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
Part I  Introduction
Part II Top Ten Myths
Part III 10 Questions
   (and 10 answers)


Photo Gallery






1. Was Torrio related to Jim Colosimo or to his wife Victoria? According to Pasley, Colosimo "retained" Torrio to come from New York; Kobler says  Torrio was Colosimo's nephew; Schoenberg and McPhaul write that Torrio was Victoria's cousin; Bergreen notes Torrio was probably not related to either.
There is no doubt Torrio was sent for, but how Colosimo knew him remains a mystery.

2. Many sources incorrectly state that Weiss was born in Poland. His mother, Mary, was from New York and actively supported Weiss' gang activities, often providing bail for Hymie and his pals. Back

3. As members of Charles "Ox" Reiser's burglary outfit, in 1918, Weiss and O'Banion's preferred MO was blowing up company safes in the dead of night and stealing their contents. In fact, Weiss became quite talented in the use of nitroglycerine and the art of dislodging a cast iron safe door from its hinges. O'Banion, Weiss, and Moran continued their safe blowing activities into 1921, a year after the start of  Prohibition. Back

4. Morton, was a kind of senior board member of the gang who had many of his own enterprises. A World War I veteran awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroism, Morton was three years younger than O'Banion, but taught O'Banion how to dress and mix socially. Morton also joined O'Banion as a partner in Schofield's Flower Shop. An experienced horseman from his visits to Alterie's Colorado ranch, Morton was killed in 1923, while riding at Chicago's Lincoln Riding Academy, when a horse threw and kicked him. The next day, Louis Alterie and several other Northsiders rented out the same horse, took it to into the park and shot it in retribution. Back

5. Torrio's famous quote to several newspapermen was not a boast, it was a quiet statement of fact:
"I own the police."

The Northsiders

Dean O'Banion was a scrapper from day one. Born on July 8, 1892, he was raised in a neighborhood of Chicago with the unfortunate name "Little Hell" (did any neighborhood in Chicago not start with the word "Little"?); he was Catholic, Irish, and a crazed little demon. His criminal pre-graduate studies took him from stealing and extortion, to mugging and rolling drunks. Post graduate work came through working as news "slugger".

It seems inconceivable now, but rival newspapers in Chicago in the early 1900s actually hired thugs to beat up rival newsstand vendors, distributors, and downtown street corner paper boys and trash their papers. The Chicago daily papers made money the way drug dealers now do-- they owned turf, sold on turf, and they defended turf. "Deanie" O'Banion was one of the best sluggers; even better because he wasn't a solo artist-- he had some very tough pals.

If there were three definitive moments of zen in the history of Prohibition Chicago, they would be: #1 Johnny Torrio's arrival in Chicago to assist Big Jim Colosimo1#2 Torrio importing Al Capone from Brooklyn to Chicago; and, #3 teenagers Dion O'Banion and Hymie Weiss meeting for the first time in Chicago.

 The bond that developed between Weiss and O'Banion would be the cause of a dramatic open gang war in the streets of Chicago in the mid-1920s, costing hundreds of lives, eventually destroying Johnny Torrio's grand vision and, finally, helping to bring down his heir-apparent Al Capone.

Weiss was born with the Polish surname Earl J. Wojciechowski in Chicago in 18982. His parents, William and Mary, were originally from Buffalo, New York. Perhaps for the sake of verbal simplicity, his father changed the family name to "Weiss" at some point after they moved to Chicago and Earl Weiss was born. Weiss was a devout Catholic, so the reason for adopting the Jewish-sounding first name "Hymie" is unclear--possibly a nickname from the street, bestowed on him by pals after some incident lost to history. His girlfriends and family called him "Earl", his pals and fellow bootleggers called him "Hymie"-- not to be confused with the ethnic slur.

That Weiss bonded with O'Banion is clear; Weiss was no doubt thrilled at finding a mentor six years his senior who was street-smart, clever, and brash. O'Banion was social and adventurous in his criminality. Stealing, running errands for other thugs, taking pride in their status as independent newspapers sluggers, mugging drunks, and eventually planning and executing robberies as members of other gangs-- for Weiss it must have been a wild ride from the start3. There was something in O'Banion that inspired loyalty and a camaraderie that transcended the normal criminal tendency to embrace greed at all costs, and to double-cross those closest to you simply to achieve more power and money.

 In the words of Michael Corleone, for the successful gangster, "It's not personal, Sonny, it's strictly business." For Torrio, it would always be about business. For O'Banion's Northsiders, business would always be personal.

During the years prior to Prohibition, O'Banion slowly gathered about him a group of young men who would form the nucleus of the Northsiders for the next ten years, and virtually all of them would be completely devoted to him until their deaths:

Samuel "Nails" Morton4, "Dapper" Dan McCarthy (the gang's union connection), Vincent "Schemer" Drucci (a fierce gunman with a knack for conjuring outlandish plans), George "Bugs" Moran (a tough mug, he had done three stretches in prison), Louis "Two Gun" Alterie (a loose cannon who fancied himself a cowboy, complete with a ranch in Glenwood Springs, Colorado visited by O'Banion and Weiss), the brothers Pete and Frank Gusenberg (utterly ruthless enforcers) , James Clark (if he had a resume it would have read simply "Northsider gunman").

And the amazing Hymie Weiss.

O'Banion and Morton purchased part ownership in a flower shop on North State Street across from Holy Name Cathedral. This would be the Northsider's headquarters, and O'Banion would discover being a florist provided a pleasingly fulfilling counterpoint to his life as a bootlegger and criminal.

The Northsiders had a somewhat loose, and at times rocky, criminal enterprise in place prior to Prohibition, but thanks to O'Banion's political connections and Weiss' vision, their power, influence, and cash-flow would dramatically increase from 1920 to 1926. They had the brains, the muscle, and the resources to either absorb the multitude of rival gangs who had divided Chicago up like a side of first grade prime beef, or to eliminate them and simply take their territory.

The 18th Amendment had the dramatic effect of making everyday citizens criminals. But Prohibition not only spawned casual crime-- its huge rewards created rampant and deadly competition between rival criminals willing to kill each other and anyone else who got in their way. More importantly, these newly minted, cash-flush booze czars had the resources to corrupt society's basic institutions, from the criminal justice system, to the media, to big business interests. Between Torrio having what was estimated to be well over 50% of the Chicago Police Department on his payroll5, and O'Banion's knack at electing whichever politician or political party he currently "supported", real ownership of Chicago was truly up for grabs to the highest bidder with the biggest stick.

Given the dynamic personalities involved, and the incredible stakes up for grabs, Torrio and Capone were destined to go toe to toe with the Northsiders, and battle fiercely for total domination of Chicago and its multi-million dollar Prohibition rackets.

And there would be no room for peace, compromise or partnership.