gangsters and hard cases

Film Noir and what’s left out.



Cinema audiences cheer when Treasury agent Elliot Ness pushes charmless gangster Frank Nitti off the roof of the court building.  In spectacular cinematic fashion Nitti falls through the roof of a police car.  His death is bloody.   Elliot Ness, as opposed to Kevin Costner pretending to be Ness, did not kill Frank Nitti.   The Treasury agent had long left Chicago when Nitti died.  Facing a return spell in prison and already aware that he was a reduced force, the ego and nerves of Nitti cracked.  Nitti put a gun to his head and committed suicide.  Nitti was 57 years old.  According to Kenneth Alsopp in his book The Bootleggers, the average age of death for a gangster in Chicago in the 1920s was 28 years.  Because of examples like Nitti, not all will be convinced by the claim.  But, thanks to Alsopp, the number is out there.  If accurate, it means that the ego and nerves of Nitti had suffered extra strain.  Al ‘Scarface’ Capone never met Elliot Ness.   The team led by Ness did bust a few of the breweries owned by Capone.  Mitigating the destruction caused by anonymous Treasury agents, though, would have been the responsibility of the employees of Capone.  

None of this bothersome detail prevented Hollywood director Brian De Palma creating confrontations between Capone and Ness.  Before Ness and Capone exchange insults in court there is an earlier argument between the two men.  This happens on a swanky wide hotel staircase.  Capone is one of the hotel guests.  The Untouchables is not the only Hollywood movie that implies or suggests that the gangsters lived in hotels.  All the main mobsters, though, had comfortable and detached homes in the suburbs.  The gangsters kept their families in these residences.  Al Capone was always willing to spend more money than his peers.  His home in Florida had, depending on how you count them, twelve rooms.  In addition there was an estate, private fishing and a large swimming pool.   Married gangsters used hotels for recreation and work.   In the 1920s there was much recreation in Chicago.  Most of it happened in the numerous nightclubs and speakeasies.  Capone owned 6000 speakeasies.  He employed jazz musicians to put smiles on the faces of his toe tapping customers.  The best jazz was heard by those that supped the best booze. 

Fun spilled over into the hotels.   Glamorous young women were taken back to luxury bedrooms.  In the hotel scene in The Untouchables the beautiful and anxious mistress of the gangster climbs the stairs rather than witness possible violence.  Not all the women taken back to the hotels were mistresses.  Groups, gangs or hordes of women rounded up in the nightclubs would adorn hotel parties held by gangsters.  Jazz musicians were well paid by gangsters but they worked long hours.  In the 1920s the Chicago nightclubs would often stay open until five in the morning.   Hotel parties existed and they attracted celebrities.   The parties, though, were not necessary for fun.  Gangsters were status conscious, attention to rank helped keep them alive.  They needed to be seen networking with corrupt officials and this was done best on home territory but not where the family lived.   There were also times when the reasons for holding a party were trivial, a desire to impress or a whim that a hotel gathering would be different from the normal fun.   

Celebrations at the family home were different.  Female flappers were not frequent guests.  Someone in the family, a brother, son or cousin, though, might become attached to a nightclub girl.  Home celebrations would have been determined by the usual – birthdays, christenings, engagements, Christmas and thanksgiving.  Most of the time home was for talking to ‘the wife and kids’, reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, playing with the dog and sitting in the garden.  And all that must have been fine but there is no point in being a gangster if you have to do it seven days a week.  Capone was not a heavy drinker but he took advantage of his position and pursued women.  He also liked to gamble.  Not all of the main mobsters were enthusiastic philanderers.  Some felt that nightclub flappers could not be trusted and were dangerous.   For cautious mobsters like Johnny Torrio what was important was to grow his business and stay alive.  

The majority of murders occur in the home.  This is not the case with the mobsters.   They may have been trigger happy on the streets and impatient with rivals but compared to the log of mob assassinations the fatalities from their domestic disputes are rare.   Mistresses, excess wealth, violence, male power and part-time relationships with wives, perhaps these were the factors that maintained domestic peace.  Using a hotel for work made sense.  The hotels were comfortable residences.  The family was safeguarded from being incriminated in the business that paid for the suburban home and the luxuries.  In a similar way, agreeing deals and giving orders in hotels kept a distance between the head mobster and those on the front line committing day to day criminal acts.     Hotel staff would also be in attendance to prevent disruptions and to attend to the needs of the mobsters.

When the suburb of Cicero was important to his business Capone used the Hotel Hawthorn as an operational base.  He was eating in the hotel restaurant on the 20th of September 1926 when ten, some say eleven, vehicles drove by on Twenty-Second Street.  All the cars had passengers that carried either machine guns or shotguns.  The Thompson machine gun weighs nine pounds and its two magazines hold 150 bullets that can be fired within a minute.  10,000 bullets were fired.  Capone avoided all 10,000 by diving to the floor and staying there.  The 10,000 bullets may have missed the intended target but the bullets had to land somewhere.   Apart from the Hawthorne Hotel restaurant, bullet holes were found in 35 parked cars, a barber shop, a laundry, the Alton Hotel and a delicatessen.    Capone man Paul Ricca took a bullet in the shoulder.  An innocent woman sitting in a stationary car was injured in the eye by flying glass.  Capone paid the $5000 needed to save her sight.  The attack on Capone was ordered by gangster Hymie Weiss.  Hymie was a Polish-American and a wild one.  A couple of months later he was dead.  His head dripped blood on the sidewalk.  Cooler heads met in downtown Hotel Sherman.  A general amnesty was declared and observed, for a while.

The conference that took place at Hotel Statler in Cleveland in December 1928 was not as successful.  A key participant and probably an agenda item was Pasqual ‘Patsy’ Lolordo.  Capone wanted Lolordo to head the Chicago chapter of the Union Siciliana.   The Union was originally a benevolent and fraternal organisation that was active in cities that had large numbers of Sicilians.  Good ideas, though, can go bad.  Union Siciliana developed links to organised crime.  The previous head of the Union had been Tony Lombardo but he had been assassinated by Giussepe ‘Joe’ Aiello.  The  reason was simple.  Joe felt he, and not Lombardo, should have been the head of the Chicago branch of Union Siciliana.   Joe was as persistent as he was ambitious.  No surprise then that Joe was hostile to the Capone nomination of Lolordo.  Joe Aiello was a disruptive influence at the Hotel Statler Conference and uninterested in securing compromise and agreement.  Joe took his truculence to the telephone and informed the police that the meeting was taking place.  The meeting was suspended when the police arrived and arrested all those present.

President Hotel in Atlantic City has a good beachside location. The shadow of the tall hotel reached the sea.   The hotel is not as extravagant as Trump Tower but the owners and architect had ambition.  The top floor Presidential suite was described in promotional leaflets as the ‘summer White House’.  The mobster bosses met at the President Hotel on May 13th 1929.  Their discussions lasted another three days but on the 14th, 15th and 16th the chatter continued at other hotels.   Rather than simply seeking an amnesty to prevent future bloodshed, the gang chiefs were looking to coordinate their control over suppliers and reduce costs.  The objective was to prepare for a future that would be different.  The stock market had crashed five months before the conference, and the repeal of prohibition was expected.   Coordination and cooperation were essential for survival and growth.  This meant that Capone had to make concessions.   Owning a wire service that would provide instant race results for gamblers was also on the agenda.  There has been debate as to whether the four day conference was restricted to ten mobsters from Chicago and Gary, Illinois or whether other cities, such as Boston, New York, Cleveland and Detroit, were also represented.   The comic movie Some Like It Hot parodies the conference and subscribes to the notion of nationwide discussions.  In a Literary Digest article Robert T Loughran, a supporter of the small conference interpretation, listed the fourteen agreements decided by the attendees.  All referred to the operations and relationships that existed in Chicago.   Number twelve in the list of fourteen refers to the St Valentine’s Day massacre and insists it be forgotten.  Of the rest most envisaged reduced responsibilities for Al Capone.  The attendees decided that the mentor and old friend of Capone, grievance free Johnny Torrio, would be the head arbitrator of the new and more democratic combination.  Selecting level headed Torrio as the coordinator of the new combined operation would have appealed to Capone.  

If the list of fourteen points is authentic then the likelihood is that the meeting was restricted to Chicago interest and was one of three attempts between 1926 and 1929 to broker peace and focus on the Chicago mobs business priorities.  None of the three hotel conferences had a long lasting effect.  Alliances and mutual respect weaken, and there are always rebels and betrayals.  Modern corporations have a tradition of using ‘away-days’ in attractive and plush hotels.  Bosses hope that the plush surroundings and indulgence will encourage their executives to give extra commitment to the common cause.  Yet plans scribbled on newsprint and transcribed to powerpoint presentations are invariably undermined at some point by something or someone.  But, as Capone and his rivals realised, one has to try.

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 available here. 



Narrow Margin, 1990, USA, Director Peter Hyams


Because you are here, I had the DA’s office send me the Leo Watts file.  I have to return it tomorrow.  If my old firm is letting an old retired DA take out files, I could not have been so bad, you think?  Not that I expect to ever convince Rob Caulfield of my merit.  That last year he worked as Deputy DA, Rob spent most of it believing I was on the payroll of Leo Watts.  I was the Chief District Attorney.  A man in my position expects some loyalty.  I told him, ‘Rob, you watch too many movies.’  Dahlbeck was the lawyer that Leo Watts had in his pocket.  You’ve guessed it.  I can see by the look on your face.  Rob rang Dahlbeck and urged him not to say anything to me about Leo Watts.  I can understand why Rob didn’t suspect Dahlbeck.  I see no shame in being serious about a career, and Dahlbeck was a clean cut and enthusiastic career man, so we thought.  It turned out that Dahlbeck was even more ambitious than we realised.  

I’d like to say that after the success with the Leo Watts case the relationship I had with Rob Caulfield improved and we became friends.  But Rob was not the type to eat humble pie and I am not the best at accepting apologies.   Rob thought the case against Leo Watts was open and shut because he had Carol Hunnicut as a witness to Leo killing Michael Tarlow.   I understood we had enough to proceed but I told Rob not to make any assumptions about what might happen.  For a while in court it was touch and go.  Hunnicut wobbled a little when the defence attorney put on the pressure but fortunately for us the woman was classy and gorgeous.  The jury was hard headed enough to convict a known criminal but not so unforgiving that they were not impressed by Hunnicut.  She was lovely although she was not pleased when I suggested we have someone advise her what to wear in court.  Rob loved seeing Hunnicut take me down a peg.


We are both old men now and no doubt he has mellowed as much as I have but sensibly we keep our distance.  I did, though, attend his book launch but I was the only one from the DA’s office, and that says something.  I may not have liked Rob Caulfield but I was pleased for the man.  Of course, Rob reckoned I was only there because of my responsibilities as Chief District Attorney, that me being there had nothing to do with friendship.  Rob was half right.  I had no affection and my respect, although it existed, was muted by too many bruises.  Carol Hunnicut was at the book launch.  She worked in publishing and helped Rob with the book.  Hunnicut and Rob stayed friendly after the Leo Watts case.  He saved her life which I suppose always helps, and she gave him a triumph with which he could end his legal career.  Note my words.  Rob Caulfield wanted more than earning a living and having a career.  He wanted to triumph.  Being victorious was how Rob Caulfield defined success.  In our work that adolescent attitude can provide the occasional benefit but, believe me, over time it becomes wearing.  I know Rob was fond of the son of Carol Hunnicut.  But Rob Caulfield and Hunnicut were close friends and nothing more.  

Rob was always more friendly with the LAPD detectives than the other attorneys.  Rob had been a marine in Vietnam and whatever he left of himself over there in that disaster it was not his need to be a hero.  That persisted.  Wherever Rob had worked after his Army stint he would have walked around believing his job was the most difficult and most important, the most demanding in the organisation.  You know this kind of man, I am sure.  Every workplace has one.  Rob Caulfield wore his integrity on his sleeve, and most of us found it a little wearing.   He retired as Deputy District Attorney and, of course, everybody would ask me why because Rob had been top in his class at law school and in the marines he had earned enough medals to be considered a leader of men.  Well, taking men into battle and keeping lawyers motivated through the daily drudge of one criminal case after another with not much in the way of returns are not quite the same. 


Rob Caulfield resented my authority and that meant he disliked me.  But he was happy to see me at the book launch.  We had some memories, I suppose.  His enmity had nothing to do with the colour of my skin.  If it had, I would not have been at his book launch.  Our mutual antagonism was between equals.  I forgot, I was saying.  Rob was more friendly with the LAPD detectives than the other attorneys.  After he retired, Rob needed an interest, and a few detectives and Rob used to meet every other Friday and talk about the old times.  They had a back room in some restaurant, where they ate, drank and talked.  Mere chat, though, was not enough for hero Rob Caulfield.  He was a fit sixty year old when he retired, and his nature was such that he would struggle to settle into old age.  Rob kept in touch with Hunnicut but there were seventeen years between them and Rob was not handsome.  I heard, though, that some women liked him because he was big, healthy and fit. He also had this young man’s smile that he would use to get his way.  The smile would appeal to a woman but, personally, I expect more than mechanical self-effacing innocence from my colleagues.  

Rob had no real family.  The detectives at the back of the restaurant were the same as Rob, lonely men disconnected from the families they had half started.   Meeting once a fortnight with men like themselves to talk, eat good food and leave drunk was all they had.  I was saying.  I forgot again.   Mere chat was not enough for hero Rob Caulfield.  He suggested that rather than merely remember old times they should work their way through the unsolved cases.  And this is what they did.  They didn’t switch their after dinner conversation just like that.  Early on they began talking about the Los Angeles cases that had failed in court.  This would have appealed to Rob because it would have allowed him to complain about me and what happened in my office.  


At some point failed court cases led to talk about unsolved mysteries.  Maybe the other detectives were bored of listening to Rob gripe about me.   All the unsolved crimes they discussed were from Los Angeles and, inevitably, one dominated the rest.   No, I am not even going to let you guess.  Rob Caulfield is not the only person to write a book about the murder of Elizabeth Short but, credit where it is due, he was one of the first.  The detectives from the back room of the restaurant helped him with the research, and Rob knew how to challenge assumptions made by policemen.  He should have.  I spent enough time showing him how.  Carol Hunnicut helped with the book.  I already knew from his legal work that Rob Caulfield was a capable writer.  Carol found the publishing company and the market.  The book was not a flop but no big hit either.   

I heard Rob talking about the book on a couple of radio interviews.  It didn’t earn him enough money to change how he lived in retirement but that wouldn’t have bothered Rob Caulfield.  What he needed was more important than what money buys.  Rob named the murderer or at least the man that Rob thought killed Elizabeth Short.  A few suspects have been named over the years.  Rob chose Dr George Hill Hodel.  It is possible.  Right now Hodel is the popular choice.  As a DA, you survive by not being particular about convictions, what is important is nailing the criminal for something.  Dr George Hill Hodel may not have killed Elizabeth Short but there are too many accusations about his misdemeanours for him to not have killed someone.  If people believe he killed Elizabeth Short, he cannot complain.  Dr George Hill Hodel was a bad man.  A couple of relatives attended the book launch.  I expected trouble but they were fine.  Hodel may not be the Black Dahlia killer but he was twisted.  His family realised that, like I said, whatever the accusations Dr George Hill Hodel could have no complaints.


I certainly give credit to Rob for what happened on that train with Carol.  The man saved her life.  We found the bodies of the two men on the train who were trying to kill Hunnicut.  Somehow Rob fought them off.  It is not impossible.  Rob was a big healthy man who understood combat.  The railway security guard paid with his life for what happened, so he must have done something to help.  Do I believe that Rob fought to the death with a hit woman on top of a train while demure Carol Hunnicut was at his side hanging on to the roof?  Come on.  The body of the supposed hit woman was never discovered although in the Rockies it could be anywhere.  We could give Rob Caulfield the benefit of the doubt but, if people had, there wouldn’t have been just me from the DA’s office at his book launch.  Rob liked to be the hero.  What I didn’t realise until he told me the tale about Carol Hunnicut, and he never told it the same way twice, was how much.  

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.