machine gun, gang leader Frank McErlane was considered fearsome, a man that relished using violence. McErlane is supposed to have killed more than fifteen men in his career. McErlane was a fractious alcoholic. He murdered his wife over an argument that the couple had while he was driving. The two distraught German Shepherd dogs sitting on the back seat of the car were distressed by what they heard. Their anguished cries must have intruded on the private thoughts of McErlane and perhaps his regret. Frank McErlane turned around and shot both dogs. The attack on Spike O’Donnell happened in different circumstances and was premeditated. Spike O’Donnell was standing in front of a drugstore at a busy junction when he heard his name called. Spike dropped to the pavement, the bullets passed over his head and machine gun fire destroyed the window of the drugstore. The headquarters of the Ralph Sheldon gang was attacked by the Saltis-McErlane gang on October 3rd 1925. Charles Kelly and Thomas Hart died from the gunfire. On February 8th 1926, or perhaps the sixth of February, there was a third machine gun attack. Anything but fastidious, Frank McErlane and friends fired 37 bullets into a saloon on South Halsted Street. William Wilson and John ‘Mitters’ Foley were rivals for the business of the Saltis-McErlane gang. Both men were killed in the attack.
Al Capone bought three Thompson submachine guns on the day the news of the murders of Wilson and Foley appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Al Capone was proud of how his organisation of thousands supported the Chicago economy, or so he said. Rather than visit Colorado and chat with strikebreakers, Capone purchased his weapons from the local store of Alex V Korecek. At the end of the decade the inquest that followed the St Valentine’s Day massacre heard testimony from four men that sold machine guns in Chicago. These were Louis Scaramuzzo, James J Reynolds, J W Shipman and Frank V Thompson. The out of town mail order supplier Peter Von Frantious delivered submachine guns to the appropriately named Thompson and others that did not appear at the inquest and were not named. Additional submachine guns were delivered to Thompson by the manufacturer, the Auto-Ordnance company. Thompson admitted that in twelve months he purchased for resale over ten submachine guns. An owner of the Thompson submachine gun did not have to register the gun. Registration of guns with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was introduced in 1934. The title of the organisation reveals the concerns of the administrators.
The development and production of the Thompson submachine gun was financed by robber baron Thomas Fortune Ryan. And why not fortune as a middle name because he had made plenty of money from tobacco, transportation and insurance. He was a generous benefactor to various causes. Key to the development of the submachine gun was Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson. Taliaferro is pronounced Tolliver. Thompson and Ryan formed the Auto-Ordnance Company of New York in August 1916 but much of the development occurred in Cleveland, Ohio. The chief engineer of the company was Theodore Eickhoff. The initial plan was to produce a semi-automatic rifle but Eickhoff encountered problems. Thompson decided to abandon developing the rifle. He decided that the company would produce what he called a submachine gun, hand held, fully automatic and chambered for smaller and more practical pistol ammunition. This mixture of concepts, a fast firing automatic pistol that looked like and weighed more than a rifle indicates that either Thompson or Eckhood had genuine creative instinct. The original weapon was defined as a blowback operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective-fire submachine gun. No doubt that hyphen loaded definition will mean something to the enthusiasts.
Initial sales of the Thompson submachine gun were not impressive, and the weapon became almost a novelty item, a product for collectors. The gun could fire up to 1200 rounds a minute but aiming the gun accurately was difficult. The poor initial sales meant that Auto-Ordnance had to make most of its employees redundant. Demand had, though, existed. Private detective agencies and mining companies in places like Colorado bought the submachine guns. Presumably the private detective agencies and the mining companies used the submachine guns for the same purpose, to break strikes by discontented workforces. The gun proved useful for soldiers when the USA used military force to establish economic strongholds in South America, in what are or were called ‘the banana wars’. Placed in a stable position, the submachine gun was effective in helping American soldiers defend positions against Nicaraguan guerillas. Some Thompson submachine guns were exported to Cuba, changed hands and were subsequently used in the socialist and successful revolution of Fidel Castro. The weapon was also popular within the IRA. Soldiers, though, need to advance over territory. The rifle was easier to carry. The price of the gun fell from $275 to $175.
Working in tight urban spaces and travelling over shorter distances, gangsters were able to hide their Thompson submachine guns under long fashionable overcoats. The sales of submachine guns to gangsters was not the equivalent of the anticipated contracts by Thompson and the Auto Ordnance company but they added to the style of gangsters and helped reporters to write sensational newspaper stories. Without the Thompson submachine gun, the grandeur of the St Valentine’s Day massacre and the Hymie Wess attack on the Hawthorne Hotel would not have been possible. Al Capone understood that when the newspapers condemned him for the brothels, saloons and gambling houses they were providing him with free advertising. 10,000 bullets fired in the attack on Al Capone in the Hawthorne Hotel was fine publicity for the Thompson submachine gun. Its subsequent commercial success, though, would have depended on technical innovations and improvements. In 1933 the FBI added the Thompson submachine gun to its weaponry. More than 1.5 million Thompson submachine guns were sold during the second world war. From that point sales of the Thompson submachine gun declined. The weapon was not used in the Vietnam War. The decision to phase out the weapon has been criticised. These critics have memories and quote the tale of 1st Sgt Leonard Funk Jr. Perhaps the name shaped his character as it did with the hero of a certain chap in a Johnny Cash song. On January 29, 1945 the sergeant and his troop attacked fifteen enemy occupied houses in Holzheim Belgium and captured 30 Germans. A superior German force arrived to overpower the guards and recapture the prisoners. Funk was ordered to surrender by the German officer. Facing at least 100 German soldiers, Funk fired bullets into the officer until his Thompson submachine gun was empty. He then reloaded and continued to fire. Funk urged the prisoners to collect the weapons of the Germans that he was killing. Funk and the prisoners killed 21 Germans and wounded 24. Funk received the Medal of Honor, and no one ever said anything about his name ever again. Like the American icon that collected nicknames, Leonard Funk has history.
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.