By Joseph Geringer  

Chicago's Own

"It was yesterday, only yesterday,
Though years have passed..."

-- Just a Memory

Though not a Chicagoan by birth, George Clarence Moran migrated to Chicago before the turn of the century – and stayed there throughout the landmark years of his tumultuous, rat-a-tat-tat career until an event called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre put him out of business.

A virtual legend in his own time, Chicagoans read his name in the newspapers almost weekly during the 1920s, when gangsters made the headlines with their bootleg wars. A smiling, teasing, rakish, but oft-hot tempered punch thrower, Moran was a central member of the North Side "Irish Gang" that would not play ball with crime czar Al Capone. The latter wanted all of Chicago under his cuff, but Moran's answer to that was an unrelenting "Nuts to you!" While other territorial gangs melted away or relinquished to Capone's pressure, allowing "Scarface" Al into their pockets, the Irishers stood steadfast, among them Moran, apt to shoot at the first sight of a Capone "wop".

Moran was indeed a man of his time and place – the precisely coined Roaring Twenties and Chicago. In no other American city was the pinstripe-suited mobster and beer baron more idolized, regarded by the public as a good fella and even a Robin Hood. In photos in the papers, Moran always wore an immaculate three-piece suit, expensive fedora and a cashmere coat with Chesterfield collar; and he smiled like the little boy who had gotten away with throwing spitballs at the teacher. The politicians, whom he bought, loved him. The reporters, who knew better, loved him anyway because he was always, always, great press. Never failing to dart an insult to Capone, calling him "the Beast" or "the Behemoth," he as easily titillated the citizens of Chi-town with an Irish joke or a crazy shenanigan.

And, if his shenanigans involved guns – i.e., blowing some "daigo" gangster to hell – well, that too was the colorful stuff entertaining anecdotes are made of because somehow Moran carried off even violence with style. Maybe because he was the underdog taking on the organized Sicilians and beating them at their own game – a fact he let everyone know – Chicago sympathized with him. Maybe he just had a way with words, and with a Jazz Age decorum. His gun plays did not come across as nasty, they were adventure. They were the David and Goliath fable come to life in an era that adored the merry-andrew lawbreaker and the thrill of crazy, crazy antics.

If ever the most incidental events produced a change in American blue-collar texture it was during the 1920s. Across the nation, trivial habits, expressions and innuendoes affected, or were affected by, a daily lifestyle and “home grown” attitude.  Certainly, Chicago was no exception.  It seemed to covet its own behavior, good or bad, with an almost untamed idolatry; and, good or bad, the metropolis glowed with an aura of self sufficiency creating, in turn, its own popular history within a popular history.

Bugs Moran (left) in 
one of many court appearances. 

Studying Bugs Moran is, in essence, studying Chicago's Prohibition years. Not the ordinary citizen of his times, he is nevertheless the folkloric ideal of the ordinary citizens' headliner during those times. His was the life of the city kid disadvantaged by his surroundings, yet electrified by the socio-economical events stirring around him. As was the Depression-era bandit who heeled the jalopy accelerator immediately after the 1920s, Moran is definitely a product of the era, a genre of a social class at a time when that social class either fell or rose, but was prompted to go either way.

Try as they will, today's social-correctors cannot, though they try to, erase what happened in Chicago when the North Side and the South Side clashed over booze. Prohibition urged the half-baked street waif with a curious glint in his eye for dough-re-mi to join the camaraderie of the hour, no matter what side of the Chicago River they lived on, to get rich quick on black-market beer and gin, scruples aside.

It is very likely that Bugs Moran and others of his station saw their illegal enterprises as the only doors of opportunity open to them. Sociologists would agree that at the time of the "Take the Advantage, Boy!" syndrome, fueled by the likes of Horatio Alger, the honest advantages weren't as clearly defined as they are today, nor as present. So telling of how Moran and his North Side "Irishers" saw themselves is their fervent disapproval of prostitution in their territory. "It's against Our Mother's Church!" cried Moran's mentor, Dion O'Banion. And yet they flinched little when disposing with a .44 another mobster who dared to sell liquor on their turf.

Moran's attitude might best be summed up in a 1928 interview he gave to a Methodist minister, Reverend Elmer Williams, for his social-reform magazine, Lightning. Comparing his enemy Capone's greed for money to his own basic need to survive in business peaceably, Moran (in his usual witty manner) replied: "'The Beast' uses his muscle men to peddle rot-gut alcohol and green beer. I'm a legitimate salesman of good beer and pure whiskey. He trusts nobody and suspects everybody. He always has guards. I travel around with a couple of pals. 'The Behemoth' can't sleep nights. If you ask me, he's on the dope. Me, I don't even need an aspirin."

Moran is one of the most interesting figures to emerge from Prohibition's wayward legions. His depth, hidden under a cocky shell, makes him so; he could be comical at 10 a.m. and deadly at 10:30. He could play the picked-on innocent to an arresting policeman, then be straightforward to a judge on the bench afterwards. Judge John H. Lyle, Prohibition-era Chicago's incorruptible jurist whose book The Dry and Lawless Years relates his courtroom dealings with many of the decade's top criminals, makes no contention of his hatred for many of them. Yet, he recalls Moran fondly:

"As a man Moran had interested me. In the many times he had been before me in court I had discerned contradictions in his makeup. He was guilty of many wicked acts. But also he was sharp-witted, had a keen sense of humor and at times was highly emotional. I had long thought that of all the gangsters I had observed Moran was the most likely to repent..."

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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