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
In the early 1930s Johnny Torrio purchased the Prendergast & Davies Company, LTD. for $62,000. The company was a wholesale liquor concern as well as an importer. Torrio set up an in-law as president of the company and hired a few former bootlegging pals to help run it. Although it was a legitimate operation, Torrio wanted his name kept out of the records for tax purposes. However, when a jealous competitor turned informer the government was alerted to Torrio’s hidden ownership in the firm.
The government was already in the process of putting a tax evasion case together against Torrio. Investigators had discovered his role in the Eastern Seaboard liquor cartel as well as his hidden ownership in a government-licensed alcohol denaturing plant in Baltimore.
While this was going on Torrio fled to St. Petersburg, Florida in the wake of the murders of Dutch Schultz and three of his gang members. Torrio and Schultz owned two-thirds of the Greater City Surety and Indemnity Company and were in a position to create a monopoly on bail bonds in the city. After Schultz was shot Torrio’s name came up several times during the delirious deathbed ramblings of the Dutchman and the police wanted to question him.
When Torrio realized the depth of the government investigation he quickly sold Prendergast & Davies to a Boston group, turning a $93,000 profit. He then tried to leave the country and booked passage for Anna and himself to sail from Quebec to Rio de Janeiro. On April 22, 1936, Torrio went to the White Plains Post Office to pick up his passport. There he was arrested by an Internal Revenue agent and jailed at the Federal Detention House in Manhattan on a $100,000 bond.
Anna brought the $100,000 in cash, wrapped in a newspaper, to bail her husband out. While Torrio was signing a receipt for the return of his personal possessions, he was served with a warrant charging him with forgery. He then waited another two hours while Anna trotted out and fetched another $4,000 for bail on these charges. Still later, a New York City police captain arrested Torrio for vagrancy. Anna bailed him out again. As Torrio left the Coney Island Municipal Court he tripped and fell while trying to dodge newspaper photographers. An embarrassing photograph of the sprawling Torrio appeared in newspapers across the country.
Government agents prosecuting Torrio came to the conclusion that he owed $110,277 in back taxes and penalties for the years 1933 through 1935. William H. Boyd, a “section chief” with eighteen years of government service, recommended to the court a cash settlement of $100,000, but no criminal prosecution. The offer stunned members of government agencies who had investigated Torrio and an investigation of Boyd was initiated. The FBI quickly discovered a connection between the two men; Torrio held the mortgage on Boyd’s home. Boyd was suspended from his job and ordered to report to the FBI for questioning. Instead, he went home and hanged himself.
Torrio’s trial got underway on March 29, 1939. Bail was revoked and Torrio spent his nights in a detention center. The jurors were sequestered with deputy marshals guarding them. Both of these precautions were normally reserved for capital murder trials.
The government presented a host of witnesses during the first week including imprisoned narcotics peddler Jacob “Yasha” Katzenberg. Late in the trial information was introduced tying Torrio to Schultz and the Greater City Surety & Indemnity Company. Schultz’s widow, Frances, and his attorney, Richard “Dixie” Davis, were due to testify. In addition, reporters discovered that Al Capone had been questioned at Alcatraz about Torrio’s finances and his tactics for hiding income. A fifty-page statement allegedly had been prepared. Both revelations made the front pages. At this point Torrio decided to plead guilty.
Although Torrio was looking at twelve years in prison, Prosecutor Seymour Klein asked for and received a sentence of just two and a half years for him. Torrio was also ordered to pay $86,000 for back taxes and fines.
As Torrio was led away a curious reporter asked him, “Why did you change your plea?”
Torrio replied, “Mrs. Torrio told me to do it.”
The “Fox” never revealed why he changed his plea. Asked by reporters if he thought the Schultz or Capone revelations had anything to do with the guilty plea, Prosecutor Klein replied he had been intending to “present witnesses with first hand knowledge of the Torrio-Boyd relationship.” Klein felt the story of the “bribery and suicide” scandal would provide a lot of weight for the jury.
Journalist and author Jack McPhaul wrote the biography, Johnny Torrio: First of the Gang Lords, in 1970. McPhaul was a veteran Chicago newspaperman, his career dating back to 1923. He interviewed Seymour Klein about the Capone incident and was told that the news stories about the statement were incorrect. Klein told McPhaul that, “Capone did not want to say anything against Torrio.” An associate of Klein later told Capone biographer John Kobler that even though Capone’s mind was already in a state of deterioration he still “fended off probing questions” and said that Torrio had been like a father to him.
Torrio was imprisoned at Leavenworth Penitentiary. He was soon joined there by Lepke Buchalter who received a fourteen-year sentence on narcotics charges. Soon Lepke would be on his way back to New York and finally the electric chair in Sing Sing after Abe “Kid Twist” Reles ratted out the Murder, Inc. gang.
On April 14, 1941, after having served just twenty-three months, Torrio was paroled. According to Jack McPhaul, Torrio, after realizing the humiliation his wife experienced when his parole officer performed an inspection of their Brooklyn apartment, made Anna a promise that “never again would he bring her grief.”
Like many leading members of the New York underworld, Torrio sweated out the ramblings of Abe Reles, and later the rumors that Lepke himself was going to spill what he knew about his crime associates. Torrio spent those dreadful years vacationing in St. Petersburg, Florida during the winter months. True to his word to Anna, Torrio stayed clear of illegal activities and focused his energies in the real estate market. During this time he and his wife were the target of an extortion plot in which two Brooklyn men threatened to kill them if $10,000 was not paid. Torrio, at Anna’s urging, took the extortion note to his probation officer. In an ironic twist, Torrio worked with the FBI to lay a trap for the two men. Although the men failed to show, the pair was arrested six months later and Torrio testified in federal court.
Torrio’s name came up briefly during the Kefauver hearings in the early 1950s. Although they were close friends and business associates for years, Costello told the committee he had met Torrio only twice. On two earlier occasions, in 1943 and 1947, Costello, testifying under oath, denied that he had ever met Torrio.
McPhaul takes us through the twilight years of Torrio’s life. In 1953, Torrio and Anna moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for a short time where he was involved in real estate. The couple returned to Brooklyn where Torrio tended to his business interests, went to real estate auctions, and drove around the city appraising properties.
On the morning of April 16, 1957, Torrio sat down in a barber’s chair for a haircut and suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to Cumberland Hospital. With his devoted wife Anna at his bedside the “Fox” died peacefully at 3:45 that afternoon.
McPhaul writes that Torrio had a sparsely attended funeral with burial at Greenwood Cemetery. This was unlike the many lavish funerals Torrio had been a part of during his days in Chicago. McPhaul claims that Torrio had been buried for three weeks before the newspapers found out about his passing.
Despite the fine investigative work McPhaul did on his biography of Torrio he made one interesting mistake. He talks about Torrio reading a newspaper article on the suicide death of his long time friend Abner Zwillman. McPhaul states that Torrio sadly “put down the paper and sighed. He had many good recollections of Longy.” The problem is Zwillman committed suicide in February 1959, nearly two years after Torrio’s death.
Torrio’s contemporaries on the other side of the law always had respect for him. Virgil W. Peterson of the Chicago Crime Commission called Torrio, “an organizational genius.” Elmer Irey, the famous head of the Treasury Department’s Intelligence Unit, called Torrio, “the father of modern American gangsterdom.” Irey claimed, “He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums. And when I say best I am referring of course to talent. Not morals.”
It is interesting to note that the three men who were given credit for the Atlantic City Conference, and who helped create the organized crime structure that still exists in the United States today – Lansky, Costello and Torrio – all died peacefully of natural causes in a hospital bed with their wives near their side. Maybe in the end that’s a true sign of success for a mob boss.
Copyright A. R. May 2000