Prohibition Chicago

The Northsiders

1924 -- Prelude

 1925 -- War in Chicago

1926 -- "A Real Goddamn Crazy Place!"

October 11, 1926

October 11, 1926
Part II

St. Valentine's Day Massacre
Part I   Introduction
Part II Top Ten Myths
Part III 10 Questions
   (and 10 answers)


Photo Gallery






1. Some sources name Capone as Colosimo's killer. Yale was a New York gang leader who knew Torrio from his Five Points days. It was Yale who would recommend Capone to Torrio. Importing hitmen from out of town became a highly successful Chicago model of elimination. In lesser texts, the authors find it irresistible to link "name" people (i.e., Capone) to every major incident. Torrio brought Yale to Chicago to kill Colosimo, which he did. Capone did not kill Colosimo.

2. There are points of time in history when brilliant individuals can clearly see what others can't begin to imagine. Invariably, their vision is so distant from the current reality, literally no else is capable of even understanding it. John Torrio saw how Prohibition would allow him to build a criminal empire, and he followed that vision from Chicago to New York, helping to weave eighty-six years of organized crime into the American fabric.
In the late 1970s, Bill Gates conceived and created an operating system for personal computers at a time when there was little awareness of the existence of personal computers, to say nothing of a future where, within twenty years, 60% of all American households  would have at least one personal computer, and there would be hundreds of thousands of computers in businesses throughout the world. History presents few moments such as these, and even fewer visionaries who fully comprehend it when it is happening.

3. O'Banion was apparently known as "Dean" while growing up, but the nickname "Dion" was part of his life in Chicago. Al  Capone was quoted as calling him "Dion".

4. The brothers Angelo, Sam, Pete, Tony, Mike, and Jim Genna. Opera lovers, family men, and unpredictably violent criminals. Hundreds of destitute Italian and Sicilian immigrant families, new to Chicago, found that a simple distillery apparatus set up for them by the Gennas in their kitchen, living room, or bathroom would bring in $15 a day. Being on the Genna payroll brought in more money each week than having all the male members of the family working fulltime at slave labor wages in the grimy industrial wasteland of Chicago.

5.  It was the Gennas who imported two Sicilian thugs named John Scalise and Albert Anselmi to America in 1922. These two "murder twins" would weave a thread of violence throughout 1920s Chicago, remarkably being involved in a majority of the significant mob hits during that time. Their successes eventually led them to work for Capone, who would have them murdered in 1929. After Scalise and Anselmi's participation in the St. Valentine's Day massacre (Capone's final assault on the Northsiders), the pair decided to attempt a hostile takeover. Capone found out and personally took a baseball bat to them during a private banquet "in their honor". This provides dramatic insight into Capone the man. In 1929, he should have been at the height of his powers, but despite having a stable of brain-dead killers and a massive business combine, Capone took the risk of personally murdering Scalise and Anselmi because their betrayal stung. Capone, the Brooklyn street punk who took shit from nobody, was still boiling under the surface. Watching, waiting, never really able to trust anyone.

6. The brothers set up a distribution point near the Maxwell Street police station where supervisors and patrolmen would literally line up on a designated day each week to pick up their regular Genna cash pay-offs. [The Maxwell Street station was the outside building location used on the TV series "Hill Street Blues".]

Prohibition Chicago

In 1909, a twenty-seven year old up and coming Five Points New York gang leader named Johnny Torrio was brought to Chicago to help Jim Colosimo with a problem. Big Jim Colosimo was Chicago's premier crime boss, and ran much of the city's prostitution, gambling, and extortion rings;  he also owned bars, brothels, and restaurants, all of which generated hundreds of thousands of legal and illegal dollars a year.

The problem Torrio was brought to Chicago to fix was certainly an ironic one: Colosimo's life was being threatened by Black Hand gangsters who demanded cash to insure his physical safety. Black Handers were mostly Italian and Sicilian minor league thugs who would send anonymous extortion notes to their victims emblazoned with a feared old country symbol: the Black Hand. A precursor of the mafia, Black Hand blackmail was also common in New York and New Orleans.  Victims would pay up, or be beaten, shot, or have their place of business bombed. 

Soon after Johnny Torrio's arrival in the Windy City, the Chicago police started finding the riddled bodies of Black Hand extortionists around town. Torrio set up a simple system for dealing with the Black Hand: Colosimo would agree to a payoff date and place, but Torrio and his gunmen would be there instead to make the "payoff."

Impressed with Torrio's results-oriented approach in solving his Black Hand difficulties, Big Jim asked Torrio to stay on in Chicago and help run the Colosimo empire. From 1910 to 1920, as he grew in influence and power, Torrio took Colosimo's crime holdings to new heights with better management, tighter controls, and higher grade product. It has been estimated that Colosimo took in $500,000 a year-- a remarkable amount of money for that time. Torrio increased Colosimo' revenue and also began assembling his own team to work under him, including a twenty-one year-old gang member from Brooklyn named Alfonse Capone. Soon after Capone arrived in Chicago in 1920, Torrio quickly saw in the raw, young Capone the type of intelligence and imagination he prized. Torrio became Capone's mentor, and Alfonse soon learned a variety of skills: from dressing well to managing a big city criminal cabal.    

Johnny Torrio was successful, but increasingly frustrated with Jim Colosimo's lack of interest in expansion and refinement of their holdings. Torrio's dream was to create a criminal organization along the lines of a successful business organization. Adding to Torrio's impatience was his acute awareness of the imminent adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, making the manufacture, sale, or transportation of liquor a federal crime. Despite President Wilson's last minute veto, Prohibition became law on January 17, 1920, and Johnny Torrio saw clearly the incredible opportunity Prohibition would present to an established criminal enterprise. His inability to engage Colosimo in this vision led to a difficult, but critical, business decision; Torrio brought New York gang leader Frankie Yale to Chicago  to murder Colosimo, on May 11, 1920.1

Prohibition hit Chicago, and the rest of urban America, hard. Breweries, hard liquor distilleries, taverns and bars faced immediate extinction. The 18th Amendment would be the ultimate example of ill-conceived, radical-religious law: incapable of changing innate human behavior, turning millions of hard working, law abiding Americans into common criminals.

With Colosimo out of the picture, Torrio was free to begin recreating the empire in his own image. The incredible depth of political and police corruption in Chicago and its suburbs allowed Torrio full reign to reorganize, to recruit new employees, to set up marketing and protection groups within his organization, and to purchase formerly legitimate breweries and distilleries now shut down by Prohibition. With that, the manufacture and sales of beer and hard liquor in Chicago and its suburbs was solely in the hands of criminals. It was Torrio's vision come true.

But there was an additional, extremely more difficult, task to accomplish-- entering into negotiations with other established and emerging Chicago gangs to ensure peace. Torrio's proposition was simple: cooperation and professional consideration would make everyone very rich. Fighting over turf and hijacking each other's booze would only drain resources and call undue police and federal attention to their activities. Torrio's temperament was unique in that he did not react with violence if it could at all be avoided; he would be the cool head that would will alliances between ethnic and cultural gang groups to work together. Everything depended on it.

There were several other men in Chicago who also realized the unlimited bounty Prohibition would bring to those who fed the limitless thirst Chicagoans had for beer and liquor2. Dean O'Banion (known also as "Dion O'Banion"3) was the daring Irish leader of perhaps the second best organized gang in Chicago, the Northsiders. O'Banion at first saw hijacking as the most direct way to profit from Prohibition (i.e., steal the other guy's stuff and sell it for cash). But O'Banion was a thinker who surrounded himself with a unique group of men-- from the brilliant to the volatile to the truly crazy. Thanks to his insider brain-trust of Earl "Hymie" Weiss and Samuel "Nails" Morton, O'Banion was quickly persuaded that hijacking booze shipments was thinking small, and that it was the manufacture and distribution of alcohol that would bring in an avalanche of riches.

And it was Hymie Weiss who fully developed the concept, later described as a "marketing strategy," to leverage the Northsiders business interests. In this case, the approach would be to force every bar, tavern, and speakeasy owner within Northsider territory to buy O'Banion beer and O'Banion hard liquor at O'Banion prices. Refusal to engage in business with Weiss would eventually lead to serious business problems: broken windows, damaged inventory, bashed employees, and, in the end, a dead owner. To be sure, Weiss' short seminar on cooperation was more riveting than the most sophisticated multi-media presentation. As in any successful enterprise, it was the Northsiders' determination and follow-through that made their pitch work-- they would, in fact, destroy your inventory, and/or injure you and your employees if you didn't cooperate fully and do business with them. It proved to be an extremely attractive package, the genius of which was to combine daily business operations with term life insurance.

At first, the O'Banions worked with Torrio's group, taking their pre-sectioned piece of Northeastern Chicago and participating as contributing members of the Torrio combine. But, as O'Banion and Weiss saw the profit horizon more clearly, at the same time they also began to underestimate the determined Torrio. In particular, the street-wise and city-smart O'Banion mistook Johnny Torrio for an older businessman (the very image Torrio coveted), completely detached from the grimy poke-in-the-eye New York gang days that had formed Torrio's harsh criminal foundation. Forty-two year old Johnny Torrio appeared to be a guy so intent on peace and tranquility that he would be a soft pushover.

Nothing would be farther from the truth.

Torrio and Capone literally took over the suburb of Cicero in 1923-24, finding a smaller municipality than Chicago an easier mark to install gambling, liquor, and prostitution. Adjacent to the west side boundary of Chicago, Cicero became a cash cow for the Torrio combine, and a blueprint for future suburban expansion. All of a sudden, there was a tremendous amount at stake in successfully balancing peace accords over a half dozen gangs.

What exactly was at stake? In beer sales alone, according to several era sources, a barrel of bootleg beer cost Torrio or O'Banion about $5 to manufacture. The $5 barrel was sold to taverns, speakeasies and clubs for $55 a barrel. It's estimated that thirsty Chicagoans consumed approximately 20,000 barrels of beer a week-- even with a modest 25% mark up, that's over $70 million a year in beer sales alone.

The critical mass that would implode the lucrative house of cards set up by Torrio came in the form of the six Genna brothers4. Sicilian, brutal, and ruthless beyond the relative humanity of Torrio and O'Banion, the family aptly called "The Terrible Gennas" claimed a patch of west Chicago, called Little Italy, as their turf. Initially, as part of Johnny Torrio's unified totalitarian state-fiefdoms, the Genna role was to provide a unlimited amount of base alcohol, indispensable to Torrio's hard liquor distribution machine; at the same time, the Gennas also began mobbing up5.

The Terrible Gennas would collect the distilled alcohol from the neighborhood tenements, cut it, distribute some themselves and have the majority trucked to Torrio distribution plants where tempering elements would be added for flavor. The product would then be bottled and distributed to west side Chicago bars and speakeasies at Torrio prices. The Gennas, eager to make more money, began expanding their distribution neighborhoods, eventually finding their way into O'Banion's rich Northside territory, no doubt making daily business decisions extremely difficult for a lot of Chicago bar owners.

Looking to increase their independence, the Genna brothers began to standardize their police protection pay-offs and delve into local politics.6

But O'Banion and Weiss were not about to allow the Genna brothers to muscle into one inch of their hard fought turf. Businessman-innovator Johnny Torrio was about to have an extremely serious personnel problem within his carefully crafted Chicago combine.