VENGEANCE FOR O’BANION
The Near-Miss Assassination Attempt on John Torrio
On this date, January 24, 1925, an attempted Chicago mob assassination changed the face of Chicago forever. On that evening, North Side gangster attempted to kill John Torrio, the undisputed leader of Chicago gangland. Torrio was a mentor and boss of Al Capone and the man directly responsible for dividing Chicago up into territories for individual gangs at the start of Prohibition. He was a man who believed in settling trouble through words and negotiations, rather than by bullets. But he was willing to order violence when it was needed – and it was often needed during the tumultuous years of the early 1920s.
Chicago mob boss John Torrio
Unfortunately for Torrio, he made two big mistakes in 1924. First, he allowed the assassination of Dean O’Banion, the leader of the North Side mob, who had been causing problems for other gangs by hijacking liquor shipments and selling whiskey in other gangs’ territories. The North Siders were an eccentric and reckless bunch and their leader was no exception. O’Banion then made the mistake of setting up Torrio himself on liquor charges, which would eventually lead to the mobster spending time in jail. At that point, Torrio lost all patience with O’Banion and allowed Capone to arrange for his murder.
This led to Torrio’s second mistake – he underestimated the pathological need for revenge that would grip the remaining members of the North Side mob. O’Banion had not just need the boss, he was their friend and loyalty was important above everything else to the North Siders. They would do just about anything to avenge the death of Dean O’Banion and their actions began the famous Chicago “Beer Wars.”
On January 24, Torrio’s mistakes came home to roost when he was attacked by North Siders. The severe wounds that he suffered led to not only his abrupt departure from Chicago after his prison sentence, but led directly to the ascendancy of Al Capone.
The assassination of Dean O’Banion in November 1924 turned out to be John Torrio’s last great achievement in Chicago. He left the city soon after the funeral and embarked, with his wife, Ann, on an extensive tour of vacation spots in the South and the Caribbean. They visited Hot Springs, Arkansas (a favorite gangland recreation spot of the era), New Orleans, Havana, the Bahamas, Palm Beach and St. Petersburg – never realizing that they were staying just one step ahead of gunmen that had been dispatched by O’Banion’s right-hand man Hymie Weiss, who were trying to kill Torrio whenever they got the chance. To Weiss’ regret, they never caught up with him, always arriving a day or two late, or perhaps missing them only by a few hours.
Al Capone was Torrio’s second in command and was gravely concerned about the murder attempts by the North Side mob – both for himself and his friend.
But the North Siders weren’t just after Torrio.On January 12, Capone and two bodyguards were driven by his chauffeur, Sylvester Barton, to a restaurant at State and Fifty-Fifth streets. When they reached the restaurant, Capone got out of the car, leaving the two bodyguards behind. The door had just closed behind him when a long black car cruised slowly by. Inside were North Siders Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci and George Moran, all clutching shotguns and automatics. As they rolled up next to Capone’s car, they opened fire, raking it from front to back with their weapons. A policeman later said, “They let it have everything but the kitchen stove.” The bodyguards managed to come out of the hail of bullets unscathed but Sylvester Barton, the driver, was hit once in the back.
The close call prompted Capone to place a special order with General Motors – a $30,000 custom-built limousine that weighed over seven tons. It had a steel, armor-plated body, a steel-hooded gas tank, bulletproof windows, a gun compartment behind the rear seat and a removable back window that allowed occupants to open fire unimpeded on pursuing vehicles. Capone began using the car regularly, even when traveling short distances. He knew that he was an easy target walking down the sidewalk. When he had to cross a street – or even a hotel lobby – a cluster of bodyguards surrounded him, walking two and three deep on every side. In the nightclubs that he patronized, no strangers were allowed to sit at adjacent tables. At the opera, bodyguards took the seats on every side. In his office, as a precaution against an assassin who might somehow slip past his guards, he used a swivel chair with a high, armor-plated back. He rarely kept an appointment at the agreed upon time and place, always sending a messenger ahead to make a last-minute change. Ironically, despite all these precautions, no life insurance company would sell him a policy, as he found out when he applied for one in 1925.
While Barton the chauffeur was recovering from his wound, Capone used Tommy Cuiringione, alias Rossi, as his driver. He proved to be a chauffeur and bodyguard of exceptional loyalty. Not long after he started driving the boss, some of Weiss’ men kidnapped him and tried to force him to tell them where they might ambush Capone. One morning, a month later, two boys were walking a horse through some woods southwest of Chicago and stopped at a cistern to water the animal. The horse backed away and refused to drink. That afternoon, the boys mentioned the odd incident to a police officer they knew. He instructed the boys to take him to the cistern. He looked inside and hauled out what remained of Tommy Cuiringione. He had been beaten and burned with cigarettes and then shot five times in the head. His killers had tried to hide the body by wiring his wrists and ankles to a concrete block and dropping him in the cistern. Capone never forgot the fact that Tommy didn’t talk.
Hymie Weiss was Dean O’Banion’s second in command and took over running the North Side mob after his friend was killed. He was intent on avenging the death of O’Banion.
Torrio and his wife returned to Chicago in the mid-January. After being free for seven months on bail, Torrio and 11 co-defendants now had to stand trial in the Sieben Brewery case, which O’Banion had set Torrio up in. He was almost happy to be inside a courtroom because he knew that it was a safe place to hide from Weiss’ gunmen. Torrio was shaken by the latest attempt to kill Capone and he was looking for a place to find refuge. Where would be the safest? In federal prison, he realized. On January 23, Torrio appeared before Federal Judge Adam Cliffe and entered a guilty plea in his case. He would be safely behind bars and by the time he got out, Capone would have dealt with Hymie Weiss.
Before passing sentence, Cliffe offered Torrio five days during which time he could settle his affairs. He took his wife shopping on Michigan Avenue on January 24. His car was in the shop for repairs, so he borrowed a Lincoln sedan from Jake Guzik, along with his driver, Robert Barton, Sylvester’s brother. It was almost dusk when the automobile, packed with shopping bags and parcels, turned onto Clyde Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. It stopped in front of 7011, where the Torrios occupied a third-floor apartment. Neither Barton nor the Torrios noticed the black Cadillac with no license plates that was parked at the corner of Clyde and Seventieth streets.
Barton opened the rear door of the sedan and helped the Torrios gather up their bags. Ann Torrio went ahead along the short sidewalk that led to the front door in the center of the apartment building. The Cadillac slowly moved forward. As she pushed the door open, backing inside since her hands were full, the Cadillac stopped across the street, directly alongside the sedan. Ann could see what appeared to be four men inside the car – and all of them were holding guns! She started to scream as Torrio stepped out of the car and onto the sidewalk. It was too late. She could only watch helplessly as two men, later determined to be George Moran and Hymie Weiss, jumped from the car with automatics drawn and ran toward her husband. The first man (Moran) fired two shots and Torrio fell to the ground, his jaw broken by one bullet and the other in his chest. As he twisted on the sidewalk, Weiss shot him in the right arm and the groin. At the same time, the two men who were still in the Cadillac, Vincent Drucci and Frank Gusenberg, opened fire with shotguns at the sedan, shattering windows and tearing open holes in the metal. A bullet hit Barton in the right leg below the knee.
George Moran came very close to killing Torrio. If the clip on his automatic had not been empty, he would have had his revenge against the mob leader.
Moran bent over Torrio and held his automatic to the fallen man’s temple, planning to deliver the final shot, but the clip was empty. Before he could reload, Drucci began honking the horn of the Cadillac, signaling frantically that they needed to leave. Moran and Weiss ran to the car and they sped away.
Somehow, Torrio managed to crawl toward the apartment building and his wife, who was still screaming, dragged him inside. A neighbor, Mrs. James Putnam, witnessed the shooting and called the nearby Woodlawn police station. An ambulance arrived and Torrio was raced to Jackson Park Hospital.
Barton, ignoring his leg wound, got into the sedan and sped off toward Seventy-First Street. He passed a car driven by retired detective sergeant, Thomas Conley, who, spotting the sedan filled with bullet holes, gave chase. He confronted Barton in a drugstore as he was limping out of a telephone booth. The bleeding man refused to tell Conley what was going on. He pushed past him, got back into the car and drove off again. After traveling halfway across the city, he was finally forced to pull over by a patrol car, taken to a local station house, and then the hospital. The person that Barton had telephoned, the police believed, was Al Capone.
Torrio’s automobile after the attack.. it was filled with bullet holes.
Newspaper reporters managed to get to Torrio at the hospital and began badgering the badly wounded, but still conscious, mobster with questions. He spoke with difficulty because of his shattered jaw but managed to say, “Sure, I know all four men, but I’ll never tell their names.” And he never did.
The police found a neighbor who was willing to talk, though. The 17-year-old son of the apartment building’s janitor, Peter Veesaert, had been standing in the doorway of the building at the time of the attack. He was shown some photographs that were taken by the police during Dion O’Banion’s funeral and he pointed out George Moran as the first man who shot Torrio. Bravely, he insisted that his identification was correct when he was brought face-to-face with Moran after he was arrested. “You’re the man,” Peter said. The police wanted to hold Moran until they could establish some evidence in support of the boy’s identification but Judge William Lindsay released him under $5,000 bail. He was never indicted for the crime.
Capone made it to Jackson Park Hospital soon after the ambulance arrived. He was in tears when he learned that his friend’s condition was critical. He not only refused to leave Torrio’s bedside but he insisted that Torrio be given an inner room on the top floor. Two policemen stood on guard outside of Torrio’s door but Capone also placed four of his own bodyguards in the corridor. It turned out that these precautions were necessary. During the night, hospital staff reported three carloads of armed men circling the building. The police were notified and eventually the cars drove off.
Despite the seriousness of his wounds, Torrio recovered quickly. In less than three weeks, he was discharged from the hospital. He left by way of a hidden fire escape, surrounded by bodyguards. That same day, February 9, with his jaw and face bandaged and hidden behind a scarf, he appeared again before Judge Cliffe. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and sentenced to spend nine months at the Lake County Jail in Waukegan, Illinois.
Torrio showed up for court with a scarf around his neck to hide the still-healing bullet wounds from the assassination attempt.
Aware of the danger that Torrio was in, the warden of the jail fitted the windows of Torrio’s cell with bulletproof, mesh-steel blinds and assigned two deputy wardens to patrol the corridor outside. Other additions to the cell had nothing to do with Torrio’s safety. The little chamber was cozily outfitted with throw rugs, an easy chair, framed pictures and a down mattress for the bunk. This was not unheard-of treatment for rich, well-connected prisoners – especially in Chicago.
The warden also allowed Torrio to hold business conferences at the jail and in March, a month after his incarceration; he met with Capone and his attorneys. The treaties between the gangs that Torrio had created and worked so hard to enforce were now wrecked beyond recovery. There was no hope of peace in the Chicago underworld and Torrio had no stomach for war. So, he announced to Capone and his lawyers that he planned to retire from Chicago and divest himself of all of his interests in the city. With no demands, payments or conditions, he turned everything over to Capone: the brothels, the breweries, the speakeasies and the gambling houses, which together produced annual revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.
Capone was literally the crowned the king of the Chicago underworld and he became the most powerful man in the city – at only 25 years old. But his new empire did not come cheap. With the syndicate crumbling, it was all in danger of coming apart. To secure it again, and continue producing wealth, Capone had to win back, overthrow or destroy every major gang in Chicago.
Read the full story of Capone’s rise to power, the gangster wars of Chicago and even the ghostly tale that haunted Capone to the grave in my book, BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES. Available as an autographed print edition or as a Kindle edition from Amazon.com