Beer Barrel Bonanza

"Make my bed and light the light,
I'll be home late tonight..."

-- Bye Bye Blackbird

Upon his return to Chicago in February, 1923, Bugs Moran realized that he didn't need to re-adapt to society, as the warden prescribed, but that society – Chicago's that is –adapted to him. It welcomed him home with open arms, and handed him both a loaded revolver and the keys to the city. At least to the North Side. As one of Dion O'Banion's right-hand men, he could say anything he wanted, and loudly; he could take anything he wanted, anything. The judges and police who did him favors before, out of obligation, did him favors still, but out of fear. Dion's boys owned the North Side and they gave him his share as a welcome-home tribute.

They were now rich beyond their dreams, all because of Prohibition.

"The majority of Americans probably never wanted Prohibition, but that turned out not to matter," reads Robert J. Schoenberg's Mr. Capone. "The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, firmly believed everyone would be better without alcohol. They 'looked forward,' one historian has observed, 'to a world free...from want and crime and sin, a sort of millennial Kansas...' Their campaign, which quickly enveloped the nation, combined such animating idealism with the most brutal, brass-knuckle politics...Caving into these pressures, Congress passed a resolution calling for a prohibition amendment to the Constitution...On January 16, 1919, Nebraska (became) the (necessary) thirty-sixth state to approve its resolution. The Eighteenth Amendment would become law in one year." Known as the Volstead Act, after the Minnesota senator who introduced the bill, the law forbade the manufacture, disbursement and drinking of liquor, except for medicinal purposes.

Americans wanted to drink, plain and simple, and they weren't at all too specific nor conscientious about where that drink came from. That understood, the underworld grabbed the reins fluttering loose in chaos and redirected the pale horse. Churning out blackmarket beer and whisky of their own manufacture, or importing it from Canada, gangland was making a virtual killing. Proponents of the Anti-Saloon Leaguer, never envisioning such a result, must have shuddered when they realized they had played into the hands of a huge criminal enterprise reaping billions of dollars marketing and distributing something that, in retrospect, had become illegal on a whim.

Stated more succinctly, Prohibition brought together bands of loose, disconnected killers, thieves, smugglers and confidence men from metropolises, border to border, and united them under one thought, one direction. From Prohibition sprang the most powerful organized crime enterprise in the history of mankind.

"Bootlegging and rum-running became cottage industries in many towns, supplying alcohol to the masses through the capable hands of the crime gangs," explains an Internet site called Da Mob, devoted to Chicago's archcriminality. "There was so much money to be made through this lucrative industry, there was hardly a policeman or a judge (who) could not be bought off. These were the times of the millionaire criminals...The whole network, from manufacturing to delivery to final sales had to be run as a business..."

Chicago's "Big Bill" Thompson 

Across the United States, mobsters with enough savvy, guts and legal connections coupled with those legal connections behind mahogany doors to engineer a system of distilleries and breweries that belched 'round the clock. The customer was the American John Doe who never tired of the commodity; and because the mobsters provided the commodity they were glorified. Bootleggers became the men of The Cause. The formative years of Prohibition nurtured icons, as it were. In New York there was Arnie Rothstein, Owney Madden, "Lucky" Luciano, Jack "Legs" Diamond, Dutch Schultz and Frankie Yale operating by a nod from the playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker. Chicago claimed, principally, Dion O'Banion on the North Side and Johnny Torrio on the South Side, both in cahoots with the country's most corrupt city mayor, William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson. Contemporary Chicago Daily News columnist Howard Vincent O'Brien called Thompson "a prince of demagogues" and his political machine one "that made the efforts of such men as Tweed seem bungling and inexperienced."

Supposedly enforcing the Volstead Act was the Treasury Department's body of federal agents. But, those of them who weren't on the payoff, and many of them were, simply could not singly outstep the vast population of city administrators and constables who enjoyed syndicate graft. Of the honest ones, very few dared to buck the wrath of the mob. Saloons donned phony facades and called themselves speakeasies; breweries and distilleries hid their operations inside unmarked buildings or buildings marked "Abandoned" (although everyone in the vicinity could smell the cooking alky); and vehicles that transported the booze from place to place – to speakeasies, to hotels, to private homes – were disguised as milk vans or lumber trucks or coal carriers. Alcoholic consumption in the U.S. during Prohibition years didn't drop, it increased. Drinking went underground and the moles found there thrived.

The Kilgubbin to which Moran returned was now totally controlled by him and his buddies – in terms of liquor rights and everything else. Geographically, their territory extended east to the lake, through Lincoln Park, up Lake Shore Drive along the Gold Coast, north along the serpentine of Sheridan Road, and past the city limits to the suburb of Skokie, a tremendous area. Influentially, they controlled the cops, the magistrates, the businessmen and every one of the votes within their territory. Locals joyfully sang each election time, "Who holds the 42nd and 43rd Wards? O'Banion in his pistol pockets!" North of the Chicago River, not a glass of beer was drank at a speakeasy, not a bottle of scotch was uncorked at a private party, not a crate of rye was uncovered at a reception hall, not a hip flask of gin was sold under the counter at a drug store without a percentage leaping back into O'Banion's and his lads' pockets – right beside the pistols.

Moran rejoined the gang beside the other regulars, Hymie Weiss, Schemer Drucci, Louis Alterie and Dan McCarthy in the taking of booze orders and regulating the distribution of their trade. If a customer reneged or appeared to be taking his orders from another bootlegger, that's where the Gusenberg brothers, Pete and Frank, came in. Products of the North Side's meanest streets and with sagging jowls and chronic scowls, the both of them, they did not flinch to disjoint a fool's arms, legs or neck. Managing delivery of the stock was "Nails" Morton.

Internally, the organization worked well. From their headquarters above Schofield's Flower Shop at 738 N. State Street – of which O'Banion, a lover of flowers, was half-owner – Moran and his fellow lieutenants were able to keep a tight grip on the scene. However, there was constant pressure from the outside. One intervening force was the steadily growing South Side combine led by Johnny Torrio and his new recruit, Al Capone.

"Pappa Johnny" Torrio 

Torrio, a soft-spoken man from Brooklyn who emanated a fatherly manner despite his years as a torpedo in Frankie Yale's New York Mafiosi mob, had the crust and wherewithal to shape the South Side of Chicago into a virtual underworld business. The chore took no small man, and Torrio was up to it. At first, Dion O'Banion hadn't minded that the "daigo" Johnny Torrio took it upon himself to serve as gangland mediator and counselor for all of Chicago.

As self-proclaimed consigliere, he had called a parley in 1921 of all gang leaders, including Deanie, to mete out boundary lines and unite them as one machine that would fatten their respective wallets without the nuisance of bloodshed. His division of gang bosses and their turfs included these principle layouts: Johnny Torrio/Al Capone (Chicago Loop and Near South Side); Frankie McErlane/Joe Saltis (Stockyards area, South Side); "Klondike" O'Donnell (West Side); "Spike" O'Donnell (far South Side Kerry Patch and Auburn Highlands areas); Roger Tuohy (Northwest suburbs), and, of course, Dion O'Banion (the North Side).

Peace was short-lived. Certain gangs, by animal instinct and greed, ate up others. And the O'Banionites noted that each time one of the smaller gangs vanished, the conqueror was always supported by Torrio-loaned gunmen. One by one, the independent South Side gangs were melding into Torrio's. Deanie who had no love for what he called "them damn Sicilians" anyway, started balking. He outwardly blamed Torrio for trying to take over the city and break his own peace alliance.

Al Capone 

But, Torrio himself was not the target of Deanie's real hate. It was Al Capone, Torrio's confrere and chief lieutenant. Deanie loathed the Brooklyn-born thug with a knife scar on his left cheek, brutish, coarse manners and, and a presence he described as apelike. Capone had made important friends in the rank and file of New York's mobdom until, summoned to Chicago by his cumpari to serve as his administrator, he was now the second most important man in Chicago's South Side, one step under his beloved "Papa Johnny". Capone was also probably the most violent.

As Torrio's "administrator," that meant that every time there was gunplay from the Torrio faction, it was a Capone manifest. So, when O'Banion's South Side friends and allies, the Eddie "Spike" O'Donnell gang, was blown off the Chicago map Deanie blamed Capone.

The rivals jabbed over many months. If Deanie regarded the other as less than a maggot, the feeling was mutual. Capone spent little pause in referring to the North Side Irishers as "those Mick bastards".

The North Siders delighted in publicly rankling Capone. They referred to him as "Scarface." Moran, as ever the most colorful, told the press he was a "beast" and coined him "the Behemoth".

To Torrio's credit, the consigliere made serious effort to keep the tigers apart. But, eventually, his patience wore thin as the antagonism grew and O'Banion's taunts turned personal. Three events in a row led to Torrio's ultimate decision to get rid of the pesky, crowing florist once and for all.

  • Since the North Siders had two of the best breweries in town, including the Sieben Brewery, Torrio had cut a deal at the beginning of their relationship that for half-share he would give O'Banion equal share in a number of speakeasies operating in suburban Cicero, Illinois. Feeling that his take didn't match up, Deanie told his enforcers to convince several of the more affluent saloonkeepers currently under him to relocate their business, thence clientele, to Cicero to make up for the loss. That done, he began accruing five times the agreed-upon take and by late 1923 had earned much more than the gross taken in by the rest of the Cicero saloons together, those that were Capone-owned. The latter was livid. To appease Capone, Torrio suggested that if O'Banion would divide those extra profits with Al, he would compensate with a percentage of their brothel income. Deanie's insulting reply: "Only you guinea wops would think of that! Prostitution is against Our Mother the Church and I’ll have nothing to do with the stinking business."
  • In May, 1924, Deanie announced he was quitting the rackets. He offered to sell his half of the Sieben Brewery to Torrio for a generous $500,000. Torrio bit. While escorting Torrio through his latest purchase on May 19, the brewery was raided by Chicago police. Because it was Torrio's second liquor-related arrest, he was given a nine-month jail term. O'Banion, a first-time offender, was fined a paltry $7,500. A few weeks after the affair, Torrio learned that Dion's retirement was merely a ruse and that the raid had been pre-planned. "I rubbed that daigo's face in the dirt!" Deanie glowed to his peers.

  • Over a period of several months, the six Sicilian Genna brothers from the West Side had violated territorial agreements by pitching their homemade wood alcohol in the North Siders' beloved Kilgubbin. O'Banion flew to consigliere Torrio for arbitration, but Torrio refused to speak up. Slighted, Deanie found a little revenge when, on November 3, 1924, he learned that Angelo Genna owed a gambling debt of $30,000 to a casino in which he had half-share. Torrio opted to write the loss off as "professional courtesy," but his partner riled. "To hell!" he shouted, and demanded that Angelo pay up within a week – "Or else."


None of the North Side troopers saw it coming. To Moran, especially, his pal Deanie – his dearest and most loyal friend – was invincible. But, on the morning of November 10, 1924, three unidentified gunmen strolled into Schofield's Flower Shop and pumped five bullets into his chest. As he lie on the floor dying, a pair of pruning shears in his hand, one of the gunners delivered a final shot, the coup de grace, into his skull.

Crowds outside Shofield's after O'Banion's murder 

"O'Banion's funeral was a bizarre potpourri of public display," reports John H. Lyle in The Dry and Lawless Years. "It had elements of an opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the pomp and circumstance of last rites for a great ruler, and an armistice on the battlefield. (There were) wreaths from Torrio, Capone and the Genna brothers. Torrio and Capone attended the services accompanied by bodyguards. Only a few feet separated them from Weiss, Moran, Alterie, McCarthy and others of the O'Banion legion...Stronger than the fragrance of $50,000 worth of flowers was the cold, deadly air of hatred; the electricity of furious men...before plunging into battle."

1. Chicago's Own

2. Pals

3. Beer Barrel Bonanza

4. Battlefield Chicago

5. Bugs, Himself

6. Quest for the Mafia

7. St. Valentine's Day

8. Goodbye, Chicago

9. Bibliography

10. The Author
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