More than the others, four gangs are important to understanding the internecine warfare that existed within the Chicago bootlegging industry of  the 1920s.   The Torrio-Capone outfit and the crew led by Dean O’Banion and later Bugs Moran were bigger than the rest.   The Genna gang caused friction between Dean O’Banion and Johnny Torrio and this led to tit for tat assassination attempts and killings.   O’Banion and his successor Hymie Weiss were both killed.  Twelve bullets put Torrio in hospital for a month but he recovered.  Capone sidestepped the various attempts on his life.  Peace should have prevailed after the Hotel Sherman peace conference in 1926.  It did for a while but Joe Aiello wanted to be head of the Unione Siciliana.  Aiello had killed Unione heads that prevented his advancement.  Aiello was responsible for four assassination attempts on Al Capone.  Inevitably there were reprisals.   The battles between these four gangs produced the headlines that dominated the Chicago newspapers of the 1920s.  They also shaped movies, novels and our understanding of that decade. Occurring in this period but not as popular amongst the subsequent storytellers was the conflict between the West Side O’Donnell gang and Capone.  This confrontation was restricted to a border skirmish in Cicero and also short lived although it did produce the high profile and unintentional killing of assistant state attorney William McSwiggin.

Violence in Chicago, though, was not restricted to gang warfare.   The alcohol market, like others, became more than a response to a demand from customers.  The market and how it operated was shaped by the suppliers.   The gang bosses needed alcohol to sell, retail outlets, understood price mechanisms and civic support and restrictions.  Like most people in business, gangsters were also hostile to both fair and unfair competition.  All this meant not just securing long term and exclusive contracts and commitment from suppliers and retailers but being given licence by the police and politicians.   In some instances the gangs owned gambling saloons or speakeasies that became core units and headquarters within their operations.  

The gangsters or suppliers of alcohol needed to impose their will on the market.   In the world of legitimate business, market advantage is achieved through advertising, price undercutting, networking and investment.  The gangsters would have adopted these methods but they also utilised violence to shape the market.  Independent bar owners took the illegal alcohol because they had no choice.  Suppliers sold at the price dictated by the gangsters.  If not all of the gangs that sold alcohol were involved in internecine warfare with the Capone-Torrio outfit and the O’Banion-Moran gang, they still needed or felt they needed violence to shape the market and prevail.   

Apart from the suburbs of Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park the Saltis-McErlane gang controlled bootlegging in just one of the fifty wards in Chicago in 1924.  The New City police district or ward contained about three hundred saloons.  The operation run by Saltis and McErlane was lucrative but there is no evidence that Capone considered them as rivals or their business as significant.   Frank McErlane, though, has been described as ‘the most vicious killer in the country’.  One watchdog agency considered him ‘the most cruel, dangerous and vicious type of criminal’.  McErlane was a heavy drinker and perhaps hangovers left him indisposed on certain days.  Joe Saltis had more than adequate contingency plans.   He employed other hard men when needed.  These included Frank ‘Lefty’ Koncil, George Darrow,  Patrick ‘Paddy’ Sullivan, a former Chicago police officer, and killers Willie Niemoth, Nick Kramer and ‘Big Earl’ Herbert.  Darrow was the recognised torturer within the group.   This plus some entrepreneurial flair is what it took for Saltis and McErlane to maximise market opportunities in one police district and a couple of leafy suburbs.

After the demise of the O’Banion-Moran gang, Capone inherited the vacant territory they left.  Internecine warfare amongst the best remembered gangs had produced serious casualties.  The Genna, Aiello and O’Banion gangs had ceased to operate although many of their members found work in other gangs. Capone extended his control into the northside of Chicago because Bugs Moran let his bootlegging operation collapse.  The view that this was achieved because of the St Valentine’s Day massacre can be and deserves to be challenged.  After the slaying, Moran had enough men left to maintain his organisation.  He and it drifted.   

By 1932 the bootlegging cartel was dominated by the Capone gang.  They had expanded their territory to include 70% of Chicago.  The Genna gang, the Moran gang and the not so well known Guilfoyle-Kolb-Winge (GKW) gang had each possessed demarcated territories but by 1932 all the gangs had been dissolved.  (The Aiellos ran the ‘alky’ supply industry rather than police wards.)  The Gennas, Aiellos and Moran had been big hitters.  The  GKW gang controlled bootlegging in three wards on the northside and west to the Moran territory.  Presumably when Moran abdicated and Capone moved into the northside, the GKW people decided quiet retirement had its attractions.  The gang also had good relations with its neighbours.   It might have been absorbed into the other northside gangs before Capone replaced Moran on the northside.

The Saltis-McErlane gang split into two distinct operations that had separate territories.  The presence or arrival of McErlane in the southern suburbs meant reduced territory for the South Side O’Donnell gang.   Although violence and confrontations informed these readjustments there appears to have been no lasting enmity between the two gangs.  In the confusion the Downs-McGeoghan-Quinlan (DMQ)  gang took control of the Englewood district that existed between the territories controlled by the South Side O’Donnell and the McErlane gangs.  DMQ were the newcomers.   Their presence as a distinct entity was facilitated by some support from Al Capone and McErlane moving his operations to the southern and western suburbs and leaving bootlegging in the New City police district to Joe Saltis.  DMQ were clearly opportunists because in 1931 they attempted to expand further into O’Donnell and McErlane territory.  They mounted unsuccessful gun attacks on leader Spike O’Donnell and murdered Edward Fitzgerald, fellow gangster of McErlane.  McErlane responded violently.   These final confrontations have been defined as the third beer war of prohibition.  Frank McErlane became increasingly self-destructive.  He was arrested for killing his wife and two dogs who were sitting in the  back seat of his car.  The main target of his grievance was his wife.  The terrified dogs were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Capone was sent to prison for committing income tax evasion in October 1931.  His outfit was integrated into a syndicate that had concerns wider than Chicago.  Frank Nitti replaced Capone as leader and had previously acquired the nickname ‘The Enforcer’.  As leader, though, he was aware of the need for consolidation and cooperation with interests outside Chicago.  Nitti negotiated rather than assassinated.  The late sporadic violence of 1930 and 1931 had an effect on individual lives but its impact on the cartel was in the long-term inconsequential.

To make sense of these shifting scenarios it helps to list the gangs that prevailed throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s.  Concentration is required but these gangs have been identified as follows, one, Circus Cafe, it controlled one ward on the northside, two, Cook-Vogel, one ward west of downtown, three, Shultz-Horan, three wards at the northern tip of Chicago, four, South Side O’Donnells, nine wards lower southside that became two after the intervention of Frank McErlane, five, Sheldon-Stanton, one ward that contained the stockyards, six, Torrio- Capone, initially just nine wards that became eighteen, seven, Druggan-Lake, also known as Valley, two wards on the near northside, eight, West Side O’Donnells, (no connection to the South Side O’Donnells), two wards on the western border of the northside.  The Saltis-McFarlane gang can be added to this list because, although the gang no longer existed as an entity that controlled New City, their leaders had survived the decade.  It has already been said but it does no harm to repeat.  Joe Saltis continued to run New City, and McErlane had acquired six of the wards on the southside that had previously belonged to the South Side O’Donnells.  And if the above still does not make sense, all I can suggest is that you read the paragraph again and make notes with a pencil and paper.  A map of Chicago also helps understanding.

These ward controlling gangs that never numbered more than twelve, and were the responsibility of men that had been reluctant to attend school, established a market that, when converted into modern monetary values, generated annual turnovers of billions of dollars.  The Capone gang alone had to manage annual receipts that at their peak amounted to $1.5billion.  No wonder the gang accountant Jake Gruzik was a valued member of the organisation. And for the sake of completion, two more gangs need to be mentioned.   The Twentieth Ward gang operated completely within the territory controlled by the Valley or Druggan-Lake gang.  The patch controlled by the Twentieth Ward gangs was known as the Maxwell Street neighbourhood.  It began at Roosevelt Road which borders the south loop in Chicago.  In his book Al Capone’s Beer Wars, author John J Binder refers to there being friction between the two gangs.  If anything, the combatants in the Twentieth Ward gang preferred to shoot policemen.  Perhaps this endeared them to their more powerful neighbours.   The De Coursey gang operated at the southern end of the territory controlled by the Sheldon-Stanton gang.  The De-Coursey gang produced beer and alcohol and distributed it to several states.  Rather than potential territorial rivals to the other gangs they were links in the chain.  In a better world the De Coursey gang would have been role models for the destructive Genna and Aiello gang leaders.     

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 BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.