Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
The “Fox” … after the Chicago Years
By Allan May
Some people think that after Johnny Torrio turned his crime empire over to a young Al Capone in 1925 that he retired from organized crime. Far from it. Many historians believe that his most important contributions to organized crime were yet to come.
The events leading to Torrio’s exodus from Chicago began on May 19, 1924. On this day North Side Gang leader Dion O’Banion, somewhat of a fox himself, delivered Torrio into the hands of federal authorities. O’Banion, Torrio and Capone jointly owned the Sieben Brewery. When O’Banion was tipped off to an upcoming federal raid on the brewery he went to Torrio and Capone with a concocted story about retiring and heading west. He sold his share to the two and made plans to meet Torrio at the brewery the night of the raid.
When the federal raiders appeared, Torrio realized he had been double-crossed and he, O’Banion, and twenty-six others were hauled off to jail. This was Torrio’s second federal offense and if convicted he would face certain prison time. Torrio seethed in anger and plotted O’Banion’s death, which was carried out on November 10, 1924.
The murder of the popular O’Banion in his flower shop now made the North Side Gang seethe. Gang members responded on January 24, 1925 when they caught up with Torrio after he and his wife Anna returned from an afternoon of shopping. The North Siders - Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and George “Bugs” Moran – seriously wounded Torrio in the chest and neck. Torrio quickly recovered, settled his debt to society – a nine-month stretch in the Lake County Jail – and left Chicago for New York with an armed escort.
Torrio wanted to live in semi-retirement in Italy with his beloved wife. Arriving in New York to set sail, he met with Charles “Lucky” Luciano to discuss his future plans. In the book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, the mob boss discusses their meeting:
“…he (Torrio) had millions stashed away. He told me he wanted to talk over a plan. He thought booze was gonna become legal again and he wanted to become my agent in Europe, to start buyin’ up legal options on the best Scotch to get ready for the end of the Volsted Act. This was seven long years before Repeal, and it was almost impossible to believe. Here was a guy predictin’ that my whole fuckin’ bootleg business, and everybody else’s for that matter, was gonna wind up in the shithouse.”
The following day Torrio again met with Luciano. This time Charlie Lucky invited Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Lansky was of the same opinion as Torrio about looking ahead and getting into legitimate businesses. Before leaving, Torrio told the group, “You’ve gotta get into the big politics; you can buy the top politicians the same way you bought the law.” It was apparent Costello took note of the advice.
The Torrios set sail for Italy in late 1925 where they leased an apartment in an upscale Naples’ neighborhood. Although only 43, Torrio was enjoying retirement. He and Anna took weekend trips together, attended the opera, and enjoyed the warm climate. However, their plans to remain in Italy came to end when Dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the Mafia. Fearing for their safety, the Torrios returned to New York in the spring of 1928.
Torrio met with Luciano, Costello and Joe Adonis and was brought up to date on the events going on in both New York and Chicago. He was told Capone had tuned the city into a Wild West show. Torrio heard that Frank Yale, a long time friend of both he and Capone, were at odds over booze shipments that Capone suspected his one time mentor, Yale, had hijacked. Capone soon dispatched a hit squad to murder his old friend. Though saddened, Torrio stayed away from the opulent funeral not wishing to advertise his return to the states.
Torrio exercised his organizational skills after the death of Arnold Rothstein in November 1928. He helped organize all the prominent bootleggers and rumrunners along the Eastern Seaboard into a loose cartel which allowed them to pool their resources. The cartel stretched from Boston to Philadelphia and the members became known as the “Big Seven.”
In May 1929, mobsters from across the country met in Atlantic City to discuss new ways of cooperating with each other. Depending on which book you read, the meeting was the brainchild of Lansky, Costello or Torrio (even Abner Zwillman’s biographer claims “Longy” was responsible for the summit). Whatever the case, Torrio was seen as the elder statesman at this conference. The mobsters met to forge relationships and prepare for the day when Prohibition would end.
One of the concerns that the group had was the recent rash of bloodshed in Chicago. Between February and May 1929 ten men were brutally murdered in two highly publicized incidents. One was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the other the baseball bat beating deaths of Albert Anselmi, John Scalise, and Joseph Giunta. Capone biographers believe that Torrio convinced Capone that doing a little jail time would help take the heat off everyone. After the meeting, Capone and a bodyguard went to Philadelphia where Scarface allowed himself to be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Capone, thinking he would get ninety days, was slapped with a one-year sentence.
During the bloody Castelammarese War, Torrio kept a low profile. After the smoke cleared, he became a regular visitor at Luciano’s Waldorf Towers apartment on Fiftieth Street near Park Avenue in Manhattan.
Torrio’s influence during this period was apparent again in the spring of 1934. In his book, Lansky, Hank Messick states that a meeting was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan attended by mobsters from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, and Minneapolis. Presiding over this meeting, at which Messick claims that the national crime syndicate was established, was Johnny Torrio.
As early as 1928, Torrio had warned the mob bosses of New York about watching their tax returns. Luciano stated, “That was when Johnny Torrio told everyone of us that we better start fixin’ up our income tax returns. A lot of us did that, startin’ with 1928, to show some legitimate business.” In Chicago, the government was already prosecuting cases against Ralph Capone, Frank Nitti, Jake Guzik, Terry Druggan and Frank Lake. While Capone languished in a Pennsylvania prison, Torrio referred his own tax attorney to him. A couple years later, during Capone’s tax evasion trial, Torrio was brought back to Chicago to testify. Though he was never called, no one expected he would reveal anything about his old protégé.
To be continued next week.
Copyright A. R. May 2000