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Roy Orbison had the nickname ‘The Big O’.  The liner notes on one of his albums stated that the nickname was evidence of esteem and affection.  Well, like me, whoever wrote the liner notes had to start somewhere, which is why the remark is remembered here.  Not often but sometimes a nickname implies affection.  Many of the nicknames that Chicago gangsters acquired were created by local appreciative reporters.  The criminals in their city provided good stories and kept the reporters in employment.  There used to be a strong tradition of witty nom de plumes amongst Liverpool dockers.  Although nowhere near as impressive the nicknames of the Thompson submachine gun can produce a sly smile.  Tommy Gun, Tommy Chopper, Trench Broom and Trench Sweeper were presumably invented by men in battle.  Chicago Typewriter and Chicago Piano suggest local if not civic pride.  The initial term used for the Thompson submachine gun in development was the Annihilator.  If none of that sounds heartfelt to the critical, there is the clarion call and title of the book by William J Helmer, ‘The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar’.  Verification of the claim that machine guns were used in 11% of the killings in Chicago in the 1920s is difficult.  There is agreement, though,  that the use of machine guns in the windy city far exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the USA.

The jovial gang leader and backslapper Dean O’Banion is credited with introducing the Thompson submachine gun to Chicago.  O’Banion took a holiday on a Colorado ranch called the Diamond D.  The ranch was owned by ‘Two Gun’ Louis Alterie. No prizes for guessing how Louis relaxed in his spare time.  O’Banion was impressed by how the Thompson submachine gun had proved useful to employers intimidating strikers in the Colorado copper mines.  On the way home from his satisfying vacation, O’Banion paused in Denver and bought three Thompson submachine guns.  The generous nature of O’Banion may not have extended to exploited miners in Colorado but he was willing to lend his three machine guns to the Saltis-McErlane gang.  The Saltis-McErlane gang controlled most of the south west of Chicago. Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane were keen to recover territory previously lost to the Spike O’Donnell led South Side O’Donnells.  Saltis and McErlane have been described as allies of the Torrio-Capone outfit. Those who consider the territory of the Saltis-McErlane gang as an extension of the southside wards dominated by Torrio and Capone need to be cautious.  Admittedly alliances between the gangsters shifted during the 1920s but the claim that Capone and McErlane were allies is undermined by the O’Banion loan of machine guns to McErlane.   

Even when not carrying a machine gun, gang leader Frank McErlane was considered fearsome, a man that relished using violence.  McErlane is supposed to have killed more than fifteen men in his career.   McErlane was a fractious alcoholic.  He murdered his wife over an argument that the couple had while he was driving.  The two distraught German Shepherd dogs sitting on the back seat of the car were distressed by what they heard.  Their anguished cries must have intruded on the private thoughts of McErlane and perhaps his regret.  Frank McErlane turned around and shot both dogs.  The attack on Spike O’Donnell happened in different circumstances and was premeditated.  Spike O’Donnell was standing in front of a drugstore at a busy junction when he heard his name called.  Spike dropped to the pavement, the bullets passed over his head and machine gun fire destroyed the window of the drugstore.  The headquarters of the Ralph Sheldon gang was attacked by the Saltis-McErlane gang on October 3rd 1925.  Charles Kelly and Thomas Hart died from the gunfire.   On February 8th 1926, or perhaps the sixth of February, there was a third machine gun attack.  Anything but fastidious, Frank McErlane and friends fired 37 bullets into a saloon on South Halsted Street.  William Wilson and John ‘Mitters’ Foley were rivals for the business of the Saltis-McErlane gang.  Both men were killed in the attack.   

Al Capone bought three Thompson submachine guns on the day the news of the murders of Wilson and Foley appeared in the Chicago Tribune.   Al Capone was proud of how his organisation of thousands supported the Chicago economy, or so he said.   Rather than visit Colorado and chat with strikebreakers, Capone purchased his weapons from the local store of Alex V Korecek.  At the end of the decade the inquest that followed the St Valentine’s Day massacre heard testimony from four men that sold machine guns in Chicago.  These were Louis Scaramuzzo, James J Reynolds, J W Shipman and Frank V Thompson.   The out of town mail order supplier Peter Von Frantious delivered submachine guns to the appropriately named Thompson and others that did not appear at the inquest and were not named.  Additional  submachine guns were delivered to Thompson by the manufacturer, the Auto-Ordnance company.   Thompson admitted that in twelve months he purchased for resale over ten submachine guns.  An owner of the Thompson submachine gun did not have to register the gun.  Registration of guns with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was introduced in 1934.  The title of the organisation reveals the concerns of the administrators.  

The development and production of the Thompson submachine gun was financed by robber baron Thomas Fortune Ryan.  And why not fortune as a middle name because he had made plenty of money from tobacco, transportation and insurance.  He was a generous benefactor to various causes.  Key to the development of the submachine gun was Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson.   Taliaferro is pronounced Tolliver.   Thompson and Ryan formed the Auto-Ordnance Company of New York in August 1916 but much of the development occurred in Cleveland, Ohio.  The chief engineer of the company was Theodore Eickhoff.  The initial plan was to produce a semi-automatic rifle but Eickhoff encountered problems.  Thompson decided to abandon developing the rifle.  He decided that the company would produce what he called a submachine gun, hand held, fully automatic and chambered for smaller and more practical pistol ammunition.   This mixture of concepts, a fast firing automatic pistol that looked like and weighed more than a rifle indicates that either Thompson or Eckhood had genuine creative instinct.  The original weapon was defined as a blowback operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective-fire submachine gun.  No doubt that hyphen loaded definition will mean something to the enthusiasts.

Initial sales of the Thompson submachine gun were not impressive, and the weapon became almost a novelty item, a product for collectors.  The gun could fire up to 1200 rounds a minute but aiming the gun accurately was difficult.  The poor initial sales meant that Auto-Ordnance had to make most of its employees redundant.  Demand had, though, existed.  Private detective agencies and mining companies in places like Colorado bought the submachine guns.   Presumably the private detective agencies and the mining companies used the submachine guns for the same purpose, to break strikes by discontented workforces.   The gun proved useful for soldiers when the USA used military force to establish economic strongholds in South America, in what are or were called ‘the banana wars’.  Placed in a stable position, the submachine gun was effective in helping American soldiers defend positions against Nicaraguan guerillas.   Some Thompson submachine guns were exported to Cuba, changed hands and were subsequently used in the socialist and successful revolution of Fidel Castro.  The weapon was also popular within the IRA.  Soldiers, though, need to advance over territory.  The rifle was easier to carry.  The price of the gun fell from $275 to $175.  

Working in tight urban spaces and travelling over shorter distances, gangsters were able to hide their Thompson submachine guns under long fashionable overcoats.  The sales of submachine guns to gangsters was not the equivalent of the anticipated contracts by Thompson and the Auto Ordnance company but they added to the style of gangsters and helped reporters to write sensational newspaper stories.  Without the Thompson submachine gun, the grandeur of the St Valentine’s Day massacre and the Hymie Wess attack on the Hawthorne Hotel would not have been possible.   Al Capone understood that when the newspapers condemned him for the brothels, saloons and gambling houses they were providing him with free advertising.   10,000 bullets fired in the attack on Al Capone in the Hawthorne Hotel was fine publicity for the Thompson submachine gun.   Its subsequent commercial success, though, would have depended on technical innovations and improvements.   In 1933 the FBI added the Thompson submachine gun to its weaponry.  More than 1.5 million Thompson submachine guns were sold during the second world war.   From that point sales of the Thompson submachine gun declined.  The weapon was not used in the Vietnam War.  The decision to phase out the weapon has been criticised.  These critics have memories and quote the tale of 1st Sgt Leonard Funk Jr.  Perhaps the name shaped his character as it did with the hero of a certain chap in a Johnny Cash song.  On January 29, 1945 the sergeant and his troop attacked fifteen enemy occupied houses in Holzheim Belgium and captured 30 Germans.   A superior German force arrived to overpower the guards and recapture the prisoners.  Funk was ordered to surrender by the German officer.  Facing at least 100 German soldiers, Funk fired bullets into the officer until his Thompson submachine gun was empty.   He then reloaded and continued to fire.  Funk urged the prisoners to collect the weapons of the Germans that he was killing.   Funk and the prisoners killed 21 Germans and wounded 24.  Funk received the Medal of Honor, and no one ever said anything about his name ever again.   Like the American icon that collected nicknames, Leonard Funk has history.

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 now available here.  



The day and the month are what people remember.  The year of the massacre was 1929.   What happened became famous because of the number of dead killed in a single attack, the brutal injuries caused by advanced weaponry, gangsters having the audacity to pose as policemen, the adoption of a military firing squad execution and the date that offered a resonant headline.   Four years before Roosevelt approved repeal of the Volstead Act, the end of prohibition was being anticipated by bootleggers.  The Al Capone and Bugsy Moran gangs may have remained dependent on the income from selling booze but they were beginning to diversify.  This intensified rather than reduced the rivalry.  Capone and Moran were interested in controlling the cleaners and dyers union and both operated dog race tracks.  

Capone can be forgiven for thinking that his best ideas were stolen by Moran.  Not every wheeze of Capone, though, impressed his competitors.  Capone had trialled turtle racing in some of his speakeasies.  Not surprisingly the amusement failed to generate an adrenaline rush.  The initiative was short-lived and soon abandoned.  Capone was not Sicilian but, as someone born in Italy, he wanted and benefited from the Unione Siciliana approving his business decisions.  To minimise the potential for disputes, Capone had pushed ally Tony Lombardo to be the president of the Unione.  After Lombardo was killed the next choice of Capone for presidency was Pasqualino Lolordo.  Five months after Lolordo was elected he was also murdered.  

Bugsy Moran ran an outfit that had been created by Irish American Dean O’Banion.  In a complex, tense and insecure world, Moran developed an alliance with the Aiello gang.  Joe Aiello felt he deserved to be president of Unione Siciliana and he had the support of Moran.  The twelve killings of the presidents and candidates for the presidency were the consequences of a power struggle that reflected both paranoia and ambition.  In addition to the Unione Siciliana struggle there were the usual grievances.    ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn had survived two assassination attempts by Frank and Pete Gusenberg, brothers and Moran gang members.  The first attempt, which was made as he was in a telephone booth, left McGurn with serious injuries.   McGurn recovered but the Gusenbergs then shot at his car.  They missed the driver.  Sensitive to being shot at while making a telephone call and not without some protective feelings to his driver, McGurn, in conversation with Capone, would have insisted upon a response.  

No surprise then that Al Capone is considered by most to be responsible for the St Valentine’s Day massacre.  The initial response of Bugsy Moran to the attack is often quoted.  Interviewed by the press, Moran argued ‘only Capone kills like that’ but in another interview Moran was baffled as to who had arranged the killing, claiming ‘it came from nowhere’.   William J Helmer and Arthur J Bilek are authors of the book, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Helmer and Bilek believe they have evidence that establishes Capone commissioned the killing.  More than that they attempt to identify the individuals that carried out the act.  What is worth saying is that the businessman inside the head of Capone had too much sense to order the killing of seven men.  Capone either understood the importance of public relations or had an innate impulse to be popular.   Authors Helmer and Bilek claim that Capone delegated the killing to Frankie Rio and he in turn delegated responsibility to Fred Goetz.  If the authors are right and Capone was responsible, hands off management created tragic history.  Whether through mishap or intent, seven men were murdered.  

The slaughter occurred at 2122 North Clark Street.  In 1929 the lot was occupied by a brick garage about thirty feet wide.   The window was blacked out with a sign that read S-M-C Cartage.Co.  The distance between the address and downtown Chicago is just over four miles.  The walk is long, feasible and not unpleasant.  Lincoln Park and the famous free zoo are a mere stroll away.  In 1929, the area around the site of the massacre was inhabited by Irish and German working class families.  Today its proximity to the park, zoo and shoreline makes it a desirable area for homeowners.  The site of the garage where the victims gathered is now a car park.  The railing that used to keep the car park separate from North Park Street has been removed.  The car park can be entered on foot from different directions.  Car parking appears to be free.  A room in the house opposite the car park was used by the two men that had the responsibility of alerting the gunmen to the presence of Moran.  This house still exists and looks remarkably similar to the off the shelf movie set that was used in the Roger Corman movie about the massacre.  There is nothing in the area to commemorate the event but the basement floor of the house used by the lookout men has a pizzeria that is doing rather well.  

The seven victims of the massacre were Frank Gusenberg, Pete Gusenberg, Albert Weinshank, Adam Heyer, John May, James Clark (real name Albert Kachellek) and Dr Rheinhart Schwimmer.   The dog that was tied to a car axle and survived the attack was called Highball.  The presence of the Gusenberg brothers on the premises does not need to be explained.   Weinshank was a nightclub owner and he had been recently appointed as an official of the Central Cleaners and Dyers Association.  Heyer was part owner with Bugsy Moran of Fairview Kennel’s dog racing track.  The presence of Weinshank and Heyer is not without significance when we think about the purpose of the meeting.  May was the dog owner and car mechanic that was employed by the Moran gang to work on their trucks.  Clarke or Kachellik had been convicted of armed robbery in 1910 and was regarded by the police as a hardened criminal and a killer.  Reinhart Schwimmer was an optometrist.   His exact relationship with the gang has been debated.  The initial thinking was that he was nothing more than someone that just liked the company of criminals.  The revisionists have claimed that Schwimmer was used as a middle class voice that could articulate various non-criminal issues on behalf of the gang and that he might have even provided advice for certain situations.

Just after 10.30am the sound of gunfire alerted neighbours although none recognised the sound of gunfire.  They mentioned ‘popping noises’ to the police when interviewed.  Jeanette Landesman lived on the second floor next door and at number 2124.  Clair McAllister earned his living as a sign painter.  He lived on the floor below.  Landesman and McAllister heard the dog Highball howling and between them forced their way into the garage.  Neighbours Josephine Morin and Marie Benson had also been alerted by the ‘popping noises’ and they followed Landesman and McAllister into the garage.  All the men were dead except for Frank Gusenberg who was taken to the Alexian Brothers Hospital where he refused to give the police any information.  Frank died at 1.30pm.   Inside the garage, brother Pete Gusenberg was slumped over a chair and the others lay on the floor.  John May the mechanic had his head blown apart by a shotgun.   The police investigation established that the bullets used in the killings came from two Thompson submachine guns and a shotgun.  Apart from Frank Gusenberg the bodies were taken to Braithwaite’s, a private mortuary at 2219 Lincoln Avenue.  Dr Frederick M Doyle pronounced the six men dead.  Sergeant Thomas J Loftus was in the police station when the call from neighbour Landesman was received.  He was the first to arrive but he also picked up four other policemen on the way.   A newspaper delivery boy alerted the press.  Reporters and photographers arrived and, because they were so prompt, added to the chaos.  Headlines and indignation followed.  A reward of $10,000 was offered but no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime.

Bugsy Moran only lived a block away from the garage.  Being close to his home address, it is possible that Moran would have popped into the garage from time to time.  The tale, story or rumour is that someone in the Capone gang promised a delivery of booze and, knowing Moran would be there, set up the killing.  Authors Helmer and Bilek dispute this account claiming that the henchmen of Moran were high level gangsters and not dressed to unload a truck loaded with booze.  We should have doubts about a tale that became the official version but not for the reason quoted by Helmer and Bilek.  The booze would have been unloaded by the two men that would have been in the truck.  Or would have been if it had existed.  Selling illegal booze was a million dollar industry.   It is difficult to imagine Moran feeling it necessary to inspect a single load in a location so busy that even the neighbours knew it was used for the regular transportation of alcohol.  More likely is that Moran had arranged an ad-hoc meeting in a location that was convenient for him.   Even this, though, encourages doubt.  Gangsters like and need to impress, hence the use of swanky hotels.  But in the middle of a busy schedule, Moran might have found a nearby location convenient.  The attendance of Weinshank the cleaners and dyers union official and Heyer the dog track owner suggests another purpose for the meeting.  Nor does the error made by the lookouts convince.   Helmer and Bilek suggest in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that the lookouts were residents for a month in the house opposite the garage.   A month waiting and watching and yet somehow they mistake someone else for Bugsy Moran?  This does not convince.   Even if the presence of the lookouts had been no more than a couple of days, their confusion, the delayed arrival of the intended target Moran, the false tale about the purpose of the meeting and the lack of resistance from the feisty Gusenbergs suggests that what really happened on St Valentine’s Day will remain a persistent mystery for most.   Authors Helmer and Bilek are the exceptions.  They insist they know who, what and why.   Their willingness to offer an explanation and name names is why we need to consider their book The St Valentine’s Day Massacre.   This will be done in the future.     

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 now available here