Saturday, March 22, 2014



On March 22, 1820, the still young United States lost one of its greatest heroes – naval commander and legend of the Barbary Wars, Stephen Decatur. His life was not lost in battle, though, he was shot to death in a duel just outside of Washington, D.C. – the bullet fired by a bitter fellow naval officer named James Barron.

This was not the first time – or the last – that lives were cut short on Washington’s dueling grounds, or even in the halls of Congress.

Hamilton and Burr
The idea of a politician having a murderous streak must have begun with Alexander Hamilton. Even before his fateful duel with Aaron Burr, this member of the contingent of Founding Fathers had a penchant for bickering with just about everyone. He despised John Adams and actively disliked Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but his hatred for Aaron Burr bordered on pathological. Although Hamilton and Burr maintained a superficial relationship, Hamilton seemed bent on destroying his “friend” politically from the time Burr was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1791, if not before that.

No one knows what originally caused the rift between Hamilton and Burr, although Hamilton always maintained that it was purely political. Others have suggested that a romantic rivalry may have existed between them, with both men competing for the same woman. It should be noted that Hamilton and Burr were both unapologetic adulterers. Hamilton even had an affair with his own sister-in-law and was forced to make a public account of another affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.

Whatever the cause of Hamilton’s hatred, he criticized Burr relentlessly. He was particularly cruel during the election of 1800, when Burr was running for president. (He lost by a handful of votes to Thomas Jefferson in one of the most contested presidential elections in history and, coming in second, became vice president).

For years, Burr ignored Hamilton’s writings and caustic jibes but that changed in 1804, when Burr was running for governor of New York. He suffered an embarrassing loss, mostly due to Hamilton’s efforts against him. During the campaign, a letter appeared in a newspaper that was unfriendly to Burr. Although it was not written by Hamilton, the letter noted, among other things, that Burr was “a dangerous man… who ought not to be trusted.” When the letter writer, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, was challenged on this statement, he defended his position and stated: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

No one has ever learned what this “still more despicable opinion” that Hamilton may have expressed but some have ventured that he accused Burr of incest with his daughter. Whatever it might have been, Burr decided that it needed clarification and he demanded that Hamilton provide it. Hamilton was evasive in his replies and refused to state what he allegedly told Dr. Cooper. More letters were exchanged between the two men, growing more heated with each passing day. Finally, their animosity led to what has become one of the most famous duels in American history.

On the hot morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s most eminent statesmen, faced one another with pistols on a stretch of land overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man was seeking to kill or maim the other in what was referred to as “the court of last resort.”

Hamilton had spent the previous evening preparing for his possible death at the hands of a superior marksman. He settled his affairs and penned letters that stated that he had no personal animosity toward Burr, only political. He concluded his letter: “I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing.” This sentiment did not stop him from going to the field of honor, with gun in hand, the following day.

Perfect decorum was displayed at Weehawken. When Burr and his second saw Hamilton approaching the field with his own second, they stood straight, removed their hats and saluted in a gentlemanly manner. The seconds made the arrangements, measuring the distance between the combatants and carefully loaded the pistols. Then, Burr and Hamilton took their assigned places. At the moment of truth, Burr pulled the trigger. Hamilton lurched upward, spun to the left, and fell on his face. When he hit the earth, his finger convulsively jerked the trigger and his pistol discharged into the air. The bullet clipped off a tree branch high over Burr’s head.

While Hamilton bled into the earth (he died the following day), Burr was taken away from the site. He had survived the encounter and received the satisfaction that he sought. He paid the price for that satisfaction, however. He soon faced murder indictments in New York and New Jersey and faced the scorn of the nation, horrified by Hamilton’s demise. Burr’s political career was ruined, giving Hamilton in death what he had tried so hard to accomplish during his life.

The Code Duello
It comes as a surprise to many modern readers that eminent politicians like Burr and Hamilton would engage in such a bloody business, but their duel was hardly an isolated event. Deadly duels were frequently fought throughout the country – from before America’s independence to well after the Civil War – by some of our most esteemed citizens. Future presidents, members of Congress, judges, governors and generals often found themselves on the field of honor, settling real and imagined attacks on their dignity. Both Burr and Hamilton had been involved in other duels, as had many politicians close to them. On one occasion, Hamilton had nearly dueled with future president James Monroe but (ironically), Aaron Burr stepped in and helped to settle the situation.

Dueling began in medieval Europe and became popular over the centuries, especially in Ireland, where it became a sport as well as a means of settling disputes. The Code Duello, developed there in 1777, became a set of rules that covered nearly every American duel and contained a list of provisions for all aspects of civilized combat. It outlined the exact number of steps to be measured between combatants, rules about cowardice, proper behavior and more.

Across the country, Americans enthusiastically killed one another with style and nowhere was this more true than at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. This place, located just over the Maryland border from Washington, became known as “The Dark and Bloody Grounds.” There were more than 50 duels fought here during the first half of the nineteenth century but perhaps the most famous involved naval hero Stephen Decatur. The conqueror of the Barbary pirates was at the height of his national popularity when he was shot to death by a bitter fellow officer, James Barron, in 1820.

Stephen Decatur

Barron’s hatred of Decatur stretched back more than 13 years. Barron had been in command of the frigate Chesapeake when it encountered the British ship Leopold off the coast of Virginia. Britain was then in the habit of boarding American ships and kidnapping sailors, claiming that they were British citizens. Barron’s ship was so unprepared for defense that he decided to pull down his colors, submit his vessel to be searched and allow several of his men to be taken. All of this occurred without the firing of a single cannon! The encounter outraged America and became one of the events that led to the start of the War of 1812.

Barron was court-martialed and suspended from service after a humiliating process that was presided over by Stephen Decatur. Over the course of the next several years, many lengthy and venomous letters were exchanged between the two men. After much arguing, Barron issued a challenge to Decatur that the two men meet on the field of honor. It seemed a one-sided battle. Decatur was known as an expert marksman and Barron was extremely near-sighted, a troublesome handicap when dueling. Pistols at eight paces were agreed upon with the additional provision, in deference to Barron’s eyesight, that each man would take deliberate aim at the other before the count.

Barron, Decatur and their seconds met at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground on the morning of March 22, 1820. After they had taken up their positions, Barron spoke to Decatur: “Sir, I hope on meeting in the next world, we shall be better friends than in this.” Decatur, who had told friends that he only intended to wound Barron, replied: “I have never been your enemy, sir.”

After the call, shots rang out in single thunderous noise and both men fell, crumpling to the ground at almost the same time. Each of them believed that he was dying and lying in pools of blood, only a few feet away from one another, they both spoke to each other. Stephen Decatur said: “I am mortally wounded; at least I believe so. I wish that I had fallen in the service of my country.” Making his peace, Barron begged for forgiveness. Decatur forgave him but “not those who have stimulated you to seek my life.”

The two men were carried from the field. Decatur was returned to his Washington home and he died from his injury later on that night. Barron, however, survived the duel but he had little reason to celebrate. Like Aaron Burr, he lived to face the anger of a country that was grieving over its fallen hero.

The earth of the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds tasted more than its share of blood. A year before the duel between Barron and Decatur, another fatal battle took place between General Armistead T. Mason, a former senator from Virginia, and his cousin, Colonel John M. M’Carty. Mason had questioned M’Carty’s right to vote at the polls in Leesburg, Virginia, an insult that so enraged the other man that he immediately challenged Mason to a duel. However, his challenge set the terms and conditions for the fight, which went against the Code Duello. The code specifically stated that only the challenged party had the right to place conditions on the fight. On that note, Mason declined but informed his cousin that he would gladly accept if a proper dueling offer was extended.

M’Carty ignored him and painted Mason as a coward. Mason now challenged M’Carty but he was dismissed due to his earlier refusal to fight. Although seething with anger, Mason took the advice of friends and let the matter drop --- until a future U.S. president convinced him to take the matter up again.

Andrew Jackson, a man who had spilled blood in many duels, bluntly told Mason that he needed to challenge M’Carty again. Inspired by the man they called Old Hickory, Mason wrote a note to M’Carty and informed him that he had resigned his commission in order to be free to challenge and fight a duel. He dispatched his second with the note and offered Mason any distance and any weapons that he chose could be used in the duel. Once again, M’Carty refused, citing Mason’s original cowardice. It was only when Mason’s second threatened to slap him that M’Carty reluctantly agreed to the battle.

Whether he was inspired by Mason’s determination for bloodshed, of afraid of it, M’Carty proposed that they settled their differences once and for all by jumping off the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Mason’s second rejected this as a violation of the code (and obviously insane) and then M’Carty proposed that they blow themselves up with a gunpowder keg. Finally, he withdrew his ridiculous suggested and accepted a fight with muskets, charged with buckshot, at a distance of 10 feet. Mason’s second, based on his friend’s instructions of any distance and any weapon, was forced to accept. It was bound to be suicide for both men but, thanks to a friend, the conditions were modified to 12 feet with a single ball.

The two cousins met at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds on the morning of February 6, 1819. Even though the grounds were blanketed with snow, M’Carty stripped to his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. Mason stood watching him in a heavy overcoat. They were presented with their weapons and warned not to fire before the count of three. With the muzzles of their weapons almost touching, the men fired at the same time. Mason fell dead, his aim apparently thrown off by his heavy coat. M’Carty’s shoulder was shattered as Mason’s ball entered his wrist and tore a path through his arm. He survived the duel but he lost the ability to use his right arm. In the years that followed, he never forgot that horrific, blood-soaked morning and he eventually lost his mind.
In spite of all of this, though, the seconds who were present that day were able to report that “the affair, although fatally, was honorably terminated.”

Those same words could not be used to describe the pathetic 1836 duel that took place between two congressmen, Jesse Bynum of North Carolina and Daniel Jenifer of Maryland. Jenifer had denounced in the House what he felt was the poor course of President Jackson’s party, which caused Bynum to leap to his feet and declare that it was ungentlemanly of Jenifer to say such words. Jenifer insisted that Bynum take back his words but the other man refused. Minutes later, they were on their way to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, with fellow congressmen serving as seconds and witnesses.

Both men stood on the field, 10 feet apart, and each boasted of what a fearsome marksman that he was. The first shots were fired but neither man was hit. The pistols were re-loaded three more times but after the fourth volley of shots, both men were still standing, unscathed.

Before the sixth shot, Bynum’s pistol discharged, probably accidentally, and one of Jenifer’s seconds prepared to shoot the man. This was a rigid rule in the Code Duello, stating that if a man fired early, his opponent’s seconds had the right to shoot him down. But Jenifer ordered the man not to shoot, and he took aim himself, fired – missed again! After six missed shots, the duel was, mercifully, called a draw.

More and more blood continued to be spilled on the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds and public concern began to rise about the continuation of this legalized murder. Unfortunately, Maryland laws did not apply to the residents of Washington, so even if a law was passed to prohibit duels at Bladensburg, it would have any effect on those who used the grounds with the most frequency. Then, finally, in 1838, an incident occurred that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.

A popular congressman from Maine named Jonathan Cilley was shot to death by another congressman, William Graves from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for a New York newspaper editor named James W. Webb. Cilley had accused Webb of corruption and Graves, a close friend of the editor, took exception to the accusation.

Graves, knowing weapons quite well, challenged the inexperienced Cilley to a duel. Cilley believed the whole thing foolish and never expected the duel to actually take place. But on the morning of the duel, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions 80 yards apart and both fired, but no one was struck.

Jonathan Cilley

The shots were repeated and still, no one was hit. The seconds reached an agreement that each man would receive one final round. If no one was hit this time, the duel would be declared a draw. The agreement proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground.

This fatal encounter caused a national uproar. The fallen congressman was young and left a wife and three small children behind. In the minds of many, Graves had killed him in cold blood. Newspapers called the duel “horrid and harrowing” and even former President Andrew Jackson, who had seen more than his fair share of blood and dueling, stated: “I cannot write on the murderous death of poor Cilley. If Congress does not do something to wipe out the state of the blood of murdered Cilley from its walls, it will raise a flame in the public mind against it, not easily to be quenched. Cilley was sacrificed.”

And Jackson was right, public outcry was strong after Cilley’s funeral and it forced lawmakers to do something to appease it. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense.

The law appeased the public, but it did not bring an end to the dueling. The challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met in at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness for many years after dueling was declared illegal. It would not be until the Civil War before the "sport" of dueling would die out completely.

The Blood-Stained Halls of Congress
The first recorded physical clash between congressmen started over spit. In 1798, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont ran across the floor of the House and spit into the face of Connecticut’s Roger Griswold. He did so because the Connecticut man had made fun of his Revolutionary War record. A resolution to expel “Spitting Lyon” didn’t pass, but Griswold managed to get his own revenge.

Two weeks later, Griswold walked over to where Lyon was sitting and struck him over the head with a large hickory cane. Stunned and bleeding, Lyon managed to get to his feet, grabbed some fire tongs and began swinging back at his attacker. They tumbled on the floor, swung, scratched and pummeled one another for a few minutes before this undignified melee could be broken up. The two men signed a pledge the next day, promising not to commit any act of violence toward one another again.

This battle ended peacefully but there is no denying that a precedent had been set.

The practice of dueling eventually fell from favor as means of settling disputes (and became illegal after Congressman Graves killed fellow legislator Jonathan Cilley in 1838) but the U.S. Capitol still remained a very violent place. This was especially true during the years leading up to the Civil War, when differences over slavery and state’s rights intensified to a dangerous level. Legislation was sometimes ended for the day over what amounted to nothing more than a murderous look between exchanged between two opposing lawmakers. Congress was often described as “seething like a boiling cauldron” and it was an often stated fact that every man on the floor of both Houses was armed with a revolver. James Hammond of South Carolina added that some men carried “two revolvers and a Bowie knife.” Senator Benjamin Wade walked about with a sawed-off shotgun draped over his arm. One day, a pistol that was concealed in one House member’s desk went off, causing quite a disturbance. Representative William Holman of Indiana, who was present that day, recalled that after the weapon discharged: “There were fully 30 or 40 pistols in the air.”

Without a doubt, the most disturbing incident from those troubled times was the brutal beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. On May 19, 1856, the ardent abolitionist delivered his famous “Crimes Against Kansas” speech, in which he harshly criticized the efforts of Southerners to force slavery into the territory. Sumner’s speech was overwrought with fiery rhetoric and took a number of sharp digs at Andrew Pickens Butler, a pro-slavery senator from South Carolina. At one point in the speech, Sumner referred to Butler as one of slavery’s “maddest zealots.” He also went on to refer to slavery as Butler’s “harlot”, which was “polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight.”

Butler would have been angry, and even justified in striking Sumner, if he had been present in the Senate chamber to hear the speech. He had not heard it but a relative and fellow Carolina representative, Preston S. Brooks, was there and he was enraged over Sumner’s insults.

Three days later, Brooks quietly entered the Senate chamber and found Sumner working at his desk. He cleared his throat and when he had Sumner’s full attention, he announced to him: “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Then, without any sort warning, Brooks produced a heavy cane and began pummeling Sumner over the head with it! He beat the man until the cane splintered and the Massachusetts man was on the floor in a pool of blood.

A newspaper illustration of the attack on Charles Sumner

People in the north reacted to the assault with horror but in the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero. Southerners sent him commemorative canes with the words “hit him again” inscribed on them. The event was later seen as an ugly foreshadowing of the Civil War to come.

Sumner’s injuries kept him out of the Senate for three years and his empty chair was displayed as a symbol for the abolitionist movement. Several weeks after the attack, a House investigation committee concluded that it was a breach of congressional privilege. The report stated that it was an aggravated assault on not only Senator Sumner, but on the right to freedom of speech itself. Debate raged in the House over whether or not to dispel Brooks, but eventually, he decided to resign on his own. But he did not stay away for long. He ran for office again and was sworn in just two weeks after his resignation.

Ironically, Brooks died five months later from liver disease. His victim, Charles Sumner, returned from his convalescence and served in the Senate until 1874.

Not all of the murderous attacks at the Capitol involved one congressman attacking another. One of them actually involved a former politician and the newspaperman who had effectively ruined his career. The congressman, William Preston Taulbee, saw his destruction in a single headline: "Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante, or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge."

The story beneath the headline was written by another Kentuckian, Charles Kincade, Washington correspondence for the Louisville Times. While the facts of the scandal are still being argued today, Taulbee chose not to run for re-election after the story had broken. Instead, he did what many other former lawmakers have done --- he became a lobbyist.

William Preston Taulbee

Since this career choice continued to bring Taulbee to Capitol Hill, it’s not surprising that the former congressman and the newspaper writer frequently ran into one another. Each considered the other man to be ungentlemanly and beneath contempt. Taulbee frequently insulted Kincade in the corridors of the Capitol and occasionally, would reach over and snatch the reporter’s nose or one of his ears, giving it a sharp tug. According to custom, this meant that Taulbee did not consider Kincade man enough to be worthy of fighting.

On February 28, 1890, Taulbee and Kincade met for the last time on a set of marble stairs leading up to the House of Representatives Press Gallery. Earlier that day, Taulbee had entered the House chamber and he and Kincade had exchanged insults. Taulbee could have easily overpowered the reporter, who was barely five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds, and was in poor health. Instead, the burly lobbyist humiliated him by tossing him around by the collar and laughing at him.
Kincade left and went home for a pistol.

Around 1:30 p.m., Taulbee and a friend went down the marble stairs for lunch in the House dining room. The staircase is in a “Y” shape – twin staircases from the second floor to a landing, with a single flight leading down from the landing to the first floor. Taulbee and his friend came down one staircase and Kincade took the other. The reporter caught up to them just below the landing.

"Can you see me now?" Kincade reportedly asked the former congressman.

As Taulbee turned toward Kincade, his friend (perhaps catching a glimpse of Kincade’s pistol) fled back up the stairs. Before Taulbee could answer the reporter’s strange query, Kincade fired. The bullet struck Taulbee in the face, just below his eye. He collapsed onto the steps, blood already pooling beneath him. Moments later, a policeman rushed to the scene and demanded to know what had happened.

Kincade was still standing on the steps, his pistol dangling from his fingers. He spoke softly to the policeman and said: “I did it.”

The former congressman was rushed from the scene and taken to Providence Hospital. He clung stubbornly to life for almost two weeks before succumbing to his wounds at the age of 39.
Kincade was tried for murder but the jury ruled that he had acted in self-defense and he was set free. He died in Cincinnati in 1906 while working as a reporter.

To this day, a stain remains on the marble stairs at the exact place where William Taulbee was shot. Legend has it that it is a stain that was left behind by the former congressman’s blood. Merely a legend? Perhaps, although some of the older guards and maintenance workers at the Capitol will tell you that no cleaning agent has ever been able to remove that stain. It endures, leaving a lasting mark on the sometimes dark history of Capitol Hill.

One strange Congressional incident did not end in death but it did include the attempted murder of a Senator, right in the Senate chamber. On May 29-30, 1908, a Wisconsin senator named Robert M. Lafollette was leading a filibuster against the Aldrich-Vreeland bill. The bill was perfectly legitimate and was designed to allow the United States currency to expand during times of panic. For some reason, Lafollette was violently opposed to it. Little did he know, however, that there were men who were just as adamant about seeing it passed.

Lafollette began his filibuster, a method used by lawmakers that allows them to talk about anything that they want to in order to prevent a vote on a bill they do not like, at 12:20 p.m. on the afternoon of May 29. Lafollette continued for hour after hour. The rule of a filibuster is that you must remain talking and you cannot leave the Senate floor. As evening approached, the senator requested “energy drinks” of milk and raw eggs to be brought to him every so often from the Senate dining room.

Robert M. Lafollette

At some point between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., he received another of these mixtures and he began to drink it. Suddenly, his face took on a sour expression and he started to choke. He put the glass down immediately and it occurred to him that someone was trying to poison him. Lafollette was sure that one of his many enemies had decided to get rid of him. The senator had a reputation for being a man who could not be bought. So, were they trying to kill him instead?

A few minutes later, Lafollette, still leading the filibuster, began to feel nauseated. His symptoms quickly got worse. His stomach churned, his bowels roiled and shooting pains stabbed his abdomen. Although hunched over and wincing in pain, Lafollette refused to leave the Senate. Heroically, he stayed on for another half dozen hours. Finally, he surrendered at exactly 7:03 in the morning. 

Lafollette had continued talking for 16 hours and 43 minutes – the longest filibuster in history at that time. Unfortunately, it was not long enough. Later on that say, the Aldrich-Vreeland bill was passed.

A short time later, a laboratory reported on the mixture that made the senator sick. According to the chemical analysis, the egg and milk drink also contained a poison called ptomaine – and there was enough in it to kill a man. Someone had tried to kill a filibuster by murdering the senator who started it. The figurative phrase that had been used up until that point, “kill a filibuster,” took on a haunting, literal meaning.

Thursday, March 20, 2014



On March 20, 1899, Martha Place of Brooklyn, New York became the first woman to be executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. She had been sentenced to die for the murder of her step-daughter. Place would be the first of a number of women to be electrocuted in “Old Sparky,” as the chair at Sing Sing came to be known, but the most sensational would occur almost three decades later in the very same chair.

"Old Sparky" at Sing Sing was the last chair for 614 men 
and women over the years

Martha Place was the first woman to be executed in the chair, but she was not the first in New York’s history to be sentenced to death. That dubious distinction belongs to a woman named Maria Barbella, who was convicted of murdering her lover in 1895.

Maria Barbella
Barbella was born in Ferrandina, Basilicata, Italy. Her family immigrated to Mulberry Bend, New York in 1892 and after living in America for nearly a year, she met Domenico Cataldo, who was from the same region of Italy. She became infatuated with the handsome shoeshine man and passed by his stand every day on her way home from the factory where she worked. The two began spending time together, but when Maria’s overprotective father found out, she was forbade from seeing him – an order she disobeyed.

The only known photograph of Maria Barbella

One day Cataldo took her to a boarding house, where he allegedly drugged her and took advantage of her. Maria became upset afterwards and demanded that he marry her. Cataldo agreed, but kept putting of the wedding date. Maria continued to meet him at his boarding house, believing that marriage was soon to follow. She was devastated when he told her that he was returning to Italy and was ending the relationship. She again demanded that he marry her and this time, Cataldo told her the truth and revealed that he was already married to a woman back home in Italy. When Maria told her mother about the situation, the older woman confronted Cataldo and insisted that he marry her daughter. Cataldo agreed – but only if the family paid him $200. With little money to speak of, the family was unable to pay.

On the morning of April 26, 1895, Cataldo was playing cards in a saloon on East 13th Street in New York, waiting to board the ship that would return him to Italy. Maria Barbella entered the bar and there was a brief exchange. "Only a pig can marry you!" were his last words. Maria whipped out a straight razor and slashed his neck so swiftly Cataldo had no chance to scream. He staggered out the door, clutching his throat with both hands, knocking Maria over, spraying blood everywhere. He managed to stagger out into the street and fell down dead in the gutter.

Maria was quickly arrested and taken to the “Tombs,” New York’s House of Detention, and remained there for more than two months. Attorneys Amos Evans and Henry Sedgwick were appointed to represent her at her trial, which began on July 11. This case stirred up controversy because Italians felt that the verdict was unjust since there were no Italians in the jury. At the time of the trial, Maria was unable to speak or understand English. She confessed to everything and while the jury had sympathy for her, there was little they could do but declare her guilty. She was sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing on August 19, 1895, the first woman in New York history to receive such a sentence.  

Thanks to her attorneys, this was not the end of Maria’s story. Numerous complaints were filed with the governor about the trial, but there was little that could be done. Finally, her attorneys managed to appeal on the grounds that she was “epileptic” and “mentally ill” over the situation with Cataldo. She was found not guilty in a second trial. After her release from prison, Maria married an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bruno on November 4, 1897 and gave birth to a son two years later. She had narrowly escaped the electric chair, but her story does not have a happy ending. By 1902, records show that she was living with her parents and her husband had returned to Italy and married another woman. Whatever became of Maria after that is unknown, but it’s likely that she remained unlucky in love.

Martha Place
In 1899, Martha Place became the first woman in New York to “ride the lightning,” as the old guards often called a seat in the electric chair.

Martha Place

Born Martha "Mattie" Garretson on September 18, 1849 in Readington Township, New Jersey, her early life was uneventful. Then, at age 23, she was struck in the head by a sleigh. Her brother claimed that she never completely recovered and that the accident left her mentally unstable. In 1893, though, she married a widower named William Place, who had a daughter named Ida from a previous marriage. William married Martha to help him raise his daughter, although it was later rumored that Martha was jealous of Ida. William called the police at least once after his wife threatened to kill the girl.

On the evening of February 7, 1898, William Place arrived at his Brooklyn, New York home and was attacked by Martha, who was wielding an axe. William escaped for help and when the police arrived, they found Martha Place in critical condition. She was lying on the floor with clothes over her head. She had opened the gas pipes and was allowing gas to fill the room in a suicide attempt. Upstairs, they discovered the dead body of 17-year-old Ida Place lying on a bed. Her mouth was bleeding and her eyes disfigured from having acid thrown in them. The evidence later indicated Ida Place died from asphyxiation. Martha Place was hospitalized and arrested.

Place proclaimed her innocence while awaiting trial but the jury refused to believe it. She was quickly found guilty of Ida’s murder and sentenced to death. Her husband was a key witness against her.

The governor of the State of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, was asked to commute Place's death sentence, but he refused. Having never executed a woman in the electric chair, those responsible for carrying out the death warrant devised a new way to place the electrodes upon her, deciding to slit her dress and place the electrode on her ankle. Edwin F. Davis was the executioner. According to the reports of witnesses, she died instantly.

As far as executions go, it was relatively a simple one, but the same could not be said for the electrocution of the next -- and most famous -- woman to die at Sing Sing.

Ruth Snyder
The Snyder murder, as one crime writer put it, was a "cheap crime involving cheap people." Many considered it the low point in the history of the early 1900s but for those who lived in the thrill-hungry days of the "Roaring '20s," they devoured every sordid detail and made the otherwise mundane Ruth Snyder and her accomplice, Judd Gray, into infamous celebrities. In addition to murder, their second-greatest crime was simply being stupid.

"Red Hot Cutie" Ruth Snyder.... uh?

The events in the case began quietly in 1925 when Ruth Brown Snyder, a discontented Long Island housewife, met a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray while having lunch in New York. Ruth, 32, was a tall blonde with solid good looks and a commanding personality. Judd Gray, 34, was short and almost instantly forgettable. He had a cleft chin and thick glasses that gave him a perpetual look of surprise. Despite the fact that they seemed to be polar opposites, sexual attraction flared between the two of them at their first meeting and they soon began a torrid affair.

Ruth Snyder's husband, Albert, was the art editor of the magazine Motor Boating and was never home during the day. The adulterous couple only had the Snyder's nine-year-old daughter, Lorraine, to contend with and the amorous pair would often meet at the Snyder's home while Lorraine was at school. On other occasions, the little girl would be left in a hotel lobby while her mother and her lover met upstairs. They met as often as possible and seemed unable to get enough of one another.

But Ruth Snyder soon changed from a sex-obsessed housewife to a woman with devious plans. Bored in her loveless marriage, she tried to convince Judd that her husband mistreated her and that he must be killed. Gray objected but Ruth continued to pester him with hints, suggestions and outright demands.

Finally, on Saturday, March 19, 1927, Judd gave in. It was a cold, raw day on Long Island and Gray spent most of the day drinking, trying to summon the courage to go through with the murder. He and Ruth had cooked up a plan that had him traveling by train to New York from Syracuse and then by bus to Long Island. When he arrived in Queens Village, where the Snyders lived, he walked around for an hour, stopping under street lights to take drinks from his flask. It was almost as if he hoped to be spotted and arrested for breaking the law. No one paid any attention to him, though, and finally, he had to enter the Snyder home. He came in through the back door, as he and Ruth had planned. The Snyder family was away at a party and would return late. Judd had promised to hide in a spare room, where Ruth had left a window sash weight, rubber gloves and chloroform, all the tools of murder.

The family returned around 2:00 a.m. and Ruth opened the bedroom door a crack. She whispered, "Are you in there, Bud, dear?" She soon returned wearing only a slip and the two had sex with her husband asleep just down the hallway. Finally, after about an hour, Gray grabbed the window sash weight and Ruth led him to the master bedroom, where Albert Snyder slept with the blankets up over his head. The two of them stood on opposite sides of the bed and then Gray raised the sash weight and brought it down clumsily onto Snyder's head. The weak blow merely glanced off the man's skull and while stunned, he let out a roar and tried to seize his attacker. Judd became terrified and let out a whining scream for help.

There was no panic in Ruth Snyder and with a snort of disgust and anger, she grabbed the weight from Judd's hands and crashed it down on her husband's skull, killing him. After that, the two of them went downstairs, had drinks and chatted about the rest of their plan. They faked a robbery by knocking over some chairs and loosely tying Ruth's hands and feet. Minutes after Gray left, Ruth began banging on Lorraine's door. The child ran out and removed the gag from her mother's mouth. She told her daughter to get help and Lorraine ran next door to the neighbor's house, where the police were called.

Damon Runyon, the celebrated newsman, later wrote that Ruth and Judd were "inept idiots" and called the whole mess the Dumb-bell Murder, "because it was so dumb."

A crime scene photo of Albert Snyder after his head had been bashed in. Unbelievably, Ruth received 164 offers of marriage while she was in the death cell.

Even though the pair believed they had planned well, their "robbery" was far from convincing to experienced police officers. All of the items that Ruth said had been taken by the mysterious burglar were found hidden in the house and detectives began to question her. Surprisingly, she gave up almost at once and confessed to the murder but not surprisingly she blamed everything on Judd Gray. He was found hours later, hiding in his Syracuse hotel room. He shrieked his innocence and insisted that he had not been in New York. When confronted with the train ticket stub that he had carelessly tossed in the trash can of the hotel room, he broke down and confessed. Like Ruth, he blamed everything on his accomplice.

By the time the case went to trial, the two former lovers were at one another's throats, each blaming the other for the deadly deed. The trial became a media frenzy. Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, director D.W. Griffith, author Will Durant, evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson and many others. McPherson even received a large sum from the New York Evening Graphic to write up a piece on the sordid case. Sister Aimee used her column to encourage young men to say, "I want a wife like mother -- not a Red Hot cutie."

Both defendants had separate attorneys arguing for their innocence. Ruth's lawyer stated that her husband "drove love out from the house" by longing after a departed sweetheart. He also said that Gray had tempted her by setting up a $50,000 double indemnity insurance policy on Albert Snyder. She was a loving wife, her attorney insisted, and it was not her fault about the conditions in her home. He then put the "wronged woman" on the stand, wearing a simple black dress. She played the role of the suffering wife, describing how her husband ignored her most of the time, except when taking her to the occasional movie. It had been she who had read from the Bible to daughter Lorraine and had made sure the little girl attended Sunday school. Her lawyer glossed over the Gray romance and Ruth justified their affair by saying that Judd was also unhappy at home. The affair had turned horrible as "Lover Boy" dragged her to speakeasies and night spots, where she had watched him drink himself senseless. She, Ruth swore, rarely ever touched a drink and never, ever smoked. Then she testified that Gray insisted that she take out the heavy insurance policy on her husband. She also told the court that he had once sent her poison and told her to give it to her husband.

At this, the excitable Judd Gray began whispering to his lawyers. A short time later, he also took the witness stand and his attorney described Judd's situation as "the most tragic story that has ever gripped the human heart." The lawyer claimed that Judd was a law-abiding citizen who had been duped and dominated by a "designing, deadly conscienceless, abnormal woman, a human serpent, a human fiend in the disguise of a woman." He then added that he had been "drawn into this hopeless chasm when reason was gone, mind was gone, manhood was gone and when his mind was weakened by lust and passion."

Ruth Snyder’s Final Photograph

Judd played the victim when he took the stand, nervously glancing over at his elderly mother, who was sitting in the courtroom next to the actress Nora Bayes, who had come to watch the show. He testified that Ruth had tried to kill her husband several times, once putting knockout drops in his drink and when they failed, trying to gas him. He also testified that she had once given Albert Snyder poison as a cure for the hiccups. It made the man violently ill instead. Judd said innocently, “I told her she was crazy. I said to her that it was a hell of a way to cure hiccups.”

Finally, Judd stated that it had been Ruth who had taken out the insurance policy on Snyder and it had not been his doing, or his idea, at all. He also described how she had struck the death blow on the night of the murder. At this, Ruth began to sob loudly in the courtroom and even the judge glanced in her direction. The jury was out only 98 minutes before coming back with a verdict of guilty. Both defendants were stunned and then shocked even further when they learned the sentence for their crime was death.

Judd Gray was executed first on January 12, 1928. He sat smiling in his cell when the warden came for him. He had received a letter from his wife forgiving him. He told the warden that he was ready to go. He said, “I have nothing to fear.”

Ruth Snyder followed her former lover just minutes after she watched the prison lights flicker, signaling that the switch had been thrown for the electric chair. Reporters remembered that, as she was being led to the death chamber, that she had said days before that God had forgiven her and that she hoped the world would.

A clever reporter from the New York Daily News smuggled a camera into the death chamber by strapping it to his ankle. He managed to click off a photo just as the current entered Ruth's body and snapped her body against the chair straps. The photograph ran in the next day's edition of the paper but soon the lurid tale faded into history. Soon, people remembered the photo more than they remembered who had been sitting in the chair. 

Monday, March 17, 2014



One of America’s most successful Irish gangsters was Dean O’Banion, who ran the liquor operations on the North Side of Chicago during the early days of Prohibition. At the start of Prohibition, when John Torrio divided up the territories among the opposing factions, O’Banion managed an area between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It was a lucrative area that was given to O’Banion to keep him in line. He was, undoubtedly, Torrio and his protégé Al Capone’s most dangerous opposition. He was an often reckless Irishman who always carried three guns with him. He could shoot accurately with either hand. Chief of Police Morgan Collins once called him “Chicago’s arch criminal” and stated that O’Banion “has killed or seen to the killing of at least twenty-five men.”

Chicago Irish gangster Dean O'Banion

O’Banion never spent a day in jail for shooting any of those men. His political usefulness was too great. O’Banion controlled the Irish vote in the city and while bribery and intimidation usually did the trick, he and his men never hesitated to beat, kidnap and murder. He always delivered his district and the Democratic bosses of the Forty-Second and Forty-Third wards prized O’Banion’s vote-getting abilities so much that they once gave him a testimonial dinner at the Webster Hotel and presented him with a gem-encrusted platinum watch. Among those present at the dinner were Colonel Albert Sprague, the Cook County commissioner of Public Works and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate; Robert M. Sweitzer, then Cook County Clerk; and Chief of Police Michael Hughes. Ironically, O’Banion personally always voted Republican.

Schofield's Flower Shop, in which O'Banion had a controlling interest. He used the upper floor as the headquarters for his rackets. 

To offset his violent involvement in the rackets, O’Banion loved flowers. He acquired a half interest in William Schofield’s flower shop at 738 North State Street, directly across the street from Holy Name Cathedral, where he once served as an altar boy. On most days, he could be found in the shop, cutting flowers, potting plants and putting together arrangements for weddings and burials. He became gangland’s favorite florist, which was a lucrative business because underworld etiquette required both friends and foes of a fallen gangster – including the man who killed him – to honor him with elaborate floral creations. Everyone ordered from O’Banion and the moment that word reached him of a gangster’s demise, he was on the telephone to his wholesale supplier. At the same time the undertaker was starting to prepare the corpse, and before the orders even started coming in for flowers, O’Banion and his staff were already at work making wreaths and elaborate bouquets and choosing banners that could be gilded with suitable sentiments like “Sympathy from the Boys” and “Gone, but not Forgotten”. All a caller had to do was telephone the shop, identify himself and name the amount he wanted to spend. O’Banion would take care of the rest.

O’Banion was happily married and his wife, Viola, insisted that he was a devoted family man: “Dean loved his home and spent most of his evenings in it. He loved to sit in his slippers, fooling with the radio, singing a song, listening to the player piano. He never drank. He was not a man to run around nights with women. I was his only sweetheart. We went out often to dinner or the theater, usually with friends. He never left home without telling me where he was going and kissing me goodbye,” she told an interviewer.

O'Banion and his loving wife, Viola

Dean and Viola never had children. They occupied a twelve-room apartment on North Pine Grove Avenue. He drove a late-model Locomobile and his proudest possessions were a player piano, for which he had paid $15,000, and a Victrola. He was constantly setting them up to play the same tune and trying to synchronize them. Sadly, he died before the invention of stereophonic sound systems, for a set of speakers would have produced the effect that he sought. He dressed stylishly, always wearing a tuxedo when he attended the theater or went out to dinner. He spoke well, minding his grammar, and insisted that his associates follow proper etiquette. O’Banion walked with a limp, his left leg being shorter than his right, the result of a boyhood fall from a streetcar, but he was otherwise unremarkable. He was strong and fit with a round face, cleft chin and a genial personality. 

Dean (he later adopted the name Dion) Charles O'Banion had been born in 1892 in the small Central Illinois town of Maroa. His father, Charles, was a barber by trade who hailed from Lincoln, Illinois, and his mother, the former Emma Brophy, was the Chicago-born daughter of an Irish immigrant father and American mother. She had been just eight months old when the Great Chicago Fire leveled the city in 1871. Charles and Emma married in 1886 and moved to Maroa the following year, where Charles' parents lived.

Dean spent the early years of his life in Maroa but soon after the birth of his sister, Ruth, his mother contracted tuberculosis and died in 1901. Dean was only nine years old at the time and the loss was a devastating one. The remaining family members packed up and moved to Chicago, where Emma's parents had a place for them. With the move came the end of Dean’s innocent years. The hard times, and the legend, were about to begin.

Upon moving to Chicago, O'Banion found himself turning to the streets for a playground. The family settled in a tenement flat on the edge of the North Side’s Little Sicily, a maze of narrow, dirty streets that reeked of smoke from the nearby factories. The flames from a gasworks chimney that reddened the sky at night gave the neighborhood its nickname – Little Hell. It had formerly been an Irish neighborhood dubbed Kilgubbin and about a 1,000 Irish remained. The Sicilians started arriving around 1900 and were soon the majority. Although only a square mile in size, Little Hell was one of the most dangerous spots in the city and averaged between 12 and 20 murders each year.

O’Banion became involved with a junior street gang known as the Little Hellions and began picking pockets and rolling drunks. At the same time, he sang in the choir at the Holy Name Cathedral and, on Sundays, he served as an altar boy. Some of the priests at the church believed that perhaps his devotion might lead to a calling to the priesthood but O'Banion soon learned to ration his religion to Sundays and to devote his remaining time to robbery and, as he reached young adulthood, to burglary, what he called "a man's profession." He soon hooked up with a number of other hardcase young men, including George “Bugs” Moran, Earl “Hymie” Weiss, Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci and Samuel “Nails” Morton. With these toughs at his side, O’Banion put together one of the most devastating gangs in Chicago history. They devoted themselves to burglary, safecracking, and after 1920, to bootlegging.

In 1909, O’Banion served three months in the House of Correction for robbery and two years later, another six months for beating a victim. Those short sentences turned out to constitute his entire prison record. He soon demonstrated his ability to bring in votes and he was able to count on his political patrons to keep him out of jail.

A handful of missteps were all that ever gained the attention of the police. He was not always the most subtle of safecrackers. Once, when attempting to open a safe with a stick of dynamite, he blew out the entire side of an office building but barely put a scratch on the safe. In 1921, Detective Sergeant John J. Ryan caught O’Banion, Hymie Weiss and a couple of other men in the act of blasting open a Postal Telegraph safe. O’Banion cheerfully told the police officer things weren’t as they appeared – they were actually in the office late that night applying for jobs as apprentice telegraph operators. An alderman furnished a $10,000 bond for O’Banion and another $30,000 in bribes to make the case go away. Not long after, the fingerprints of O’Banion, Weiss, and Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci, were found on the dial of an empty safe in the Parkway Tea Room. A jury acquitted them. O’Banion spoke to a reporter when he left the courtroom: “It was an oversight. Hymie was supposed to wipe off the prints but he forgot.”

O’Banion might have had a questionable reputation with the authorities, but was well liked in the neighborhood. As his fortunes soared, his acts of charity went beyond those of a man just trying to make himself look good. He had genuine feelings for poor and miserable people such as his parents had been. Often, the police would get excited when they saw O’Banion’s car cruising about in the shabby districts and suspected that a crime was in the wind. In truth, he was merely out on an expedition of charity, his car filled with food and clothing. He visited the slums, dropping off money for widows, the elderly and the orphans. He gave groceries to those who couldn’t afford them, bought shoes for ragged children and kept many men and women from the poorhouse. A newsboy would sometimes be stunned to find that O’Banion gave him $100 for a two-cent paper. He sent many sick children to the hospital and paid their medical bills. He once sent a crippled boy to the Mayo Clinic and, when told that neither surgery nor medication could cure him, set up a trust to take care of him for as long as he lived.

O’Banion also had an odd sense of justice. After an altercation at the LaSalle Theater that put a man named Dave Miller in the hospital for several weeks -- O’Banion later apologized, saying, “it was just a piece of hot-headed foolishness,” -- Miller’s brother, Hirschie, was approached by someone who offered to kill O’Banion for money. The would-be assassin’s name was John Duffy and he came to Chicago after killing a policeman in Philadelphia. He was a blustering, swaggering fellow who was proud of the fact that he had committed four murders. He had earlier met O’Banion and the Millers (who were usually friends – the Millers declined to prosecute Dean for the shooting) and all of them sized Duffy up as a drunken braggart and wanted nothing to do with him. Duffy approached Hirschie about killing O’Banion and Hirschie turned him down cold. He later told O’Banion about it and while angry, he vowed to watch his back around the man. He and the Millers were convinced that Duffy was crazy and Hirschie warned him, “Lay off that guy. He’ll kill somebody yet.”

Duffy continued to throw his weight around in Chicago with no thought of danger. He was oblivious to the fact that his situation was growing precarious. He brought it to an abrupt climax with an impulsive but brutal crime that offered O’Banion the perfect excuse to revenge himself on Duffy.

At the time Duffy was living with a likable young woman named Maybelle Exley in a little apartment on Carmen Avenue on the North Side. They had a volatile relationship, mostly caused by Duffy, who sometimes flew into terrible rages when he was drinking. One night, a pal named Billy Engelke was drinking with them in their apartment and Duffy went into another of his alcohol-fueled outbursts. Suddenly, he pulled out a revolver and shot Maybelle in the head. She was dead before she hit the floor.

Duffy snapped. He began to weep as though his heart was broken and began rushing up and down the room, waving his arms and crying. He couldn’t believe what he had done. Billy Engelke later said that he was sure the man had gone insane. Duffy picked up Maybelle and gently laid her down on the davenport. He bent down and kissed her on the forehead before covering her with a sheet. “Goodbye Maybelle,” he said.

Panic-stricken, Duffy knew that he had to get out of Chicago. Not knowing what else to do, he went to see O’Banion. He told O’Banion that he had “accidentally” killed his sweetheart and needed money to leave town. O’Banion listened in silence and then told him that he would meet him later that night. O’Banion drove up alone to where Duffy and Engelke waited for him, arriving around midnight. He had a few words with Duffy, told him that he had a plan for him to escape, would stake him some money and drive him to an outlying railway station where he could board a train without worrying about the police finding out. Duffy, feeling better with the prospect of a safe getaway, climbed into the car with O’Banion and they drove off into the night.

Duffy was found dead the next morning with three bullet holes in his head. O’Banion had his revenge – and he managed to get a little justice for the poor farm girl who had died at Duffy’s hand.

On another occasion, one of O’Banion’s close friends, Samuel “Nails” Morton (who earned his famous nickname for being “tough as nails” fighting in the streets of the old Maxwell Street neighborhood) was killed by an unlikely adversary. Morton and O’Banion were avid horseback riders and the men liked to rent horses from the Brown Riding Stables at 3008 North Clark (later the site of the old Ivanhoe Theater) and then go riding in Lincoln Park.

On this morning, Morton mounted a frisky colt named “Morvich” after a famous jockey of the day. The plan was for “Nails” to ride east down Wellington toward the Lincoln Park bridle path, where he would rendezvous with friends. Unfortunately, the nervous horse began behaving erratically and as Morton rode away from the stable, Morvich bolted south down Clark Street. Near the intersection of Clark and Diversey, Police Officer John Keyes saw how fast the animal was approaching and tried to curb him when he realized the rider has lost control. Then suddenly, the left stirrup gave away and fell to the ground. Morton clung to the horse’s neck, and then decided to take a chance and jump to the ground. He landed headfirst on the street and on the way down, one of the horse’s hooves hit him in the head, causing a skull fracture that would turn out to be fatal. Morton was rushed to the hospital and died on the operating table.

As far as his pals were concerned, “Nails” had been murdered – a crime that could not go unpunished. Late on the night of his funeral, several members of the North Side gang broke into the Brown Riding Stables and executed the guilty horse. One of them later telephoned the stable manager and told him “we taught that horse of yours a lesson.” Dean O’Banion threw a party in celebration of this unusual act of vengeance.

Chicago crime boss John Torrio

For three years after Torrio divided Chicago into gang territories, O’Banion remained in the good graces of Torrio and Capone. In fact, after the death of Frank Capone in April 1924, he had even prospered because of that uneasy friendship. Capone had not forgotten the extravagance with which O’Banion had prepared the arrangements for his brother’s funeral and he maintained a grudging fondness for the North Side gangster that likely kept the man alive longer than he deserved to be. O’Banion’s business flourished, not just the flower shop, but bootlegging, which was netting him almost a million dollars a year. He supplemented his income with daring hijackings that netted him high-quality whiskey, pulled off trucks by members of his eccentric gang. On one occasion, he raided a warehouse that contained almost 2,000 barrels of liquor and replaced the booze with water as a joke. In spite of all this, he wasn’t happy. Officially, he was allied with Torrio and Capone, which offered him protection from rival bootleggers and the numerous freelancers that lurked about Chicago, but even though he had contributed men to act as muscle during the Cicero election, he felt slighted, used and unappreciated.

To improve O’Banion’s mood, Torrio offered him a small piece of the action in Cicero, a beer territory that added up to less than $20,000 a month – walking-around money by the standards of the Torrio organization, but it was still something. O’Banion took it and ran with it. He owed his talent for making money to the fact that he was a little bit crazy and he proved this once again by encouraging speakeasies to move to Cicero. Torrio and Capone were impressed and more than a little resentful. Capone complained about giving O’Banion the territory to begin with and urged Torrio to take it back. But ever the peacemaker, Torrio proposed that O’Banion kick back a percentage of his new business in exchange for a percentage of the outfit’s income from prostitution. The deal was typically Torrio, linking possible adversaries in a mutually beneficial enterprise. But O’Banion, like many Irish-Catholic racketeers, hated prostitution. It was a filthy business they believed better left to the Italians and the Jews. During his time as leader of the North Side, not a single bordello could be found in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. He refused Torrio’s deal.

O’Banion tolerated Torrio and Capone but he outright despised their closest allies, the “Terrible Gennas.” The Gennas sold their homemade poison for just $3 a barrel, which was half the price of O’Banion’s high-class whiskey. Each of their stills produced as much as 350 gallons of the wretched high-proof stuff each week with ingredients that cost less than $1 a gallon. When the Gennas began selling their whiskey in O’Banion’s territory on the North Side, he implored Torrio to send the Sicilians back to their own neighborhood on the West Side. Torrio stalled for time. He knew how dangerous the Gennas were – heavily armed, entrenched in Sicilian blood oaths and connected to the police – and he didn’t want to get involved in the dispute. So, O’Banion dared to do what no sane bootlegger would do and hijacked a truck that carried $30,000 of the Gennas’ liquor. The Sicilians were infuriated but with Torrio acting as a peacekeeper, the animosity between O’Banion and the Gennas stopped short of bloodshed.

Even though the situation was close to boiling over, O’Banion made matters even worse by developing his own private relationship with the police. Capone complained, “He was spoiling it for everybody. Where we had been playing a copper a couple of hundred dollars, he’s slip them a thousand. He spoiled them.” In return for his money, O’Banion received information that he planned to use against his bootlegging partners in a complicated scheme that proved just how clever – and reckless – he could be.

Six weeks after the funeral of Frank Capone, and days after the murder of Joe Howard, O’Banion paid a visit to the Hawthorne Inn in Cicero. He met with Torrio and Capone and stunned them with the news that he planned to retire from bootlegging. He was tired of dealing with the Gennas, he explained, and wanted to leave the dangerous life in Chicago and settle down in Colorado. Although they tried not to show it, Torrio and Capone were thrilled by the news and were even happier when O’Banion named his price. The three men jointly owned the Sieben Brewery and O’Banion offered to sell his share for half a million dollars. He even volunteered to transport the last shipment of beer as partners; it was scheduled to go out on May 19, 1924. Torrio and Capone immediately agreed to his terms and saw to it that O’Banion received his payment in full.

Sieben Brewery -- years after O'Banion sold out to Torrio

Unknown to Torrio and Capone, O’Banion’s offer to sell his share of the Sieben Brewery was nothing more than an elaborate ruse. Prior to the meeting, he had learned through his police contacts that the brewery was going to be raided by the police on the night of May 19. Normally, a brewery raid was of little concern in Chicago. It usually just meant that a precinct captain had not been paid off, or wanted more money, and it was easy to avoid if the right amount of cash ended up in the right pocket. But this raid was different. This time, federal authorities under orders from the U.S. Attorney were running the operation with Mayor Dever’s full approval. Since Torrio already had a prior federal conviction for violating Prohibition laws in 1923, a second conviction would lead to a large fine and a mandatory jail sentence.

On the night of May 19, the raid on the brewery occurred just as O’Banion knew it would. Torrio and O’Banion were supervising the loading of the trucks that would take the beer to speakeasies all over Chicago when the police broke in and arrested everyone in the place. Torrio was detained, as was O’Banion, so that he could maintain the ruse that he knew nothing about the raid. Only Capone managed to avoid arrest since he was not present at the brewery that night. Once Torrio was delivered to the federal authorities, he realized that O’Banion had betrayed and humiliated him. Seething, he refused to post bond for O’Banion, as he routinely did for his other partners and employees. Torrio himself was soon free on bail, but he was later convicted of owning a brewery and was sentenced to nine months in jail and a $5,000 fine – all thanks to Dion O’Banion.

After the raid and Torrio’s arrest, O’Banion’s days were numbered. Strangely, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact. He worked each day at his flower shop, cheerfully greeting his customers and spent his evenings at home or having dinner with his friends. Months passed and O’Banion had no idea that several of his old bootlegging partners were plotting his demise. Only Torrio hesitated to have him killed. He knew that O’Banion’s death would spark all-out war in Chicago. However, after the brewery raid, even the cautious Torrio was leaning toward O’Banion’s murder.

On November 3, O’Banion and Hymie Weiss arrived at The Ship, a Capone-run gambling joint in Cicero, to divide up profits with his partners. Business proceeded as usual until Capone mentioned that Angelo Genna had racked up $30,000 in gambling debts that had never been paid. In the interest of preserving the peace, Capone suggested that they forgive the debt. O’Banion adamantly refused. He went straight to a telephone, called Genna, and demanded that he pay the debt within a week’s time. Capone and Torrio were shocked at O’Banion’s rash behavior. Capone and Torrio were doing all they could to keep the murderous Gennas happy, but they could not control the reckless O’Banion – and were not sure they really wanted to. As they left the gambling den that day, Weiss cautioned O’Banion to stop antagonizing the Gennas and Torrio. But O’Banion, in a typically rebellious mood, waved away his friend’s words. “Oh, to hell with them Sicilians,” he said.
This bold statement soon became a refrain among O’Banion’s men and among many other Chicago bootleggers, most of whom felt the same way but had never been brave enough to say it out loud – to hell with the Sicilians. To the Gennas and other Italian mobsters, though, such words were the worst kind of insult and together with Torrio and Capone, the Gennas put the final touches on their plan to assassinate O’Banion. The murder would be carried out the old-fashioned way, which meant O’Banion would be killed face-to-face, at his place of business, in the middle of the day, and everyone in Chicago would know who was responsible and why it had been done.

To carry out such a public assassination, the Torrio-Capone organization required the blessing of Mike Merlo, the president of the powerful Unione Siciliane. Merlo was opposed to the idea of eliminating O’Banion, however. The murder was bad for business, he told them, and as long as he was in office, O’Banion would not be killed. Torrio took the news calmly for he knew that Merlo was suffering from end stage cancer and would not be around to protect O’Banion for long. He would be patient, knowing the time for action would come. He didn’t have long to wait – Merlo died on November 8.

Initially, Merlo’s death was a windfall for O’Banion, who promptly sold over $100,000 in flower arrangements to the mourners, including a spectacular floral effigy of the deceased that stood twelve feet high. Capone himself purchased $8,000 worth of flowers. O’Banion also received unusual order, so small that he almost overlooked it. Jim Genna, one of his sworn enemies, visited the store and ordered a wreath for Merlo’s funeral. He gave O'Banion $750 to pay for the arrangement and told him that some boys would be by   to pick it up on Monday morning. He left the shop quietly, barely speaking, but he was there long enough to put together a mental blueprint of the place – just in case he had need to visit it again.

The selection of Mike Merlo’s successor as president of the Unione Siciliane brought Frankie Yale back to Chicago. As the head of the powerful New York branch of the organization, Yale had considerable influence over who took over the corresponding post in Chicago. He conferred with Torrio and Capone and the three men decided to appoint Angelo Genna to the position. As the new president of the Unione Siciliane – and a man who had been recently humiliated over a gambling debt by O’Banion and wanted to see him dead – he had no objection to the immediate elimination of the North Side bootlegger. This finally put into motion the most highly publicized and significant gangland slaying in Prohibition-era Chicago – the murder that would make Chicago a city at war.

On Monday, November 10, 1924, two days after the death of Mike Merlo, O’Banion left his apartment and went straight to Schofield’s flower shop on North State Street. There was still much to do in preparation for Merlo’s funeral and he spent most of the morning working on large orders for the event. He worked alongside three of his employees, surrounded by plants and flowers of every description. Late in the morning, the telephone rang and the caller asked if O’Banion had the Genna wreath ready to be picked up. O’Banion replied that it could be picked up at noon.

At five minutes past the hour, a blue Jewett sedan parked in front of the flower shop. The driver remained at the wheel, the motor idling, and the passenger door standing open. Gregory Summers, an 11-year old junior traffic officer who was guiding some children across the street near Holy Name Cathedral, saw three men get out of the car. “Two of them were dark and looked like foreigners. The other man had a light complexion,” he later said. The three men passed him and entered the flower shop.

Inside Schofield's flower shop -- where O'Banion met his end

O’Banion was in the back, working on a flower arrangement, but the porter, an African-American man named William Crutchfield, was sweeping up flower petals and looked up to see the men enter the shop. He assumed they were racketeers, like many of the men that O’Banion did business with. He didn’t recognize the men, but it was obvious that his boss did, which is likely why O’Banion never drew any of the three guns that he habitually kept hidden on his body. O’Banion, who was dressed in a long white smock and holding a pair of florist's shears in his left hand, came out from behind the counter and extended his right hand in greeting. He said to them, “Hello, boys. You want Merlo’s flowers?”

The three men walked abreast and approached O'Banion with smiles on their faces. The man in the center – either Frankie Yale or Mike Genna, depending on which version of the events you believe – reached out his own hand. The two men beside him were almost definitely John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. They were shorter and stockier, with dark complexions, and would kill anyone on the orders of whoever their boss happened to be at the time. 

Crutchfield heard the man in the middle reply, “Yes, for Merlo’s flowers.” He then stepped closer to O’Banion, grabbed his hand in greeting and pulled him close. The two men at his sides moved around him and drew pistols. Then, at close range, the center man rammed his own pistol into O'Banion's stomach and, holding his arm in a vice-like grip, opened fire. The other two men also fired their weapons, the bullets ripping into O'Banion. Two slugs struck him in the right side of the chest, two hit him in the throat and one passed through each side of his face. The shots were fired at such close range that powder burns were found around each wound. From that point on, this up close and personal method of murder became known as the "Chicago Handshake."

The leader of the North Side gang fell, having died on his feet, into a display of geraniums. O’Banion’s pistols were unfired, not even drawn. The three men fled from the store, jumped into the blue sedan and, as young traffic patrol Gregory Summers watched in amazement, sped away.

With the death of O’Banion, the Torrio-Capone syndicate had eliminated the most unpredictable and dangerous bootlegger in the city. They had also ingratiated themselves with the Gennas and set the wheels in motion to take over O’Banion’s wealthy North Side territory.  O’Banion’s funeral, for the South Side outfit, was not an occasion for mourning, but a time for celebration. Torrio and Capone were glad to see him go and were happy to contribute to his send-off. But it wouldn’t be easy. The Catholic Church, under the authority of Cardinal Mundelein, refused to permit a funeral mass for O’Banion to be held at Holy Name, the cathedral across the street from the flower shop and the place where the young O’Banion had served as an altar boy. Mundelein also forbade him to be buried in consecrated ground. But Torrio and Capone refused to let this dampen the festivities. They were intent on throwing O’Banion the most lavish gangster funeral that Chicago had ever seen.

The funeral procession was so large that it became the subject of national fascination. It extended for a mile and included three bands and a police escort dispatched by Capone from the village of Stickney. Chief Collins had issued an order that prevented Chicago police from joining the parade or an embarrassingly large contingent of city police officers would have most assuredly been involved. More than two dozen cars were required to transport floral tributes from the funeral home to the cemetery, including a large basket of roses that bore the ironic message: “From Al.”

For blocks in every direction, from the street, from the windows of office buildings, and from rooftops, thousands watched the cortege forming. It reached gigantic proportions – 10,000 people walked behind the hearse and when they reached Mount Carmel Cemetery, they joined another 10,000 mourners assembled at the gravesite. Mounted police had to clear a path through the mob so that the motorcade could advance. Every trolley car to the area near Mount Carmel was packed with curiosity-seekers.

A grave was dug for O’Banion in a section of unconsecrated ground. This area, reserved for lapsed or excommunicated Catholics, was as close to holy ground as could be found. At the grave, Father Patrick Malloy, who had known and liked O’Banion since he was a boy, delivered a short eulogy. Cardinal Mundelein had forbidden a funeral service, but Malloy defied him just enough to at least offer words of comfort and prayers. Five months later, Viola O’Banion managed to have her husband’s remains disinterred and reburied in consecrated ground. Although this was brought to the attention of Cardinal Mundelein, he did not have the body removed. A stone obelisk bearing O’Banion’s name stands in the cemetery today, a short distance from some of his rival gangsters and a few feet from a mausoleum that contains the remains of a bishop and two archbishops. The irony of this turn of events led Police Captain John Stege to remark, “Strange, isn’t it? A murderer and he’s buried side by side with good men of the church.”

The author at O'Banion's grave

Capone and Torrio were in attendance at the cemetery, although they knew that O’Banion’s friends saw past the elaborate floral arrangements and empty words of grief and knew exactly who was responsible for his death. A reporter came up to Hymie Weiss and asked him who he thought was responsible for O’Banion’s murder. Was it Al Capone? Weiss mockingly recoiled. “Blame Capone?” he asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Why Al’s a real pal. He was Dion’s best friend, too.” Passions ran so high that all mourners were ordered to check their weapons until the funeral was over. It was likely a good thing. Capone and Torrio spent a long, uncomfortable afternoon being glared at across O’Banion’s grave by Weiss, Drucci and Moran.

Relieved that another racketeer was out of the way, the police didn’t try too hard to catch O’Banion’s killers. The half-hearted investigation went nowhere. As a matter of routine, they questioned John Torrio, Al Capone and the Gennas, all of whom claimed to revere O’Banion. They were deeply grieved by his death, they said, and pointed to the large and expensive floral arrangements they purchased as proof. Frankie Yale was also questioned but he claimed to be in town only to attend the funeral of Mike Merlo. He had nothing to do with the death of O’Banion, he said. After making a statement to the police, he returned by train to New York.

After the inquest, the Cook County Coroner made a note in the margin of the court record: “Slayers not apprehended. John Scalise, Albert Anselmi and Frank Yale suspected, but never brought to trial.” Officially, the murder of Dion O’Banion was marked with one word – unsolved.

O’Banion’s men had no doubts about who had carried out the assassination, though. They knew that Torrio, Capone and the Gennas were behind it and as Hymie Weiss assumed the leadership of the North Side gang, he swore out an oath of vengeance that started the city’s legendary “Beer Wars.”

The streets of Chicago were about to run red with blood.