Accardo, Tony (“Big Tuna”)

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Accardo, Tony (“Big Tuna”)

(b. 28 April 1906 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 27 May 1992 in Chicago, Illinois), gangster and mob boss of organized crime in Chicago, who was hailed as the “Genuine Godfather.”

Accardo was born in Chicago’s “Little Sicily” to Francesco Accardo, a shoemaker, and his wife, Maria Tillota, a home-maker. Baptized Antonino Leonardo Accardo, he was the second of six children.

Accardo attended James Otis Elementary School in Chicago from 1911 to 1916, and then went on to Washington Grade School. Not impressed with the education that he was receiving, his parents filed a delayed birth certificate, claiming that he was born on 28 April 1904 so that, officially sixteen, he would be of legal age to leave school in 1920 at the actual age of fourteen. He never returned to school.

Living in the knock-around world of Chicago’s “Little Sicily,” Accardo was just another punk doing his share of muggings and stealing. With Prohibition came a new cottage industry—bootleg whiskey. Young Accardo was arrested eight times for bootlegging before he was old enough to vote, although he bragged that he never spent a night in jail (although he was indicted no fewer than four times between 1948 and 1982) because the mob “owned” the police and the judges.

Early in 1926 Accardo met Chicago’s mob boss, Al Capone, and was initiated into the Capone mob at the age of twenty. He served as Capone’s chauffeur and guarded the boss by sitting for hours in the lobby of Capone’s suite in the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, screening visitors. Before Accardo’s twenty-third birthday, he had solidified his reputation as a Capone mobster.

On the morning of 14 February 1929, the Capone gang massacred seven members of the North Side Gang, a rival Chicago gang. Many suspected Accardo of complicity in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Four Capone mobsters did the shooting; Accardo may have been one of them. Accardo was also known to have great prowess with a baseball bat, though not in baseball. His prowess lay in smashing the skulls of rival gang members, various Capone foes, and loan-shark debtors. For this Capone nicknamed him “Joe Batters.” (Many said Accardo had “more brains at breakfast than Capone had all day.”) Later in his life the media nicknamed him “Big Tuna,” for Accardo’s love of sportfishing.

In 1934 Accardo married Clarice Evelyn Porter, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Within twelve years, they had two daughters and adopted two sons. One of their sons, Anthony Ross Accardo, won millions of dollars in the Illinois state lottery later in life.

The 1930s were profitable years for the Chicago mob. Accardo was involved in everything connected with the mob. By 1930 his official position was that of “capo”— captain of the street crew. When the Chicago Crime Commission released the first list of public enemies on 31 July 1931, Accardo ranked seventh. Gradually, he assumed more important leadership positions, especially after Frank Nitti, the mob boss, shot and killed himself in 1943. Paul (“The Waiter”) Ricca, a close confidant of Accardo, succeeded as head of the mob but was sent to prison later that year. Only in his mid-thirties, Accardo was now the boss. In 1946, with Ricca in the penitentiary, Accardo brought in the disciplined glory days for the mob. He took over bookmaking by controlling the wire services that carried racing information so that bookmakers could set the odds, pay off the winners, and collect on bets.

By 1957 the mob was fully under Accardo’s control. Even its public image was acceptable to most people in Chicago because the organization seemed to kill only its own members, it didn’t deal in narcotics, and it kept many areas of Chicago under control. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover believed that the FBI should have little interest in the mob because its operations were usually limited and local and did not involve interstate commerce. There was little national interest in disciplining the mob.

This changed in November 1957, when mob families in New York and other states were once again warring with each other. The national leaders of organized crime decided to have a meeting of members of all the major families so that they could settle their differences and end internecine warfare. They met on 14 November 1957 in Apalachin, New York. A New York State trooper alerted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to investigate whether any laws were being broken. Soon the media got hold of the story and broadcast the fact that the country’s leading mob figures had met in Apalachin. This caught the attention of Hoover. Crossing state lines to conspire to commit a crime was a matter for the FBI. With the exposure of the mob menace and an aroused American public, Hoover took action.

From that time on, Accardo and company were subjects of investigation. Accardo had withstood the Kefauver investigations into organized crime and racketeering in 1950 by pleading the Fifth Amendment. In the spring of 1958 Accardo was investigated for income tax fraud. The McClellan Committee investigation of organized crime later subpoenaed Accardo. Appearing before the committee, he gave only his name and address and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent 172 times.

By the late 1950s the mob, under Accardo’s leadership, had accomplished all of its goals. Although he enjoyed unbridled prosperity, Accardo had become bored with the job. In his early fifties, in good physical, financial, and mental health, Accardo was urged by his wife, Clarice, to step aside. It was time. Knowing that he could never quit—“mobsters only get out of the mob feet first” was an old expression— he decided to become the “consigliere,” the wise counselor. Thus, he didn’t step down; he stepped aside.

The new boss was Sam Giancana. A flamboyant, natty dresser and publicity seeker who loved the limelight and ignored Accardo’s advice to “keep your head down,” Giancana didn’t last long. As a result, the mob did not prosper under Giancana’s leadership. Giancana went to jail in 1965, was released in 1966, and fled to Mexico. He returned to Chicago and was murdered on 18 June 1975. After his death came a series of successors, but none with Accardo’s skills, leadership ability, or staying power.

Accardo finally retired. On the evening of 27 May 1992, he died of heart and respiratory failure in a Chicago hospital at the age of eighty-six. He is buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois, in the family crypt. To the right of his burial site is the crypt of Paul Ricca, Accardo’s closest friend.

Although Accardo killed and broke many laws, even law enforcement agents respected him. He preferred to settle disputes without bloodshed. Accardo was the most important leader in organized crime and the last link to the Capone era.

There are several sources of information on the life and times of Tony Accardo. Foremost is Accardo: The Genuine Godfather (1995), by former FBI agent William F. Roemer. Bill Brashler, The Don (1977); William F. Roemer’s autobiography, Roemer: Man Against the Mob (1989); William F. Roemer, War of the Godfathers (1991); and Robert J. Schoenberg, Mr. Capone (1993), all reference Accardo. Also helpful is Sandy Smith, “The Charmed Life of Gangster Tony Accardo,” Saturday Evening Post (24 Nov. 1962). An obituary is in the Chicago Tribune (30 May 1992).

John Kares Smith