by lyle e davis
He was only 29 years old; he was an optometrist . . . he was something of a momma’s boy, and he liked to hang out with gangsters.
It was a cold Thursday morning and, being Chicago, it was breezy. The temperature was 8 degrees below zero.
Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer rubbed his hands together inside the chilly garage as he made small talk with his pals, the mobsters, all of whom answered to their boss, George Moran.
While the garage was somewhat warmer than the 8 degree below weather outside, you could still see the vapor of the men breathing in that small garage at 2122 N. Clark in Chicago. It was 10:40am.
It was also Valentine’s Day, that day set aside for love and romance.
There would be no romance for Reinhardt Schwimmer on this day. He was, as we say, between romances. He resided at the Parkway Hotel in Chicago. A twice divorced man by two different women he decided to explore the cutting edge of life by hanging with his gangster pals belonging to the Moran mob.
His profession was as optometrist (today he would be considered an Optician since he had no medical training). He liked to be close and associated with gangsters. He was friends with the Northsiders starting with Dion O'Banion (He even attended his funeral) then Hymie Weiss, and Bugs Moran. He liked to pretend he was in the booze business and that he could have anyone whacked if he chose. His association with gangsters took up most of his time and his optometry business was failing. He owed money for gambling debts. His mother would pay his rent.
In that cold garage that morning, besides Dr. Schwimmer, there were his gangster pals, Frank and Peter Gusenberg, Adam Heyer, James Clark, John May, (who was actually a mechanic), and A.R. Weinshank. Seven souls in all, gathered that Valentines Day in a chilly garage in Chicago.
Two police cars drive up to the garage, with their sirens turned on. Four men get out. Two policemen and two in plain clothes. They enter the garage and walk quickly through a corridor and announce that everyone is under arrest.
The gangsters don’t seem to be all that concerned. They figure their attorneys will have them out in no time. They are confused, but non-resistant to the ‘police.’
Dr. Schwimmer is the only innocent of the seven men. But he was with his pals, having a taste of adventure.
The ‘police’ loudly and quickly order the men to line up against the wall so they can be frisked. The men comply. The ‘police’ confiscate the weapons of the seven men. After the noise of shouting and ordering the men against the wall, there was a brief silence. A silence like a hollow, and echoing clicks. With the terrified men realizing, now, it will soon be very loud, but for only a moment. They hope.
The killers level their weapons consisting of two Thompson Submachine guns, one with a 20 round clip and one with a 50 round drum. The killers know that the drum has a tendency to jam on occasion so they make sure the 20 round clip is used to kill flawlessly. Two shotguns are also part of the arsenal.
The massacre began.
With a loud crack the shotguns burst, the Tommy guns spat with ear-splitting ceaseless cracks of their own. It seemed an eternity of noise. Then a brief quiet. The gunmen now approached their victims and stood above them to make sure they would not live. They shot them where they lay, negotiating the shots by the living reflexes still present within their bodies.
70 spent shells hit the floor and two shotgun casings follow. All seven men are shot to pieces. Several bodies have almost been cut in half by the hail of bullets.
After the attack, the uniformed assassins marched their plain-clothed accomplices out the front door with their hands raised, just in case anyone was watching. The hit men piled into the police wagon and drove away.
The police arrive and find six dead men and one crawling to the door.
Frank Gusenberg miraculously survives the massacre and lives for three hours with 14 slugs in his body. Sgt. Tom Loftus is one of the officers to arrive on the scene. Loftus asked:"Do you know me Frank?'
Frank replied 'Yes, you are Tom Loftus'
Loftus then asks 'Who did it or what happened?'
Frank replies 'I won't talk'
The officer then replies 'You are in bad shape'
Frank says 'For God's sake get me to a hospital.'
Loftus tells Frank 'Pete is here too'
He said 'Yes'
Loftus asks Frank if they were lined up against the wall. To this Frank answers again 'I won't talk.'
Once transferred to Alexian Brothers Hospital, Loftus asks Gusenberg another time and he refuses to talk. Before he dies the Sgt. asked Frank if two of the men wore police uniforms.
To this Frank answers 'Yes' and then dies.
Little Known Fact: Frank Gusenberg(Gusenberger) had a number of aliases. He was known at various times as "Hock," Carl Bloom, Howard Morgan, Fred Gusenberg, and Frank Gould. Of great interest was the fact that he was married to sisters, Lucille Gusenberg and Ruth Gusenberg, at the same time. (Unbeknownst to them, of course).
The year was 1929 and that day, February 14, 1929, would go down in Chicago history as the great Valentine’s Day Massacre.
It was widely assumed that a chap by the name of Alphonse Capone had ordered the massacre. But surely he was innocent. He was, after all, in Miami, Florida at the time. He had what police call an alibi.
It was also widely assumed that the primary target, Bugs Moran, had one of his luckier days as he had spotted what turned out to be fake police cars and quickly walked on by the garage, which was originally his destination.
Research shows that Bugs Moran and his Northside gang had been hijacking trucks belonging to Al Capone, stealing booze (it was the Prohibition era). Capone’s booze was known as Old Log Cabin and was made in Montreal, Canada. Moran's men would hijack it enroute from Detroit to Chicago. They would then sell it for a tidy profit. (Profits are always highter if you don’t have to pay for the manufacture of product. Economics 101).
Capone and his gang were also unhappy with Moran and his mob because they had whacked Tony Lombardo and Pasqulino Lolordo, two of Capone's chosen men for the Unione Sciciliana.(Italian brotherhood, Mafia). Research also shows that there had been lookouts posted across the street from this garage at 2122 North Clark on Chicago’s North Side . . . and they had been there for at least a week, noting the coming and going of the Moran gang. They were setting up an ambush and needed to know the routine of their targeets.
George “Bugs” Moran, the intended target
Turns out the Capone gang members had been infiltrating the Moran mob by calling and offering to sell a truckload of booze that they had just highjacked. They sold one truckload, on a Saturday morning, and all went well. They now had the confidence of the Moran gang. A call was made with the caller purporting to be a leader of the Detroit Purple Gang, calling Moran for delivery of some booze at 10:30 am on Feb.14, 1929, a Thursday.
All parties, including Moran, had planned to rendezvous at the garage, take delivery of the booze, settle up financially, and then move out smartly to enjoy the rest of the weekend.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
While it’s true Capone was in Florida at the time of the Valentine’s Day Massacre, everyone, including the police, knew he had orchestrated the event . . . including his alibi.
The objective was the assassination of the remains of the Dion O'Banion gang now under the leadership of George "Bugs" Moran. 2122 North Clark Street was Heyer's Garage and Moran's headquarters. Nobody knows the exact composition of the hit squad, but apparently there were five members. Two of the assassins were dressed in police uniforms. In about ten seconds six of the seven men were dead.
(A) Heyer’s Garage, site of the massacre. (B) Apartment where Capone’s lookouts cased
the ambush site.
Moran had escaped gangland's bullets altogether. He eventually wound up in prison and died of cancer in 1957 inside the federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth.)
The Coroner and his staff with the victims
It was later learned that about 14 men were used in the massacre killing crew. Most, would, in turn, be themselves killed. Two women who witnessed the arrival and departure of the ‘police,’ who heard the gunfire, and who called the cops, were threatened with death; the Coroner was also threatened. (See account of threat above). Coroner Herman Bundesen finally ended his inquest into the seven murders on November 16,1931. On this date the Coroner's jury returns a verdict stating that the two Gusenberg's and five others found at the North Clark street garage came to their deaths "At the hands of a person or persons, unknown."
There is lots of compelling evidence, but no one was ever brought to trial for these seven murders called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. To this day it is an unsolved case.
The following month after the massacre Capone is called to a big organized crime meeting in Atlantic City. It is agreed and suggested to him to go away for awhile until the heat in Chicago dies down. The massacre creates friction for all gangland members in many cities.
The massacre also brought the belated and full attention of the federal government to bear on Capone and his criminal activities.
Capone would later be arrested. By the time of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Al Capone had clawed his way to the top of the subterranean crime world. He was worth some $200 million dollars. Crime had paid off very handsomely. He had "revolutionized" the bootleg liquor, gambling and prostitution businesses of organized crime. He had become the "Big Shot."
It was on May 17, 1929, nine days after Capone had committed the brutal murders of his own brutal murderers, Capone was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon. Within hours he was in jail. His cell was furnished, he had arranged to purchase several ‘favors’ from his jailers.
Capones’ Luxurious Cell
He was released on St. Patrick's Day in 1930. Capone's star was now in eclipse.
The following year on November 24, 1931, he was sentenced to eleven years in a federal prison for income tax evasion. Capone was effectively off the streets. Soon, he was transferred to Alcatraz. After seven years, six months and fifteen days, Capone was released from prison. His health was failing and he never returned to Chicago. Instead he retired to his Palm Isle residence in Florida, where he lived out his remaining years..
Before his health became worse, Al and his wife, Mae, would go to the restaurants in Florida. He used to have his weekly haircut in town at a hotel and was affectionately called Grandpa by the barber. His last few years he became very child like, acting like a thirteen year old and became highly excited when visitors dropped by to see him. He would get extremely upset when the vistors would leave. Capone had caught syphillis as a young man, probably whle sampling the whores at Johnny Torrino’s whorehouses in Chicago. The disease had now begun to attack his brain, sending him into dementia. His syphillis had also been passed on to his only child, a son, Albert Francis “Sonny” Capone.
When his health deteriorated he would be wheeled around in a wheelchair and brought to the dock of his Florida mansion for fresh air. He would play cards with old associates and thought he was still in charge. Most of his fellow mobsters would appease the big fellow by obligingly letting him win the card game.
He suffered from pneumonia, but seemed to get better near his birthday. At the end he succumbed to a stroke, brought on by the syphillis, on January 25th,1947, at 7:30 pm.
When it’s Story Tellin’ Time in Chicago this is one of the many favorite stories locals and historians alike love to tell.
Those of us who lived in or near the Windy City have heard many of them, visited the sites,
and love to tell all the juicy tales.
The problem is which story to tell. Chicago is loaded with stories and it seems the best ones involve the gangster element.
And, when you talk about Chicago gangsters, the conversation always turns to Alphonse Capone. Scarface. Scarface Al. (No one ever called him that to his face).
After the lovely Valentines Day present, Moran was asked who he thought had done it. He replied: “Only Capone kills like that.”
Another example of just how tough Capone could be:
Three of Capone’s lieutenants were suspected of being disloyal. The three, not incidentally, were among the group believed by police to be part of the hit team that performed the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In true Sicilian tradition, Capone staged a performance worthy of a Florence Ziegfeld.
"On May 8, 1929, Al Capone threw a dinner at a roadhouse restaurant outside of Chicago. The three conspirators, Scalise, Anselmi and Guinta, were the guests of honor sitting at the head table with Capone. Seldom had the three guests of honor sat down to a feast so lavish. Their dark Sicilian faces were flushed as they gorged on the rich, pungent food, washing it down with liters of red wine. At the head of the table, Capone, his big white teeth flashing in an ear-to-ear smile, oozing affability, proposed toast after toast to the trio. Saluto, Scalise! Saluto, Anselmi! Saluto, Giunta!
When, long after midnight, the last morsel had been devoured and the last drop drunk, Capone pushed back his chair.
A glacial silence fell over the room. His smile had faded. Nobody was smiling now except the sated, mellow guests of honor, their belts and collars loosened to accommodate their Gargantuan intake. As the silence lengthened they, too, stopped smiling. Nervously, they glanced up and down the long table.
Capone leaned toward them. The words dropped from his mouth like stones. So they thought he didn't know? They imagined they could hide the offense he never forgave -- disloyalty?
Capone had observed the old tradition. Hospitality before execution. The Sicilians were defenseless, having, like the other banqueters, left their guns in the checkroom.
Capone's bodyguards fell upon them, lashing them to their chairs with wire and gagging them. Capone got up, holding a baseball bat. Slowly, he walked the length of the table and halted behind the first guest of honor. With both hands he lifted the bat and slammed it down full force. Slowly, methodically, he struck again and again, breaking bones in the man's shoulders, arms and chest. He moved to the next man and, when he had reduced him to mangled flesh and bone, to the third.
One of the bodyguards then fetched his revolver from the checkroom and shot each man in the back of the head."
Capone arrived in Chicago from New York, following his mentor Johnny Torrio, in 1920, the year the Volstead Act was enacted marking the beginning of the Prohibition era. In the next ten years he would come to dominate the organized crime syndicates in the Chicago area. He would become more popular than the president of the United States.
Capone at his Florida Estate. His mind had begun to go.
Estimates vary, but between 300 and 500 murders were attributed to him as he gained control of the Chicago crime world. However he never was convicted for any murder. By 1927 Capone had reached celebrity status. He was invited to major social functions that were normally out of bounds for criminals. He was worth millions of dollars and his power was absolute. By paying attention to the poor and downtrodden of Chicago - even opening soup kitchens - he was seen as a romantic Robin Hood figure by many. The authorities, however, were beginning to put the pressure on Capone and his operations.
Capone certainly wasn’t the only bad guy within the mobster brotherhood.
Some of the older readers will remember Joe E. Lewis, a comic about whom a movie was made, starring Frank Sinatra. The movie? “The Joker is Wild.” Joe E. Lewis, real name Joseph Klewan, was both a comedian and singer in the 1920's and later in the 40's, 50,s and 60's. His career took off in the twenties appearing in cabarets in Chicago.
He was appearing at the Green Mill Gardens, a popular nightspot for gangsters and stars of the day. Notables such as Charlie Chaplin, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Texas Guinan and Al Capone frequented this club which is still open today. At the time Lewis was appearing there, the club was partly owned by Machinegun Jack McGurn, one of Al Capone's favorite hitmen and bodyguards (and, police say, the one who planned and carried out Capone’s Valentines Day Massacre.) Lewis was offered a pay raise if he would leave the Green Mill. He was making $650 a week at the Green Mill and was now being offered $1000 a week plus a percentage of the cover charges at The New Rendezvous cafe on the northside. Joe was happy to move on from the Green Mill, especially since his contract was about to expire.
He mentioned to Mc Gurn that he was leaving the Green Mill and wasn't renewing his contract. McGurn warned him to stay or else he would never live to open at The New Rendez-vous. Joe told him he would easily find somebody to replace him, but McGurn was insistent.
Joe would leave his hotel every day nervously expecting to get whacked and even had a bodyguard protecting him for a while. Slowly he began to think that McGurn was bluffing as he did his opening night at the New Rendezvous Cafe without a hitch. McGurn one day caught up with him and told him how the Green Mill was like a morgue without him.
The attack on Joe did come and it came in November of 1927.
He was sleeping when a knock came at his hotel room door. He was living at the Commonwealth Hotel at the time. With sleep still in his eyes, he opened the door of his suite totally forgetting about the threats McGurn had made in the past. Three hoodlums pushed into his room. He was warned not to scream. One grabbed a hold of Lewis while the other two began to pistol whip him on the head with their gun butts; one with a .45 and the other with a .38. They pounded so hard that pieces of bone from his skull entered his brain. While still holding him up the third hoodlum took out a long hunting knife and proceeded to carve his face. He began at the left ear and went under his throat. He took off a piece of his tongue. Blood began to gush out as Lewis made gurgling noises. Lewis inevitably passed out. The hoodlums left him for dead. Lewis amazingly crawled from his apartment into the hallway. The chambermaid who knew him thought it was a joke, knowing stunts done by Joe in the past. Finally, he was rescued and taken by ambulance to the hospital.
The killers who botched up the hit were also hit themselves.
Lewis took many years to learn how to speak and regain his confidence. After many disappointing appearances he left his burlesque vaudevillian singing and stuck with stand up comedy. He flourished in the 40's 50's and 60's appearing frequently in Las Vegas and hanging around with people like Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Frank Sinatra.
Lewis was a heavy drinker, gambler and smoker. He died in 1971 from a stroke.
There are many, many more stories about Chicago and its gangsters. Some solved, some unsolved. Most are exciting, danger filled stories.
But that will have to wait until another day. Stay tuned.