Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Valentine for Bugs -- Aftermath of the Massacre

The Aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

On this date in 1929, the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place at the S-M-C Cartage Company building at 2122 North Clark Street in Chicago. In a few moments of savage gunfire, Al Capone effectively wiped out the resistance from the remnants of the North Side mob, founded by Dean O’Banion and by 1929, in the hands of George “Bugs” Moran. On that cold winter morning, Capone missed Moran but managed to kill six other members of the North Side gang, as well as an optometrist who was a friend of the gangsters.

The SMC Cartage Company at the time of the Massacre in February 1929. 
For today’s, history post, though, we’re going to take a look at what happened at 2122 North Clark Street AFTER the massacre took place on February 14.      

We will never know for certain what took place inside of the SMC Cartage Co. on the cold morning of February 14, 1929. Only one man survived the initial slaughter and he never talked. However, historians and crime enthusiasts have spent many years trying to put together the pieces of one of the greatest (technically) unsolved crimes in history. It ended with seven men dead, a flurry of accusations and a blight on the property that never lifted.

The bloody aftermath of the massacre
(Below) A crowd gathered outside to witness the carnage inside the garage.

Chicago, in its own way, memorialized the warehouse on Clark Street where the massacre took place. It became a tourist attraction and the newspapers even printed the photos of the corpses upside-down so that readers would not have to turn their papers around to identify the bodies.

Right after the massacre, the SMC Cartage Company was temporarily boarded up. The building had been leased by Moran gang associate Adam Heyer but was owned by Frank C. Brusky, who moved his own trucking firm (Brusky Overland Movers) into the space in 1930. When he did, he renovated the building, installed two more windows and added space for storage on the second floor.

The building as it looked in 1930, when it was boarded up. 
During the renovations, Brusky discovered a trap door in the corrugated ceiling of the garage, directly above the spot where the Moran gangsters were killed. The door led to a concrete chamber nestled against the second floor wall that was undetectable from below. The chamber contained funnels, a stool, an alcohol hydrometer, a crate that could contain a five-gallon bottle of liquor and a block and tackle system that could lower the crate to the floor of the garage. Brusky called the police, who searched the premises again. They first believed the secret room to be torture chamber but Police Captain Thomas Condon concluded that it was merely an alcohol cache.

By 1935, the building was occupied by Red Ball Movers, Inc., a moving company that also did telephone directory pick-ups and exchanges each year. In 1936, it was purchased by Anaconda Van Lines, which was owned by Samuel J. McArthur.

The building in the 1950s, when it was the Werner’s storage company.
(Below) The Infamous wall where the massacre took pace during the time when the building was owned by the Werners. They were frequently harassed by people wanting to take a look at the wall.
In 1949, the building was taken over by Charles and Alma Werner, who turned it into a moving, packing, shipping and storage office for antique furniture. At the time, they had no idea of the buildings’ bloody past. They soon found that tourists, curiosity-seekers and crime buffs visited the place much more often than customers, all of them asking to see the infamous wall in back. Depending on her mood, Mrs. Werner either turned them away or allowed them to take a look. She once stated that she wished she and her husband had never bought the building. The Werners were later bought out by the city of Chicago, who wanted the place torn down and replaced with apartments for the elderly.

In 1967, the building was demolished. However, the bricks from the bullet-pocked rear wall were preserved and purchased by a Canadian businessman named George Patey. The bricks were packed and shipped across the border and then put together as the main attraction for a traveling crime show that was displayed at shopping centers, museums and galleries. The show was only a moderate success so, in 1971, Patey opened a Roaring Twenties themed nightclub called the Banjo Palace and rebuilt the wall, for some strange reason, in the men’s restroom. Three nights a week, women were allowed to peek inside at this macabre attraction. To make matters even more bizarre, a sheet of clear acrylic was placed in front of the wall so that patrons could urinate and try and hit targets that were painted on the glass. The club closed down in 1976 and the 417 bricks that made up the back wall were placed in storage until 1997.

Businessman George Patey with the infamous bricks
Patey tried offering the wall for sale, along with a written account of the massacre but had trouble selling the entire wall in one piece. Patey, along with a friend named Guy Whitford (who contacted me about the wall in 2002) tried to sell the single piece for some time, without success. The original lot came with a diagram that explained how to restore the wall to its original form. The bricks were even numbered to facilitate reassembly. They remained on the market for several years, but there were no buyers. Eventually, Patey broke up the set and began selling them one brick at a time for $1,000 each. Patey died in December 2004, by which time he had sold most of the bricks. A large number of them are now on display at the crime museum that opened in Las Vegas last year.

But there are legends that say that Patey had some trouble selling some of the bricks. The stories say that some buyers returned their bricks soon after purchasing them. It seemed that anyone who bought one was suddenly stricken with bad luck in the form of illness, financial ruin, divorce and even death. According to the stories, the bricks had somehow been infested with the powerful negative energy of the massacre. This story has been dismissed as a “journalistic embellishment,” but there are many who maintain that it’s the truth. These same people insist that Patey’s 417 bricks were not the only surviving bricks from the warehouse.

In recent years, other bricks have emerged that are said to have come from the wall, or at least from the building itself. These were not bricks purchased from Patey; rather they were smuggled out of the lot by construction workers and curiosity-seekers. It was said that from these bricks, too, come the legends of misfortune and bad luck. Are these bricks authentic? The owners say they are, but the reader will have to judge for himself.

Whatever the legend of the bricks, and whether or not they were somehow "haunted" by the horrific murders, there is little doubt that the massacre site on Clark Street was haunted – at least for awhile.

For many years, people walking along the street, or who lived nearby, reported hearing the sounds of screams, moans, muffled voices and even the unmistakable thump-thump-thump of Tommy gun fire. The garage is long gone now, demolished in a misguided attempt by city officials to erase all vestiges of Chicago's gangster past. 

A portion of the block was taken over by the Chicago Housing Authority and a fenced-in lawn that belongs to a senior citizens’ development now marks the area where the garage once stood. Five trees are scattered about the site and the one in the center actually marks the point where the rear wall once stood, where Moran's men were lined up and mercilessly gunned down. The apartment building where Jeanette Landesman lived and where she heard the sound of the terrified German shepherd barking in the garage still stands but all remnants of the SMC Cartage Company have vanished. Or have they?

This empty lot on Clark Street marks the site of the SMC Cartage Company. Small remnants of the building remain, like the tar line of the roof on the wall of the building next door, and bricks in the back alley that came from the garage. 
According to reports, residents of the senior housing complex built on one end of the lot have had strange encounters in the building, especially those who live on the side that faces the former massacre site. A television reporter from Canada interviewed a woman who once lived in an apartment that overlooked the small park area. She often complained that, at night, she would hear strange voices, sounds and knocking on her door and her window. She complained to the management, who dismissed her claims as imagination but assigned her another apartment. A new tenant moved into the rooms and she also complained of odd happenings, including knocking sounds on her door at night. When she opened the door to see who was there, she never found anyone nearby. One night, the tenant stated that she saw a dark figure wearing an old fashioned-looking hat. He remained in place for a few moments and then faded away. Most of the strange phenomena experienced by the new tenant also faded away and soon eerie events either stopped completely or she became so used to them that they no longer bothered her anymore.
Outside, along Clark Street, passersby occasionally reported strange sounds, like weeping and moaning, and the indescribable feeling of fear as they walked past the former site of the garage. Skeptics tried to laugh this off, saying that the sounds were nothing more than the overactive imaginations of those who knew what once occurred on the site, but based on the reports of those who had no idea of the history of the place, something strange was apparently occurring.

Those who were accompanied by their dogs also reported their share of weirdness. The animals seemed to be especially bothered by the section of lawn where the garage’s rear wall once stood, sometimes barking and howling, sometimes whining in fear. Their sense of the tragedy that happened there many years ago seemed to be much greater than that of humans.

However, many believe that what dogs sensed at the site was not the human trauma experienced in the massacre, but rather the trauma that must have been experienced by Johnny May's German Shepherd, Highball. The poor animal must have been terrified by what occurred that morning, from the deafening sounds of the Tommy guns to the bloody slaying of his beloved owner. Tied to the front bumper of the truck, Highball had nowhere to run. It should be noted again that it was not the sound of machine-gun fire that alerted Mrs. Landesman to the horror inside the garage: it was the howling and barking of the dog.

Johnny May’s traumatized German Shepherd, Highball
Tragically, Highball was so traumatized by the events of that morning that he had to be put down after the massacre. Chicago Sun reporter Russell V. Hamm, one of the first newsmen on the scene, said that the dog was never the same again. His bizarre behavior left the police no choice but to put him to death. 

Could the animals that subsequently passed by this empty lot have sensed the trauma suffered by Highball so many years ago? As any ghost buff can tell you, it's the events of yesterday that create the hauntings of today and sometimes, those who lived in the past can leave a little piece of themselves behind to be experienced over and over again.

While the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre seems to be quiet today, the violent events of the city’s gangster era still reverberate over time. Men like Al Capone, whether city officials want to admit it or not, left an indelible mark on Chicago. It seems that the events of St. Valentine's Day 1929 left one, too.

The ghosts of the massacre may not be still around today – but one of them made his presence known for many years after his death. He had a reason for staying behind and, according to his victim, haunted him to the grave.

Want More? Then pick up my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, which not only tells about the rise of Capone’s power in the Chicago underworld, but details the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, who died, who was involved and who was the ghost that haunted Capone for the rest of his life. You get an autographed copy of the book at from the website, or it’s also available in a Kindle edition. 

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