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St. Valentine's Day Massacre

In 1920s, the city of Chicago, Illinois, became a hotbed of organized crime activity to the extent that underworld violence and corruption have become indelibly associated with the city’s image around the world. Even Charles “Lucky” Luciano, boss of New York’s Mafia, described Chicago in the 1920s as “a goddamn crazy place.” The heart of the problem was Alphonse "Scarface" Capone and his endless war to suppress rival bootleggers. Funded by the enormous profits from bootlegging liquor during Prohibition, the Chicago gangs employed bribery and coercion of police, politicians, and the judiciary to operate with virtual impunity throughout the city and outlying suburbs. As their dominance of the city progressed throughout the decade, personal rivalry and competition led to increasingly brazen acts of violence, culminating in America’s most infamous gangland killing called the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre, in which seven affiliates of George “Bugs” Moran’s Northside gang were gunned down in the garage of a Clark Street trucking company.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre

In 1919 following the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic, criminals across the nation set up operations for producing, smuggling, and distributing liquor. In Chicago, career criminal Johnny Torrio, taking a lesson from the oil, railroad, and steel industries, established a trust to control the illicit liquor trade. After arranging the murder of his boss and taking over his Southside gang, Torrio successfully divided the city into territories and fostered an uneasy cooperation among the gangs on mutually beneficial issues such as price fixing and bribery of officials. He discouraged the use of violence except as a last resort, but squabbles over territory and personal affronts led to an average of 30 gangland killings per year in Chicago during the early 1920s. Many of these were high-profile attacks in public places such as restaurants, flower shops, and street corners that drew considerable attention from the press and public but rarely resulted in convictions. Chicago recorded 703 gangland murders during Prohibition, while countless other victims disappeared on “one-way rides” or were slain in Chicago’s suburbs.

Torrio retired in 1925 after surviving an attempt on his life and left the operation to his protégé, Al Capone. With Torrio gone, several rivals attempted to increase their territories and profits, and the city saw a sharp escalation in violence, with the annual number of gang killings doubling to 60 in 1925–26. Al Capone proved to be at least Torrio’s equal in both business sense and brutality, and by 1927, he had established himself as the undisputed ruler of Chicago’s Southside underworld. Still, the killings continued at a high rate as a way to deal with witnesses, disloyal members within gangs, and hijackings of alcohol shipments by rivals. The latter infraction became a particularly contentious issue between Capone and the Northside gang headed by Bugs Moran.

Throughout 1928, Moran intercepted so many of the Southsiders’ deliveries that Capone allegedly brought in killers from out of town to end the problem. Their elaborate plan began with a neutral party selling Moran a shipment of premium Canadian whiskey at a bargain price and arranging for a second transaction at a trucking company owned by Moran. An intermediary offered the load to Moran, and delivery was scheduled for the morning of February 14, 1929— St. Valentine’s Day—at Moran’s primary warehouse on North Clark Street. Capone imported two members of Detroit’s Purple Gang to watch the garage and telephone a waiting strike team when Moran arrived. Unfortunately, the spotters had Moran’s description but no photograph. Around 10:30 A.M. on D-Day, they marked the arrival of a man resembling Moran and made the fatal call.

In fact, the visitor was actually Dr. Reinhard Schwimmer, a Chicago optometrist and “gangster groupie” who enjoyed spending time with the North Side crowd whenever possible. Also present were brothers Frank and Pete Gusenberg (Moran’s frontline enforcers), Adam Meyer (a bookkeeper and also Moran’s business manager), Albert Kachellek a.k.a. James Clark (Moran’s second in command), Albert Weinshank (Moran’s operation cleaner), and John May (Moran’s car mechanic). Moran had overslept and was running late to the meeting. As he approached on foot, shortly before 11:00 A.M., Moran saw a police car stop in front of his garage and fled the scene, thus saving his own life. Inside the garage, two men in police uniforms brandished weapons and ordered all present to stand against a brick wall. Next, two or three other men dressed in civilian garb entered the warehouse. Before the victims recognized their peril, a storm of fire from .45- caliber Thompson submachine guns cut them down. Two of the dead or dying men were also blasted in the face at close range with a sawed-off shotgun.

While Chicago had long suffered a reputation for vice and corruption even before the start of Prohibition, the cold and calculated nature of this mass murder drew the shocked attention of the nation. In any case, the massacre effectively destroyed the North Side gang. Commentators and politicians pointed to it as an indicator of everything from the failure of Prohibition to the dehumanization associated with modern urban living. Chicago officials responded by temporarily closing most speakeasies and gambling dens and by launching several independent investigations. They brought in Calvin H. Goddard, one of the leading experts in the little-known field of forensic ballistics, who tested several machine guns—some owned by criminals and some by the police—and finally matched two of the weapons to bullets from the murders.

One of the Tommy guns used on St. Valentine’s Day was found in December 1929 after police arrested hitman Fred “Killer” Burke in Michigan. Burke denied any part in the slaughter and was never charged with the crime, instead receiving a life sentence for the murder of a Michigan police officer. Police were able to partially untangle the weapons’ trail of ownership through several gangsters and gun dealers but could not definitively connect any of them to the massacre.

Goddard’s efforts ended lingering suspicions that the killers were actually corrupt Chicago officers, and the attention his methods received during the high-profile investigation helped establish ballistics as a reliable investigative tool. Several arrests were made, but in the end no one was ever tried or convicted for the St. Valentine’s murders, and the case remains officially unsolved.

Disasters, Accidents, and Crises In American History: “A Reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events” by Ballard C. Campbell;
The Encyclopedia of Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories by Michael Newton;

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