Feature Articles

March 2002

The Guns Of Zangara

Part One

By John William Tuohy

     Almost 70 years ago, an enigmatic Italian immigrant bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara momentarily leaped onto history's stage and took a misguided shot at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt and, accidentally, killed Chicago's reform mayor, Anton Cermak. Or so the story goes. But over the next six-and-a-half decades, the shooting only created more questions than it answered. Who was Zangara, and who was his intended victim Anton Cermak, and did the Chicago mob order the killing?

     The recent discovery of lost government records can now answer those questions and forever seal the case of the Guns of Zangara.

     Like most mob murders, it started over money, greed and the lust for power. In 1931, the labor rackets business in Chicago was worth $145,000,000.00 or about a half billion dollars in today's value. In fact, unions were such easy prey for gangsters, that before prohibition, the mob saw control of labor unions, not bootleg beer, as the quickest route to riches.

     Now, in 1931, with repeal closing in, and the national depression curbing the outfit's gambling business, Al Capone pulled out all stops in his drive to control the labor unions in Chicago. Capone's goons invaded so many union locals that Frank Loesch, President of the Chicago Crime Commission, estimated that two out of every three unions in Chicago was run by Capone.

     As Capone terrorized his way into more teamster locals, the union bosses fled out to suburban Des Plains to live under mobster Roger Touhy's protection.

     The Touhy brothers, Roger, Tommy and Eddie were the last serious threat to Capone's might. The brothers, safely tucked away in the still mostly undeveloped portion of northern Cook County, had grown rich from Prohibition and gambling and the ability to avoid big political payoffs and long-drawn-out beer wars. By 1932, they had the money, the manpower and the firepower to take over the entire Chicago Teamsters' organization without having to split any of the proceeds with Capone.

     Patty Burrell, the Teamsters Vice President, called a meeting of all the locals threatened by Capone and gave them a choice. They could stand alone against Capone, and lose their unions and probably their lives, or they could move their operations under the Touhys' protection. They would still lose a large portion of their treasury to the Touhys, but at least they'd be alive.

     Most of the union bosses knew Roger Touhy from their childhood. He had a solid reputation as a union organizer in his youth and compared to Capone at least, he was still evil, but at the least, he was the lesser of the two evils. The bosses would go with Touhy.

     After the meeting, Burrell sent union boss Jerry Horan to Roger's house with $75,000 in cash for a defense fund. Touhy used that money, plus an additional $75,000 from his own pocket, to hire an army of thugs, killers and goons to fend off Capone's pending assault.

     Touhy's defiance didn't come without a price. The Capones killed one of the brothers, and attempted to kidnap his children. Then, on October 25, 1931, the unbelievable happened. Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison. That same day, Matt Kolb, Touhy's business partner and financier, as well as the source of Touhy's enormous political clout, was gunned down by Capone gunmen inside his speakeasy, the Club Morton. With Kolb dead, the price for political protection went through the roof. Touhy would have to find a Kolb replacement soon and Anton Cermak was just off on the horizon.

     "Tony Cermak was not a very nice man," wrote Judge Lyle of Chicago's mayor. "He appeared to take pride in his lack of polish. He was uncouth, gruff, insolent and inarticulate . . . he could engage in no more intelligent discussion of the larger political issues of the day then he could have the Einstein theory of relativity."

     In personal confrontations, Cermak was known as a bully and an intimidator with a violent temper, who'd never walk away from a dispute.

     He liked very few people, and he trusted virtually no one. As his power grew so did his paranoia. He wasn't a back slapper. He was elected because he was a political survivor, who simply outlasted his opponents. Those he couldn't outlast, he blackballed.

     In the Illinois State House, as President of Cook County and later as mayor, Cermak used wire taps, stole mail, used secret surveillance and informants to get intelligence on the weaknesses of his enemies and he took great care to know who his enemies were. He admitted to authorizing beatings of anyone that got in his way.

     Anthony "Ten Percent Tony" Cermak, was born on May 7, 1873, in a Bohemian village about fifty miles outside of Prague. The family immigrated to America in 1884, settling in a Chicago slum on 15th and Canal, the infamous Valley that had also produced the Touhy brothers, and later, in 1900, moved to Braidwood in southern Illinois, where the elder Cermak worked as a coal miner.

     In 1889, Tony Cermak returned to Chicago at age 16. Cermak was a hustler who saw his opportunity in the rough and tumble world of Chicago's ethnic politics. He organized the huge Bohemian community into a powerful voting machine and before he was old enough to vote himself, Tony Cermak was a political power.

     Cermak was also a greedy man who wanted to be rich and the roads he used to riches was to form an organization called the United Societies, a high-sounding name for nothing more then a shakedown operation. Every brewer and booze seller, dance hall operator and saloon keeper was a member, as were most of the area's gunmen, pimps, prostitutes and gamblers that worked along 22nd street, later renamed, oddly enough, Cermak Road. They paid to belong to Cermak's organization because Cermak had the police and the politicians in pocket.

     In 1928 Cermak, who was still the "spokesman" for organized liqueur interest, decided to become mayor of Chicago.

     On election day, April 7, 1931, word went out from higher ups in the Capone organization down to the goons and speakeasy owners to support Cermak. If Cermak won, the Bosses said, the reformers would loosen up.

     Cermak did win. He trounced Thompson 667,529 votes to 475,613, the largest margin ever recorded in a Chicago mayoral election to that date.

     But he double crossed the people too. On his first day in office, Cermak promised the people of Chicago that he would rid their city of its gangsters before the Century of Progress Exhibition opened in the summer of 1933.

     But Tony didn't want to get rid of organized crime in Chicago, he wanted to coral it. To dominate it. To run it. To own it. To grow rich from it, and, he figured, all he had to do was to give it another face.

     So Tony Cermak threw his net around the city's multimillion dollar gambling rackets. The first thing he did to corner the gambling market was to close down the competition.

     Seemingly overnight, Cermak's police force, which he dominatedwith his hand-picked loyalists, raided hundreds of syndicate gambling dens and casinos and shut them down. Independent gamblers, there were still a few in those days, who refused to throw in with Cermak, were run out of business.

     Once Cermak had smashed the gamblers into submission he would need someone dependable to act as his collector and street boss, the mayor's personal bagman. Enter Teddy Newberry, a lifelong gangster, who had been with Bugs Moran and then the Aillos, and finally with Capone until his career ended.

     After several months of acting as Cermak's street supervisor, Teddy Newberry sat down with Anton Cermak in the summer of 1931 and worked out a deal. As Newberry and Cermak saw it, with Capone and most of his top men behind bars, or on the run from the law, what was left of the syndicate would easily fall apart.

     The fact that Roger Touhy was winning his shooting war against the mob was another plus for them. All that was left, according to Newberry, to topple the Chicago syndicate, was to kill the head and then watch the body die.

     The head of the syndicate in 1933 was Frank Nitti. Once Nitti was dead, all the other hoods would fall into line . . . or so they thought.

     Francisco Nitto, or, Frank Nitti, as he preferred, was a small built, pensive little man with ulcers and a nervous twitch. He was born outside of Palermo, in Italy, but he avoided discussing his Sicilian background, always calling himself an Italian instead. Nitti had gotten a full formal education in Italy before coming to the United States which gave him a working knowledge of advanced chemistry and he was also said to be a talented watchmaker.

     Although the newspaper referred to Nitti as "The Enforcer," for those who knew the real story, the nickname was almost comical. In fact, as far as anyone knows, Nitti never killed anyone. He made his way up through the ranks of the syndicate because he was smart, cunning and obnoxious.

     At mid morning, on December 20, 1933, Tony Cermak summoned two members of his special squad to his office, Harry Miller and Henry Lang. Miller and Lang were crooks, gangsters with badges. 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 bag man 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.

     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 mayoral desk, smoking one of his small cigars. Newberry told the pair 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 then one hundred dollars a week.

     The detectives left city hall and drove to Nitti's office at the La Salle-Wacker building at 221 North LaSalle, took the elevator to the fifth floor and walked to room 554, where Nitti kept a cramped a three room office.

     Inside the office was Nitti and several underlings. Lang and Miller lined the hoods up against the wall, and, very quickly, Lang fired five shots into Nitti's leg, groin, back and neck. Then Lang walked to an anteroom, and fired a single shot through his own hand. The story would be that Nitti resisted arrest and lunged for Lang's service revolver, and had to be shot.

     The mistake in shooting Nitti was that they didn't kill him. While it was true that the shooting had spooked 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.

     Anton Cermak, who had known Touhy for Roger Touhy for decades, wanted Touhy to join forces with him and Teddy Newberry to help them jointly run the underworld in Chicago and the Midwest.

     In 1959, Touhy told the Illinois parole board that in early 1933, Newberry and Cermak called him down to city hall for a discussion.

     In a 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."

     Touhy eventually agreed, and Cermak lived up to his end of the bargain. He 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.

     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, the hoods fell at a rate of one gangland murder a day with most of the dead coming from the syndicate's ranks.

     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."

     For a while, it was going well for the upstarts. Almost too well. The Touhys gunned down the syndicate's lead labor plunderer, Red Barker, the government jailed the equally deadly Murray Humpreys, and Cermak's boys shot down Frank Nitti.

     They were so close. They had chased the syndicate out of the Teamsters and had ready access to the pension funds. They owned city hall and the cops.

Then the tide started to turn.

     First, Teddy Newberry's dead body showed up on the bitter cold evening of January 7, 1933. He was found lying face down in a ditch in Porter county, Indiana.

     After Newberry was killed, Tony Cermak lost his nerve. Tony was absolutely certain that the outfit had pegged Louis "Short Pants" Campagna; Al Capone's former bodyguard was going to kill him.

     He may have been right. According to newsman Jack Lait, in late 1933, the syndicate's hit men tried to blow up Cermak's car early one morning in the middle of Chicago's loop.

     After that, Cermak beefed up his security forces and moved from the Congress hotel to the Morrison hotel where he paid for a private elevator that went non-stop to his penthouse suite. He increased his city police guard from two to five officers and had detectives sent to protect his daughters and hired on private bodyguards to augment his city police detail and then took a midnight train to Miami where he owned a home.

     The job to end the union war with the Touhys and take out Anton Cermak fell to Paul Ricca, acting boss since Nitti had been shot. Ricca determined that the only way to deal with Cermak was to kill him. But, knocking off the mayor of the nation's second largest city would bring down more heat on the mob then Cermak ever could have gathered. Unless, of course, the murder could be thumbed off on a "nut case."

     The "Nutcase" they found was Giuseppe Zangara, a hapless Italian immigrant with a gambling problem, who was into the outfit for his eye teeth.

To be continued

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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