1924 -- Prelude
1. The Gennas were reportedly outraged at both the ethnic slur and the mater familia denigration. Variations of the quote were eagerly spread throughout Chicago by newspaper crime reporters and by the general bootlegging community. Back
2. Although Torrio was
patient with members of the combine who would occasionally step out of line,
he came down hard when he had to.
for himself but not for his "partner" O'Banion, or for Weiss. That was the
first hint of what was to come.
4. Curiously, O'Banion's Northside gang successors did not learn a lesson from the events of November 10, 1924. Weiss, Drucci, and Moran continued to not only emulate O'Banion's brashness and fortitude, but also the carelessness he demonstrated toward his personal safety and the security of his operations. While Capone was slowly creating an information network throughout Chicago's underground, and while Capone also made a growing, permanent bodyguard part of his ongoing business costs, the Northsider hierarchy did virtually nothing in the area of personal security. They had drivers, an occasional bodyguard, but no formal security plan. It remains one of the central historical question marks about the inner-workings of the Northsiders. Back
5. Author Schoenberg in
"Mr. Capone" insists that Yale was the handshaker with Scalise and Anselmi
6. A distraught and
increasingly light-headed Louis Alterie challenged O'Banion's murderers to
meet him at State and Madison Streets, vowing to "get
two or three of them before they get me". This would be Alterie's last major
conference before Weiss told Moran to order Alterie out of Chicago to an early,
and permanent, retirement at
his Colorado ranch.
1924 -- Prelude
Dean O'Banion and Hymie Weiss were acutely aware of the Genna brothers' encroachments into Northside territory, forcing bar, tavern, and speakeasy owners to buy cheap Genna alcohol. "To hell with them Sicilian bastards!,"1 O'Banion was reported to have said to just about anyone within earshot. This infuriated the highly volatile Genna brothers who now simply wanted O'Banion eliminated-- and they let Johnny Torrio know they would be happy to take care of the O'Banion issue immediately.
Despite Weiss' insightful insistence urging careful moderation in dealing with the monster Genna, O'Banion knew he was protected-- first by John Torrio, who would go great lengths to avoid the intra-gang wars which were so bad for business; second, by his connections with Chicago ward politicians, whom O'Banion helped get elected by placing his gunmen at voting precinct boxes each April; and third, by Mike Merlo, the President of the Unione Sicilione, a powerful fraternity of Sicilian immigrants with national chapters, whose community leadership made even Torrio and the Gennas seek his approval and acceptance. Merlo wanted no violence to interfere with the booming booze business, and told the Gennas to forget about a hit on O'Banion. And that was that.
After his entreaties to Torrio about Genna violations into Northsider territory went nowhere (even Torrio was at first loath to tackle the volatile Gennas2), O'Banion simply did what he did best: hijack Genna booze shipments, sling the most volatile Sicilian racial epithets (a favorite between O'Banion, Weiss and Moran was "greaseballs"), and challenge each Genna incursion into even one block of Northside territory.
Then, out of nowhere in a seeming reversal, O'Banion announced to Torrio and Capone that he was tired of all the violence and treachery and he wanted out. Gratefully, happily, Torrio and Capone accepted O'Banion's offer to be bought out of the Sieben Brewery which the three owned in partnership: for $500,000, O'Banion would pick up stakes and retire to Colorado, leaving the fertile Chicago northside to the Torrio combine. O'Banion set a farewell shipment date from the brewery and invited Torrio to attend.
It was a trap. O'Banion had no intention of leaving Chicago.
O'Banion's police contacts told him the Sieben brewery would be raided in a joint federal/city operation on the night of May 19, 1924. A federal arrest of Torrio for Prohibition violations would lead to huge fines and a jail sentence because he had a prior conviction. And indeed, at Sieben brewery "farewell" get together on May 19th, Torrio, O'Banion and Weiss (strictly for show), and their cohorts were arrested during the raid3. Capone was unable to attend, but for Torrio, it meant a $5,000 fine and nine months in jail. Dean O'Banion took Torrio's $500,000 and laughed all the way back to his flower shop.
Scratch Torrio and Capone from the short list of people who wanted O'Banion to live.
Finally, on November 8, 1924, Mike Merlo died of cancer. The ubiquitous Frankie Yale, head of the New York branch of the Unione Sicilione came in from New York to choose a successor to Merlo. His choice: Angelo Genna. Scratch Mike Merlo's considerable influence in keeping Dean O'Banion alive and well. With the Gennas inheriting the considerable power and influence of the Unione Sicilione, John Torrio was now agreeable to the Genna solution to the O'Banion problem.
On Monday November 10, 1924, O'Banion was in Schofield's Flower shop at 738 North State Street awaiting a floral pick-up order for Merlo's funeral. Typically, O'Banion had no bodyguards and no system of security to ensure his personal protection4. Three men came into the flower shop, and, as O'Banion reached out to shake the first man's hand, he found his own hand grabbed and jerked forward. O'Banion was known to carry two guns at all times, but with a pair of pruning shears in one hand, and the other hand yanked forward in a death grip, O'Banion was pulled off-balance. The two men next to the handshaker immediately pulled out their guns and began shooting. O'Banion died, shot six times, including a final Sicilian grace shot to the head.
O'Banion's handshaker was Mike Genna, the shooters were John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. Angelo Genna drove the getaway car.5
A closer look at the tactics of the O'Banion hit provides fascinating insight into Torrio/Capone methodology. O'Banion's killing worked so well, it became a template for many future, critically important, assassinations by the outfit. Elements of that hit are even found in the 1929 St. Valentine's Day massacre (which was a more complex operation than the majority of historical accounts have described).
Chicago Detective Captain William Shoemaker confronted Hymie Weiss after O'Banion was killed. "If you knew anything about this murder, would you tell me?," questioned Shoemaker. "Well to be frank," replied Weiss, "I guess I wouldn't."
One Chicago newspaper reported the post-O'Banion Northsiders would be led by a unique triumvirate of Weiss, Drucci, and Moran. But Earl Weiss immediately stepped up and took control of all gang operations with the enthusiastic support of his top people6. They had a shared passion to avenge O'Banion's murder; which meant killing the Gennas, and destroying Torrio and Capone. (A happy side benefit would be a Northsider takeover of Torrio's combine and all the city's rackets.) These were daunting tasks, but because of their deep loyalty to O'Banion and to each other, the Northsiders under Weiss enthusiastically and fearlessly went about the business of waging an all-out two front gang war on Chicago's streets.
"This Is War!" screamed a Chicago Herald and Examiner editorial after O'Banion's killing.
It is important to note that many Chicago citizens actively followed what were alternately called "the beer wars" and "the rum wars". Readers of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers knew the gangs, the players, the hits, and the latest rumors about who was after who. There were also a group of crime reporters, including Ray Brennan and photographer Tony Berardi, who had an insider's view of these extraordinary events and reported daily on what they heard and saw.
While Prohibition gangsters only killed each other, and the average citizen felt they were not threatened by the carnage, an amazing amount of open gunplay occurred during daylight hours on the busy streets of Chicago.
Weiss' most immediate preparations for battle included efforts at consolidation with independent and disaffected gangs around the city. This is when seemingly every gangster in the city had to make an immediate, and critical, choice: either become a "Capone guy" or a "Weiss guy". There simply was no room for independent freelancers.
There were also other developments.
One of the more complicated, and amazing, twists to the story of Prohibition Chicago was the growing perception by Capone that his allies, the fierce Genna family, were positioning themselves for a palace coup. Angelo Genna's ascension to the presidency of the Unione Sicilione soon took on ominous overtones for Capone as Genna power and influence expanded exponentially. As an Italian who couldn't qualify for even a visitor's pass to Sicilian-only Unione meetings, Capone desperately wanted to put his choice, a Sicilian allied with him, in charge of the influential community organization. This would both blunt the volatile Gennas and put himself in a position absorb their alcohol-producing cash machine in Little Italy.
Basically, in any of a number Capone scripts, the Genna crime family would have to go. And very soon.
As 1925 opened, the scenario resembled a production by William Shakespeare: Weiss and company were itching to begin their attacks on Torrio, Capone and the Genna brothers. The Genna family had killed O'Banion and now felt they were in good position to challenge Capone and Torrio. As for Capone, he moved the elimination of the Gennas, and his organization's takeover of the Unione Sicilione, to the top of his things-to-do list.