An event report by Tom Nall, Volunteer Writer and Photographer
The Historical Society recently offered two gangster tours of West Ridge. The initial tour took place on Sunday, June 23, 2019, and quickly sold out. In response the Society scheduled a second tour for Saturday, July 13, 2019, and this too rapidly filled, once again demonstrating Chicago’s never-ending fascination with its criminal past.
Both tours began with neighborhood historians and “gangsterologists” Glenna Eaves and Dona Vitale presenting background information to make 1920’s gangsterism more understandable. This pre-tour presentation was held at the Warren Park Field House on June 23 and at the new Northtown Branch Library on July 13.
Glenna began the presentation by explaining that two events happening around 1920 changed the social and economic landscape of the U.S.
Prohibition took effect across the nation in January 1920. The culmination of nearly a century of temperance advocates’ efforts, the Eighteenth Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. As Al Capone said, this allowed bootleggers “to give to the public what it wants.”
The second event was a court decision made by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Deflation after WWI led to labor and management stalemates on wage reductions, work rules and many other issues. In an arbitration case between the two groups, Judge Landis allowed for wage cuts averaging 12.5%. The judge also struck restrictions on machinery, which saved labor and established a standardized overtime rate. Disagreement regarding the acceptance of the Landis Award fragmented the labor movement, and violence ensued among unions divided on these issues. Adding to the conflict, contractors organized to reject workers from unions that disavowed the Landis Award, and they also hired “enforcers” to put down the resulting strikes. This chaos in the union movement allowed Chicago gangsters to intervene and offer help to laborers, thus gaining control of many unions and their monetary funds.
Next, Glenna traced the evolution of Chicago’s “Outfit.” The story of Chicago’s infamous 1920’s gangsters and bootleggers begins with James “Big Jim” Colosimo. The pre-1920 master of Chicago’s prostitution and gambling rackets, Colosimo was urged by his associates to expand into bootlegging at the dawning of the Prohibition Era. Colosimo balked, and soon thereafter was shot to death. His execution was probably ordered by his partner, Johnny Torrio, who resented Colosimo’s decision to stay out of the liquor business. Torrio quickly assumed control of Colosimo’s organization and immediately expanded into this new moneymaking opportunity.
To help with his bootlegging, Torrio hired a young man from New York City: Alphonse Capone. Capone would take control of “The Outfit” after Torrio was gravely injured in an assassination attempt and “retired” to Italy.
Torrio’s move into alcohol prompted other Chicago criminals to do likewise, which inaugurated the so-called Beer Wars. By the mid 1920’s the city was home to at least a dozen major bootlegging gangs. By 1924, the two most powerful were Capone’s and a North side gang led by Dean O’Banion, whose multi-year struggles to gain control of territory resulted in what became known as “The Beer Wars.”
O’Banion was assassinated on November 10, 1924. Hymie Weiss replaced him and was murdered on October 11, 1926. Vincent Drucci succeeded Weiss and was killed by police on April 4, 1927.
At that point, leadership of the North Side gangs fell to a triumverate of George “Bugs” Moran, Joe Aiello and Jack Zuta, who switched allegiance away from Capone. Moran and Aiello were deeply involved in bootlegging and racketeering, while Zuta ran gambling and prostitution operations and acted as a “fixer” with ties to corrupt politicians and others the gang needed to keep their activities running smoothly. Aiello and Zuta had strong ties to West Ridge, and were featured players in our tour.
Armed with this background, the group began by heading north along Western Avenue. During the walk, Dona helped us imagine Western Avenue in the 1920’s, which was only beginning to develop. “It was mostly open land, newly subdivided, and rapidly undergoing transformation.” The new neighborhood attracted Chicago’s growing affluent class of artists, architects, sports figures, business leaders and, yes, gangsters.
First stop was at the corner of Lunt and Western. In November 1927 police raided an office at 7002 N. Western and found 37 sticks of dynamite and other bomb-making materials intended to be used in assassination attempts on the lives of Al Capone and Tony Lombardo, Aiello’s former partner in several food importing businesses that acted as fronts for bootlegging activities. This discovery seriously heated up the Beer Wars.
The tour moved west and made a brief stop at 2501 W. Lunt, a large bungalow built in 1926 as the home of Henry Spanjer and his family. Spanjer was an amateur boxer who early in the 20th century won gold and silver medals in the Olympic Games, and in later years worked as head of a manufacturing company. The June 23rd tour was invited by the realtor holding an Open House that day to return at the end of the tour to see the inside. Many availed themselves to this opportunity and were able to see the true splendor of this home. The realtor told us the owners believed that the basement party room had once been a speakeasy, a claim that some other neighborhood residents also make for their own homes.
Continuing the tour, our next stop was at 2553 W. Lunt. The home of Joseph Aiello is a massive structure built in 1926. It was designed by Alexander Capraro, the first licensed Italian architect in Illinois, who also designed the Casa Bonita Apartments on nearby Ridge Boulevard.
Aiello’s feud with Lombardo and Capone continued as he pursued plans to take them both out. Capone’s men retaliated by twice attacking Aiello’s bakery and grocery store. In turn Aiello was blamed for the murder of Lombardo and his successor as president of the Unione Siciliana, Pasqualino Lolardo. Then came the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 when Capone’s men executed seven members of the North side gang. This badly damaged the Moran, Aiello, Zuta organization, and Capone was able to consolidate his power.
On October 23, 1930, Joe was ambushed from two machine gun nests across the street from the home of Pasquale Prestogiacomo, one of his remaining close associates, at 205 N. Kolmar on the West Side. No one was charged with the crime, but it is believed that the murderers were hit men hired by Capone. Aiello’s funeral procession included three cars full of floral arrangements and began from the home on Lunt, where he was carried out the door by his pallbearers.
From the Aiello home the tour moved south along Rockwell Street for a brief stop at 2609 W. Coyle. Although not connected to Chicago’s underworld, Dona identified this cottage-like house as the home of George B. Petty “who was known for his “Petty Girl” pin-up drawings and other illustrations in Esquire Magazine. He also designed a well-known poster for the 1933-34 Chicago’s World Fair and did work for other clients, all in the basement studio of this home.
Continuing down Rockwell we viewed the home of George S. May at 2650 W. North Shore. Unrelated to Chicago’s gangland, this house demonstrates the affluence of 1920‘s West Ridge. Dona informed us that May made his fortune as a pioneer in the field of management consulting, working as an industrial engineer –what was then called an “efficiency expert.” She added that, “In 1936, he purchased the Tam O’Shanter Country Club and used its golf tournaments to promote his business to high level corporate executives. In the 1940’s and 50’s he was known as an innovative golf promoter, sometimes called the Bill Veeck of golf, venturing into television in 1953 and sponsoring golf events that attracted famous golfers from around the world.”
Our next stop was at 2525 W. Morse which was the home of Timothy “Big Tim” Murphy, best known as a labor racketeer involved in several corrupt unions of the era. Glenna told us that Murphy also was involved in a wide array of crimes and was arrested or indicted numerous times in his life.
She continued that, “On April 6, 1921, $396,000 was stolen during the transfer of mail bags from a train car at the Dearborn Street Station to a mail car in a cleverly conceived robbery. In a surprise nighttime raid on the home of Murphy’s father-in-law, William Diggs, $112,000 of cash and bonds from that robbery were recovered from a trunk in the attic.” On November 9, 1921 Murphy and three associates were convicted of conspiracy to rob the mail and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released from Leavenworth Federal Prison on March 25 1926 and shortly after, moved into the new home on Morse Avenue.
Glenna ends her tale of “Big Tim” with, “At 11:10 on June 26, 1928 Big Tim answered a knock at the door, and finding no one, stepped outside with his brother-in-law, Harry Diggs. Thirty shots were fired from a car; he was hit twice, once fatally. Harry was unhurt.” To this day bullet holes can still be clearly seen in the yellow brick bungalow.
The tour next moved to 2557 W. Farwell, where homeowner Colleen Sen joined us to relate the crime-related history of her home. On Sept 18, 1937, Felix Keren, 23 years old and recently released from Pontiac Prison, attempted to burglarize this house owned by building contractor and developer Edward Zeches. Nobody was home at the time and the burglar tripped an alarm was heard by a neighbor, who alerted the police. According to the Chicago Tribune, an hour-long siege ensued, watched by 1,000 neighbors, many holding guns, including Chicago Cubs 3rd baseman Stan Hack who lived nearby. Police ended the siege by storming the house and fatally shooting the burglar.
The last stop on the tour was 6719 N. Artesian, a home associated with Jack Zuta, once a Capone ally who defected to the North side gang. Glenna told us that “On June 9, 1930, Jake Lingle, a reporter covering the organized crime beat for the Chicago was killed, and on June 30th Zuta and a couple of his associates were brought to the Chicago Detective Bureau for questioning. It was rumored that he informed detectives about the Lingle murder (police say he did not), and he was now a marked man.”
When Zuta was released on bond on June 30th a failed assassination attempt took place. The next day, he went into hiding. Glenna told us that, “Nothing was heard from Zuta and his companions until Friday, August 1, when news of his death at the Lakeview Hotel, a resort on Upper Nemahbin Lake in Waukehsa County, Wisconsin was reported. Five men armed with a machine gun, rifles and shotguns entered the bar/soda fountain, threatened the owner and bartender, and walked up to Zuta who was in the dance hall putting nickels in the mechanical piano. They shot him 16 times before fleeing through the beach area, frightening the stunned dancers and sunbathers.”
Glenna now told us where this house comes into the story. “During his disappearance, Zuta repeatedly, sometimes twice a day, called the home of Mrs. Laura Nelson at 6719 N. Artesian.” Nelson was a former madame, and the wife of William Bioff who worked for Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, Al Capone’s accountant. It is believed that the home was being used for either prostitution or as a speakeasy, an idea fueled by Zuta’s last intercepted phone call to the home, when he ordered Laura to “clear out all the plumbing in the basement.” Later the outfit sent Bioff to Hollywood where he engaged in labor racketeering and extortion of money from the movie studios. He was murdered in 1955.
By November of 1930 two members of the Northside triumvirate were dead, Bugs Moran had “gone on a hunting trip to Minnesota,” and Al Capone took control of bootlegging and vice on the North Side. Who did kill Joe Aiello, “Big Tim” Murphy, Jack Zuta and many of the others during Chicago’s Beer Wars? Glenna and Dona offered many speculations, but none of these cases were ever definitively solved, adding mystery to the story of this fascinating but tragic era.