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Less than one month after the crime, Herbert Hoover took the oath of office less than one month after the crime, Herbert Hoover took the oath of office as the nation’s 31st president. Seven months before the stock market crash, America’s prospects still looked rosy. Yet, like a fussy schoolmarm, Hoover found it necessary to caution Americans that grave danger loomed. “The most malign of all these dangers today is disregard and disobedience of law,” he said. “Crime is increasing. Confidence in rigid and speedy justice is decreasing.”
Right away, he began asking about progress in the case against Capone. Hoover believed the arrest of the gangster would show Americans that his administration intended to enforce the law with vigor. What he learned, though, was that George E. Q. Johnson, the prosecutor heading the effort in Chicago, had so far failed to find any solid evidence to indict Capone. Johnson thought he might be able to bring a contempt of court charge based on a note Capone had submitted from his doctor claiming the gangster was too sick to appear in court. Johnson thought it was a lie. But the prosecutor also realized he would face ridicule if perjury was the best charge he could come up with.
On March 20th, Hoover met at the White House with a group of prominent Chicagoans. “They gave me chapter and verse for their statement that Chicago was in the hands of the gangsters,” the president recalled years later in his memoirs, “that the police and magistrates were completely under their control, that the governor of the state was futile, that the Federal government was the only force by which the city’s ability to govern itself could be restored.”
Given the pressure, and given the struggles of Johnson to put together a case, it begs the question: Why not charge Capone as an accessory to murder in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? Even if the evidence was weak, what harm was there in trying? At the very least, they’d get a chance to drag him into court and ask him questions.
But it never happened. Hoover and Johnson were both straight arrows. They had no evidence connecting the gangster to the killing, and they couldn’t bring themselves to play dirty—not even with Capone.
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If before E.Q. Johnson was humiliated by his failure to bring charges against Capone, his shame only deepened a few months later when Capone was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a gun and sentenced to a year in jail. The national press scoffed: Why hadn’t anyone in Chicago ever thought of that?
In December 1929, while Capone was on ice, police finally caught what looked like a big break in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre case. On the evening of December 14, 1929, Fred “Killer” Burke, a well-known bank robber and hired gun, smashed his car into another near the police station in St. Joseph, Michigan, a hundred miles from Chicago. When a cop came after him, Burke shot him dead. Police searched for Burke at his home near the town of Stevensville. They didn’t find him, but they did discover a huge arsenal, including two machine guns, seven revolvers, eleven tear-gas canisters, and enough ammunition to support the overthrow of a small government. Ballistics tests provided dramatic results: Burke’s machine guns were the same ones used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And one of them had been used in the assassination of Frankie Yale in New York.
Astonishingly, though, Burke was never charged with either of those crimes. If Chicago authorities ever asked him whether the guns had been in his possession on February 14, 1929, or if he had been working for Capone at the time, his answers were never made public. After eluding the cops for more than a year, Burke was arrested on March 26, 1931, and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the St. Joseph officer. In 1940, he suffered a fatal heart attack in prison. He was never pressed to answer questions about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
On its face, it defies logic. How could a man in possession of weapons used in the massacre—a notorious gangster with ties to Capone—not be deemed a serious suspect? How could the Chicago police or the Department of Justice possibly explain the failure to consider charging him?
Only one answer makes sense: If the feds couldn’t pin it on Capone, they preferred to at least permit the cloud of guilt to hang over him.
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Fast-forward four years, to January 1935. A bank robber named Byron Bolton, already in custody on an unrelated charge, is looking to reduce his time in jail and tells the feds he knows who committed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He names Burke and four other men. Bolton says he was a lookout on the job. He says Capone ordered the hit in order to kill Bugs Moran.
Bolton’s story makes huge headlines across the country, even though it doesn’t entirely add up. At least one of the men he identified as a killer had an alibi. Then there is the question of why Capone would hire so many men for a job that required only one assassin. Capone knew where the rival gangster lived. He could have put Jack McGurn or another hired gun in a car across the street and had him wait until he got a clean shot. Sending in a hit squad was completely out of character for Capone and highly unlikely, given that the feds were following his every move at the time. But even if Capone had ordered the hit, and even if the job had gone horribly wrong, another question remained: Why hadn’t he ordered his men to try again? Why was Moran still alive?
And then there’s this: If Bolton’s story were true, why didn’t anyone use his testimony to bring charges against Capone? It wasn’t too late.
As it happened, nothing official came of Bolton’s so-called confession. But his highly publicized yarn did catch the eye of a Chicagoan named Frank T. Farrell. When Farrell read Bolton’s version of events, he sat down and composed a letter to John Edgar Hoover, head of the federal Bureau of Investigation—dated January 28, 1935—saying he had information that might be useful to the feds. His account—recently discovered in the FBI archives and never before revealed—offers the most logical and satisfying solution to the crime ever presented.
In cramped but tidy script, Farrell told the director that he had been doing “Undercover Investigation” work—he gives no more detail than that, and neither do the FBI archives—at the time of the crime. He said that if federal agents would check Chicago police logs, they would find that a 40-year-old former firefighter named William Davern Jr., the son of a Chicago police sergeant, had been shot during a bar fight in November 1928. Davern, the letter said, was the key to unraveling the mystery of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Davern had been in the kitchen of the C. and O. Restaurant at 509 North Clark Street, a popular gangster hangout, when a fight erupted. Davern was shot in the stomach. Spurting blood, he was carried to a car, driven to the corner of Rush Street and Austin Avenue (now Hubbard Street), and dumped there. Davern managed to crawl to a fire-station call box and ring for help. He was taken to the hospital, where he held on for a month. And while he wouldn’t tell the police who had shot him, Davern did tell his first cousin, William White. William Davern and William White had grown up together in Chicago. Now, as he lay dying, Davern decided there was only one man he could trust, and so he gave White the names of several members of the Moran gang, including one of the Gusenberg brothers. In his letter, Farrell doesn’t say which brother. Those are the guys who shot me, Davern told his cousin.
William “Three-Fingered Jack” White was beady-eyed, bald, and double-chinned. He was even tougher than he was ugly. A boyhood accident or a botched safecracking job—accounts varied—had taken two of the fingers on his right hand. For the better part of the decade he had maintained status as one of Chicago’s most vicious criminals, with a rap sheet as long and savage as the processing line at the Armour meatpacking plant. When Davern died, according to Farrell’s letter, White made up his mind to avenge his cousin’s murder. He contacted the same Gusenberg brother who had been involved in the murder of Davern and said he was planning to hold up a factory for its payroll and needed men to help.
White probably knew both the Gusenbergs. They had allegedly worked together in 1926 on the $80,000 robbery of the International Harvester factory on 31st Street. In that job, they had used eight men, and when one of those men ratted to the cops and started naming his accomplices, White arranged for two of his cohorts to disguise themselves as police, go to the rat’s home, and murder him while he slept. White knew that when people saw police uniforms they tended to be more trusting, and they tended not to notice the distinguishing features of the men in the uniforms. All they saw were hats and badges. And getting uniforms was easy. White knew plenty of crooked cops. In this case, he might have enlisted the help of his uncle, Sergeant William J. Davern, of the Chicago Police Department, the father of the man killed at the C. and O. Restaurant.
Farrell’s letter resolves many of the mysteries surrounding the massacre. It helps explain why so many of Moran’s men were in the garage that morning, why they were dressed well, and why they never fired their guns when faced by their intruders. It also offers a clear motive—one with enough emotional power to explain the fury of the attack. It may even account for why the investigation of the crime went nowhere. Perhaps word had spread through the police department that the garage killing had been carried out in retaliation for the murder of a cop’s kid. Sergeant Davern might have provided the uniforms and the police car. That could have been enough to quell further investigation and persuade the detectives to accept this rough justice.
If White had been arrested and confessed that he’d committed the crime in retaliation for the murder of Davern, the newspapermen certainly would have followed up with the next logical questions: Was Sergeant Davern involved? Did other cops help him commit or cover up the crime? And once those questions were asked, the reporters no doubt would have cited the dying words of Frank Gusenberg, which to this day remain the only testimony from a victim of the crime.
“Cops did it,” Gusenberg had said.
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