Feature Articles

March 2001

Power Play: The Nitti Shooting

By John William Tuohy

     On the day Chicago's mayor Anton Cermak ordered syndicate boss Frank Nitti to be killed, he was stopped outside of City Hall and asked for his thoughts on the recent wounding of a Chicago City policeman by a member of the syndicate. Upset over the shooting, Cermak answered, "I'm tired of hearing about my policemen being shot and killed by these hoodlums, for once, I would like to hear about how the cops shot the hoodlums. As I said during the election, if necessary I will assign some tough coppers...and take business into my own hands if you understand what I mean."

      At mid morning Cermak summoned two members of his special squad to his office, Harry Miller and Henry Lang. Miller and Lang used to walk a beat, but they were crooks. Always had been. Harry Miller, who had once been dismissed from the force for trafficking in narcotics, was one of the notorious Miller Brothers who headed up the Valley gang.

      Henry Lang was a bagman for former Mayor Big Bill Thompson and taught Miller the little bit he needed to know about being a crook when he came on the force by "special political appointment" back in 1927. Now, through political pull they were both detective sergeants on his Cermak's "Special Squad" a group of tough cops of questionable background, tossed together to carry out Cermak's every whim.

      At about 10:00 in the morning on December 20, 1932, as Lang would later testify under oath, Cermak called them to his office and handed them a slip of paper with Frank Nitti's name and office address on it.

      Teddy Newberry was there, sitting on the mayor's desk, smoking one of his small cigars. Newberry told the cops that he and the mayor had decided that it was time for Frank Nitti to die and they had to do the killing. The slip of paper, he explained was where they would find Nitti most of the morning.

      Newberry said that once Nitti was dead, he would pay Miller and Lang $15,000.00 each. Good money for a pair of cops who were supposed to be making less than one hundred dollars a week.

      Miller and Lang looked over at Cermak who had his back to them and was gazing out one of the huge bay windows that overlooked the city that works. "Is this square with you, Mac, " Lang asked the mayor. Cermak, always the shrewd politician, shrugged in a way so that its meaning was open to interpretation.

      After talking over the shooting between themselves, Lang and Miller left City Hall at about one that afternoon and drove to Nitti's office at the La Salle-Wacker building at 221 North LaSalle. They parked two blocks from Nitti's office and, walking down the street, flagged down a passing squad car. "We might need some help inside," they told the driver, a rookie cop named Chris Callahan. The three cops entered the massive office building and took the elevator to the fifth floor, room 554, where Nitti kept a cramped a three-room office.

      The place had been rented for him by "Little New York" Campagna under the name Fred Smith. The office housed a legitimate corporation that Nitti owned called the Quality Flour Company, which was run by Albert Capone, Al's brother who had taken over the operation from one of the dead Aillo brothers.

      When the cops entered the room they found Nitti and his bodyguard, Campagna, John Yarlo, known as Johnny the Pope, Tommy Hurt, Louis Massessa, Martin Sanders and Joe "Hinky Dink" Parrillo, an old friend of Al Capone's and a politician who would one day serve in the United States Congress for two terms. Oddly enough, the night before the raid, Nitti had decided to change his appearance by wearing eye contacts, shaving off his mustache and combing his hair to the right instead of straight back as he usually did. Miller and Lange couldn't figure out which of the seven hoods was Nitti until Callahan pulled him out of an adjoining room where he was barking orders into a phone receiver. Nitti was furious, not at the raid, he was used to that, but for being interrupted in mid sentence, he had grown that arrogant since Capone was gone.

      All of the men were ordered to turn and face the wall, their hands raised over their heads. Officer Callahan recalled, "Three of the suspects were in one room. Four in another room. We brought them all into one room. Miller or Lang said, "We better frisk them." So I searched Nitti first and then Miller frisked him again, which I didn't like at all. I saw that Nitti had a slip of paper in his mouth. I told him to spit it out. He didn't, so somebody punched him in the stomach and then I took the paper out of his mouth for him. Lang then brought Nitti into another room and searched him again. Then he brought him back out and pushed him to me and said, "Where did he get that paper from? Frisk him again" Then Lang told Nitti to turn around and face the wall like the others; when he did, Lang grabbed Nitti's wrists. When I bent down to grab Nitti's ankles and Lang fired five shot into Nitti, I leaped back.

      Lang still had Nitti by the wrists. Nitti staggered toward the door and then he stopped and looked at Lang and he said, "What's this for?" and Lang shot him again. Then Lang walked to an anteroom and fired a single shot. When he came back out he was shot through the hand."

      Nitti looked up at the cops and said, "Oh God save me! Save me this time God." Nitti, who was shot in the neck, back, leg and groin, was taken to Bridewell Hospital where his father in law, Dr. Gaetano Rango, was called in to care for him. After several hours, Dr. Rango emerged from the operating room to announce that Frank Nitti would probably die before the night was over.

      But he lived. The mistake in shooting Nitti was that they didn't kill him. While it was true that the shooting had panicked what was left of the mob's leadership, Cermak and Newberry knew that once Nitti had recuperated, that the outfit would strike back. What they needed now was a street fighter to fend off those pending attacks. Enter Roger Touhy.

      After Roger Touhy was murdered in 1959, the sociologist and writer Saul Alinsky, who was a member of the Joliet States Prison parole board, came forward and said that Touhy had told him that in 1932 Anton Cermak and he entered into an agreement, a partnership of sorts.

      To fill the void left by Capone, Anton Cermak wanted Roger Touhy to join forces with him and Teddy Newberry to jointly run the underworld in Chicago and the Midwest. Touhy told the parole board that he had accepted the offer.

      Newberry and Cermak called Touhy in to City Hall for a discussion. Touhy had known Cermak for decades. In the meeting in the mayor's office, Cermak and Newberry urged Touhy to wage a larger war with the mob, but Touhy laughed it off saying he didn't have the strength to fight the Nitti organization, which could muster at least 500 gunmen within a week's time. Cermak said, "You can have the entire police department."

      After Touhy entered into the arrangement, Cermak lived up to his end of the bargain and sent word down to his police commanders that Roger Touhy was to be cooperated with in his war against the syndicate for control of the Chicago teamsters. According to the Chicago Tribune, the number of Capone men killed after Cermak took office tripled in two years. Some one hundred gangsters were killed in ambushes and street fights. For a while they fell at a rate of one gangland murders a day. Most of those who died were Capone loyalists. James Doherty, a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune recalled: "It was a war, chiefly, between the Irish and the Italians. I'm Irish and I'd come into my office in the morning after another shoot-out and I would say to my co-worker, who was Italian, 'Well, that's one to my side,' and the next day he would come and say, 'Well, it's leveled Jim. We chalked one up on our side last night.' It was awful really, they were such young men."

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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