Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Chicago’s Unione Siciliana
1920 – A Decade of Slaughter
By Allan May
Allan May takes us through an eight-part in depth look at Chicago's Unione
Siciliana during the bloody decade of the 1920s. All eight men who held the
position of president of the society died. Seven of them were brutally
Over the years even the most learned of organized crime historians could not agree as to the exact purpose of the Unione Siciliana or its degree of criminality. Below are discussions from four organized crime experts sharing their views of the mysterious society:
A Family Business, by Francis A. J. Ianni:
“Our own view is that the Unione Siciliana was a loose confederation of local groups of Sicilian-Americans involved in selling extortion and protection in the Little Italies and in bootlegging activities, particularly in organizing the cottage industry of home distilling in the ghettos. We maintain that by the late 1920’s this organization had all the cultural and organizational features of a new Mafia in the United States. Like the Mafia in Sicily, it served the Little Italies as a means of social control, a mechanism for the management of social conflict (and again like the Sicilian Mafia, a generator of some of the conflict itself) and as a means of providing services to a public which would otherwise remain unserved.”
Theft of the Nation, by Donald R. Cressey:
“In Chicago, the ‘Unione’ was in the early period of Prohibition engaged in a kind of piecework, sweatshop, alcohol-distilling enterprise. Hundreds of Sicilian immigrants were equipped with stills, and they sold their alcohol to the central organization.”
Italians in Chicago, 1880-1930, by Humbert S. Nelli:
“Journalistic accounts of Chicago crime in the prohibition era generally ascribed control and direction of the production of bootleg booze in the city’s Italian neighborhoods to the Unione Siciliana. Before World War I this organization enjoyed a prestigious reputation for its opposition to immigrant crime as a supporter of the White Hand Society. By 1929 Fred D. Pasley would write that the Union ‘comprises some 15,000 Sicilians, disciplined like an army; implacable of purpose; swift and silent of deed; the Mafia of Italy transplanted to the United States’”
The American Mafia, by Joseph L. Albini:
“There is no doubt that since this society had a large Italian and Sicilian membership during the early 1900s, many writers simply assumed that the society was composed of certain ‘Mafia’ elements. Yet they never give any valid evidence that this in fact was the case. Instead they merely state that Unione Siciliana was another name for the ‘Mafia.’ Oddly, however, we find that in these descriptions ‘Mafia’ now has a president rather than a chief. This again indicates the desire of those writers to force their argument that this fraternal organization, which had a president, vice president, and other positions, was the same as (the) ‘Mafia.’”
Albini also states, “It is obvious in the literature that, as with the terms mafia, Black Hand and Camorra, writers have employed the term Unione Siciliana so loosely that it becomes meaningless.”
There was nothing meaningless about the death rate of Unione Siciliana presidents as the decade wore on.
John Landesco, in Organized Crime in Chicago, lists one of Anthony D’Andrea’s pallbearers, Peter Russo, as president of the Unione Siciliana at his funeral. If he was, and whatever role he played in the organization, it is lost to history. The next president to emerge was Michele “Mike” Merlo.
Merlo was born in Sicily in 1880 and came to America when he was nine years old. While rising in stature within the Unione Siciliana, he exploited the membership to increase his political power, but he was said to have had a genuine concern for the welfare of those in the community. Merlo worked hard to maintain the peace in the Chicago underworld. He had the respect of not only the Torrio / Capone mob and the Genna brothers, but also of the North Side Gang headed by Dion O’Bannion.
Unlike D’Andrea and the men that would hold the office of president of the Unione Siciliano throughout the 1920s, Merlo’s death from natural causes did not create front-page headlines. In fact, below is the entire article from the back pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune covering his death:
MICHAEL MERLO, LEADER OF CHICAGO ITALIANS, IS DEAD
Michael Merlo, 44, 433 Diversy parkway, president of the Union Sicilian society and a leader of Chicago Italians in the Democratic party, died yesterday at his home of a complication of diseases. Mr. Merlo is survived by his wife and six children.
This was hardly a fitting accolade to Merlo’s prestige in the community, especially in view of the $100,000 in floral tributes spent on him. Merlo’s death would trigger a series of events that would change the face of Chicago’s underworld.
In Edward D. Sullivan’s Rattling the Cup, he describes the Genna family as, “the most tempestuous, vengeful and reckless family of fireworks that ever whirled itself to death and disorder in Chicago’s crime history.” The six Genna brothers – Angelo, Antonio, Mike, Peter, Sam and Vincenzo – dominated bootlegging in the 19th Ward, now more popularly known as Little Italy. When Prohibition began they found there was a fortune to be made. The brothers were able to obtain a federal license to manufacture industrial alcohol. They then re-distilled the alcohol to make it palatable and sold it illegally. From their headquarters, a three-story warehouse on Taylor Street, they watched the money pour in and their product pour out. Soon they were unable to keep up with the demand.
A solution to this problem was arrived at by Henry Spignola, a lawyer, businessman and politician, whose sister later married Angelo Genna. With financing from Johnny Torrio, the Gennas installed stills in the homes of Little Italy’s residents. Beginning with a few hundred, the numbers of stills in these mostly tenement flats grew into the thousands. With relatively little work to be done, the still watchers earned $15 a day. As the Gennas’ power and influence grew in Little Italy, the brothers jumped on the political bandwagon of “Diamond Joe” Esposito, the Republican ward boss. They also had a large number of policemen from the Maxwell Street Station on their payroll protecting their alky-cooking operations from harassment. Included in their payroll was said to be five police captains.
With their immensely successful alky cooking operations the Gennas soon had a surplus of bootleg alcohol and began to push the product outside of their agreed upon territory. As they moved north and east they butted heads with Dion O’Bannion’s North Side Gang. O’Bannion supplied a better product compared to the Gennas’ “rot gut” whiskey, so the brothers tried to level the playing field by lowering their prices by $3 to $6 a gallon.
O’Bannion could be savage and unpredictable. Out of respect Torrio, whose genius had helped establish the individual gang territories in the city, O’Bannion complained to him instead of declaring war on the Gennas. Torrio’s influence was enough to make the Gennas recede, although there remained a few border skirmishes.
In the spring of 1924, O’Bannion hijacked a shipment of the Gennas’ alcohol and the precarious peace was teetering. Both Torrio and Merlo used their persuasive talents to keep the Gennas from retaliating. Then O’Bannion dropped a bombshell. He went to Torrio and told him that he had had enough and that he was retiring to Colorado. O’Bannion asked Torrio to purchase his share of the Sieben Brewery, which they jointly owned. The price was $500,000.
Unknown to Torrio was that O’Bannion had been informed the Chicago police had plans to raid the brewery. O’Bannion concocted a plan to make sure Torrio was there when the raid took place. Since this would be Torrio’s second prohibition violation, if convicted, he faced certain prison time. During the early hours of May 19, 1924, Torrio, O’Bannion and 29 others were arrested at the brewery. Torrio soon realized O’Bannion’s treachery. In addition to the humiliation of the arrest, O’Bannion refused to return the money Torrio had paid him for his share of the brewery.
In the weeks following the raid, hostilities increased between the North Siders and the Gennas. During this time it was reported that O’Bannion’s second in command, Hymie Weiss, suggested caution in the gang’s activities against the brothers. O’Bannion is said to have replied with a snarling, “Oh, to hell with them Sicilians.” These words quickly got back to the Gennas and their allies – Torrio and Capone.
Over the summer of 1924 and into the fall, Mike Merlo was still preaching peace and discouraging any plans to kill O’Bannion. Torrio and the Gennas bided their time. O’Bannion had part ownership in a Cicero gambling den called the Ship. He, Weiss and fellow North Sider, Vincent “the Schemer” Drucci would stop by weekly for their split of the profits. On November 3, they met Capone at the Ship, where he was surrounded by three Franks – Maritote, Nitti and Rio. As Capone was divvying up the profits, he told O’Bannion that Angelo Genna had lost a lot of money at the club the previous week. In addition to dropping an untold amount of money, young Angelo had run up a $30,000 marker. Capone suggested that as a courtesy to Genna that they tear up the IOU. O’Bannion responded by heading to the nearest telephone and ordering Angelo Genna to make good on the marker within the week.
This incident proved to be the last straw. Five days later, Mike Merlo succumbed to cancer. The Torrio / Capone / Genna forces, who had capitulated to Merlo’s pleas for peace, used the Unione Siciliana leader’s passing to initiate their plot to murder O’Bannion. On Sunday night, November 9, Vincenzo Genna arrived at Schofield’s flower shop, which O’Bannion jointly owned (he had a love for arranging flowers). Genna picked up a $750 wreath – casing the shop before he departed. Later that evening, Frank Uale (pronounced and sometimes spelled Yale), at onetime Capone’s New York City mentor and recognized as the national head of the Unione Siciliana, called Schofield’s and placed a $2,000 flower order (some references say it was Angelo Genna who placed the call). The order was to be picked up at the shop the following morning.
Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, November 10, three men entered Schofield’s flower shop. Two were members the Unione Siciliana and would gain a reputation as Chicago’s most proficient killers – Albert Anselmi and John Scalise. The third man was never positively identified, although he was believed to be either Frank Uale or Mike Genna. A porter sweeping up in the back room watched either Uale or Genna shake O’Bannion’s hand. As the porter turned his back to continue his chore he heard five gun shots. Turing back around he could see the man was still grasping O’Bannion’s hand. The North Side gang leader was killed instantly.
Before Merlo died, a lieutenant, believed to be Anthony Lombardo, hired a sculptor to create a wax likeness of the Unione Siciliana leader’s head. Done in a tint that mirrored Merlo’s skin tone, the waxen head was taken back to a studio to be completed. Matching brown eyes were implanted and eyebrows and eyelashes made from actual black and gray human hair were added. The head was mounted on a copper wire frame built to match Merlo’s measurements. A suit of blue flowers completed the effigy. At the funeral home, it was said that “fear gripped” the thousands of mourners who came to pay their respects until their eyes became accustomed to the candle lit likeness of the former leader.
Merlo’s funeral was held on November 13. Three thousand mourners gathered around his home the day of the funeral and followed the procession to St. Clement’s Church for high mass. The 266-car cortege made its way to Mount Carmel Cemetery led by the life-sized effigy of Merlo. At the cemetery the crowd of mourners swelled to 10,000. Among the honorary pallbearers were Mayor William E. Dever, State Attorney Robert E. Crowe, Police Chief Morgan A. Collins, and Cook County board president and future mayor, Anton J. Cermak. The following day Dion O’Bannion was buried in the same cemetery.
Police arrested Uale several days later as he was at the train station on his way back to New York. Samoots Amatuna provided an airtight alibi for Uale by producing a waiter that swore he had served lunch to the two men at the Palmer House restaurant while the murder was taking place. This, plus the fact that it would have been questionable for Uale to use his name while ordering the flowers and then showing up to murder O’Bannion, led some crime historians to believe it was Mike Genna who actually held the hand of the North Side leader that day,
O’Bannion’s death would be avenged. In January 1925, a North Side hit squad consisting of Weiss, Drucci and George “Bugs” Moran shot and seriously wounded Johnny Torrio outside his apartment. Torrio eventually recovered, served his sentence from the Sieben Brewery raid, and left Chicago behind. Capone took over the Chicago rackets and would battle the North Side followers of O’Bannion in a war that raged on for four more years culminating in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
To be continued next week.
Copyright A. R. May 2000