St. Valentine's Day Massacre

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St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Photograph

By: Anonymous

Date: February 15, 1929

Source: AP Images

About the Photographer: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is widely believed to have been carried out by Al Capone and his gang, although this was never proven in court. The photographer is unknown.

INTRODUCTION

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, celebrated in films, television, and books, was a sequence of murders that gave Al Capone total control of Chicago's underworld. Capone's gang and the rival Northside Gang, organized by Dion O'Banion, had clashed violently over control of the city's bootlegging and vice businesses. O'Banion's 1924 murder in the flower shop that he ran began the brutal gangland wars that ended on February 14, 1929.

George "Bugs" Moran took charge of the North-side gang after O'Banion's death and plotted to take over Capone's empire. Capone, in turn, was determined to dominate the north and eliminate Moran. Their struggle was a bloody one: In the years following O'Banion's death, more than 215 unsolved murders were attributed to mob hits.

On Valentine's Day in 1929, seven men waited in the garage of the SMC Cartage Company for Moran, who was due to arrive at 10:30 a.m. The men were waiting for what they thought was a truckload of stolen liquor that was due to arrive. Such business deals were common—but this was a trick designed to gather Moran's gang in one place for easy killing.

The men who waited were Adam Heyer, owner of the garage and a man with many aliases; Frank and Peter Gusenberg, brothers and veteran gunmen; James Clark, Moran's brother-in-law; Albert Weinshank, owner of a speakeasy called the Alcazar Club; John May, a former safe blower and father of seven who served as the gang's mechanic; and Dr. Reinhart H. Schwimmer, an ophthalmologist who had left medicine for the more glamorous work of bootlegging.

At 10:30, when Moran was expected, a Cadillac touring car of the kind typically used by Chicago police detectives pulled up at the garage. Two men in police uniforms entered the garage followed by two men, presumably detectives, in civilian clothes. The neighbors who observed their arrival assumed that it was just another police raid. The gangsters in the garage apparently came to the same conclusion.

The Moran gangsters prepared to be arrested. They lined up, facing the rear wall of the garage, and let themselves be disarmed. Then the two men in civilian clothing stepped forward, produced a submachine gun and a sawed-off shotgun from beneath their overcoats, and opened fire. The men in police uniforms fired their revolvers. Six victims fell backward where they stood. May turned and leaped at the assassins. A shotgun blast stopped him. When the real police arrived, the garage was filled with smoke and brick dust. More than 100 empty shells lay on the floor.

PRIMARY SOURCE

ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the climax of Chicago's gangster era, cemented Al Capone's control of the city's bootlegging and vice operations. No one doubted that Capone had ordered the executions. Moran, who turned the corner just as the false policemen were stepping out of their car, fled the scene rather than be arrested. He went into hiding, and, his power gone, was reduced to robbing banks. He died in federal prison in 1957.

Many Chicagoans initially thought that the "officers" involved in the shootings were real Chicago police. Their corruption was well known, and the massacre seemed like yet another black eye for the force. However, a ballistics expert brought in from New York City found that the bullets did not come from police-issued guns but could be traced to the Capone gang. The getaway car, discovered just as gangsters were hacking it apart with acetylene torches, had originally been owned by Cook County Commissioner Frank J. Wilson, who had just traded it to a car dealer.

The St. Valentine's Day massacre shocked and revolted Chicagoans, whose admiration for the powerful gangsters had lead to a tolerant and easygoing attitude toward organized crime. Most citizens believed that gangsters killed only one another and that gangland problems were not especially important. This time, however, the number of victims, the fact that they had been butchered while they stood with hands up, and that the killers had dressed as police officers, were seen as insults to law and order.

Police Commissioner William F. Russell declared the massacre to be the last straw. A newly appointed reformer, he issued an order requiring all poolrooms, restaurants, clubs, stores, soft-drink establishments, and similar businesses to remove all barriers to free public access and view. The order shut down most of Chicago's speakeasies, which badly hurt the bootlegging trade. Many of Chicago's gangsters left town, though gangland activity did not stop.

Despite widespread knowledge of his guilt, Capone never went to jail for the killings. Tried and convicted of tax evasion, he was sent to federal prison for cheating the U.S. Treasury. Only Jack McGurn, the Capone gunman who had hired the killers, was tried for massacre. His case was dropped for lack of evidence. He died in Chicago on the seventh anniversary of the massacre when three never-identified men shot him.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: Putnam's, 1971.

Schoenberg, Robert J. Mr. Capone. New York: William Morrow, 1992.

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