1920s Chicago: a city fuelled by crime, lawlessness, alcohol,
and the strains of wild jazz music. In January 1920, the Volstead
Act was made a national statute, prohibiting the consumption
of alcohol everywhere. Instead of inspiring the civic obedience
its pious enforcers envisaged, Prohibition increased crime
greatly by igniting the bootlegging moonshine and beer wars
fought by the Chicago gangs. The biggest and most notorious
gangster of them all was Al Capone.
Who was Al Capone?
Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899
into a rough neighbourhood. At school he joined two gangs:
the Brooklyn Rippers and the Forty Thieves Juniors.
He quit school at fourteen to dedicate most of his adult life
to the criminal fraternity, joining the Five Points
gang in Manhattan, and working as a barman and bouncer in
gangster Frankie Yale's Harvard Inn. Here he received
the wounds that gave him the nickname "Scarface".
After killing two rival gang members in New York, he arrived
in Chicago in 1919 to let things back in New York cool down
and set up home at 7244 South Prairie Avenue. In Chicago
he became the protégé of gangster John Torrio,
becoming his business partner after just three years and taking
over the racket when Torrio was run out of town. Capone ruled
the city's illegal vice network - comprising of brothels,
speakeasies, gambling halls, race tracks, breweries, and nightclubs
- between 1925 and 1930. His underground empire was rumoured
to have netted an income of $100 million per year. He was
run out of town to Florida in 1928. Capone was eventually
caught by a bunch of determined Federal Agents, known as the
'Untouchables', led by Eliott Ness, who procured
to convict Capone on a simple charge of tax evasion in 1931.
He died of syphilis in Miami, Florida in 1947.
Take a gangster tour of Chicago
Today, you can take in the history of Chicago's seedy past
with an Untouchable Gangster Tour. The tours, which
run every day and take two hours, are led by guides wearing
gangster suits and talking the lingo. For $24 you'll be ushered
on board an old school bus that's been painted black to make
it look like an old gangster car. The guides are funny but
also extremely knowledgeable. You can take in the sights like
Cicero Restaurant where Capone had a speakeasy; Al
Capone's brewery; Holy Name Cathedral, site of an assassination;
Chinatown - Capone's area with the church where he
prayed, his first place of work, and where he first shot a
gangster; the Sicilian neighbourhood, and the site
of the St. Valentine Day's Massacre.
Top gangster sites in Chicago
St. Valentine's Massacre Garage
2122 N. Clark Street is the site of Capone's most notorious
killing. On February 14th 1929, four of Capone's men, two
dressed as police, went into a garage which was the liquor
headquarters of rival "Bugs" Moran's North Side
gang. Moran's men, thinking it was a police raid, dropped
their guns and put their hands against the wall. Capone's
gang leaded them with 150 bullets killing seven men, though
Moran was in safety across the road. Capone had a watertight
alibi - he was in Florida that day. City officials - reluctant
to celebrate their dark past - have removed all signs of the
garage's existence and today the site is a fenced garden.
The Shoenberg Brewery is a magnificent old, brownstone building.
In 1927 there were 30,000 'speakeasies' (so called
from 'speaking easy' so that cops couldn't hear) in the United
States - twice the number of legal bars before the era of
prohibition. Shoenberg was where Capone's gang stored and
brewed liquor to supply to the speakeasy racket.
Red Lion Pub
Chicago's other 1930s outlaw was John Dillinger, notorious
bank robber, murderer, and the nation's public enemy number
one - according to the FBI at the time. Every year in July,
curious anoraks assemble to commemorate the death of this
alternative folk hero outside the Biograph Theatre where he
was betrayed to FBI agents by Romanian brothel-keeper Anna
Sage. The agents took their cue to shoot Dillinger on
spotting Anna's striking red dress as she led him out of the
cinema at 10.30pm on July 22nd 1934. During the commemoration,
a procession leads to the very spot where Anna Sage and her
girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, accompany an oblivious John Dillinger
out of the cinema that fateful night. The event is replayed
and re-enacted accurately, including the match lit by Special
Agent Melvin Purvis which alerted fellow agents of the outlaw's
exit. The event's highlight is the ritualistic pouring of
beer over the exact spot Dillinger fell to the FBI's bullets.