Capricious Leprechaun

"Life is a play and we all play a part:

The lover, the dreamer, the clown..."

-- Laugh, Clown, Laugh


Leprechauns, it is said, are a dichotomy. Charming imps; they are jokesters of tremendous levity; they are elusive; if nabbed by a mortal they yield to him or her their private pot of gold. But, folklore warns, don’t ever -- ever! -- get on one’s cross side, for an opened Pandora’s Box awaits you if you do.

This Jekyll/Hyde nature might well describe one of Ireland’s own lusty sons, born near Chicago, but bearing, nevertheless, all the impulsiveness of a leprechaun. Behind his Celtic blue eyes, his ruddily scrubbed-clean cheeks, his who-gives-a-damn grin and a rich Irish tenor singing voice, a killer lurked.

Those who first met Dion O’Banion in his flower shop or on the streets of his Near North Side stomping grounds found an amiable, good-natured young gentleman who would doff his hat to ladies and slap men on the back with a cheery, "Nice to meet ya’, swell fellow!" (He habitually called strangers "swell fellows".) He would give to the poor without pause, he attended church on Sundays, abhorred prostitution and never hesitated to roll up his shirtsleeves to help where help was needed among his neighborhood. He never drank, even though he peddled the best beer in town.

But, like the fabled leprechaun, a savage within him would manifest when tickled.

In his interesting review of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, historian Frederick Lewis Allen summarizes O’Banion: "...a bootlegger and gangster by night, a florist by day; a strange and complex character, a connoisseur of orchids and of manslaughter."

Chicago’s Chief of Police in the 1920s, Morgan A. Collins, attributes at least 25 gangland-related murders to Dion O’Banion (although he never formally listed them.) His figure is probably not overstretched. Having learned at an early age that violence works best to get what you want, O’Banion controlled the richest and most politically smart powerhouse wards in the city, and he managed to hold onto them despite the envy and lust of two men who usually got everything they went after, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.

Even in leisure, O’Banion wore three guns -- .32 calibers -- on his person. He had his suits especially made with three hideaway pockets to conceal his armament. If he and "the lads," his crew, went out nights in their tuxedos (he believed in fashion and in presenting a prosperous image), all chambers were fully loaded.

There is a theory sustained by some that, since he started out life as an altar boy without an apparent evil side, his "bad side" came out roaring after a youthful accident left him limping and embittered. But, if there was disdain there, he never showed it. He kidded constantly, loved a practical joke, and kept the city in stitches by his playful antics. To newspapermen, he was the ultimate in colorful press. Once, when questioned by a reporter about his gang’s dubious activities, O’Banion insisted in his ever-rhythmic Irish verse that, "We’re just a couple of businessmen without the high hats."

According to William Schofield, his legitimate partner in the floristry, O’Banion never exhibited a tinge of ill humor with his customers nor in any of the business’ dealings. He sang while he worked, teased and wore a smile around the clock. Viola, his wife, said his favorite evening past-times were reading classic novels and playing the Victrola; he never angered; he was the epitome of the devoted husband.

While these and many other testimonies differ far-range from his image as a gangster, and while they obviously defy policeman Collins’ statement that he was a killer, all their views -- good and bad -- are probably unbiased and accurate. By all evidence, Dion O’Banion was a man of many faces, at least two overarching personalities: the saint and the sinner.

dionface.gif (34392 bytes)
Dion O'Banion 

He was the model by which Warner Brothers so-many-times afterward used to create their cinema gangsters, the screaming reality of a James Cagney portrayal.

A leprechaun with a pot and heart of gold -- and with a machine gun.

1. Leprechaun

2. A Normal Childhood

3. Lads of Kilgubbin

4. Volstead's Law

5. Them Damn Sicilians

6. The Flower Shop

7. Crazy Deanie

8. Cicero

9. An Impractical Joke

10. 'Night, Swell Fellow

11. Hello, Mt. Carmel

12. Bibliography

13. The Author
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