Five Things You Didn’t Know About 1920s Gangsters in Chicago

A new book offers some surprising glimpses into the city’s early 20th century underworld.

BY HANNAH NYHART  This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Chicago magazine.

 

ONE: Cicero, not Chicago, was dubbed the “wettest spot in the United States.” Agents discovered 20 separate large-scale stills in a single series of raids, reports John J. Binder in Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition (June 6, Prometheus Books). Crackdowns had forced the alcohol underworld into the western suburb, where the Torrio-Capone gang roughed up voters to sway the 1924 election and keep certain friendly politicians in office, thus securing itself free run of the town.

TWO: A sign of how cozy gangsters were with elected officials: After Capone’s mentor, James “Big Jim” Colosimo, was killed in 1920, his pallbearers included eight aldermen, three judges, and a U.S. congressman (shown above).

THREE: Gangsters weren’t all to blame for the murderous era. Of the 729 homicides in Cook County between 1919 and 1933 classified as “gang-style” killings by the Chicago Crime Commission, Binder found that 43 percent were actually not related to organized crime but to personal feuds and other private matters. A 1932 newspaper ad for a local textile shop read: “Bullet Holes Rewoven Perfectly in Damaged Clothes—Low Price.”

FOUR: Chicago’s 6,000 illicit slot machines temporarily disappeared in the late 1920s after a vigorous state’s attorney was elected, but gambling as a whole never really died down. By 1930, there were roughly 10,000 illegal locations, from barbershops to newsstands, to wager on horses or place other bets. You could find a spot to lose money about as often as you can find a bus stop today.

FIVE: Capone’s gang was pulling in “tribute” payments—a cut of profits for protection—from two-thirds of the city’s labor unions, but the milk wagon drivers refused to be controlled, even after Capone affiliates kidnapped their union’s president for a $50,000 ransom. Instead, they bombproofed the union office and bought a bulletproof car. Plan B: Capone opened a rival dairy, staffed trucks with his own men, and sold milk two cents cheaper. Read more

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A Baby Face Nelson sighting in Nevada – 1934

The Nevada Appeal August 22, 2016

“If all reports are true, Baby Face Nelson, with several pals, paid Gardnerville a visit several weeks ago. From here, the gang went to Hawthorne, living in the outskirts of that town for several days and then vanished. Federal officers, it is reported, were several days behind the fugitives but hope to apprehend them before many weeks go by.” — The Record-Courier, Nov. 16, 1934

Baby Face Nelson

After mention of Nelson in the Locals column of The Record-Courier, 11 days would pass before authorities killed Nelson in a gunfight in Wilmett, Ill. on Nov. 27, 1934, just two days before Thanksgiving and less than two weeks before his 26th birthday. And that signaled the end of Baby Face Nelson, or Lester Gillis, the only Most Wanted Criminal ever to live in Douglas County as a most wanted criminal.

 Dead Nelson

Read more from Nevada Appeal Article.


Nelson did die in Wilmett, but he received the mortal wounds in the “Battle of Barrington” where he killed two federal officers (Inspector Cowley and Agent Hollis). Also at the gun battle were Baby Face’s wife Helen and longtime friend John Paul Chase (aka Earl Butler).

Battle of Barrington

The car driven by Nelson and disabled by agents’ bullets is shown in the picture above. The events leading up to the car chase, the shootout, and what followed are described in my novel manuscript Midnight Run 1932.

Chase, an unknown, could walk into a grocery store for supplies or a sporting goods store for ammunition without causing suspicion. Initially, it was not know that he was at Barrington with Nelson; however, Helen was captured in Chicago and after being tortured revealed Chase’s identity.

HelenClips (1)

The hunt for Chase began in Illinois and ended up at Mount Shasta in California.

My 87,000-word manuscript is a fact-based novel chronicling the life of a naïve northern California dairy worker (Chase) eager to experience the women, booze, and fast cars of the roaring 1920’s.

[If you are an AAR literary agent and interested in reading more, please contact me at: bootlegger1932@gmail.com)

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Need for gun control recognized in 1930’s

Knoxville News Central

by Ina Hughes

Back in the early 1930s, lawmakers decided they’d had enough with the recent rise in gun violence: the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929; the near assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; wholesale gangster wars on the streets of New York and Chicago.It’s stuck in my mind ever since I read it, an article in The New York Times headlined “Proof that gun control can work.” And it sent me to the history books.

They decided to do something about it. They passed the National Firearms Act of 1934, which required owners of firearms to be checked and registered, as well as be severely taxed at $200 (in today’s dollars, that would be $3,538).

Weapons specifically mentioned as needing to be “regulated” by government included machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, grenades and — get this — other military-type “destructive devices.” Read more.

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John Dillinger

John Dillinger

Wanted 1

wanted 2

wanted 3

(CN) — A lit cigarette ignited table cloths in the basement of Tucson’s Hotel Congress on Jan. 22, 1934, causing a fire that eventually engulfed the third floor. Guests ran into the street, many still in their underwear. Two men reportedly bribed firefighters to retrieve their luggage.

Later recognizing the men as members of John Dillinger’s gang, the firefighters tipped off the police — resulting in a stakeout that nabbed the infamous bank robber and his men.

“In a space of five hours, without firing a single shot, the police of small-town Tucson had done what the combined forces of several states and the FBI had failed to accomplish,”  Source Courthouse News Service July 15, 2016

AZ Congress Night

The Hotel Congress is a historic building located in downtown Tucson, Arizona. It was built in 1918 designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm William and Alexander Curlett as part of an expansion of congress street and in conjunction with the theatrical venue Rialto Theatre, which sits north of Congress street. The rear of the building faces the historic Amtrak Southern Pacific train station, built by Southern Pacific in 1907. In addition to being a hotel, the Hotel Congress building also houses a restaurant, bar and music venue.

The Hotel is known for being the site of the capture of bank robber John Dillinger in 1934. After a series of bank robberies, the Dillinger Gang arrived in Tucson to hide out. On January 22, 1934, a fire started in the basement and spread up to the third floor, where the gang resided under aliases. After the desk clerk contacted them through the switchboard the gang escaped by aerial ladders. On the request of the gang, two firemen retrieved their luggage, identifying who they were. After being transferred to a jail in Crown Point, Indiana, Dillinger escaped again and was eventually shot down in Chicago, Illinois. Source Wikipedia.

Read more.

Footnote: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 5K reward for Dillinger in 1934 would be worth $89,935.55 in 2016; the 10K reward $179,879.10; and the 20K reward $359,758.21.

Al Capone’s Rigged Roulette Wheel Used by the Mob

The Sun

May 5, 2016

Revealed – Al Capone’s rigged roulette wheel: Table used by the Mob in 1920s Chicago uncovered.

Capone

ONE of Al Capone’s rigged roulette wheels used to fix games and rob gamblers has been uncovered after being dismantled for restoration. Alexander Walder-Smith, from Guildford, bought it in Iowa from a man who had stored it in a barn for decades.

Wheel

Mr. Walder-Smith said: “I just thought it was a very nicely made roulette table from the 1920s or 1930s. It was only when my restorer called to say he’d found batteries that we realized there was anything unusual.” The restorer discovered a series of concealed wires leading to two push buttons disguised as screw heads. The hidden buttons interrupted the spin of the ball, allowing crooked croupiers to fix games. When activated, two tiny pins shot out which could guide the ball towards a particular number or colour.

Batteries

“The batteries were concealed in one of the legs and changing them would have been a major operation. They had used newspaper to pad them. They were all local Chicago papers dated between 1928, when we think the table was built, and 1931 when the batteries were last changed.”  Read More

Lead Water Pipes in 1900 Caused Higher Crime Rates in 1920

Mother Jones

By Kevin Drum  

| Tue May 3, 2016 2:44 PM EDT

Last year I (Kevin Drum) wrote about a paper that looked at the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and violent crime rates in a whole new way. James Feigenbaum and Christopher Muller compared cities from the early 20th century that installed lead water pipes with those that installed iron pipes, and found that cities with lead pipes had higher homicide rates. Today, Josh Marshall alerts me to the fact that Feigenbaum and Muller have now published a final draft of their paper. The basic results are below:

Lead Pipe Graph

As you can see, the effect is consistently positive. “Based on the lowest and highest point estimates,” the authors conclude, “cities that used lead pipes had between 14 and 36 percent higher homicide rates than cities that did not.” They present further versions of this chart with various controls added, but the results are largely the same. Overall, they estimate that cities with lead pipes had homicide rates 24 percent higher than cities with iron pipes.

As a check, they also examine the data to see if lead pipes are associated with higher death rates from cirrhosis and infant diarrhea, both of which have been linked with lead poisoning:

As expected, we observe large, positive, and statistically significant relationships between a city’s use of lead pipes and its rates of death from cirrhosis and infant diarrhea. Unexpectedly, we find that cities that used lead water pipes had higher rates of death from scarlet fever and influenza. Cities that used iron pipes, in contrast, had higher rates of death from circulatory disease, cancer, and cerebral hemorrhage. We know of no scientific literature to motivate these latter relationships.

So it looks like lead really is the culprit, and it really is associated with higher crime rates.   Read More