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The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Chicago Daily News
The massacre as reported by the Chicago Daily News (US Public Domain)

Eighty-seven years ago today, St Valentine’s Day was known for something other than love…

It was a cold, snowy morning at 10:30 AM on February 14, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois, when five members of the North Side Irish Gang, along with their mechanic and a gangster groupie optometrist, congregated inside S-M-C Garage Company located at 2122 North Clark Street.  Based on a phone call received the night before, they were waiting for the arrival of what was believed to be a stolen shipment of beer. Their boss, George “Bugs” Moran, was also expected to be there, but for some reason was late today.

Then, all of a sudden two men dressed as policemen emerged through the side door brandishing 12-guage shotguns. Appearing to be a raid, they demanded that the men inside the garage line up with their backs to them against the north wall. Not that concerned, the seven complied. In seconds, two other men in street clothes came through the door carrying .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns. Then, the two in street clothes started firing rapidly, back and forth across the lineup of gang members. Once they were done their dirty deed, the two policemen stepped through the carnage, firing twice more at two men still moving. It was not a pretty sight when the assassins left: slumped bodies, pieces of flesh and pools of blood everywhere. The only apparent survivor was the mechanic’s Alsatian dog which began to murmur and bark once the assassins departed.

After a short while, a curious female neighbor made her way to the garage. As the dog continued to bark, she peeked inside, shrieked, then ran to call the police. In minutes the police arrived to find one the gang members, Frank Gusenberg, still alive by some miracle, despite absorbing 14 bullet wounds. He died 3 hours later in hospital without identifying his assailants. Irish gang boss Bugs Moran, luckily, had arrived at the garage on time to find a police car parked outside the garage. Fearing a raid, he went to a nearby coffee shop, unbeknown to him what was happening to his cronies inside the garage.

Up to that February 14 morning, gangland murders had been a common occurrence during Chicago’s unlawful Prohibition era. People were getting used to rival gangs killing each other in territorial wars over the lucrative profits in gambling, prostitution, beer, and hard booze. When the gangland killing hit the papers later that day, large front page headlines appeared coast to coast. The public was outraged. None of the other killings were quite as gruesome as this scene. And seven gangsters all at once. Someone had gone way too far.

The prime suspect in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre--the one with the most to gain--was notorious South Side boss Al Capone. Contacted by Chicago newspaper reporters with 24 hours, Bugs Moran said, “Only Capone kills like that.” But Capone had an alibi: He was at his Miami, Florida resort soaking up some sunshine. However,  had he arranged it? He and Moran were mortal enemies trying to expand into each other’s territory.  With Moran’s gang out of the way, Capone was now the undisputed crime czar of Chicago, controlling both the North and South Side.

Days after the grisly murders, newly elected US President Herbert Hoover met with Chicago municipal officials who told Hoover they and the public had had enough of the gang killings as well as the Chicago police corruption and payoffs that were keeping Capone and his henchman in power. And they were tired of Capone telling the press: “I’m a businessman, giving the people what they want.”

Two things evolved from this Washington meeting. The Feds were going to look more closely into Al Capone’s personal finances, as well as the operation of his illegal multi-million dollar bootlegging business. US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon chose US Attorney George Johnson and IRS agent Frank Wilson to study Capone’s books for possible income tax invasion. Also chosen was prohibition agent Eliot Ness (who had joined the US Treasury Department in 1927 as part of the Bureau of Prohibition) to organize a special unit under the National Prohibition Act (namely the Volstead Act) to physically shut down the Capone’s liquor empire.

Ness had to first find competent, trustworthy agents who were not “on the take” as so many prohibition agents were. He came up with 50 individuals, then narrowed them down to 15, before finally selecting nine of the most above-the-board honest ones. They were quickly tagged by the Chicago press corps as “The Untouchables.” Ness and his boys raided Capone breweries and distilleries throughout Chicago, thanks to a wire-tapping operation of Capone’s phones that kept Ness one step ahead of the mobster.

In the first year of his non-stop duties, Ness had seized or destroyed 19 distilleries and six major breweries worth over $1 million of Capone’s liquor-related property: beer, booze, trucks, and miscellaneous equipment that put a serious dent in Capone’s cash flow. One brewery alone accounted for $200,000 loss in revenue to Capone. Each one of the mob’s breweries had the capacity to make 100 barrels of beer a day that were sold at $55 a barrel. Ness survived several assassination attempts, and at one point was offered $2000 cash up front and another $2000 every week on the job if he would stop “harassing” dear Mr Capone.

Al Capone
Al Capone in 1930 (US Public Domain)

Ness did his work and the federal lawyers did theirs. By mid-1931, after several grand jury cases, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion, while he and 68 of his cohorts faced 5,000 counts of violating the Volstead Act. Capone’s lawyers managed to argue their way through the paperwork until October 31, 1931, when Capone’s final sentencing came down. The 5,000 counts against the Volstead Act that Ness and his people risked their lives to achieve were dropped. However, Capone was convicted on five tax evasion charges that did stick after a two-week trail. He was fined $50,000. In addition, he had to pay $7,692 in court costs, and $215,000 plus interest in back taxes. And, oh yeah, more importantly, he was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He began his years behind bars the next year after a failed appeal attempt by his lawyers. By the way, it was reported that in 1927 alone, Capone had pocketed as much as $60 million for himself from all his vices of which he didn’t pay any tax on, while his organization profited about $100 million.

All this came about from the St Valentine’s Day Massacre which no one had ever been convicted of doing. Although Capone had the best motive there’s really no absolute proof that Capone or his people killed Bugs Moran’s Irish gang that cold February 14, 1929 morning. Capone took the heat for it, though, and was taken down. The four killers were never identified. Two possible culprits were mob hitmen John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, known as “The Murder Twins” who often worked together on assassination projects. Both were arrested and held by Chicago police, but the charges were quickly dropped due to lack of evidence.

According to a mob informant, the two men were invited by Capone to a banquet in their honor along with another mobster named Joseph Guinta on May 7, 1929. Little did they know, it was a carefully planned trap. Prior to this, Capone suspected that all three were trying to get rid of him. In the middle of the banquet, Capone produced a baseball bat and beat the three to a pulp before his gunmen finished them off for good in a hail of bullets.

The bodies of Guinta, Scalise, and Anselmi were found the next morning on a lonely country road near Hammond, Indiana. A local coroner stated that in all his years at his job he had never seen such mutilated bodies. Their murders weren’t solved either. By 1931, a jury’s final assessment of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre was that the seven unfortunate individuals died “at the hands of a person or persons, unknown.” Case closed.

The S-M-C Garage Company building was demolished in 1967 and is now a parking lot for a nursing home. A Canadian businessman from Vancouver, BC, George Patey, bought the entire brick wall where Bugs Moran’s Irish Gang were lined up and shot, minus six bullet-marked bricks that had been pulled out and paid for by different nostalgia seekers. He had the six-by-ten-foot wall taken apart one brick at a time and numbered in their exact order, 414 bricks in all. He then had them shipped to Canada disguised as building material that he paid only pennies for in duty charges on each brick.

At first, Patey showcased the bricks in shopping malls, museums, and galleries before putting them in storage. In 1971, he put them on display at his Vancouver restaurant, The Banjo Palace, an establishment highlighted in a Roaring Twenties theme. The place closed in 1976, and the bricks went back into storage. Starting in 1999, he began selling them off. He eventually sold about 75, complete with signed authenticity certificates, then placed the rest in storage, again.

Patey died of cardiac failure in 2004, leaving the remaining 331 bricks willed to his niece, who sold them to a mob museum which opened in 2012. Guess what day it opened? St. Valentine’s Day, of course.


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