38 JACK ‘MACHINE GUN’ McGURN
Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn was not a man that shaped the gangster history of Chicago. But they did make a movie about him, and that counts for something. Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn was adept at almost everything, and his proficiency in killing people ensured he made the list of public enemies. No problem with recognition then. His appeal to women, the almost handsome face and a talent for sporting contests qualified him for a celluloid biography. Despite it all, the movie about the life and exploits of Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn was not that great. Budgetary restrictions applied, and perhaps the creators suffered a loss of faith. But if Gangster Land has the usual Hollywoodian deceits and shortcuts, it has a portrayal of Capone that is more realistic than most. This time around, Big Al is given a brain and strategic sense. That alone makes Gangster Land worth a watch.
Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn was born Vincenzo Gibaldi. The year of his birth was 1903, and the place where it happened was Licata, Sicily. Tomasso, the father, travelled to the USA and ahead of the rest of the family. It took four years for Tomasso Gibaldi to save enough money to pay for his wife, son Vincenzo and one other daughter to make the same journey. The remaining daughter had to be left with relatives in Sicily. Vincenzo was not much more than a child when father, Tomasso, was killed by the Irish White Hand gang. Giuseppina, his widow, later married a grocer. The new family, including the fourteen-year-old Vincenzo, left New York and moved to Chicago. He became successful as an amateur welterweight boxer, turned professional and changed his name to Jack McGurn. The credit for this idea has been given to Emil Thiery, a well-known trainer of boxers. Emil Thiery believed that if the punters thought the almost handsome boxer was Irish it would increase the prospects of a remunerative career. Jack McGurn was not successful as a professional boxer. Faced with tough and accomplished opponents, he wilted under pressure. Or so Thiery said. This wilting, or something, caused McGurn to lose more fights than anticipated. Thiery abandoned his protégé. The young fighter remained a natural athlete. His attributes enabled him to become an accomplished golfer. He played tournament golf and picked up prize money. McGurn was also an expert horseman.
Tomasso Gibaldi had been killed by the Irish White Hand gang. The motives for the killing are unclear. The death of Tomasso might have occurred because it was too easy for a timid man to be abused by rough neighbours. McGurn was twenty years old when history repeated itself and his stepfather, Angelo De Mora was also slain. Angelo had supplemented his income as a grocer by brewing alky for the Genna gang. If the rumours are true and McGurn was also known as Vincenzo De Mora, then a bond had been established between stepfather and son. The names of the three killers were revealed to McGurn by someone that has been described as ‘an Italian gentleman’. The murder of the stepfather occurred in 1923. In just eight days all three killers were murdered by McGurn although he did have the help of backup man Johnny Armando. The revenge killings by McGurn did not take place until 1926. Either McGurn had to wait until the names of the killers were revealed or until he had established partnerships in the criminal world. Myth makers have claimed that McGurn was forced to follow a criminal career after the killings. The more cynical assert that he was already working for the gangs when he avenged the killing of his stepfather. The movie Gangster Land argues that McGurn became a criminal to avenge the death of his stepfather. Whatever his original intentions, McGurn soon switched sides from the Moran gang to Capone. All this happened in 1926. McGurn may have joined the Moran gang because he feared the Genna gang would avenge his killings. This assumes the Genna gang killed Angelo De Mora, perhaps because he resisted the demands made by the gang.
Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn has been described as the head enforcer of the Capone gang. Most agree that Capone had affection for McGurn. Both men strummed the ukulele, were accomplished dancers and dressed stylishly. They also had the same taste in women. McGurn and Capone were Italian men that liked and collected blondes. The Chicago Police Department identified McGurn as a suspect in eighteen gangland killings between February 1926 and December 1928. The more generous argue that the number eighteen should in this instance be twenty-three. A dozen of these killings would have happened while McGurn was working for Capone. In the middle of 1927, four killers arrived in Chicago. Their ambition was to assassinate Capone. McGurn killed all four. Being an expert marksman helped. McGurn practised his aim by using a Daisy repeating rifle to shoot sparrows off telephone wires. Memories of his attempt to be a welterweight fighter shaped his training regime. He kept fit by using a skipping rope. Ritual was present in his work. After he had killed someone, McGurn liked to press a nickel into the hand of his victim. The mix of vengeance and his adherence to routine suggests that loyalty was in his nature. Capone might have sensed that loyalty. McGurn was one of the few men Capone trusted. But most men, or at least the ones that he did not murder, liked Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn.
The marriage of McGurn to Louise Rolfe took place in 1931. Louise was a dancer and a blonde. In the wedding photos of the couple the glamorous Louise looks a little like Mae Capone. The stage name of Rolfe was Lou Louise. In a motor car she was lethal and caused two serious road accidents. There were no fatalities but several were injured. Louise had a reputation for high living but the lady survived until she was eighty-nine-years old. She was also on occasion a golf partner for McGurn. Her affection for her husband persisted long after his death. ‘You were never bored with Jack,’ said Louise.
His combative nature was tested in the spring of 1928. McGurn pushed slot machines into the lower North Side of Chicago. The Moran-Aiello-Zuta gang retaliated and robbed two liquor shipments that belonged to Capone. The Gusenberg brothers then attempted to kill McGurn on March 7 1928 and April 17 1928. McGurn was wounded in the first attack by the Gusenberg brothers. In the second attempt they caught McGurn while he was in a telephone booth at the Hotel McCormick. The bullet wounds required surgery, and McGurn had to endure a long confinement in hospital. This grievance, the rivalry between Capone and Moran, the role of McGurn in the Capone organisation and some circumstantial evidence have led most to conclude that McGurn organised the St Valentine’s Day massacre. Alternative opinion exists but those loyal to the victims belonged to the majority. McGurn was killed by two unidentified men and in front of as many witnesses are needed to keep a bowling alley in business. McGurn died as he lived, practising his sporting prowess. He was killed on the eve of St Valentine’s Day 1936. A comic valentine was left beside the body. The verse read, ‘You’ve lost your job, You’ve lost your dough, Your jewels and your houses. But things could be worse. You haven’t lost your trousers.’
Two decades later, Paramount released The Joker Is Wild, a movie based on the life of Joe E Lewis. Joe E Lewis was the resident comedian. On November 10 1927, three men knocked on the bedroom door of Lewis and were let into the room by the comedian. Two carried pistols, and the third carried a knife. The men with the pistols smashed the gun butts against the head of Lewis. The man with the knife slashed the throat of Lewis and left twelve cuts. Somehow the comedian survived but it took him a year to learn how to speak again and to make his brain engage with the words that came out of his mouth. A decade later and after a lot of therapy and effort, Lewis was able to re-establish a career. There are two alternative explanations for what happened to Lewis at the Green Mill Inn. In explanation one for what happened, Danny Cohen had offered McGurn a 25% share in the Green Mill Inn if he could persuade Joe E Lewis to stay as the resident comic at the Inn and not accept a contract at a rival establishment. In explanation two, Lewis went too far and too often with his smart mouth and made remarks that offended McGurn and other mobsters.
The relationship of McGurn to the club is confusing. In some accounts he is quoted as the owner of the Green Mill. In Al Capone’s Beer Wars author John Binder claims that the owner of the Green Mill Inn was Ted Newberry. This makes sense. Newberry was an important bootlegger on the North Side of Chicago and the Green Mill, which still exists and thrives as a jazz club, was in the middle of the North Side. Newberry was walking with Bugs Moran on the day of the St Valentine’s Day massacre, the day they both avoided being killed. The Green Mill was also a favourite haunt of Al Capone. Despite the antagonisms, rival bootleggers often socialised. Lewis believed and claimed that McGurn sent the men to kill him but this account has been challenged by those in the criminal world. Explanation one of what happened is undermined by the desire of the owners to retain Lewis as a popular act. Threats or mild torture rather than destructive violence would have been preferred. Explanation two might or might not be weakened by the revelation from Lewis that he met Capone later. Capone told Lewis, according to the comedian, ‘Why the hell didn’t you come to me when you had your trouble? I’d have straightened things out.’ The ’trouble’ that Capone refers to suggests an argument over where Lewis wanted to earn his living but it could also be a reference to insults that had led to a loss of face. Capone might have been offering to negotiate words that would maintain the honour of those involved. Capone gave $10,000 to the damaged Lewis. The money helped Lewis survive the difficult years of his recovery. The Joker Is Wild is a better movie than Gangster Land. Frank Sinatra had fun telling the jokes but the theme tune All The Way was also blessed with a performance that ranks amongst the very best from the great crooner.
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.