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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. 



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.