Friday, January 25, 2013

O'Banion's Right Hand

Earl “Hymie” Weiss

This post is sort of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the attempted assassination of John Torrio by elements of the Dean O’Banion mob during Chicago’s bloodiest years. This date, January, 25, 1898, was the birthday of O’Banion’s closest friend and most bloodthirsty avenger, Earl “Hymie” Weiss.

Earl “Hymie” Weiss
During his brief period of power on Chicago’s North Side, Dean O’Banion gained a reputation as a reckless, dangerous and eccentric gangster – and a man not to cross. But O’Banion surrounded himself with men who were just as eccentric as he was. Perhaps one of the most colorful was Earl Wojciechowski, the son of a Polish immigrant who was better known as Earl “Hymie” Weiss. Hymie coined a term that would become one of gangland Chicago’s best-known traditions when he murdered a fellow gangster named Stephen Wisniewski in 1921 – the “one-way ride.” After Wisniewski hijacked some of O’Banion booze, Weiss was tasked with teaching him a lesson. He took the gangster for a ride along Lake Michigan and somewhere along the way, Wisniewski was murdered and his body dumped on the roadside. Afterwards, Weiss was said to have bragged, “We took Stevie for a ride, a one-way ride!”

Weiss was born on January 25, 1898, the son of Walenty and Mary Wojciechowski, who Americanized their names to William and Mary Weiss. He had two brothers, Bruno and Frederick and a sister named Violet. Two other siblings died as children and Weiss’ parents separated while he was still young. Weiss began his criminal career as an “auto pirate,” stealing cars and cutting them up for their parts. In May 1919, after two stolen cars were found at 128 North Cicero, police captured Weiss, along with James Fleming and Alfred Marlowe, as they drove up in a third stolen car. They had been chopping up the cars at 317 North Avers, where they kept tools to dismantle car chassis, strip them for parts and then sell the stolen license plates. Weiss later became friends with O’Banion and the two of them went into the burglary and safecracking business.

Like O’Banion, Weiss attended Holy Name Cathedral and always wore a crucifix around his neck and kept a rosary in his pocket. Thin and wiry with coarse, dark hair, hot black eyes and a notoriously short temper, he was easily the smartest member of the gang and the most arrogant. Many people told stories of his kindness but those who disliked him shuddered in fear at his very presence (Rumor had it that he was one of the only men whom Al Capone feared). Weiss’ frequent mood swings may have been caused by the fact that he suffered from severe migraines. A sofa was installed for him in an upstairs office at Schofield’s flower shop (the North Side gang’s headquarters) and he would sometimes lay there for hours, wracked with pain and completely immobilized in the darkness.

When feeling well, Weiss was described as “generous to a fault.” Like O’Banion, he often helped out poor people in the neighborhood, contributing food and money to those who fell short on their grocery bills. He not only paid all of his parents’ food bills and expenses, but he took care of their friends and neighbors, as well. Once while staying overnight with the family of a fellow gangster, he heard a noise in the kitchen and went in to find his friend’s son trying to get into a cookie jar on the kitchen counter. Weiss laughed and lifted the boy up so that he could snag a snack, a welcome favor that the child would remember many years later as an adult. Weiss made many friends growing up and a number of his classmates from St. Malachy’s School, which he attended as a child, were honorary pallbearers at his funeral. He shared an apartment with a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl named Josephine Libby, who called him “one of the finest men in the world.”

But Weiss, like so many other gangsters of his era, had a dark side. On election days, he worked hard for whatever political party he had been hired to support, clubbing his way from polling place to polling place with a revolver. He seemed to relish beating up election officials while his thugs stole the ballot boxes. One example of his fiery temper occurred in June 1921 when he shot his brother. Fred had just returned from France after completing his military service and made an unwise comment to his brother about the fact that he had failed to serve his country. Earl whipped out a gun and shot him. The Weiss family tried to cover up the incident and Fred pleaded with his doctor at Washington Boulevard Hospital not to tell the police. Everyone claimed it was an accident. The truth of what really happened did not come out until after Earl’s death, when Fred finally admitted that his brother shot him.

After the assassination of Dean O’Banion, Hymie Weiss became a man motivated by revenge. After O’Banion’s death, he became the head of the North Side gang that O’Banion had founded. However, Weiss seemed less interested in making money and more concerned with wrecking the operations of Capone and his allies – and wiping them out. Weiss and his men had wounded John Torrio and caused him to flee Chicago. They had attacked Capone twice, killed Angelo Genna, and wounded and murdered dozens of enemy gunmen.

But Capone retaliated next. He marked Weiss and fellow gang member Vincent Drucci for death and assigned gunman Louis Barko to carry out the murders on August 10, 1926. The event became known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

Drucci had a suite at the Congress Hotel, four blocks north of the Standard Oil Building at Ninth Street and Michigan Avenue. On the morning of August 10, following a late breakfast in Drucci’s eighth floor suite, Weiss and Drucci walked toward the Standard Oil Building, where they were supposed to meet with Morris Eller, a Sanitary District Trustee, and John Sbarbaro, owner of gangland’s favorite funeral home. Eller was the mobbed-up boss of the Twentieth Ward and a cheap racketeer who offered a presentable face as a politician. Drucci was carrying $13,500 in cash in his pockets, which was allegedly a down payment on a piece of real estate, but was more likely bribe money for the North Side gang’s Twentieth Ward sponsors.

As Drucci and Weiss were about to pass through doors of the building, Louis Barko and three other men jumped out of a car on the east side of Michigan Avenue and opened fire on them. Windows shattered and bullets chipped the stone walls as Drucci scrambled for cover behind parked cars. Weiss managed to get into the lobby of the building, shaken but unhurt.

Drucci pulled out his own gun and returned fire before jumping onto the running board of an automobile driven by C.C. Bassett, a startled motorist who had been trapped in the crossfire. Drucci’s escape was interrupted by the arrival of the police, who dragged him off the car. The attackers ran back to their car and when one of them fell behind, the others drove off without him. The affair turned out to be bloodless and it was over in less than two minutes. The police officers on the scene recognized Barko as one of Capone’s gunmen and assumed this was an attempted mob hit. However, Drucci denied it. When questioned by the police at the South Clark Street station, he claimed that he didn’t know Barko and dismissed the whole thing as an attempted robbery. “It was a stick-up, that’s all,” he told the cops. “They were after my roll.” Hymie Weiss’ mother posted the necessary bond and freed her son’s friend from behind bars.

Their luck continued five days later. On August 15, Drucci and Weiss were driving south on Michigan Avenue and as they passed the Standard Oil Building, a car that had been trailing close behind them suddenly raced ahead, swerved to the right and rammed them. The men in the other car opened fire and bullets smashed all of their windows. Drucci and Weiss ducked down and scrambled out of the passenger side of the sedan. As they ran for the shelter of the closest building, they fired back over their shoulders with their own handguns. Miraculously, once again, no innocent bystanders were killed in the attack. As bullets slammed into the attacker’s car, they roared away down Michigan Avenue.

It was incidents like this that caused Charles “Lucky” Luciano, after visiting Chicago, to remark, “It’s a real goddamn crazy place! Nobody’s safe in the streets.”

Soon after, Weiss and George Moran led a hasty assault on the Four Deuces at 2222 South Wabash. Capone somehow escaped unhurt but his driver, Tony Ross, died behind the wheel.

A week later, on September 20, 1926, Weiss pulled one of his craziest stunts yet. He sent a caravan of automobiles, each carrying a trio of machine gunners, to Capone’s Cicero headquarters, the Hawthorne Inn. Hundreds of bullets shattered the front of the hotel, but no one was killed.

On October 4, Capone made a curious move. It was one that would have pleased his old mentor John Torrio, but was uncharacteristic of the more hot-headed Capone: he proposed a peace talk. Weiss agreed to a meeting at the Morrison Hotel, but Capone himself did not attend. He sent Tony Lombardo in his place and, to placate his enemy, he authorized Lombardo to offer Weiss exclusive sales rights to all of the beer territory in Chicago north of Madison Street, an outrageously handsome concession.

But Weiss wouldn’t have it. His thirst for revenge overrode his business interests. The only price that he would accept for peace was the deaths of the men responsible for O’Banion’s murder. Lombardo telephoned Capone for instructions. When he gave Capone’s answer – “I wouldn’t do that to a yellow dog” --- Weiss stormed out of the hotel in a fury.

Capone realized that there was no negotiating with Weiss. With this realization, the man’s days were numbered. Weiss had been a thorn in his side for too long.

October 11, 1926 was a day like any other in downtown Chicago. Workday crowds and shoppers shuffled up and down the pavement and automobiles moved back and forth on the busy streets. Across State Street from Holy Name Cathedral, at 738 North State Street, was the old flower shop that had been run by Dion O’Banion, and now operated solely by John Schofield. Hymie Weiss continued to maintain an office on the second floor.

One of the buildings used by Weiss’ assassins -- the window of the apartment where the shooters waited is marked with a white “X” in the photograph.
Next door, at 740 North State Street, was a three-story rooming house that was kept by Mrs. Anna Rotariu. Early in October, a young man who called himself Oscar Lundin, or Langdon, rented rooms from Mrs. Rotariu. He wanted a room on the second floor, facing State Street, but all of the front rooms were occupied so he agreed to take one in the rear until something in front opened up, as one did on October 8. It was a small, rather dismal room furnished only with two straight-backed wooden chairs, an old oak dresser, a brass bed, a tin food locker, a gas ring and a shelf that held a few mismatched cups, cracked plates and tarnished cutlery. In spite of this, Lundin appeared to be delighted with the room.

On the same day that Lundin moved into his new quarters, a pretty blond woman, who gave her name as Mrs. Theodore Schultz of Mitchell, South Dakota, rented a front room on the third floor of an apartment building at 1 Superior Street, which ran at a right angle to State Street, south of the flower shop. Lundin’s windows offered an unobstructed view of the east side of State Street from Holy Name Cathedral to the corner, while Mrs. Schulz’s windows overlooked both the front and rear entrances of the flower shop. Anyone approaching or leaving the immediate area in any direction had to pass within range of one or the other ‘s windows.

Lundin occupied his new room for only one day. After paying a week’s rent in advance, he vanished. Two men, who had visited him during his short stay, moved into the room. Mrs. Rotariu described them as an older man who wore a gray overcoat and fedora, and a younger man who wore a dark suit and light cap. Mrs. Schultz of Mitchell, South Dakota, also vanished after paying a weeks’ rent. Two men also moved into her room. The landlord later said that they looked like Italians.

In Early October, Hymie Weiss was attending the murder trial of Joe Saltis and Lefty Koncil, two former Capone allies that had defected to Weiss and the O’Banion gang.

In Early October, Hymie Weiss was attending the murder trial of Joe Saltis and Lefty Koncil, two former Capone allies that had defected to Weiss and the O’Banion gang.
During that week in early October, Hymie Weiss spent most of his time at the Criminal Courts Building, four blocks from his headquarters above the flower shop. He was watching the jury selection in the trial of Joe Saltis and Lefty Koncil for the murder of Mitters Foley. The trial held special interest for Weiss, as evidenced by the list of officials and witnesses that was later found in his office safe. These documents would give substance to the rumor that he had paid out more than $100,000 to guarantee an acquittal in the case.

When court recessed for the day on October 11, Weiss left the building with four friends – his driver Sam Peller, a bodyguard and part-time beer runner, Patrick “Paddy” Murray, a Twentieth Ward politician and private investigator named Benny Jacobs, and William O’Brien, one of Chicago’s top criminal attorneys, who was leading the Saltis-Koncil defense team.

At about 4:00 p.m., Peller parked Weiss’ Cadillac coupe in front of Holy Name Cathedral, across from the flower shop, and the five men started across State Street. The two men in Mrs. Rotariu’s rooming house had been waiting for two days with their chairs drawn up to the windows, guns in hand. Dozens of cigarette butts littered the floor. The two men in the side-street apartment had also been keeping watch since October 9, smoking and drinking wine, but now saw they were no longer needed. As they hurried out of the apartment, they left behind a shotgun and two bottles of wine.

As the five men reached the center of the street, the deafening sound of rattling Tommy guns pierced the air. Pedestrians scattered as bullets poured out of the windows of the rooming house. Weiss died instantly but Patrick Murray was hit ten times and survived long enough to be pronounced dead at Henrotin Hospital without regaining consciousness. Peller, hit fifteen times, fell dead in the street.

Patrick “Paddy” Murray in repose

Sam Peller’s Body is taken away by the police
O’Brien, with bullets in his arm, thigh and abdomen, dragged himself to the curb. The first policeman on the scene found him begging people in the growing crowd to take him to a doctor. Jacobs was hit once in the leg, and managed to drag himself to safety. The bullets that killed Hymie Weiss tore away portions of the inscription on the church's cornerstone and left bullet holes as a graphic reminder of the event. The church tried to have them removed years later but the chips and marks remain. They can still be seen on the corner of the cathedral today.

Meanwhile, the assassins fled their third-floor lair, ran down a back staircase, exited the building through a ground-floor window into an alley and disappeared into the crowd. A discarded Tommy gun was found atop a dog kennel in an alley off Dearborn Street but it couldn't be traced back to the killers. On a bed in the rented room the police found a fedora with a label a label from a store in Cicero near the Hawthorne Inn. No record of the owner was ever found.

Although one has to wonder how hard the police actually looked for it. Chief Morgan Collins issued a gruff statement: "I don't want to encourage the business, but if somebody has to be killed, it's a good thing the gangsters are murdering themselves off. It saves trouble for the police.”

A gruesome photograph of Hymie Weiss in the Morgue.

While Weiss was being prepared for burial at the Sbarbaro Funeral Home, Capone was holding a press conference at the Hawthorne Inn. “That was butchery,” he lamented over the course of several interviews as he handed out drinks and cigars to the reporters. “Hymie was a good kid. He could have got out long ago, taken his and been alive today. When we were in business together in the old days, I got to know him well and used to go often to his room for a friendly visit. Torrio and me made Weiss and O’Banion. When they broke away and went into business for themselves, that was all right with us… But then they began to get nasty. We sent ‘em word to stay in their own backyard. But they had the swelled heads and thought they were bigger than we were. Then O’Banion got killed. Right after Torrio was shot – and Torrio knew who shot him – I had a talk with Weiss. ‘What do you want to do, get yourself killed before you’re thirty?’ I said to him. ‘You better get yourself some sense while there are a few of us left alive.’ He could still have got along with me. But he wouldn’t listen to me. Forty times I tried to arrange things so we’d have peace and life would be worth living. Who wants to be tagged around night and day by guards? I don’t, for one. There was, and there is, plenty of business for us all and competition needn’t be a matter of murder, anyway. But Weiss couldn’t be told anything. I suppose you couldn’t have told him a week ago that he’d be dead today. There are some reasonable fellows in his outfit, and if they want peace I’m for it now, as I have always been.”

One of the reporters asked if Al had any idea who might have killed Hymie Weiss. He shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry Hymie was killed, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. I phoned the detective bureau that I’d come in if they wanted me, but they told me they didn’t want me. I knew I’d be blamed for it. There’s enough business for all of us without killing each other like animals in the street. I don’t want to end up in a gutter punctured by machine gun slugs, so why should I kill Weiss?”

The question brought a grunt of disgust from Chief of Detectives Shoemaker when he read the interview in the newspaper. He had his own statement for reporters, one much more succinct than Capone’s. “He knows why,” Shoemaker said, “and so does everyone else. He had them killed.”

Chief Collins agreed. When he was asked why Capone was not arrested for the crime, he replied: “It’s a waste of time to arrest him. He’s been in before on other murder charges. He always has his alibi.”

Hymie Weiss’ funeral was a sad affair, not only for his friends, but in comparison to other gangster funerals. A group of his boyhood classmates from St. Malachy’s School served as his pallbearers and with the last rites of the church denied to him, he was buried in unconsecrated ground at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, not far from the resting place of his friend, Dion O’Banion. The floral tributes fell far below the usual gangland standards and the only underworld figures in attendance were Vincent Drucci and George Moran, who now ran what would be the doomed gang together.

Want to know more about the North Side mob and the history of the Chicago’s Beer Wars? See my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, available here in an autographed print edition or as a Kindle book from 

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