18 SEMI-DETACHED SUBURBAN MAN
Myths may not be true but they can still take us some way towards the truth. There is a sign on the border of Cicero, Illinois that welcomes visitors and claims Ernest Hemingway was born in the town. The great writer was not born in Cicero or at least not what is defined today as Cicero. Oak Park is the birthplace of Hemingway and it is situated three miles to the west of urban Cicero. Oak Park is residential, and leafy Cicero is urban. When Hemingway was born the suburb of Oak Park was located within the boundaries of Cicero. The suburb Berwyn is located between Oak Park and Cicero and is, like Oak Park, no longer inside the Cicero boundaries. The fictional character Saul Goodman from the TV show Better Call Saul is supposed to have been born in Berwyn. Seven miles to the east of the town of Cicero is downtown Chicago. An almost straight line travels west and through Cicero and Berwyn to Oak Park.
Understanding how and why the Torrio-Capone gang relocated their headquarters to Cicero in 1924 is, like the claim about the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, complicated. William Emmett Dever was elected as the Chicago Mayor in 1923. Dever, as mayor, pledged to create an effective and corruption free police force. Dever was not anti-alcohol but he believed that the law against prohibition should be enforced. The law is the law, argued Dever. The simple version of what happened after his electoral success describes how Torrio and Capone decided to avoid increased police supervision and vacated Chicago. This led to Ralph Capone, brother of Al, arriving in Cicero in 1923 and identifying businesses that could be either introduced or developed. A year later, to consolidate gains and facilitate further business expansion, the Torrio-Capone engaged corrupt local politicians that were willing to accept speakeasies, gambling saloons and brothels being located within the Cicero boundaries.
At the 1924 elections in Cicero the Capone-Torrio gang intimidated voters. Hired hard cases shot, kidnapped and attacked election workers. The violence produced a response in Chicago. Police were exported to Cicero. One election skirmish led to the shooting and killing of Frank Capone by the police. Not all the witnesses agreed that Frank fired first. Al Capone told the press that the death of his brother had left him devastated. If it did, the fatality did not affect his relations with the police. In his meetings, interviews and interrogations Al Capone remained polite and cordial. The Capone family bought flowers for the funeral at the florist owned by north side gangster Dean O’Banion.
Joseph Z Klenha became Mayor of Cicero. With the help of a corrupt mayor and crooked police captain Theodore Svboda the town was transformed. Resistance came from Robert St John, the high minded editor of the Cicero Tribune. Pressure was applied to St John by Ralph Capone. Policemen stood in the town square and watched Ralph assault St John. More inclined to negotiate than his brother, Al Capone apologised for the behaviour of Ralph and offered to pay the hospital bills of St John. The apology and the money were refused by St John. The Chicago Tribune was subsequently sold to Al Capone, and St John found other work and prospered. Before St John died at 100 years of age he had written 26 books. Writers have described St John as being beaten to a pulp by Ralph Capone. In this instance, though, it appears to have been a gangster-beating that left no lasting damage.
Torrio-Capone managed to expand their reach into the suburbs whilst retaining control of their business interests in downtown Chicago. If the expansion of illicit business in Cicero was rapid after the mayoral election of 1923, Torrio had recognised the business potential of Cicero well before the election of Dever in Chicago. Torrio bought the Hawthorne Hotel in 1918 and had invested in a gambling saloon in the town as early as 1913. The Hawthorne Shoe Shop was next door to the hotel and also operated as a gambling den. Cicero may have avoided brothels and speakeasies prior to 1923 but gambling had been popular. The expansion of the Torrio-Capone business involved opening speakeasies and brothels and moving into existing gambling operations. This expansion meant networking and acquiring partners. Eddie Vogel supplied slot machines and organised interested locals to set up stills to brew ‘alky’. Much of this work was done by the wives of working men. Jimmy Mondi, Frankie Pope and Al Lambert helped run the gambling operation. Dean O’Banion helped with fixing the elections of 1924 and he acquired a stake in The Ship saloon and brothel. The northside gangster Louis ‘Two Gun’ Alterie owned the Greyhound Restaurant in Cicero. Over a decade later Alterie would testify against Ralph Capone. A month after he talked to the police, Louis Alterie was shot dead. In 1921 the town of Cicero had no brothels but perhaps a few freelance and low profile prostitutes. Three years later the 60,000 citizens of Cicero were able to choose between 123 saloons, 22 brothels and 16 gambling dens.
Cicero also had jobs in the 1920s. Dell Telephone employed 10,000 workers. Western Electric provided employment for over 32,000 employees. Cicero was known, and is perhaps remembered, as a ‘sundown town’. Instead of signs by the road proclaiming the birth of the man that wrote ‘A Farewell To Arms’ and ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ the welcome messages advised that any African Americans still in town after sundown would be arrested. On July 11 1951 a crowd of 4,000 white residents attacked the home of Harvey E Clark and his African American family. The Clarks had become residents in Cicero. 60 police officers struggled to quell the riot. Following a request from the sheriff, the Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson sent in the Illinois National Guard. The riot continued for another three days. The damage done to the building where Harvey E Clark rented his apartment was valued at $20,000. None of the accused rioters were indicted. George N Leighton was the attorney for the Clark family and also the owner of the apartment building where Clark had hoped to settle with his family. Leighton was indicted for inciting a riot but there was outrage outside Cicero and these charges were dropped. Based on the 2020 Census the population of Cicero was estimated in 2021 as 83,161. For some reason the figures quoted in alternative charts vary. These broad estimates, though, are valid. Hispanics and Latinos including white Hispanics and Latinos were almost 90% of the population. Less than 7% of those living in Cicero were classified as ‘white alone’ and less than 4% were African Americans. 42.5% of the African Americans in Cicero lived in poverty.
Back in 1924, Capone and Torrio relocated their business headquarters from the Four Deuces at 2222 South Wabash in Chicago to the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero. This must have taken time because Capone initially secured an apartment in a nearby building. He was the only resident in the building. His arrival and presence as a resident did not inspire a riot from local homeowners. Many in Cicero approved of Capone and felt he contributed to the economy. Hawthorne Hotel became known as ‘Capone’s Castle’ but it did not prevent Hymie Weiss launching the attack on Capone in September of 1926. Capone was either having or had just had breakfast in the hotel when the machine gun loaded cavalcade from Weiss arrived. Capone survived the attack, and Weiss was subsequently assassinated in a razor sharp killing. Before the tit for tat violence went further a peace conference was called by Capone.
The O’Donnells on the west side of Chicago were led by Miles O’Donnell and his brother William ‘Klondyke’ O’Donnell. This gang was different to the crew led by Spike O’Donnell on the south side. The business of the west side O’Donnells was located between the downtown wards and Cicero. Both those areas were controlled by Capone and Torrio. Perhaps the O’Donnels felt threatened and decided to retaliate through seeking Cicero customers or perhaps their behaviour was no more than a desire to take advantage of the increased commercial activity in Cicero. Whatever the reason, the O’Donnells encroached into Cicero. This happened in the same year Weiss attacked Capone at the Hawthorne Hotel. The expansion by the O’Donnells was unsolicited, and the inevitable retribution against the O’Donnells anything but precise. Two of the O’Donnell gang, plus friend and assistant state attorney William McSwiggin, were killed while driving through Cicero. The O’Donnell men were called Jim Doherty and ‘Red’ Duffy. Capone has been accused of participating in the attack. The tale is that he was one of the killers because he wanted to try a recently purchased machine gun. Weiss had tried to kill Capone twice, and the O’Donnells were additional antagonists. It is possible that a paranoid Capone reacted to the aggression of others but, if he did, this hands-on involvement was anything but typical behaviour by Capone the gang leader. The killing of William McSwiggin was condemned by the press. Gangsters were no longer just killing other gangsters. William McSwiggin was an ordinary citizen and important, someone that had developed a reputation for integrity. Inevitably, the more sceptical became curious as to why the assistant state attorney was driving around Chicago with two gangsters. Childhood friends was the defensive answer from those loyal to McSwiggin. The posthumous reputation of McSwiggin has remained tainted.
The progress by Torrio and Capone into the other suburbs of Chicago appears to have been less contentious than in Cicero. The two men were able to establish economic footholds in Forest View, Maple Village, Stickney and Lyons. On the roads in and out of Chicago they also set up roadhouses that served as brothels. These other locations were not as large as Cicero. Securing electoral control was not difficult in quiet suburbs. Mass battles and deadly electoral confrontations were avoided. Maple Village had 57 registered voters and 47 of them were residents in a single brothel. What could be simpler, Johnny Torrio might have said to his protege Al Capone.
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.