The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—Excerpt from “Get Capone,” by Jonathan Eig
THE COLDEST CASE: Since February 14, 1929, when seven men were gunned down inside a Clark Street garage, the mastermind behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has remained a mystery, though suspicions usually point to Al Capone. Now a new biographer has uncovered fresh information implicating a different suspect—a forgotten Chicago felon with a simple and timeless motive: revenge.
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Al Capone in a 1931 mugshot. For more photos, see the gallery » At the time of the crime, Al Capone sat in a Dade County, Florida, courthouse, wearing one of his fashionable summer ensembles: white flannel trousers, a checkered sport jacket, and a light gray fedora. He was 30, overweight, but still powerfully built, and had a sharply receding hairline. Though world famous now as a villain, he was almost never photographed without a smile.
Capone had come for an interview with Louis Goldstein, a prosecutor from Brooklyn, who was investigating the murder in New York of Capone’s old friend and mentor, Frankie Yale. Capone was so confident that he arrived without a lawyer. But he may have regretted his decision when the questions began to bore in on his personal finances and not the murder of Yale.
“What has money got to do with it?” the Big Fellow asked at one point. He’d known for months that the feds were looking at his taxes, but he may have been fooled because no representative of the Bureau of Internal Revenue had come to the meeting.
By the time the interview was done, news of the massacre in Chicago had spread by telephone and telegraph wire across the country. The black-and-white photos accompanying the stories were among the most graphically violent ever to appear in the American press. Chicago may have already been known as the nation’s gangland murder capital, but this crime was shocking even by Chicago standards.
Capone, still feeling cocky, would brag in the days after the crime that he had an airtight alibi: his Dade County sit-down with the law. But it didn’t matter. This crime raised the nation’s simmering resentment over gangland violence to a boil. From coast to coast, people seemed suddenly to reach the conclusion that a line had been crossed, that the violence had become too much, that the experiment known as Prohibition had blown up once and for all.
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In Chicago, the mild-mannered U.S. attorney George E. Q. Johnson—the man in charge of the federal effort to put Capone behind bars—called the massacre “the most amazing crime in Chicago’s amazing criminal history.” Detectives, federal law-enforcement officers, and newspapermen blanketed the city’s North Side, talking to neighbors, searching for the killers’ black Cadillac, trying to make sense out of what had happened. Nobody knew.
Was this the work of Capone? Sure, he might have wanted to hurt Moran, given their competing interests in booze and gambling, the thinking went, but Moran also had plenty of other enemies around town. Besides, Moran wasn’t even in the garage at the time of the killing. There remained a strong possibility that the killing had nothing to do with him. Maybe the assassins were gunning for the Gusenbergs, who had an uncanny knack for getting in trouble. Or maybe the motive was something much simpler. Maybe it was business related. Almost every day in Chicago someone was hijacking a bootlegger’s truckload of booze or muscling a speakeasy owner to get him to switch suppliers. These disputes routinely ended in violence.
Every hour, more clues and more theories emerged among cops and newspaper reporters, until no one could possibly keep them straight.
Some investigators initially pursued the simplest and most obvious explanation: that Frank Gusenberg had been right in blaming the cops. After all, the men looked like cops, and their vehicle looked like a police car. The investigators quickly dispensed with that theory, though, claiming that Gusenberg must have been mistaken and that the men in uniform must have been impostors. They never explained their reasoning. Their next theory was that the murder had been the work of the Purple Gang, an outfit from Detroit, acting in retaliation for the recent hijacking of a truckload of whiskey. Members of the Purple Gang had supposedly rented a room across the street from the garage, presumably so they could watch for the arrival of Moran’s men. Then came the notion that the killing might have been connected to a vicious aldermanic election in the 20th Ward, where Capone supported one candidate and Moran another. Investigators also considered the possibility that the killing was tied to the fight for control of the dry-cleaning rackets. Albert Weinshank, one of the dead men, was a central figure in the laundry business.
Police even considered Moran himself as a suspect at one point. The gang boss was seen driving past the garage at about the time of the murder. Why didn’t he go in? Was it possible that he had tired of the Gusenbergs’ insubordination and decided to put an end to it? But why would Moran eliminate the other, innocent members of his gang, including a lowly mechanic?
After five days of hopping from one theory to another, police officials reverted to their original notion, saying they had new evidence suggesting that the killing had in fact been the work of police officers.
Moran’s gang had stolen a truckload of liquor from a crooked cop, according to a story in the Chicago Evening Post, and the unnamed cop had retaliated. The Evening Post quoted a witness who said that the car seen in front of the garage was “a police squad automobile beyond any doubt. It even had a gun rack fastened on the rear of the front seat.”
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A week after the crime, cops found a stripped-down, burned-out Cadillac that may have been the one used in the St. Valentine’s Day attack. Still, the investigation went nowhere. “I can name 50 motives for this crime,” complained David Stansbury, the lead investigator for the state’s attorney’s office, “but no one stands out as being important enough to be called the probable cause of the murders.” The only thing Stansbury seemed fairly sure of was that Al Capone had not been involved.
The police had been looking for “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, Capone’s top executioner, on the hunch that he was always a suspect when multiple shots were fired. But when they finally located him, Machine Gun Jack didn’t seem worried. “Me, mixed up in that gang killing?” he chortled. “Don’t make me laugh! The Gusenberg boys would have plugged me if they saw me a block away.” Asked by an Evening Post reporter for his own theory on who had killed Moran’s men, McGurn did not hesitate: “It was coppers,” he said flatly.
A decent answer, too, although not a perfectly satisfying one. For starters, it didn’t explain why the men had gathered in the garage that morning, why they were so well dressed, or why Bugs Moran was not among them. If the cops had indeed wanted to kill Moran’s men, why didn’t they do it in the usual way—by arresting them, shooting them, and claiming subsequently the men had tried to escape?
Also, it would appear that at least two of the dead—the mechanic, Johnny May, and the optometrist, Reinhardt H. Schwimmer—were innocent victims. For these men to get killed, the perpetrators must have been acting in anger, with little interest in precision. There must have been more than money involved. Finally, if the attack was made in retaliation for the theft of whiskey, why didn’t the killers empty the pockets of their victims and recapture at least some of their lost revenue? The dead men had thousands of dollars in their pockets. Not a dime was taken.
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