Monday, January 28, 2013

The "Tommy Gun" Comes to Chicago

The Rise & Fall of Frank McErlane

On this date, January 28, 1930, Chicago mobster Frank McErlane was shot in an assassination attempt by either the Capone gang – or by men sent by his former partner, Joe Saltis. McErlane had a lot of enemies in the Chicago gangs by 1930. He had earned the wrath of Al Capone by switching loyalties to another gang and angered his long-time partner, Saltis, by arguing over shares and then going to work for the South Side O’Donnell gang, which was a losing proposition all around.

These days, Frank McErlane is a barely remembered part of Chicago’s Roaring 20s history, but in truth, he played a very important role – he was the man that introduced the Thompson machine-gun to Chicago’s gangland wars. The “Tommy Gun” – a.k.a. the “Chicago Typewriter” – is the gun that “made Chicago roar” in the 1920s!

South Side Gangster and Killer, Frank McErlane
Born in Chicago in 1894, Frank McErlane was first arrested in 1911 and sent to Pontiac Prison in June 1913 for involvement in a car theft ring. Released on parole in March 1916, he was arrested eight months later as an accessory in the murder of Oak Park police officer Herman J. Malow, Jr. He was sent back to prison, this time to Joliet, for one year. He attempted to escape but was caught and spent another two years in prison.

Shortly after the start of Prohibition, McErlane began running a gang with partner Joseph "Polack Joe" Saltis, operating in the "Back of the Yards" section of the South Side. The “Back of the Yards” was a grim landscape of slaughterhouses, factories and train tracks in those days and a depressing wasteland of rundown homes and buildings that would forever be connected to the nearby stockyards. This bleak area was the domain of the Saltis-McErlane gang.

“Polack Joe” Saltis, a hulking dim-witted coward who only managed to rise to a power position in the mob because of his partners, savvy “Dingbat” O’Berta and killer Frank McErlane
Saltis, a slow-witted, hulking Hungarian was a saloonkeeper before Prohibition and while he presented an imposing figure, his cowardice had long been known to his underworld colleagues. His ferocity only emerged when he was dealing with someone smaller and weaker than he was. On one occasion, he beat an elderly woman to death after she refused to let him turn her ice cream parlor into a speakeasy. Only his political connections and gangster pals like Frank McErlane kept his business from being taken over by stronger rivals.
Another principal associate was John “Dingbat” O’Berta, a labor racketeer and politician from the Thirteenth Ward. O’Berta was actually of Slavic descent but had fudged his real name of “Oberta” to appeal to the Irish voters of the district. Childhood friends had nicknamed him “Dingbat” after a popular comic strip character of the day but the ruthless mobster was anything but comical. His ambitions ran unchecked. After rivals gunned down labor racketeer “Big Tim” Murphy, O’Berta gained underworld prominence by marrying Murphy’s widow, Florence.

“Dingbat” O’Berta with his bride, the former Florence Murphy – who saw two of her husbands die by violent means
Saltis began bringing in beer from Wisconsin at the start of Prohibition and he made enough money to buy one brewery and invest in three others. He also used a percentage of his brewery money to buy a summer home in Wisconsin’s Eagle River resort area, a favorite retreat for millionaires in the northern part of the state.

In 1922, McErlane and Saltis allied with the John Torrio – Al Capone operation against the South Side O’Donnell Brothers. McErlane, a stocky, hard-muscled man, was soon known as an especially ferocious assassin. McErlane carried a rosary in his pockets along with a pistol. Unfortunately, he had a taste for alcohol. When he drank, he got crazy, as many unlucky people found out. One night while drinking in Crown Point, Indiana, an equally drunken companion challenged him to show off his skill with a revolver. McErlane picked a stranger at random, an attorney named Thad Fancher, and shot him in the head. He fled the state just one step ahead of the Indiana State Police and fought extradition for a year. When he was finally brought to trail, the state was unable to call its one key witness because his head had been split with an ax. McErlane was acquitted.

McErlane gave Saltis’ operation the deadly element that it had been missing and it didn’t take long for word to spread that crossing Saltis would incur the wrath of the brutal killer.

During the 1923 "Beer Wars", McErlane would be credited with killing three O'Donnell gangsters in September of that year; Jerry O'Conner, George Bucher, and George Meegan. On December 1, 1923, two O'Donnell beer trucks were stopped on the road between Chicago and Joliet. The occupants of one, William "Shorty" Egan and Thomas "Morrie" Keane, were shoved into a car with Frank McErlane and Willie Channell, who drove. Egan miraculously survived what happened next and gave this chilling account:

"Pretty soon the driver asks the guy with the shotgun, 'Where you gonna get rid of these guys?' The fat fellow laughs and says, 'I'll take care of that in a minute.' He was monkeying with his shotgun all the time. Pretty soon he turns around and points the gun at Keane. He didn't say a word but just let go straight at him. Keane got it square on the left side. It kind of turned him over and the fat guy give him the second barrel in the other side. The guy loads up his gun and gives it to Keane again. Then he turns to me and says, 'I guess you might as well get yours too.' With that he shoots me in the side. It hurt like hell so when I seen him loading up again, I twist around so it won't hurt me in the same place. This time he got me in the leg. Then he gimme the other barrel right on the puss. I slide off the seat. But I guess the fat guy wasn't sure we was through. He let Morrie have it twice more and then let me have it again in the other side. The fat guy scrambled into the rear seat and grabbed Keane. He opens the door and kicks Morrie out onto the road. We was doing 50 from the sound. I figure I'm next so when he drags me over to the door I set myself to jump. He shoves and I light in the ditch by the road. I hit the ground on my shoulders and I thought I would never stop rolling. I lost consciousness. When my senses came back, I was lying in a pool of water and ice had formed around me. The sky was red and it was breaking day. I staggered along the road until I saw a light in a farmhouse…"

Despite having nearly half his face blown off, Egan had amazingly lived to tell about his "one-way ride" and fingered Willie Channell as one of his attackers. McErlane was eventually arrested but he beat both this case and charges in the double homicide of George Bucher and George Meegan, who were riddled with bullets while driving home on September 17, 1923.

McErlane’s greatest claim to fame was introducing what would be the Chicago underworld’s weapon of choice – the Thompson sub-machine gun. Known as the “Tommy gun,” “the chopper” and the “Chicago Typewriter,” the weapon had been named for its co-inventor, Brigadier General John T. Thompson, the director of arsenals during World War I. Developed in 1920, it came too late for the war and it was placed on the open market by the New York company, Auto Ordnance. It met with little success with military customers (the Army didn’t want to invest in it until World War II) and most law enforcement agencies rejected it as a hazard to innocent bystanders. To General Thompson’s dismay, it became very popular with gangsters.

At just over eight pounds, the gun was light enough to be handled by a small boy and it could fire up to 1,000 .45 caliber cartridges per minute. It could penetrate a pine board at 500 feet and in no time could reduce a heavy automobile to junk. While most cities and states had enacted legislation similar to New York’s 1911 Sullivan Law, which made it illegal to carry small, easily concealed firearms, they placed no restrictions on Tommy guns. Anyone could buy as many as he liked by mail order or from sporting goods stores. The seller was only required to register the purchaser’s name and address. And if you couldn’t buy one, you could steal one from one of the few police or military arsenals that stocked them.

The Tommy gun soon became an indispensable accessory for every self-respecting gangster. The clattering of the machine gun soon became an all-too-familiar background accompaniment to mayhem on the streets of Chicago.

The gun was first used by Frank McErlane in an attempt on the life of Spike O’Donnell in September 1925. Frank McErlane acquired his "Tommy Gun" from North Side gang leader Dean O'Banion, who had purchased a shipment of submachine guns in Denver, Colorado shortly before his November 1924 murder. At any rate, McErlane was to use one in his next attempt to kill Spike O'Donnell (one of 10 recorded attacks on O'Donnell's life!). On September 25, O'Donnell was talking to a beat cop in front of a drugstore at Sixty-Third and Western streets. A car pulled up and someone yelled, "Hello, Spike!" The gang boss saw what was coming and hit the deck; a submachine gun began drumming from the car, stitching neat lines of bullet holes on the storefront before the would-be killers sped away. Police were so unfamiliar with the Thompson, they thought that either shotguns or a "machine rifle of some kind" had done the damage. It was the first recorded use of a submachine gun in Chicago (or any other major American city, for that matter.)

Spike O’Donnell’s bullet-riddled car after 10 different attempts on his life. He miraculously survived and eventually left Chicago. 
Al Capone, intrigued by the method, co-opted the technique with often bloody results. He had followed McErlane’s exploits with the Tommy gun with much interest. After his failure to take out Spike O’Donnell, McErlane had used the gun on other enemies with better results. Firing the weapon from a speeding car that was going past the Ragen Athletic Club, Ralph Sheldon’s hangout, he had slaughtered Charles Kelly, who happened to be standing outside and seriously injured a Sheldon gang member inside. In an attempt to kill two beer runners from a rival gang, he had used the gun to rip apart a South Side saloon. He wounded the beer runners, but failed to kill anyone inside. Amazed by McErlane’s weaponry (although probably not by his aim) Capone equipped his own arsenal with Tommy guns. Peter von Frantzius, a timid little man who owned Sports, Inc. at 608 Diversey Parkway, became Capone’s chief weapons supplier.

The introduction of the Tommy gun in Chicago turned out to be the highlight of McErlane’s gangster career. After a falling out with both Capone and his former partners, Saltis and O’Berta, he largely faded from sight.

By the late 1920s, though, Chicago was a different place. The The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which took place early in 1929, produced an eerie calm in the city. After that, the Capone organization was firmly in control and few dared to challenge him, even if he was locked up in a prison cell in Philadelphia. By the latter months of 1929, there had been only 53 gangland murders in Chicago, which, while still nothing for city leaders to brag about, were far below the numbers of the previous year. There was, during that summer, even time for relaxing and social life, allowing the gangsters to come out of hiding and mix with their friends and families.

Only a couple of bloody incidents marred the early months of 1930 – and all involved Frank McErlane. McErlane had been recently restless. He had fought over shares with his partner Joe Saltis and had transferred his allegiance to the South Side O’Donnells, which may – or may not have – led to him being shot on January 28.

That evening, McErlane pretty was rushed to the hospital after being shot in the left leg; the bullet had struck above the knee and fractured the leg. Frank claimed that he had accidentally shot himself while cleaning a revolver, but police suspected that his common-law wife Elfrieda Rigus (a.k.a. Marion Miller) may have shot him. They had quite a stormy relationship and often had high-decibel, alcohol-fueled fights.

Another possible suspect was "Dingbat" O'Berta, with whom McErlane had been feuding. On the night of February 24, McErlane was propped up his hospital bed with his healing leg still in traction when two or three gunmen barged in and opened fire. Frank yanked an automatic from under his pillow and returned their fire. While his shots missed, they scared his assailants off; one of them dropped a .45 automatic in his flight. McErlane had been winged three times in the melee, but none of the shots were fatal.

He was interviewed by the police, but of course, did not name his attackers. He shrugged off their questions and said cryptically, "I'll take care of it." Just after McErlane was released from the hospital, on March 5, Dingbat O'Berta was found shot to death in his car on the outskirts of Chicago. The body of O’Berta’s driver, Sam Malaga, was found near the car, face down in an icy puddle of water. The .45 left in McErlane's had hospital room had been traced to Malaga. Frank had, indeed, "taken care of it".

“Dingbat” O’Berta – shot to death in his car. Frank McErlane had “taken care of it” after the attempt on his life in the hospital. 
O’Berta’s funeral was a two-day affair, attended by 15,000 admirers from the Back-of-the-Yards district, where O’Berta had earned a name for himself as an influential young politician. Dingbat’s widow had previously been the wife of Big Tim Murphy, the racketeer controller of the Street Sweepers’ Union. Big Tim had been machine-gunned in front of his Rogers Park home in June 1928. She and O’Berta had met at Murphy’s funeral. She had her second husband buried next to her first in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, each with a rosary in his gun hand. She told reporters, “They were both good men.”

McErlane spiraled into obscurity after that. Years of excessive consumption of Prohibition-era booze had taken its toll on Frank's mental state. On June 8, 1931, an intoxicated McErlane swept a South Shore Drive block with shotgun blasts, shooting at imaginary foes. Police ultimately filed five simultaneous charges against him -- drunk and disorderly, carrying a concealed weapon, firing a shotgun indiscriminately around his neighborhood, driving with forged license plates, and biting his sister on the cheek.

On October 8, 1931, McErlane was driving his car with common-law wife Elfrieda Rigus and her two German Shepherds in the back seat. Police later determined that both were extremely drunk and arguing with each other. At one point, Frank finally snapped. After pulling over in front of 8129 Phillips Avenue, McErlane whirled around and fired four fatal bullets into Elfrieda. Tired of the yapping dogs, Frank shot and killed them as well.

After this episode, McErlane's remaining underworld associates raised a "retirement fund" of several hundred dollars in order to get rid of the dangerously unstable gunman. Frank thus retired to a lavishly furnished houseboat located on the Illinois River in Beardstown, Illinois. In the fall of 1932, Frank fell ill with pneumonia. In his delirium, he was convinced that rival gangsters were coming to his hospital room to kill him; it took four attendants to hold him down in his rage. Frank McErlane died at the age of 38 on October 8, 1932, a year to the day after he killed Elfrieda Rigus.

When a reporter interviewed one of Frank's former associates after his death, he had this to say about McErlane, "I don't remember that he ever did anything good in his life. I don't believe he had a friend left."

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