Michael Cassius McDonald was born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1839.  He died in 1907.  His father was from Cork and wanted his son to be a bootmaker.  The mother of Michael Cassius McDonald was a religious woman and born in Limerick.  As the son passed breath, met people and did whatever happens in a life, he became rich.  On his death his estate was worth two million dollars.  The temptation amongst writers is to think of organised crime in Chicago beginning with Italian gangster Big Jim Colosimo.  The link between Colosimo and Al Capone is neat and direct, a simple succession of three.  Johnny Torrio succeeded Colosimo and Capone followed Torrio.   Under Torrio the gambling and prostitution business expanded to include bootlegging.  Capone consolidated, vigorously defended the empire and relished his celebrity.  The next generation successors to Michael Cassius McDonald were not the Irish tough guy bootleggers that in the 1920s controlled the north side of Chicago.  Dion O’Bannion appears to have graduated without any interim steps from rough house crime to bootlegging.   

Rather than machine gun toting gangsters, McDonald was succeeded by two crooked aldermen called John ‘Balhouse’ Coughlin and Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Crenna.  These two officials created an open ward or district where they allowed gambling and prostitution to prevail.  Something similar happened in Soho in London.  The two aldermen ran their own saloons that offered gambling.  If they did not dominate the market, they were operators.  More important, they took a percentage from the other crooked establishments.  Crime and corruption had existed before McDonald but large scale integration of crime and politics was a step forward.  His gambling operation required cash to be paid to cops and politicians.  The tradition of wholesale corruption would have happened without him as it did elsewhere in the USA.  Whatever the national trend McDonald has to be given credit for setting it all in motion in Chicago.

The teenage McDonald left home and took a job on the Michigan Central Railroad where he sold magazines and confections to passengers.   Perhaps he became convinced that he had superior survival skills to others, and maybe he also learnt how to understand and take advantage of people. One or more of the train journeys took him to New Orleans.   McDonald saw impressive saloons and gambling houses and decided that he wanted to build something similar.  This sounds like legend rather than fact but nothing exists to prove the legend wrong.   Although not a gambler, McDonald was earning a living from gambling from 1855.  His critics state that McDonald was willing to rig games to improve his profits.  

Five years later in 1860 the opportunist McDonald set up the Corcoran Illinois Irish Brigade.  McDonald recruited Irish men to join the Union Army and fight in the Civil War.  The scam was this.  McDonald encouraged his recruits to enlist, desert and then enlist again.  McDonald would receive a commission each time a recruit enlisted.  The recruit was given a percentage of the commission.  McDonald opened his first stationary gambling establishment in Dearborn Street and in 1867.   Before that he had managed a travelling faro bank.  Faro is a card game that was popular in the 19th century.  Wyatt Earp ran a gambling saloon and was a skilled faro croupier.  The gunfight at the OK Corral has been interpreted as a consequence of a power and business dispute in Tombstone, Arizona.  Earp was a tough guy and kept the law but there are similarities with his behaviour and that of subsequent gangsters.  There are still people around that understand the rules of the complicated card game faro.  I am not one of them.  The extent to which the Civil War scam rather than the travelling faro bank helped Michael Cassius McDonald raise the necessary capital and plant gambling business roots is disputed.   What we do know is that the Civil War recruitment scam contributed to growing funds.

If in 1873 the profits from the gambling house in Dearborn Street had swelled previous funds, there would have also been other schemes or scams contributing to the expanding fortune of McDonald.  He had been in the gambling business for fifteen years and now had enough cash to open a swanky four-storey gambling emporium called the Store.   The gambling took place on the second floor.   The Store also had a saloon, hotel or boarding house and an upmarket restaurant.  The Store was designed to attract affluent gamblers that would stake heavy bets and pay high prices for the food and drink.  Partners of McDonald worried that the fittings in the Store were too extravagant and the scale of operations too epic.  The partners were concerned that future receipts would not cover the investment.  ‘Don’t worry about that,’ said McDonald.  ‘There’s a sucker born every minute.’

Somebody had to create the cliché, and McDonald has been given the credit.   The patrons of the Store were males only.  The gambling available to them included the card games faro and poker.  Dice enthusiasts had the option of playing craps and chuck a luck.   Alternative gambling enterprises surrounded the Store and these accommodated those customers unable to meet the betting stakes and prices that prevailed in the Store.  The area where the Store was located became known as ‘gamblers row’.   All the owners of the alternative establishments paid a percentage of their profits to McDonald.   The existence of these payments has been regarded by some as evidence of how McDonald was involved in the protection racket.  McDonald had criminal and shady activities besides gambling.   He might, though, have felt money from the other gambling establishments was owed to him because of his investment in the Store, an attraction that brought punters to the area.   Yet it does not require prejudice against McDonald to imagine his demands for a percentage being forceful and anything but generous.  McDonald was also a key player in a bookmaking syndicate which dominated gambling at the lucrative Garfield Race Track in Chicago and other tracks in Illinois and Indiana.   

More schemes followed.  McDonald formed shell companies and with the help of bribes and sweeteners he secured building contracts from the Chicago officials.  The Chicago newspapers were alert to these scams.   Such schemes attracted the derogatory term ‘boodling’.  The hostility of the newspapers could not prevent ‘boodling’ occurring.   His connections also enabled McDonald to put up bail for convicted criminals.  This made McDonald money in two ways.  He operated as a bail bondsman and, because of the money owed to him by the convicted, he accumulated credit and future funds.  In itself this would have been rewarding for McDonald but he was also a master of something called straw bail.  This involved judges awarding modest amounts for the convict to secure bail.   The criminals would often then disappear but at least the judges, the cops and McDonald  took a cut of the commission.  All these activities made him wealthy and influential.  And for insurance he managed the election campaigns of Mayor Carter Harrison, known to McDonald and his friends as ‘our Carter’.  

McDonald bought part ownership in the Chicago Globe.  The local press had not always been sympathetic to McDonald.  The Chicago Times wrote, ‘Mike McDonald is an unscrupulous, disreputable, vicious gambler, a disgrace and a menace to the city.’  The Chicago Globe lasted eight years before it folded in 1885.  Novelist Theodore Dreiser worked on the newspaper but not for eight years.  The likelihood is that the Chicago Globe did little to affect the reputation of McDonald.  If McDonald had been unlucky in 1861 when the Chicago Fire had destroyed his property, the Chicago World Fair boosted business in the city and the wealth of McDonald for the five months it lasted.  The 1893 Chicago World Fair is also known as the World’s Columbian Explosion.    

Neither of the two marriages of Michael Cassius McDonald was a success.  Both wives were much younger than McDonald and both dallied with other men.  His first wife Mary shot a policeman that she said had ‘invaded’ the hotel area of the Store.  Who knows what happened.  The only other important witness was dead.   An expensive defence lawyer ensured that Mary was acquitted.  McDonald celebrated the court victory by buying a new palatial home close to friend Mayor Carter Harrison.   Within a year of that happening, Mary had eloped with a noted minstrel singer.  McDonald chased the couple across the country and found them in San Francisco.   Mary pleaded to McDonald and urged him not to kill her lover.  The singing and plucking minstrel singer and his banjo survived.  Mary returned to her husband, and they lived together for another seven years but the couple were remote from each other.  Mary found solace in the Catholic faith and headed for a convent.   

Second wife Dora was a local burlesque dancer.  Dora and her husband had something in common.  They preferred their sexual partners to be much younger than they were.  Dora pursued a teenager called Webster Guerin.  There is confusion about how old Guerin was when he met Dora. Some authors quote his age as fifteen, others believe Guerin was no more than thirteen.  The affair between Dora and Webster lasted for ten years.  Dora shot and killed Webster during a heated argument.  When this happened McDonald had long been known as King Mike.   The behaviour of his two wives and his dependency made him appear foolish, pathetic rather than regal.  McDonald established a defence fund for Dora that cost him serious money but five months before the trial began old King Mike died.   Dora was acquitted.  The world and Chicago moved on.  A century turned and thanks to the camera and Hollywood the behaviour of the two wives inspired movies.  No prizes for guessing which.

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.



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.