28 THE KILLING OF WILLIAM McSWIGGIN
Two of five men survived the gun attack of April 27 1926. It happened in Cicero and at 5613 West Roosevelt Road. The two that survived were the last to leave Harry Madigan’s Pony Inn, which is a little like having no tickets and arriving late at a football match but somehow getting inside the ground. The initial accounts claimed Al Capone was in the first of the five cars that arrived while the victims were drinking inside the Pony Inn. More than one account suggested that Capone took part because he wanted to try out his new Thompson submachine gun. The later accounts became increasingly hesitant. Capone moved from the first to the third car and no longer had the machine gun. Later again, the incident has been reported without any mention of Capone being there. After the killings happened there was indignation in the Chicago newspapers and a reaction from the authorities. 100 city detectives were deputised. The speakeasies, gambling saloons and brothels were raided by the police. A reward of $5000 was offered, and six grand juries investigated what happened. The six grand juries cost $600,000 but no one was arrested. Suspicion, rumours and perhaps guilt persuaded Al Capone to hide out for four months in Wisconsin. While in hiding, Capone enjoyed the company of a blonde that was not his wife. The two survivors, Myles and Klondike O’Donnell also went into hiding but returned to Chicago after a month.
In 1925 Johnny Torrio had reacted to the attempt on his life by moving to New York. When the attack outside the Pony Inn occurred Capone had been in charge of the Torrio organisation for over a year. Capone was the Chicago gangster with the largest territory and workforce to manage but he was not yet a celebrity. That came later. Some writers believe that the public relations campaigns of Capone were a response to the public outrage that followed the murders outside the Pony Inn. Others argue his celebrity was inevitable and that his behaviour was anything but strategic. They claim Capone enjoyed being famous and did no more than take advantage of being under the spotlight and that extra attention helped him indulge his instinctive swagger. The soup kitchens he provided for the poor came later and when his fame was well-established. The giveaways were a response to the Depression. The reaction of the authorities to the Pony Inn shootings was a consequence of state attorney William H McSwiggin being one of the fatal victims. His murder belongs to three events in the Chicago beer wars that embarrassed the authorities and damaged the popularity of the bootleggers. These events were the killing of William H McSwiggin, the murder of reporter Jake Lingle and the St Valentine’s Day massacre.
The murdered state attorney was born February 7 1901 and grew up on the west side of Chicago and in a district populated by Irish Americans. McSwiggin was the son of a police sergeant. Father disapproved of his son remaining loyal to the friends from the neighbourhood. Many of those cheeky imps had subsequently become gangsters. Son, William H McSwiggin, had connections within the Republican party. He collected Republican votes and participated in the campaigns of his boss, Chicago state attorney Robert E Crowe. The Chicago newspapers liked all-American McSwiggin. He had the common touch and when he was a student had worked hard and been good at sports. Journalists christened him the ‘hanging prosecutor’. In 1926, the ambitious youngster achieved seven first degree murder verdicts in just eight months. McSwiggin was less successful against the bootleggers. He interviewed Capone about the murder of Joseph Howard but no charges were made. The prosecutions of Myles O’Donnell and Jim Doherty for the murder of Eddie Tanci went further but were unsuccessful. None of this tarnished his reputation. The West Side O’Donnells continued to support William H McSwiggin. The gangsters had also been ballot watchers in a recount for the county primaries. Political influence was important to the O’Donnells because they sold booze in the west side of Chicago and wanted to expand into the Capone controlled Cicero. According to one bar owner in the town, the beer from the O’Donnells was cheaper and better. Ten days before the attack outside the Pony Inn a meeting between McSwiggin and Capone took place at the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero. The father of William H said he knew what had taken place. Anthony McSwiggin, the father, preferred to keep what happened secret because ‘it would blow the lid off Chicago’. Anthony McSwiggin remained convinced that Al Capone was responsible for the murder of his son. He named accomplices but was unable to collect enough evidence to convict Capone.
April 27 1926, the night of the murders, the gangster friends of William H McSwiggin called at the home of Anthony, the father. The household included four daughters and son William H. Similar calls must have been made when the friends were children. Instead of being invited to come out and play, this time the invitation was to participate in a card game in Berwyn. There are alternative accounts as to who called at the house, who drove the car and who was picked up as the car proceeded to Cicero. Not all the details are essential. We know who died and who survived. Jim Doherty drove the car that took the party to the Pony Inn in Cicero. The Cadillac that belonged to Klondike O’Donnell had either struggled to start or had engine trouble. Doherty drove his own Lincoln. Four days before the Pony Inn shootings there had been an attack on Pearl Hubrys beauty parlour in Cicero. The intended victim had been Jim Doherty. When they left the home of McSwiggin the brothers Myles and Klondike O’Donnell sat in the rear of the car. It makes sense and helps to assume that somewhere between the home of McSwiggin and the Pony Inn the numbers in the car changed and Klondike O’Donnell returned home and Duffy joined the group.
Red Duffy, Jim Doherty and McSwiggin were all hit with bullets in the attack. Duffy took five of the bullets fired. He crawled into an empty lot and hid behind a tree. McSwiggin stumbled towards the entrance to the building next to the Pony Inn and collapsed. Doherty fell flat on the pavement or sidewalk. A passing motorist stopped and rushed Duffy to the West Suburban Hospital where he died six hours later. Having left the bar moments after the others and survived, Edward Hanley and Myles O’Donnell dragged the bodies of McSwiggin and Doherty into their car and drove to the home of Klondike O’Donnell. Because McSwiggin and Doherty were already dead, Klondike decided that the bodies needed to be dumped. McSwiggin was stripped of any documents that revealed his identity. The two bodies were found in Berwyn at 10pm. The blood stained Lincoln car was left in Oak Park. Inside the discovered car were five fedoras and the spectacles that had belonged to McSwiggin. The shootings had taken place at 7.44pm which suggests that there had not been a heavy drinking session at the Pony Inn. The group presumably roamed Cicero for a couple of hours and had drinks in the odd saloon. Light intermittent showers meant that the visibility that evening was poor. Either McSwiggin was not recognised or the assassins were uninterested in actual individuals. A witness, Mrs Bach, saw a car speed away with a ‘telephone receiver poking out of the window’. Those who believe that Capone was responsible attribute his motives to the need to not only resist the encroachment of the O’Donnells into Cicero but to send a warning to other rival gangs that had similar ambitions. There are alternative rumours that explain how Capone knew the whereabouts of the O’Donnells. One claims that the O’Donnells were overheard making plans by Capone ally Willie Heeney.
Myles and Klondike O’Donnell returned to Chicago on May 27 1926. They appeared at the investigation by the first of the six juries. Neither had an explanation for the attack at the Pony Inn. The deceit continued when they argued that McSwiggin had only been in the car because he was searching for a bulletproof vest that was missing. McSwiggin had supposedly believed that Jim Dohery either had possession of the missing vest or knew where the vest might be. Under cross examination their attempt to protect the reputation of an old and childhood friend failed. McSwiggin was in the car because he wanted to have a few drinks and a game of cards with people he liked. The final report from the judge, though, insisted that neither McSwiggin and his boss Robert E Crowe were at fault.
The night before Capone returned to Chicago and surrendered to the police he spoke to reporters. This is some of what he said. ‘I ain’t no squawker but I’ll tell you what I know about this case. All I ask is a chance to prove that I had nothing to do with the killing of Billy McSwiggin. It’s a bad time to say anything, and I’ve been convicted without a hearing of all the crimes in the calendar. But I’m innocent of everything, and it won’t take long to prove it. I trust my attorneys to see that I’m treated like a human being and not pushed around by a lot of coppers with axes to grind.’ There was more. Capone claimed that he was friends with McSwiggin, bore no grudges about the attempt to prosecute Anselmi and Scalise, especially as the attempt had failed, and was good friends with the O’Donnells and Jim Doherty. As with the O’Donnells, there was a court appearance for Capone but the evidence was thin and he was released after a day. The police searched the restaurant where Capone had said he was eating when the killings happened. Someone had claimed that the restaurant had a secret panel in which Capone hid a machine gun. No secret panel was found. Indignation and rumours persisted. Irritated by the attention given to the McSwiggin case and the high mindedness of his accusers, Capone said, ‘I paid McSwiggin. I paid him a lot and I got what I was paying for.’ Or, as someone said to me after an incident on South Wabash Street when I visited, ‘Welcome to Chicago, in this town the tough play rough.’
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.