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
Frank McErlane - Chicago’s “Murder Machine”
By Allan May
The year 1926 got off to a slow start. The first South Side beer war shooting didn’t occur until February 10 when Sheldon associates “Mitters” Foley and William Wilson were wounded.
The next incident was a double murder that took place on April 15. John Tuccello, a thirty-six year old father of three, and Frank DeLaurentis, a cousin of “Diamond Joe” Esposito, were alleged to be ex-employees of the decimated Genna brother’s gang and had recently hooked up with Ralph Sheldon. Apparently the two attempted to supply beer to saloons in the Saltis – McErlane territory and paid the price. On the Saturday night they were killed, they delivered a barrel of beer to a saloon on Fifty-first Street. There they were followed through the back door by four men who ordered them out at gunpoint.
The two were then taken to a secluded location where they were beaten and shot execution style before being loaded into the backseat of a car. The killers threw a blanket over their bodies, drew the window curtains, and drove the car to West Sixty-fifth Street and Rockwell. There they left the automobile parked outside the home of Ralph Sheldon as a warning to stay out of the Saltis – McErlane territory.
Six days after the discovery of the two bodies, a Chicago police squad led by Captain Stege raided a saloon on West Fiftieth Street. There they arrested McErlane, Saltis and, among others, Walter Stevens, who the newspapers called “the dean of all Chicago’s gunmen.” The men were arraigned on federal Prohibition violations; Stege knew there wasn’t enough evidence to connect them to the two murders. However, after McErlane’s friends produced his $5,000 bail, Stege had a surprise for him. He served McErlane with a fugitive warrant for the murder of the Crown Point lawyer. McErlane was thrown back into the lockup to await extradition proceedings to remove him to Indiana, where John O’Reilly sat in Michigan City Prison ready to testify against him.
This effectively removed McErlane for the remainder of the South Side beer war. In July 1926, two attempts were made to kill his brother Vincent by “Mitters” Foley. In one attack another Saltis gang member, Frank Conlon, was killed. Sheldon knew Saltis would strike back and he warned him to leave “Mitters” alone. Two days later, on August 6, “Mitters” Foley was killed in an attack by Saltis, Frank “Lefty Koncil, John “Dingbat” O’Berta, and Earl Herbert. Police captured and jailed the four killers within days and a trial date was scheduled for October.
Saltis, who had a working relationship with Capone, was secretly dealing with North Side gang leader Earl “Hymie” Weiss. This new relationship was uncovered by Capone as early as September 15, 1926 when Vincent McErlane was arrested in connection with a train robbery with North Sider Peter Gusenberg, a future victim of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
When the October trial of Saltis and Koncil got underway, Weiss, who had recently turned down a peace overture from Capone, sat in attendance. On October 11, the twelfth juror was selected and the trial was set to begin the following day. Weiss was returning to his headquarters when he was gunned down in spectacular fashion in front of the Holy Name Cathedral on North State Street. There had been rumors that Weiss was trying to fix the jury for $100,000. When police searched his body they found a listing of all the potential jurors in his pocket.
Weiss’s death put Saltis in a precarious position, as he knew that Capone had discovered his treachery. He moved quickly to safeguard himself. It was through this effort that the Hotel Sherman meeting was arranged on October 20. Here key gang leaders, or their representatives, met to hear a peace plan to stop the senseless slaughter that was going on throughout the county. Saltis and McErlane, who were still in jail, were represented by Maxie Eisen, a respected labor racketeer.
Ironically, Saltis, the man who sought the peace which the Hotel Sherman Treaty provided, was the first one to break it. On December 30, 1926 Saltis gunmen killed Hilary Clements, a member of Ralph Sheldon’s gang. Sheldon took the matter to Capone for arbitration. The decision was made that two members of the Saltis gang were to be sacrificed to teach him a lesson. On March 11, 1927, Frank “Lefty” Koncil, who along with Saltis had been found not guilty in the “Mitters” Foley murder the previous November, and Charles “Big Hayes” Hubacek were murdered.
McErlane was acquitted on November 3, 1927 of the murder of Thaddeus Fancher. The key witness against him, Frank Cochran, had been murdered with an axe and the state’s case fell apart. For the next two and a half years McErlane seemed to have disappeared from view. Some Chicago historians claim he attended the Atlantic City Conference in 1929. Also, during this time some sources state that he broke with Saltis and joined with the South Side O’Donnells for a while. If this is true old “Polack Joe” must have forgiven him as he would serve as a pallbearer at his funeral a few years later.
On January 28, 1930, McErlane was rushed to German Deaconess Hospital, after being shot in the leg. The slug entered his right leg above the knee and shattered the bone. Police officers who questioned McErlane didn’t recognize him as the bootleg war killing machine. Using the name Charles Miller, he told police it was an accident that occurred while he was cleaning a gun, a tale backed up by his common-law wife. Several weeks later, police arrived at two theories. The first was that his common-law wife, Marion Miller, with whom he had a stormy relationship, had shot him during an argument. The second was that a feud had been going on with John “Dingbat” O’Berta and that O’Berta, or one of his men plugged him.
On the night of February 24, McErlane was still in the hospital recovering; his room filled with flagrant flowers. His leg, in a plaster cast, hung in the air supported by weights and pulleys to let the bone heal. Around 10:30, while his private nurse was out of the room, two gunmen, believed to be O’Berta and Sam Malaga, appeared at the door and began firing at the immobilized McErlane. The ever-ready gunman, with two handguns under his pillow, pulled one and fired back. McErlane suffered wounds in the chest, left groin, and left wrist – all non-life threatening. His assailants escaped injury, but a .45 automatic dropped at the scene was later traced to Malaga.
Two detectives from the Stockyard’s district came out to investigate. They hadn’t recognized that the wounded man, Charles Miller, was McErlane. It was not until an alert detective lieutenant arrived and had him fingerprinted that the true identity of Charles Miller was revealed. The two detectives who earlier failed to identify McErlane were transferred the following day to “outlying sections” and ordered back into uniforms.
Meanwhile, McErlane refused to identify the gunmen, but in a bit of bravado he told police, “Look for ’em in a ditch. That’s where you’ll find ‘em. They were a bunch of cheap rats, using pistols. I’ll use something better. McErlane takes care of McErlane.” His words would soon prove to be prophetic.
Captain John Stege ordered McErlane to be transported to Bridewell a prison hospital where police could guard him and because he was an “inconvenience” to the other patients at German Deaconess. McErlane complained, “They’ll kill me if you take me out to the Bridewell.”
Over the protests of Stege, who wanted to hold McErlane for possession of a concealed weapon, the state’s attorney allowed the wounded man to be removed to the home of relatives less than forty-eight hours after the hospital attack.
On March 5, just nine days after the hospital shootout, “Dingbat” O’Berta and his twenty-eight year old bodyguard/chauffeur, Sam Malaga, were found murdered. Author Kenneth Allsop in The Bootleggers, stated that O’Berta was an Italian who had inserted an apostrophe into his name to make it sound Irish. He described him as, “a ferocious little man built like a fighting-cock who was Saltis’s chief torpedo.” He apparently achieved this position after McErlane left the gang to work for his former rivals the South Side O’Donnells.
At the death scene, just outside the city limits, O’Berta was found on the front seat of his car on the passenger side, leaning against the door, the top of his head blasted away. Malaga’s body was found lying face up in macabre fashion in a water filled ditch with ice forming around it. Police believe O’Berta’s killer fired away from the back seat of the automobile.
A side note to this killing was that O’Berta’s wife was the widow of pioneer labor racketeer, “Big Tim” Murphy who was murdered in gangland style in June 1928. O’Berta would be buried beside Murphy in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, each reputedly with a rosary in their gun hand.
McErlane’s heavy drinking was beginning to take a toll on his mental state, not to mention his physical one – his common-law wife was believed to have given him the leg wound during a drunken argument. One night in September 1931, he staggered drunkenly around the South Side at 78th and Crandon Avenue sweeping the street with machinegun fire, shooting at some imaginary assassin.
On October 8, McErlane had a final row with Marion Miller. Police determined that both were in a drunken state and arguing in McErlane’s car when Miller pulled a gun, the same one she had wounded him with before, and fired a wild shot at him. McErlane, who had “made peace” with her after the first shooting, was not as forgiving in this second round. He not only shot Miller to death, but he also killed her two dogs, which were riding in the back seat.
Police initially theorized that McErlane had come under attack by his enemies, of which he had many. They quickly discounted this concluding that only McErlane was savage enough to kill a woman and two dogs. Police searched McErlane’s home and found an arsenal that included rifles, shotguns, machineguns, and revolvers. They then went to his brother Vincent’s house and arrested him for questioning. Police charged McErlane with the murder and he eventually turned himself in only to be released for lack of evidence.
This latest ordeal made his remaining South Side associates realize that he was out of control. It was rumored that they “raised a pension fund” of several hundred dollars per week for McErlane to retire from Chicago. He relocated to a lavishly furnished houseboat on the Illinois River in Beardstown, Illinois, some 200 miles southwest of Chicago.
In the fall of 1932, McErlane became ill. On Tuesday, October 4, he was admitted to Schmitt Memorial Hospital in Beardstown. On Thursday he lapsed into delirium and erupted in a violent fit fearing enemies were on their way to take his life. It took four hospital attendants to subdue him. During his last hours he lashed out at a nurse knocking her unconscious with a punch. Hospital employees discovered four loaded guns under his pillow.
On Saturday, October 8, 1932, one year to the day after he murdered his wife, Frank McErlane succumbed to pneumonia. The newspapers described the funeral as “hurried and furtive.” After McErlane’s father tried to chase photographers away, a nine-car procession, measly by gangland standards, made its way to the cemetery. Like his victim “Dingbat” O’Berta, McErlane was laid to rest in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.
When interviewed about McErlane’s death, a former associate remarked, “I don’t remember that he ever did anything good in his life. I don’t believe he had a friend left.”
Copyright A. R. May 2000