Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The Massacre on Clark Street

The rise of organized crime in Chicago began with the advent of Prohibition. The law that banned the sale and production of liquor went into effect in 1920 and vast fortunes began to be made by lawless elements in the city. The decline of these criminal empires began almost a decade later in February 1929. It was on St. Valentine’s Day of that year that the general public no longer saw the mob as “public benefactors,” offering alcohol to a thirsty city, but as the collection of cold-blooded killers and thugs that it truly was. The massacre changed the face of Chicago crime forever and led to the end of Al Capone’s role as mob boss of the city.

Chicago in the 1920s

Capone, who had started out as a gun for hire for an old benefactor named John Torrio, quickly rose through the ranks of the underworld to become Torrio’s second in command. After his boss had a brush with death when friends of murdered mobster Dean O’Banion tried to kill him, Capone took over the operations of the South Side Outfit, eventually creating a multi-million-dollar crime empire at the age of only twenty-six. By 1929, Capone had wiped out most of his rivals, with the exception of the remnants of O’Banion’s old gang, now run by George “Bugs” Moran. Moran spent a good part of his time purposely antagonizing Capone and made several attempts to kill him in revenge for the murder of Dean O’Banion in 1924.

In December 1928, Capone left Chicago for Miami Beach, where he kept a second home. In early February, one of his closest confidantes from Chicago, Jack McGurn, arrived for a short visit. After his departure, Capone spoke (as telephone records would later show) at length every day with Jake Guzik, the Outfit’s collector and another confidante of Capone, who lived at Chicago’s Congress Hotel. The telephone conversations between the two men stopped on February 11. Then, a single call was placed to Capone’s Palm Island winter home three days later.

That call came on February 14 – St. Valentine’s Day.

A light snow was falling on North Clark Street on the morning of February 14, 1929. Traffic was moving slowly as a black Cadillac touring car edged onto the street from Webster Avenue. There was a police alarm on the running board and fastened to the back of the driver’s seat was a gun rack like the one used in squad cars. The driver of the Cadillac had on horn-rimmed glasses and was a wearing a policeman’s uniform, which included a cap with a brass star. A man sitting next to him in the passenger’s seat also had on a police uniform. The three men in the back seat were wearing civilian clothes.

As the Cadillac turned the corner onto Clark Street, a truck sideswiped it, forcing it to stop. The truck driver, Elmer Lewis, horrified at having hit what he assumed was a police car, scrambled out of his cab and, filled with remorse and nervous fear, hurried toward the Cadillac. The blue-uniformed man behind the wheel smiled at him, a gap showing where one of his upper front teeth was missing, and waved, reassuring him that no real damage had been done and that he could return to his truck as if nothing had happened. Baffled but relieved, Lewis watched the car drive on for about half a block, then stop in front of a combination garage and warehouse belonging to a shipping and packing company at 2122 North Clark Street. Four men got out of the car and went inside.

The S-M-C Cartage Co. as it looked at the time of the massacre in 1929

 Meanwhile, North Side gang leader George “Bugs” Moran was also on his way to the same garage. The night before, a hijacker had called Moran and offered him a truckload of whiskey from Detroit that could be his for $57 per case. Moran had told him to deliver the shipment around 10:30 a.m. to the North Clark Street garage, which was used as a distribution point for the gang. He told the hijacker that he would have men on hand to help unload the truck. Moran had been suffering from a head cold and got a late start for the rendezvous. With a gambler friend, Ted Newberry, he left his Parkway Hotel apartment, not far from the garage, a little after 10:30 a.m. The temperature was a biting 15 degrees and a bone-chilling wind was blowing from the west. Hunched against the cold, Moran and Newberry took a shortcut through an alley behind the garage. Willie Marks, one of the gang’s specialists in business racketeering, was also running late. He arrived by trolley car at almost the same time.

The garage was a one-story building, constructed from red brick. It was 60 feet wide and 120 feet long, sandwiched between two four-story buildings. Both the plate-glass window in front and the glass-paneled door to the right of it had been painted black to hide the garage’s interior. A white placard with black lettering was placed in the lower part of the window. It read: S-M-C CARTAGE CO. / Shipping -- Packing      Phone / Diversey 1471 / Long Distance Hauling.

Behind the window, running the width of the building, was a narrow office that was separated from the warehouse by a wooden partition. The warehouse had a concrete floor and brick walls. The original whitewash that had covered the brick walls had turned grimy and yellow with age. Tall, wide doors at the rear opened on the loading area in the alley behind the building.

On the morning of February 14, three empty trucks were parked in the garage. A fourth was jacked up in the center of the floor and lying under it, wearing oil-spattered coveralls and repairing a wheel, was Johnny May, a 35-year-old failed safecracker that Moran hired as a mechanic for $50 a week. May lived in an apartment at 1249 West Madison Street with his wife, Hattie, their six children, and a German shepherd named Highball. The dog was tied by his leash to the axle of the truck that May was fixing. May had brought some scraps of meat for him in a paper bag.

Six other men were in the warehouse that morning, gathered around a coffee pot that percolated on a hot plate. They wore their hats and overcoats, shivering in the unheated building.

(Left to Right) Frank Gusenberg; Pete Gusenberg; Al Weinshank, who it is believed was mistaken for George Moran by lookouts across the street on the morning of the massacre. 

(Left to Right) Mechanic John May, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time that morning. He had been previously keeping a promise to his wife to give up a life of crime; Adam Heyer; James Clark

The men included the Gusenberg brothers, Frank and Pete, who had a long day ahead of them. As soon as the hijacked liquor was delivered, they were supposed to drive two empty trucks to Detroit to pick up some smuggled Canadian whiskey. Pete “Goosey” Gusenberg was a 40-year-old career criminal who first started showing up in police files in 1902. He spent several years in the Joliet Correctional Center, earning his parole in 1911, only to end up in Leavenworth in 1923, sentenced along with “Big Tim” Murphy and others after the Dearborn Station mail robbery. After his release, he became a gunman for Moran. Pete was married to Myrtle Gorman. As far as she knew, her husband was a salesman.

Frank Gusenberg was four years younger than his brother. Despite having a police record that dated back to 1909, his only prison sentence was for ninety days in Bridewell for disorderly conduct. Frank was a bigamist, married to two women -- Lucille and Ruth -- at the same time. His double life was unbeknownst to them, as well as the fact that his alleged career as a salesman was a front for robbery and burglary.

Adam Heyer was also present that morning. A business college graduate and certified accountant before doing prison time for embezzlement, he handled all of the gang’s finances and also managed the Fairview Kennel Club, the North Side gang’s dog-racing enterprise. Little else is known about Heyer. Even his wife of seven months, Mame, did not know his birth date, although he was believed to be around 40 years old.

Al “Gorilla” Weinshank (or Weinshenker), the newest member of the gang, had helped Moran muscle into the cleaning and dyeing rackets and was the owner of a club called the Alcazar. Heavyset and round-faced, he bore a resemblance to Moran, which was enhanced on February 14 by the fact that both men happened to be wearing tan fedoras and gray overcoats. It is believed that he may have been mistaken for Moran by a lookout that morning.

The sixth man was Albert Kachellek, who was better known as James Clark, an alias that he had adopted to spare his mother grief over his frequent brushes with the law. Clark was 42 years old and had first been arrested in 1905 for robbery. He spent the next nine years in and out of the Pontiac Reformatory and Joliet Penitentiary. With a string of murders under his belt, he was known as Moran’s chief gunmen, often wreaking havoc alongside the Gusenbergs. Oddly, newspaper reports after the massacre identified Clark as George Moran’s brother-in-law. This mistake was hotly denied by his sister, Mrs. Marie Neubauer, at the coroner’s inquest but writers copying previous writers have kept the error alive over the years.

The unlucky seventh man in the garage that morning was Reinhardt Schwimmer. I have never seen a formal photo of him. This was clipped from a newspaper photograph of the crime scene. 

The seventh man in the garage that day was the anomaly of the group. His name was Reinhart Schwimmer and he was an optometrist (although today he would be considered an optician since he had no formal training in conducting eye examinations or treating eye ailments). Schwimmer was 29 and spent most of his time with gangsters. He had started associating with members of the North Side gang after his divorce in 1923. He spent much of his time in the company of O’Banion, Weiss and Drucci, to the detriment of his legitimate business. Even after marrying a rich widow, he couldn’t stay away from his underworld pals. He liked to pretend that he was in the bootlegging business and often told friends that he could have people killed if he wanted to. After his second wife divorced him in 1928, he moved into the Parkway Hotel and befriended George Moran. Schwimmer was considered part of the gang, although he never got involved in crime – he simply liked the rush of being in the company of gangsters. On the morning of February 14, he had dropped into the garage, as he frequently did on the way to work, to see what the gang was up to. He had stayed behind to chat – a decision that he wouldn’t live long enough to regret.

Elmer Lewis, the truck driver, was not the only person to see the Cadillac stop at the SMC Cartage Company and the four men go inside, the pair in uniform leading the way. On the second floor of the rooming house next door, the landlady, Jeanette Landesman, was ironing a shirt when she heard the car and the truck collide at the corner. She went to the window to take a look and then saw the Cadillac stop in front of the warehouse. Mrs. Landesman also saw four men go into the building.

When Moran and Newberry saw the Cadillac parked out front, they assumed that a police raid or a shakedown was taking place and hurried down the street to a coffee shop. They decided to wait things out and drink coffee until the cops left. Willie Marks, approaching from the south, reached the same conclusion. He ducked into a doorway and avoided the garage altogether.

On the second floor of the rooming house, Mrs. Landesman heard a peculiar banging sound outside, almost like someone furiously beating a drum. The sound lasted for more than a minute and then it was followed by two thunderous blasts, like two cars backfiring. The silence that followed was broken by the plaintive sound of a howling dog. Disturbed, Mrs. Landesman went back to the window and looked out at the snowy, windy street. Her friend across the way, Josephine Morin, looked out of her third-floor window at the same time and they both saw the same four men reappear. The first two, in civilian clothes, had their hands raised. The two men behind them, wearing police uniforms, held guns to their backs and prodded them toward the car. It was a police raid and two men had been arrested, the two women assumed; the fifth man driving the car must have been a plainclothes detective. They climbed into the Cadillac and drove away, continuing south on Clark Street and turning right onto Ogden Avenue.

Next door in the garage, the dog continued to howl mournfully and Mrs. Landesman’s uneasiness grew. Finally, she asked one of her tenants, a man named C.L. McAllister, to see what was going on next door and find out why the dog was howling. He went next door to the warehouse but he didn’t stay inside for long. His face was a ghostly pale when he hurried back up the steps into the rooming house. “The place is full of dead men,” he cried.

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.

Crime scene photograph of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Here’s what most think happened that day:

The massacre was set in motion by a telephone call from a rooming house across the street from the garage, signaling the killers that everything was in place for an assault on the North Side gang. It is believed that Weinshank was mistaken for George Moran, who had not actually arrived.

At 10:30 a.m., a Cadillac touring car, painted and outfitted to look like a police car, pulled up in front of the warehouse and four men got out, two of them dressed in police uniforms and two in plain clothes. A fifth man, also in plain clothes, stayed behind the wheel of the car.

The Moran gang members inside were likely puzzled when the two uniformed officers walked into the garage. Protection money was undoubtedly being paid to avoid problems from the police but the gangsters probably assumed that it was a raid being carried out to appease the reformers. It was likely that they would be out of jail almost as quickly as they were taken in. The uniformed men took weapons from five of the men in the garage. Reinhart Schwimmer was unarmed and so was Johnny May, who was pulled from under the truck protesting that he was only a mechanic and not part of the gang. He was a failed criminal and had promised his wife that he would stay on the straight and narrow. As he had promised her, he carried a St. Christopher medal in his back pocket. The experience was probably only mildly annoying at that point.  Schwimmer would most likely have been thrilled to be arrested. Now he would be able to prove to his friends that he really did have gangster connections.

After removing the weapons from the North Side men, the police signaled the two men in plain clothes who were waiting on the other side of the front office partition. The two men walked into the warehouse, Thompson machine guns in their hands. The North Side men were then herded up against the wall and shot to death. Only one of them survived – Frank Gusenberg. With fourteen slugs in his body, he managed to crawl about twenty feet from the rear wall. The others were dead where they had fallen at the foot of the wall, Clark on his face, Weinshank, Heyer, May and Schwimmer on their backs. Pete Gusenberg had died kneeling; his upper body slumped against a chair. Schwimmer was still wearing his hat and Weinshank’s tan fedora rested on his chest. Where the seven men had been standing against the wall, the bricks were now splashed with blood. Darker crimson stains ran across the oily floor. Highball, howling and snapping, pulled at his leash, trying in vain to get to the executioners.

The murders had been carried out with precision. The Tommy guns were swung back and forth three times, first at the level of the victim’s heads, then their chests, and finally at their stomachs. The victims were literally blown to pieces. Some of the corpses on the floor were only held together by bits of gristle, flesh and bone. In spite of this, signs of life must have still flickered in Johnny May and James Clark after the machine gun fire, for they had also been blasted with shotguns at such close range that their faces had almost been obliterated.
Then, spreading leaving pools of blood, seventy shell casings and the mutilated bodies of seven men behind, the plainclothes killers walked out with the phony cops, pretending that they are being arrested. The driver was still waiting for them behind the wheel of the car outside.

The police take away the victims of the massacre through the loading doors in the back of the building. (Below) A crowd gathered in from the shipping company in hopes of getting a glimpse through the painted windows at what was going on inside. Ironically, this photo was taken from almost the exact same vantage point that the lookout had in the days before the massacre. 

After the discovery of the massacre, the police were summoned and the investigation began. It wasn’t long before crowds began to gather in front and in back of 2122 North Clark Street, all hoping to get a look at the dead bodies inside. 
When the police arrived, Sergeant Tom Loftus was the first on the scene. Oddly, a detective named Clarence J. Sweeney would later place himself at the scene and would also claim that he was at the side of Frank Gusenberg when he died from his wounds in the hospital three hours later. Sweeny kept the myth going over the years, involving himself more and more in the story, but Loftus was actually the first policeman to arrive and he questioned Gusenberg before the ambulance got there. Frank had managed to crawl almost twenty feet, leaving a bloody trail behind him, before collapsing on the floor. 

Loftus asked him: “Do you know me, Frank?”
Gusenberg: “Yes, you are Tom Loftus.”
Loftus: “Who did it or what happened?”
Gusenberg: “I won’t talk.”
Loftus: “You’re in bad shape.”
Gusenberg: “Pete is here, too.”
Loftus then asked him if they had been lined up against the wall and Gusenberg again told him that he wasn’t going to talk. Gusenberg’s legendary statements of “Nobody shot me” and “I ain’t no copper” turned out to be fabrications of Detective Sweeney and the newspapers. Sweeney claimed to be at Frank's bedside, yet Loftus detailed Officer James Mikes to be near Gusenberg at all times with no mention of Sweeney ever being there.

Loftus visited Gusenberg at Alexian Brothers Hospital and tried to question him again. Once more, Frank refused to talk. Before he died, though, Loftus asked him if the killers wore police uniforms and this time Frank whispered “Yes” before he finally succumbed to his wounds.

"Only Capone kills guys like that," George Moran told the newspapers.

One newspaper quote that was printed correctly came from George Moran. When he learned of the massacre that he had escaped by only a few minutes, he told reporters: “Only Capone kills like that.”

News of the massacre quickly spread throughout the city and across the country – even to as far away as Miami, where Al Capone was conveniently hosting guests who were in town for the impending world championship fight between Jack Sharkey and “Young” Stribling. Capone had invited more than one hundred guests to his place on Palm Island, including sportswriters, gamblers, show business people, racketeers, and politicians. Capone was a boxing enthusiast and bet on Sharkey to win the title. He frequently visited his training camp and was photographed by news cameramen standing proudly between Sharkey and Bill Cunningham, a sportscaster and former All-American center.

Al Capone was conveniently in Florida at the time of the massacre. 

On the night of February 14, Capone hosted an elaborate party at his estate. They feasted on a lavish buffet and drank champagne that was served by a half dozen of Capone’s bodyguards. Mae Capone stayed quietly in the background, seeing to everything that anyone needed. When it came to be Sonny’s bedtime, his father took him by the hand and led him from group to group to say goodnight. The small boy with the hearing aid, a shy, withdrawn little figure with huge eyes and a bashful smile, was a sharp contrast to his bombastic father.

Jack Kofoed, sports editor for the New York Post, brought his wife, Marie, to the party. As the humid night wore on, she decided to cool off in the swimming pool. She retired to the Venetian bathhouse carrying her bathing suit and she saw, in the corner of the ladies’ dressing room, what appeared to be a crate covered with a canvas drop cloth. She sat down on it to remove her shoes and quickly jumped up with a cry of pain. Something had poked her in the leg. She lifted the cloth and saw that the open crate was filled with shotguns, revolvers and Tommy guns.

The guests at the party that night whispered among themselves about the Chicago massacre that was being reported in the evening papers and on radio broadcasts. Tact prevented them from speaking about it too loudly. Capone never mentioned it at all.

The next morning, when additional details had been published, among them Moran’s comment about the massacre, Jack Kofoed called on his party host. “Al, I feel silly asking you this,” he said, “but my boss wants me to. Al, did you have anything to do with it?”

“Jack,” Capone said, bending a serious gaze on his friend, “the only man who kills like that is Bugs Moran.”

To Be Continued….

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