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St. Valentine’s Day 1929 began like most other winter mornings in Chicago, with gray skies and stinging cold. A light snow, like confectioner’s sugar, powdered the city’s sidewalks. Bakers and florists woke early to prepare for the crush of holiday customers. All over the city, children put the finishing touches on cards before leaving for school.
Of course, not everyone was engaged in thoughts of loving kindness. Over at the Cook County Jail, guards prepared for the planned midnight execution of three convicted killers. On LaSalle Street, bankers and stockbrokers nervously watched their stock tickers as trading began in New York. And inside a humdrum garage at 2122 North Clark Street, in a quiet residential neighborhood, an unusually large number of hoodlums gathered for purposes unknown.
Except for a single white light bulb dangling from the ceiling, the big garage on Clark Street was dark, the parked trucks and cars almost lost in the vast shadowed spaces. A bit of weak winter sun filtered through the grimy front window. The garage was rented by the George “Bugs” Moran gang, which controlled much of the North Side’s illegal booze traffic and ran most of its brothels and casinos. The garage was used for storage and repairs, not as a hideout or hangout. So there was only one explanation why seven men would be there at an hour when most thugs were still sleeping off the prior night’s intoxicants—and it wasn’t to exchange valentines. They had a job.
With the exception of the mechanic, the men all were well dressed that morning in suits, ties, tie pins, and street shoes. One of them wore a carnation.
Soon they would all be dead, victims of the most infamous unsolved crime in U.S. history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The massacre changed everything.
Though Americans had never been very happy with the effects of Prohibition, they weren’t clamoring to do something about it. Prohibition had made millionaire celebrities out of gangsters like Al Capone and turned the nation’s justice system into a cesspit of corruption. But people tolerated the situation because they counted on the bootleggers to get them their booze and because almost
all the related violence was of the gangster-on-gangster variety. But the slaughter of seven men—with gruesome photos flung nationwide in newsprint—proved too much to stomach for many.
The president-elect, Herbert Hoover, had made criminal justice a central part of his campaign. Now, as he vacationed in Florida and prepared for his inauguration, the reverberation of gangland savagery shook the nation. Hoover would take office more determined than ever to clean up this mess. He was a brilliant bureaucrat but also a shrewd public-relations man. So he determined to repair the nation’s criminal justice system and to make an example of Capone, the nation’s most notorious gangster and the man widely believed responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
For all its impact, the full story of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has never been told, and most of the world still assumes that Capone orchestrated the attack. Yet new evidence suggests that the crime was almost certainly not the work of the man referred to within his own organization as the Big Fellow and known to the public as Scarface or Public Enemy Number One. Herbert Hoover almost certainly knew that, as did the men in Chicago assigned by the president to get Capone, and their refusal to acknowledge his innocence was one of many reasons the crime went unsolved.
As it happened, the explanation for the massacre may have been much simpler than anyone imagined. It may have been attributable to one of the oldest and surest motives of all: revenge.
But that wasn’t what the feds wanted to hear.
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