Feature Articles

June 2001

Figuring Out The Players

By John William Tuohy

     On November 27, 1959, Hoover declared war on the mob by opening the Top Hoodlum Program and pressure was placed on the Chicago THP to produce results.

     When the FBI entered the fight in Chicago they didn't know the structure or the leadership of the Chicago outfit. They couldn't rely on the Chicago police department for information since they had scant records on the syndicate or its leadership. There was an office that had existed called Scotland Yard but it was disbanded after Mayor Richard J. Daly, never a mob favorite, had the unit disbanded after he found it bugging a bookmaker in the Morrison Hotel where the Cook County Democratic organization had its headquarters. Daly was also the chairman of the party.

     "We had so little for background to guide us. About all we knew," wrote Super agent Bill Roemer, "about the mob was what we had seen in the old Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney movies."

     When the FBI asked the Chicago Police Department what they knew about Murray Humpreys, the reply came that the Hump was an old man, bent with age and retired to Arizona, who never came to Chicago.

     However, one day, agent Bill Roemer spotted Humpreys in the Loop and spent the rest of the day following him around town and finally to the St. Hubert's Grill where he met with Lester "Killer Kane" Kruse who was running Roger Touhy's old territory of Lake County. Also at the table was Johnny Drew. As agents Roemer and Hill sat a few tables away eating and watching, Humpreys was about to make him the boss of the Stardust.

     To help them spot the mobsters on sight, the FBI recruited Chicago Tribune crime reporter Sandy Smith who knew most of the wise guys on sight.

     One thing the Feds learned was that the mobs unofficial headquarters was Celano's tailor shop at 620 North Michigan, but to throw off any tails, the boys got there by entering from a different street at the rear of the building which let into Celano's. Every morning at about 10:00, top hoodlums, Gus Alex and Murray Humpreys would show up there, joined by Ralph Pierce and Ross Prio came every week or so, Accardo and Cerone every few days. The Hump would hold court in the owner's office in the rear of the shop. The FBI knew that because they were watching with binoculars from an artist's studio from across the street.

     The FBI decided to bug the place. When Roemer broke into the office at Celano's he found a comfortable, large room outfitted with a desk, television set, bar and a couch. He placed the microphone behind the radiator in the room. It was codenamed "Little Al" and it would become the biggest source of information the government would have in its war on organized crime.

     But even little Al's usefulness was questionable at times. As Roemer wrote: "When conversing with mobsters one almost always talk in riddles. They are so paranoid about being bugged they talk in circles habitually--even when it makes no difference."

     After the bugs were in place, the FBI had a better understanding of who the players were and decided to pick their targets. They chose Tony Accardo, whom they suspected of being the boss, Sam Giancana, Murray Humpreys, South side boss Ralph Pierce, Gus "slim" Alex, Paul Ricca, Rocco Fischetti, Lenny Patrick who controlled gambling in the Jewish neighborhoods of Lawndale and Roger Park, Eddie Vogel the slot machine king, Jimmy "The Monk" Allegretti who ran the Rush street nightclubs. The Feds soon dropped Fischetti, Patrick, Vogel, and Allegretti and picked up Marshal Caifano and Johnny Roselli, hit men Felix Milwaukee Phil Aldersio and Chuckie Nicoletti and North side Capo Ross Prio.

     Since the Chicago organization never had a formalized swearing in ceremony for its Mafia members, like New York, it was virtually impossible to tell who was a made member of the Chicago branch of the Mafia and who was a syndicate associate.

     Although the organization wasn't without a semblance of a ceremony. When Jimmy "The Bomber" Belcastro brought Butch Blasi into the organization all he said was "from this point on consider yourself one of us" and that was it. When Capone was locked in one of his beer wars with the Irishmen, he made Tony Accardo part of his organization by saying "All right you're made, McGurn will explain about how everything works later on."

     While the surveillance paid off, "Little Al" was the Fed's real key to success. The FBI learned that Murray Humpreys, aside from his endless sermons on mob history and protocol, liked to brag about who had corrupted and it was a long, long list.

     From those tirades the FBI learned to avoid certain cops and judges as to not jeopardize their operations when seeking search warrant.

     The agents were able to figure out that Humpreys ran the "connection guys" whose job it was to fix politicians, labor leaders, cops and businessmen. Working under Humpreys for the connection guys was Gus Alex who had the Loop, Ralph Pierce who had the South side, Les Kruse who had Lake County and his underboss Frank Strongy Ferraro.

     Most importantly what they learned was that Gus Alex, who had come into the organization as a bodyguard to Jake Guzak, was the outfit's controller over Congressman William L. Dawson. Alex and Dawson were so close, in fact, that Alex had a gambling pallor set up across the street from Dawson's home district office.

     It was due to their control over Dawson that the outfit was able to control the Black Ghettos that they flooded with drugs, crap games, whorehouses and loan sharks.

     Dawson was the absolute ruler over all the Black second ward and recognized spokesman for Chicago's black population. In Washington Dawson headed up the powerful House Committee on Expenditures and in Chicago he was known as Cook Counties Democratic machine patronage dispenser.

     In 1948 Dawson was charged with defending racketeers by Congressional committee to which Dawson replied that he would defend any man of anything, anywhere. Mobster or otherwise.

     The agents also learned from the wire that Sam Giancana was planning to operate in the Dominican Republic, that Paul Ricca, who claimed to be retired and informed, was still having his bi-weekly meetings at Meo's restaurant, and that Joey Auippa was number three man in the organization behind Gus Alex and Murray Humpreys.

     The also learned how cheap Sam Giancana could be. One day at a meeting inside the tailors, Ralph Capone mentioned that Al's son, Sonny Capone needed $24,000 to keep his Miami Beach restaurant alive. The outfit had kept Sonny and Mae Capone on the payroll long after Al died back in 1947. Murray Humpreys agreed to the additional $24,000 but Giancana nixed it, mostly because he was a cheap prick and mostly because he felt no loyalty to Capone.

     Little Al was the beginning of the end of the thick veil of secrecy that had made Chicago such an ominous power in the underworld.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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