Who was really behind the notorious mass shooting in Prohibition era Chicago?
On the evening of 14 February 1929, Chicago police made a grisly discovery. Inside a garage complex at 2212 North Clark Street lay the bodies of seven well-dressed men, who had all been brutally executed.
The investigators were puzzled. The victims were all mobsters with violent reputations who worked for the Irish bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran. As Moran’s gang were known to be feuding with other gangsters, they should have been heavily armed and fully prepared for one of the shootouts that were becoming increasingly common in Prohibition era Chicago. How had so many of them ended up unarmed in a run-down warehouse in the back streets of the city? And why had none of them fought back – indeed, how could such experienced criminals have been led so tamely to their fate? It was a mystery to the police and a mystery to Bugs Moran. The American press and public wanted to know what could have possibly led to the horrific events of that bleak winter’s night.
The place to start in any murder investigation is motive: finding out who would benefit most from the killing. The motive in this instance was obvious, and the person likely to benefit most from the killing seemed pretty obvious too. It was the height of the Prohibition years and many mobs and gangs were competing for the lucrative (and illegal) trade in alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Bugs Moran had formed an impressive smuggling and supply racket in Chicago. He also had a small army of followers, mainly from the Irish community. Taking on the Irishman would be akin to going to war, which ruled out all the small-time operators. For a suspect, the investigators kept returning to one name and one name alone, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.
Capone’s gang of Italian mobsters were well known to the authorities. His network of prostitutes, gambling dens, smugglers, bootlegging of illegal alcohol and his protection rackets had created an impressive empire and he was estimated to be worth in the region of $65 million, a staggering sum of money in 1929, worth approximately $7.2 billion today. He was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago and his policy of expansion through killing his business rivals placed him top of the list of suspects. It seemed obvious that he was behind it. But he denied all knowledge. His rival, Moran, had neither been killed nor even threatened, and the men lying dead in that garage were mere foot soldiers whose death could not have benefited Capone in any way. He had also been in Florida on Valentine’s Day.
Even the single eyewitness to the shooting couldn’t shed any light on the identity of the perpetrators. The police had found Frank ‘Tight Lips’ Gusenberg lying amongst the carnage and choking on his own blood. He was rushed to hospital and, on finally regaining consciousness, was immediately asked who had shot him. Gusenberg carefully looked around the room before replying, ‘Shot? Nobody shot me!’ He died soon afterwards and the general belief was that he had recognized somebody in the room, although his silence hadn’t helped him survive.
The police returned to the scene and tried to piece together the events leading up to the shooting from what little evidence they had. It was statements from the inhabitants of North Clark Street that provided their first real breakthrough. Several residents confirmed they had heard gunfire but swore they had then seen two uniformed policemen leading two civilians away at gunpoint. The two ‘suspects’ had been handcuffed and bundled into a police car and then driven away. Reassured that the police were already present and everything appeared to be under control, no one made any effort to report the matter to the authorities. But the Chicago police had no record of any shootings or arrests made in North Clark Street on the night of 14 February. The investigators followed up every clue and lead they had, but they were all dead-ends and no convictions were ever secured for the brutal murders in the warehouse on that cold February night.
Despite the fact that there was no proof linking Capone to the massacre, Bugs Moran had got the message. He promptly moved his gang out of the North Side, leaving all business in that area for the Italians. But he had already made a major error by commenting publicly to a journalist, ‘Only Capone kills like that.’ These five short words were a serious breach of the gangster code of silence, after which even his own gang members began to lose respect for their boss.
Moran became an increasingly marginalized and desperate figure. In 1946 he was finally arrested for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a far cry from the high-level crime and luxurious lifestyle he had enjoyed during the Prohibition years. Moran was sentenced to ten years imprisonment but immediately rearrested on his release. He was given another ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he died of cancer in 1957. His body lies in a pauper’s grave within the prison walls.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre also led to the downfall of Al Capone himself because it brought his activities to the attention of the Federal government. Despite no evidence being found to connect him to the killings in North Clark Street, the gangster was soon convicted on charges of income tax evasion and, in 1931, sentenced to eleven years at the notorious high-security prison at Alcatraz.
While in prison, Capone’s mental health began to deteriorate: towards the end he was convinced that the ghost of James Clark, one of the St Valentine’s Day victims, was haunting him. It was the only clue he ever gave of any involvement in the killings. After his release, Capone spent the last five years of his life quietly in his luxury estate in Miami, Florida. On 25 January 1947, he died of a heart attack thought to have been caused by the third-stage complications of syphilis.
Meanwhile the garage on North Clark Street – the site of the infamous events – was demolished; the area is now a landscaped car park for a nursing home. The infamous wall Moran’s men were shot against was dismantled, sold at auction and shipped to Canada where it was rebuilt in the toilets of a Vancouver theme bar, the BanjoPalace. When that business closed down, each brick of the famous wall was sold off, as macabre souvenirs.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre itself remained a mystery until recently. The true events of that fateful night were discovered long after the deaths of everybody involved. In January 1929 Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn, one of the Capone mob, was making a telephone call on the street when Peter and Frank Gusenberg’s car drew alongside. When the two Moran mobsters recognized McGurn, they opened fire, but missed him, which was to prove to be a major error for the brothers. Both Capone and Bugs Moran were struggling for control of the bootlegging business in Chicago and the tension between them had begun to degenerate into street warfare. But with many other mobsters muscling in on the action, it was sometimes unclear who was responsible for which act of violence. This time there was no mistake; McGurn knew exactly who had tried to kill him.
Capone was already aware of the might of Moran’s army and a month or so earlier had secretly discussed with an associate how to eliminate the ‘Moran risk’. When he was allegedly warned he would ‘have to kill a lot of people to get to Bugs Moran’, Capone joked that he would send plenty of flowers. So when ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn approached his boss with a plan to avenge the phone-box shooting, Capone saw the perfect opportunity to start eliminating Moran’s gang, from the bottom upwards.
With the boss’s authorization, McGurn created a six-man team headed by Fred Burke with the intention of luring the Gusenbergs, with as many of Moran’s other henchmen as possible, into a trap. Burke, a little-known Capone man at the time, invited the brothers to a warehouse meeting, claiming to have many crates of hijacked bootleg whiskey for sale.
Both Capone and McGurn left town to make sure they had watertight alibis. The meeting was to take place on the night of 14 February and, with more of Capone’s men placed as strategic lookouts along the surrounding streets, the plan swung into action. Four of McGurn’s gang pulled up at the deserted garage, watched by Moran’s lookouts who, deciding the coast was clear, signalled for the seven-strong Gusenberg gang to approach. But after they were inside, two more of McGurn’s gang dressed as Chicago police officers approached in a stolen patrol car. Moran’s lookouts fled the scene, fearing a police bust, while Capone’s remained in place, on standby in case the real police should arrive.
Inside the garage, the fake patrolmen found the suspicious-looking group and ordered them to drop their weapons. All of the gangsters complied, McGurn’s men believing their captors were the relatively harmless police force, many of whom were already on the mob’s payroll anyway. However, as they lined up, Capone’s four men peeled away, leaving the seven Moran men alone against the wall. Within a split second the gangsters dressed as policemen had opened fire using two Thompson submachine guns. They were quickly joined by the remaining gangsters, who pumped bullets into their surprised and defenceless rivals. All seven – James Clark, Adam Heyer, Johnny May, Al Weinshank, Frank and Peter Gusenberg and Dr Reinhardt Schwimmer – were left either dead, or bleeding to death, on the garage floor. The gunfire had attracted the attention of other residents in the street, but they were soon comforted to see two uniformed policemen in a patrol car ‘arresting’ those responsible. But when neither of the policemen were ever seen again, it led to one of the bloodiest murder mysteries the world has known and, ultimately, not a single conviction was ever secured.
Extract from Albert Jack’s Mysterious World
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