The paperback version of The Bootleggers by Kenneth Alsopp is a hefty 500 pages.  The man was entitled to one duff sentence which is what happened when he attributed over 700 murders to Al Capone.  Alsopp was an English intellectual.  Perhaps the fatalities in Chicago turned his head a little and in a tired moment, when juggling numbers, he focussed on Capone.   Most writers have exaggerated the homicidal behaviour of Capone but that slip puts Alsopp out in front.  Author John J Binder has done more than most to provide context to what happened in Chicago during Prohibition.  Binder is an historian and an empiricist and that helps.  Chapter 7 of his book Al Capone’s Beer Wars is called The Face Of Battle : Gangland Killings In Chicago.  The chapter is essential reading.  What follows relies heavily on that chapter.

Research by Binder and author Mars Eghigian has contradicted some of the conventional wisdom that followed the Prohibition period.  In identifying bona fide instances, Binder and Eghigian used three sources of data.  These were the Chicago Crime Commission, the Chicago Police Department, and reports from newspapers.  Binder and Eghigian adopted the principle of trying to obtain two sources for each killing.  Using the newspapers as a third source was important because they provided additional information on the victim and the motive for the killing.   The Chicago Crime Commission claimed that 729 people were killed ‘gangland style’ between 1919 and 1933, the period dominated by Prohibition.  Nothing in the Chicago Crime Commission records defined a gangland killing but Binder quotes a definition provided by Arthur V Lashley.  A gangland killing is defined as ‘a murder committed by a gang of organised criminals, is premeditated, does not involve robbery and is carried out in a manner that allows the killers to escape.’   

There were 4,392 ‘non-accidental homicides’ in Chicago in the fifteen years from 1919 to and including 1933.  In the previous twelve years there were 2,236.  The difference is 2,156 or an annual average increase of 154.  In the years 1919 to 1933, the Chicago Crime Commission, in their list of 729 killings, identified 239 gangland killings in the city of Chicago.   This amounts to just 11% of the increase in Cook County homicides during Prohibition. Although fewer than what followed, gangland killings would have also existed in the twelve years before Prohibition.  From his research, Binder discovered that 43% of the murders on the Chicago Crime Commission list of 729 were unrelated to organised crime.  Looking at the victims and the motives, he provided categories for the remaining homicides.  Many murders were due to personal feuds and disputes amongst ‘common criminals’.  Many had unknown and other causes.  

The freelance extortioners, the Blackhanders, were blamed for 67 of the killings on the list by the Chicago Crime Commission.  55 killings were labour related or a consequence of the history of violence within Chicago unions.  Six killings were related to vice.  Political campaigns and conflict produced 23 killings.  Most of these were in the early 1920s.  The Tong wars added another six killings.  All these victims were Chinese.  154 murders had no known cause.   The most important revelation is worth repeating.   43% of 729 murders related to organised crime.  Of these only  41% were a consequence of bootlegging.  And of this 41%, just 40% of the victims were members of the bootlegging gangs in Chicago.  Examination of the newspaper reports and Chicago Police Department records revealed that 138 of the victims on the list of the Chicago Crime Commission were members of the major bootlegging gangs.  This amounts to an annual average of less than ten fatalities per each of the thirteen bootlegging gangs that formed the initial cartel.  Only six bootlegging gangs had more than ten fatalities in this fourteen year period.    

The Capone gang had 500 gunmen in 1931.  In the fifteen years that preceded and included 1933 his gang had 23 victims.   200 gunmen belonged to the North Side gang established by Dean O’Banion.  This gang was later swelled by the inclusion of the Aiello gang and Jack Zuta gangsters.   25 members of this gang were killed in the fifteen year period that ended in 1933.   The other gangs that suffered most were the Gennas, sixteen victims, and the Sheldon-Stanton gang, thirteen fatalities.  The North Side gang averaged 2.08 victims a year, and the Capone gang averaged 1.53 a year,  Binder concludes that pitched battles between the major gangs in the Chicago area were ‘extremely rare’.  According to him, organised crime related killings are best defined as executions. Some victims were found outside the Chicago area.  The lists provided by the Chicago Crime Commission and the Chicago Police Department did not include killings outside the  Cook County Area,  The numbers involved are not significant.  Binder has estimated that these killings when included add no more than a 7% increase to the totals.  The one way ride within the Cook County boundaries, though, was not uncommon.  It occurred in 142 cases or 20% of the 729 killings between 1919 and 1933.  The practice of ‘one way rides’ increased from 1924 when increased affluence led to a rise in car ownership.   Eighteen law enforcement persons were killed in this period.  These murders were not planned.  Officers were killed in the line of duty.  Eight officials of the Unione Siciliana were murdered.   

Of the total 729 victims, eight were African Americans, just over 1%.   Binder describes the African American gambling and vice operators as coexisting ‘fairly harmoniously’.  365 or 54% of the victims on the Chicago Crime Commission list of 729 were Italian Americans.   Many of these would have been the victims of either the bootlegging gangs, the blackhanders and other criminals.  21 of the 729 victims were killed unintentionally.  Not all of these accidental deaths, though, were caused by the bootlegging gangs.  Binder argues that the ‘data indicates that the gangland killers were fairly proficient at getting their intended victims while not hurting or killing bystanders’.  In 564 of the 729 killings the victims were shot with a handgun.  In the years 1926 to 1933, the Thompson submachine gun was used in 27 of the 444 killings on the Chicago Crime Commission list.  Bombings were common and continued beyond 1933 but the bombers destroyed property as a warning.  Few deaths resulted.   The Chicago Police Department identified locations of the killings in 458 cases in the years between 1919 and 1930.   More than half the victims, 273, almost 60%, were found outside in the street, alley or yard.   136 of the slain were found inside a building, and 43 inside an automobile.  Little effort was made to conceal the bodies of the victims.  557 of the 729 killings occurred in Chicago, fourteen in the northern suburbs, 70 in the western suburbs, 91 in the southern suburbs.  The killings were concentrated in the centre of the city.  The police made arrests in 132 of the 458 gangland style murders between 1919 and 1930 that were recorded by the Chicago Police Department.  According to the Chicago Crime Commission, 32 of the 729 gangland killings they recorded went to trial.  Nine of these trials resulted in a conviction.  After the appeal was heard, the number of convictions was reduced to six.

Mayor Thompson proclaimed that Chicago would be an open city.  He had  a relaxed attitude to bootlegging, gambling and vice providing he had a share of the profits.  Mayor Deever came to office promising to apply the Volstead Act and reduce crime.  Thompson served two terms and the homicides were lower in his first term than his second.  This variation complicates the figures but Binder states that there were fewer killings overall in the Thompson years.   Ceasefires between the gangs and the provocations and priorities of individual gang leaders had more impact than the actions of the mayors. The bootlegging gang leaders exercised both aggression and restraint during the years of prohibition.  Binder argues that the gang leaders ‘behaved fairly rationally because they used violence in a way that was consistent with their self-interest’.   He is correct to say that murders of members of other bootlegging gangs were infrequent and that there was peaceful coexistence for lengthy periods.  Unintentional killings were minimal.  The gang leaders, though, did impose their will by force.   Individuals that were obstacles to the ambitions of bootleggers could easily become victims.  In some instances that meant a beating, in others the destruction of property and in some the loss of life.   Binder also argues that police, although weakened by corruption, made more of a peacekeeping effect than is realised.  The police would respond to heightened conflict by flooding troubled areas with additional police officers.  If many in the police were relaxed about bootlegging, vice and gambling activities, they also needed to keep the peace.  Gangs that disturbed the peace would have their businesses closed down and disrupted by police officers.  This would deter gangs from future killings.  

Binder summarises his findings by saying that Chicago was indeed the murder capital of the USA during the years of Prohibition.  He also insists that his findings defy the conventional wisdom about the gang wars in Chicago between 1919 and 1933.  Many of the gangland killings had nothing to do with organised crime.  Nor did the gangsters just kill each other.  Relatively few members of the bootlegging gangs were killed during the Prohibition years. Despite its glorification the Thompson submachine gun was not the dominant weapon used in the killings.   The weapons favoured in Prohibition killings were shotguns and large calibre handguns.   Most killings were committed at close range.  The killers were not prepared to risk failure and were not expert marksmen.  They  also assumed that witnesses to a killing would not be prepared to testify.  The victims rarely died without realising why and what had happened.   They may not have ‘had it coming’ as their assassins believed but they usually saw it coming.   

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.