09 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: Organized Crime in Chicago

By Delia DeLeest

Big cities have always had crime, it goes with the territory, but Chicago seems to be famous for its links to crime of the organized variety. How did a nice, Midwestern cattle town become the Crime Capitol of the United States? The answer is relatively simple.

Prohibition, the "noble experiment", was thought by its proponents to be the savior of the sinful and the protector of the innocent. Instead, it gave organized crime a firm foothold it has yet to relinquish and ushered in a wave of illegal bootlegging and gang rivalry that took years for the city to recover from. Chicago was a prime candidate for organized crime. Its location, close to the Wisconsin northwoods and the Canadian border, along with its access to Lake Michigan, made importing illegal liqueur relatively easy. Besides, its government was already handily in the pockets of the city's criminals, making it simple to encourage justice to look the other way when encountering its less savory, though very powerful, characters.

When Prohibition began, the unrefuted crime boss of of Chicago was Big Jim Colosimo. He controlled prostitution, racketeering and all other forms of vice in the Windy City. Big Jim was famous for his fancy clothes and love of the opera. When his love of opera transferred itself to love of a particular singer, the trouble began. He left his wife and focused all his attention on the young woman who was to become the next Mrs. Big Jim.

Not only was his first wife neglected, but so was his criminal empire. Much to the frustration of his second in command, Johnny Torrio, he refused to see the great profits that could be gained by exploiting Prohibition by building up a bootlegging empire in the city. It was during this time that a young kid from New York, Alphonse Capone, made himself known to Mr. Torrio and became indispensable to the organization. Legend has it that when Johnny Torrio finally became frustrated enough with Big Jim to take action, it was Al Capone who assisted. Big Jim Colosimo was found shot to death on May 11, 1920.

With Big Jim out of the way, Johnny was in business. A very methodical businessman, Torrio's plan was to organize the scattered pockets of bootleggers who had been fighting for control of the city. By dividing Chicago up into different areas, each serviced by a different gang, in which he would be the leader, he felt that not only could they all become rich, but stop the infighting so they could all live to enjoy it. A wonderful plan that just may have worked, but for one thing, all of the crime lords he was attempting to organize, became crime lords for a reason, they were as crooked as the day was long. Despite Torrio's efforts and threats, the group was plagued by cheating and double-dealing.

As Torrio's enforcer, Capone tended to take a fight fire with fire approach and blood flowed freely down the streets of Chicago. Since Torrio's whole concept was to incorporate to prevent bloodshed, he and Capone were soon at odds as to how to keep their fellow gangsters in line. Torrio had taught Capone everything he knew, so it should have come to no surprise to anyone when Torrio was gunned down in his front yard one day, much like Big Jim Colosimo had been five years earlier.

Unlike Big Jim though, Torrio survived. The shooting was traced to The Northsiders, the Chicago gang led by Deanie O'Banion and his fellow Irishmen, though there is ample suspicion that Capone had something to do with it. Nevertheless, Capone, good right-hand man that he was, had a ten-man guard outside Torrio's hospital door during his recovery and, when Torrio decided that gangstering business was getting too dangerous and retired, Capone gladly took his place at the helm of Chicago's underworld.

Under Capone's leadership, Chicago came as close as it was going to get to being under one rule. He systematically eliminated the competition, peaking with the wiping out of O'Banion's Irishers during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. His spree only ended when he was finally put away in Federal prison for tax evasion in the early 1930's.

Capone's been gone for years, but his legacy continues. Though organized crime in Chicago isn't as blatant as it was during its Prohibition heyday, its claws are embedded deep in the very fabric of America.