19 THE TERRIBLE GENNAS
In the Roger Corman film, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, the conflict between bootleggers is reduced to a territorial battle between Bugs Moran and Al Capone for the control of Chicago. To give the plot extra heft the two men are given imperial ambitions. There were grievances between these two very status conscious men but both had committed to the cartel designed by Johnny Torrio. Gangsters are not the best at playing by the rules, though, and their way with words can cause offence. Neither was Chicago the exclusive domain of Moran and Capone. Twelve gangs controlled distinct territories within Chicago in 1924. Not all were convinced about the validity of the geographical and commercial boundaries that existed within the cartel. Apart from the outfits led by Capone and Moran, two of the gangs are more important than the others. The behaviour of the Gennas weakened the relationship between Johnny Torrio and Dean O´Banion. Later the relentless ambition of Joe Aiello created conflict in the south of Chicago and inhibited the admittedly dim chance of harmony between Al Capone and Bugs Moran. For the moment, Joe Aiello can be ignored.
The Genna brothers operated in ward 19 of Chicago. Ward 19 became ward 25 after the number of wards was reduced from 50 to 35 in 1920. Ward 19 or 25 is located on the near west side of Chicago. In the 1920s the largest community within that ward was dominated by Italian families and was known as Little Italy. The Genna family came from Marsala which is in the Sicilian province of Trapani. The family had seven brothers and two sisters. Six of the brothers emigrated to the USA. Within the Genna business the brothers had distinct roles. Salvatore ‘Sam’ Genna was the political fixer. The Genna gang stored and mixed alcohol in a three storey warehouse at 1022 Taylor Street. The locals nicknamed the warehouse ‘the police station’ because so many policemen called at the building to collect their bribes. Policemen would collect $15 for basic tasks. The police captains drew $1500 a month. At one point ‘Sam’ Genna was paying off five captains. Vincenzo ‘Jim’ Genna operated a speakeasy in the vicinity of Halstead and Taylor streets. Pete ran a saloon on the west side, and Mike and Angelo were the tough guys. Tony was supposed to have had organisational skills. He studied architecture and classical music. Tony used some of the bootleg earnings to provide decent housing for less affluent Italians. He even wore glasses.
At the onset of prohibition the Genna family obtained a permit to sell and produce industrial alcohol. Some of this alcohol was sold to perfume and toilet water manufacturers. The rest was mixed into a rough but cheap liquor. The price made the Genna product popular. To cope with demand the Gennas installed five gallon stills in homes of Italian immigrants and paid the head of the family $15 a day. In most cases the women in the family took responsibility for the brewing. Watching a still is not a full time job, and the women were able to incorporate brewing into their normal domestic tasks. Or that is the theory. Estimates vary as to how much alcohol a family was expected to produce. One writer has claimed that each family produced 375 gallons of alcohol a week. Compared to the standards of British home brewers this appears to be high.
Mike and Angelo Genna may have been capable of physical intimidation and combat but the gang also employed other tough characters. John Scalise and Alberto Anselmi were affectionately or not so affectionately known as the murder twins. Samuzzo ‘Samoots’ Amatuna was prickly and volatile. Concerned about his appearance, ´Samoots´ was especially disappointed when he discovered a scorch mark on one of his laundered silk shorts. He was forgiving to the man that delivered the laundered clothes but shot the horse that pulled the laundry wagon.
The Gennas employed other tough guys. Orazio Tropea, Ecola Baldelli, Vito Bascone and Filippo Gnolfo no doubt contributed to the mayhem that occurred in the alderman elections in ward 19 between 1916 and 1921. 30 men died in that democratic process. ‘Samoots’ Amatuna has the honour of being responsible for the first fatality. Amatuna was 17 years old and might not even have been wearing silk shirts when he shot and killed Frank Lombardi. The violent campaigns helped establish close links between the Gennas and alderman candidate Tony D’Andrea who was head of the Chicago chapter of the Unione Siciliana from 1919 to 1921. The link between D’Andrea, the Unione Siciliana and the Gennas is important. Torrio and Capone were not able to be impartial when conflict erupted between the Gennas and Dean O’Banion.
The more expensive and better quality alcohol that the O’Banion gang provided could be sipped in the mansions of the plush Gold Coast suburbs. The north side of Chicago was more affluent than the south but there still existed in the north a working class market for cheap alcohol. Men from the Genna gang infiltrated the north side and offered the cheaper product to working class customers. Rather than agreeing a deal where the two enterprises could provide a comprehensive service and supply the required booze, O’Banion insisted on territorial autonomy. He asked Johnny Torrio to restrain the Gennas. The incursions were reduced after Torrio intervened. The cheap alcohol, though, continued to head north. O’Banion responded by hijacking a shipment of Genna alcohol. Capone has been given credit for ensuring that the Gennas took no violent action against O’Banion. No one can blame Capone if he was disappointed with the subsequent behaviour of his rivals. O’Banion declared he was going to retire and that he was also willing to sell the Sieben brewery to Torrio for $500,000. This was a ruse. Aware that the police were due to raid the brewery, O’Banion invited Torrio to inspect the premises. The police arrived on the same day as Torrio and O’Banion. Both men were arrested but O’Banion escaped with the warning that he had expected. Torrio forfeited a brewery that had cost him $500,000 and received a prison sentence. No doubt the presence of Unione Siciliana president Mike Merlo helped but again Capone and Torrio did not retaliate.
November 3 1924 was the day before the polls opened for the Cicero mayoral election. Dean O’Banion, Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci made the short journey to Cicero where they collected their share of the profits from The Ship, a gambling saloon. The Genna brothers liked to gamble at The Ship and had accrued debts of $30,000. Because the Genna gang were making significant contributions to the overall profits from bootlegging, Capone wanted to waive the debt. O’Banion was opposed and responded by contacting Angelo Genna and demanding the $30,000 be paid. Merlo continued to refuse to sanction violence against the O’Banion gang but he died on November 8 1924, five days after the incident at The Ship. The flowers at his funeral cost $100,000.
The majority of floral arrangements were bought at the flower shop owned by O’Banion. FrankieYale, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi called at the flower shop. O’Banion assumed the three men were collecting flowers for the Merlo funeral and shook hands with Yale. While this happened Scalise and Anselmi fired bullets into the chest and head of O’Banion. Capone and Torrio have been credited with the murder of O’Banion but wildman Angelo Genna might not have approached Johnny Torrio to seek permission for the killing. The presence of Frankie Yale has been regarded as him doing a favour for Torrio. The New York bootleg interests of Yale always meant that he was interested in what was happening in Chicago. He could have been present at the assassination of O’Banion because he wanted to protect his own interests. Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran, though, believed the assassination of O’Banion had been agreed by Torrio, Capone and the Genna gang. If the attacks by Weiss and Moran support the traditional accusations against Capone and Torrio, it is clear that Angelo Genna would have been the driving force in organising the murder of O’Banion.
Rather than wait for Torrio to be committed to prison because of the Sieben Brewery incident, Weiss and Moran attacked Torrio on January 24 1925. Despite extensive injuries Torrio recovered in hospital. The attempt to kill Al Capone had occurred 12 days earlier on January 12 when a cavalcade of cars mounted an assault on the Hawthorn restaurant in Cicero. Capone interrupted his lunch to drop to the floor and let the numerous bullets go over his head. Bugs Moran waited until May 27 1925 before killing Angelo Genna. After a car chase that forced Genna to crash his car into a lampost, Weiss, Drucci and Moran emerged from their own vehicle and fired their sawn off shotguns into Angelo Genna.
The killing of Mike Genna was even more spectacular and a lot more complicated. The Life And World of Al Capone by John Kobler gives a comprehensive account of how Moran and Drucci and Angelo Genna agreed to a meeting to discuss handing over Scalise and Anselmi to the north side gang. Neither side was sincere. While Moran and Drucci waited for the Genna gang to arrive, shots were fired from a passing limousine. Moran and Drucci followed in their own car but both were wounded and they soon retreated to safety. The limousine of the Genna gang passed a police vehicle. In the chase that followed Genna, Scalise and Anselmi abandoned their car. Scalise and Anselmi were caught and arrested. Angelo Genna was killed in a stand-off with policeman William Sweeney.
Less than a month later a member of the Genna gang called Guisppe Nerone killed Tony Genna. Guiseppe felt that he was not properly appreciated. He was subsequently shot and killed while being shaved in a barbershop. The other three brothers sacrificed ambition and fled. Jim returned to Sicily, and Sam and Pete found hiding places outside Chicago. Time passed, and eventually the three brothers returned to Chicago. They avoided the bootlegging business and survived by importing cheese and oil.
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.