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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Chicago Crime 1925 – 1932

Scarface, Tommy guns and Chicago’s gangster mystique in film

by Michael PhillipsChicago Tribune

Al Capone 1931 at a football game AP

Al Capone 1931 at a football game AP

In a a few, bloody years — 1925 to 1932, from the rise of Al Capone to the release of the film borrowing Capone’s nickname for a title — Chicago cemented its image in the popular imagination. The Cubs come and go; Chicago’s gangster mystique remains steadfast.

Here are six stops on the timeline of those key years in the making of Chicago’s corrupt, violent popular image.

1925: Brooklyn-born Alphonse Capone, later nicknamed “Scarface” by a Tribune reporter, takes over the Chicago activities of New York racketeer Johnny Torrio. By 1927, Capone is the world’s most revered and famous gangster, coddled by Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson until Thompson considers Capone a drag on Thompson’s political advancement. By 1928 Capone relocates to Florida and spends most of the ’30s behind bars.

1926: Ex-Tribune police reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins writes a comedy about a couple of Chicago killers. Originally titled “Play Ball,” the play is renamed “Chicago” and opens on Broadway. Cecil B. DeMille produces a silent film version in 1927; Ginger Rogers stars in a 1942 film adpatation, “Roxie Hart”; Bob Fosse directs and choreographs the 1975 stage musical; the movie version of the musical wins the Academy Award as best picture of 2002.

1927: Another Chicago crime reporter, Bartlett Cormack, writes “The Racket,” a play set in a police precinct on Chicago’s outskirts, about an honest cop beset by corrupt superiors and pliable politicians in league with local bootleggers. The character of underworld kingpin Nick Scarsi is a thinly disguised Capone stand-in. Edward G. Robinson plays the role on stage; when the touring production of “The Racket” is banned from Chicago, reportedly at Capone’s urging, it travels instead to LA and the movies discover Robinson, who stars in “Little Caesar” in 1930, after the medium learns to talk and spit lead at high volume.

Read More.

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1929 Al Capone’s Cell

In May 1929, Capone was sentenced to a prison term in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary where he spent a year. His reach at the local and state level was shocking as a picture of his luxury accommodations will affirm.

Al Capones cell

Aside from the egregious lodging, something else is wrong. It is located just below the center of the picture  next to the plush chair.

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The following is an article clipped from the Philly Inquirer News dated May 31, 2016

by Stu Bykofsky

What was wrong in Al Capone’s cell?

AT A glance, seventh-grader Joey Warchal knew something was very wrong. He loved everything he saw during a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary – Al Capone’s cell most of all, but something was very wrong.

053116_capone_1200

A tour guide said the Prohibition-era gangster was incarcerated in 1929 and 1930.

“The radio featured in the display is historically inaccurate,” Warchal politely emailed Eastern State Penitentiary senior vice president Sean Kelley after his tour.

“As an antique collector specializing in radios,” Warchal said “the radio displayed is a Philco A-361, made in January 1942,” after Capone had departed Eastern State. It could not have been his radio.

Warchal offered to help Kelley find a historically accurate radio for the display. And he did… READ MORE

Immersive Theater Concept ‘The Speakeasy’ Returns With New Home This Summer

SPEAKEASY by Geri Koeppel
@gerikoeppel

The Speakeasy, an immersive theater experience in which audience members are engaged in the show, will reopen this summer in its permanent home, bringing flappers, mobsters and more to a secret location near the Chinatown-North Beach border every weekend.

The show started as a production of Boxcar Theatre, founded in 2005 by Nick A. Olivero, and had an initial sold-out run of 75 shows in 2014 at a “secret” location in the Tenderloin. It was done up to look like a Prohibition-era nightclub complete with a dance hall room and “gambling” den. The audience is required to dress in cocktail attire, and they’re encouraged to wear period clothing.

The_Speakeasy_1_photo_by_Peter_Liu

Presale tickets will go online at 10am June 9th to members of Club 1923 and affiliated groups. Tickets for the general public will go on sale June 13th. For information, online sales and to register as a Club 1923 member, which will have an annual fee, visit thespeakeasysf.com. Tickets for previews will be $85 and the regular run will be around $100; the cost of Club 1923 hasn’t been determined. READ MORE

SPEAKEASY – PROHIBITION FOR A CAUSE

MOULTRIE NEWS

East Cooper Breakfast Rotary celebrates 20 years of service Will host Speakeasy Prohibition For A Cause

To kickoff its 20th anniversary, East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club will host a new fundraising event called “Speakeasy – Prohibition For A Cause.” Proceeds from the event will benefit East Cooper Community Outreach, My Sister’s House, and Rotary Charities that include Polio Plus, Happy Feet, and Toys For Tots.

The Speakeasy will be held Friday, September 23rd from 7-11 p.m. at Southerly Restaurant & Patio at 730 Coleman Blvd in Mount Pleasant. It will be an evening of 1920’s Prohibition-era fun including heavy hors d’oeuvres, open bar, dancing to live jazz and swing music with the Charleston Swing Dance Association, games, a live auction with themed packages, and a raffle for a grand prize of $5000 cash. Guests must be present to win the grand prize. READ MORE