Such a tweety: Abe "Pretty"
Levine turned canary in 1940, "singing"
to the New York authorities about Murder
Inc Photo: AP
On February 14, 1929, a notorious gangland slaying
— forever associated with a date that otherwise belongs
to lovers — took place in Chicago. Charlie Jacoby visits
the scene of the crime in order to explore a possible
family connection with a bunch of criminals immortalised
years later by Elvis Presley.
Stand at 2122 North Clark Street in
Chicago on St Valentine’s Day and romance will be far
from your thoughts. Here, on February 14 1929, in the
SMC Cartage Company warehouse, six members of Bugs Moran’s
gang and a visitor were machine-gun-ned. Their killers
were never found.
Many suspect leading mobster Al Capone
of setting up the bloodbath. But there’s a strong theory
that the Italians didn’t do it, that it was a Jewish
killing — either by the outfit from Brooklyn dubbed
by the press Murder Inc, employer of assassins such
as Mendy Weiss, Bugsy Goldstein and Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro;
or by the hoodlums who controlled Detroit in the neighbouring
state of Michigan: the Purple Gang.
Quite what took me, the mild-mannered
property correspondent of the JC, to Chicago must be
made clear. As a result of a casual conversation, I
had discovered among the names of those allegedly involved
in the slaughter was one Charles Jacoby. Natur-ally,
I wanted to know more.
Just five months before the killing,
Charles, the vice-president of Jacoby’s French Cleaners
& Dyers Inc, and nine alleged members of the Purple
Gang, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort
money from another cleaners’ and dyers’ company. Besides
my namesake, the defendants in-cluded Abe and Raymond
Bern-stein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Flet-cher, Irving
Shapiro and Abe Axler. It looked like the Jacobys were
in it up to their ears.
These days, you can take a tour of Chicago’s
gangster hotspots. There’s not much of the old Jazz
Age city left, though. There’s a grassy area next to
an old people’s home where the massacre warehouse once
was. Go back over the Chicago River and you are into
the city’s surprisingly small downtown area. The central
police station on South State Street from where the
police Cadillacs wailed their way to North Clark Street
on that fateful day was demolished last year. The Lexington
Hotel, whose fourth- and fifth-floor suites Capone used
as his headquarters, was demolished in 1995.
As you drive towards the warehouse,
the guide tells you the St Valentine’s Day Massacre
story. It was, apparently, a cold morning. The winds
that give Chicago its nickname “the Windy City” had
blown in the wintry weather. A siren-fitted black Cadillac
pulled up outside the warehouse. Four men got out, two
dressed as police officers and two in plain clothes.
A fifth stayed behind the wheel of the car. A German-shepherd
guard-dog barked as the men came into the warehouse.
This was the era of Prohibition. Bugs
Mor-an’s men were waiting for a consignment of Canadian
whiskey from a source in Detroit whose identity remains
a mystery. Moran had accepted the deal over the telephone
and arranged to take possession at the warehouse. Inside
were six members of his gang — Adam Heyer, John May,
Albert Kachelleck, Albert Weinshank, and the Gusenburg
brothers, Frank and Pete — as well as an optometrist
called Reinhart Schwimmer, who had picked a bad day
to drop by. The hit team told all seven men to face
the wall. Moran’s men complied, expecting the usual
police search for weapons.
What happened next was the bloodiest
killing in gangland history. The four “policemen” stepped
back, pulled Thompson machine guns from under their
coats and opened fire, killing six of the gang members
instantly. The two men in plain clothes then handed
their guns to the uniformed men and walked out with
their hands in the air, pretending to be under arrest.
All four men got into the Cadillac and drove away.
To anybody watching from outside, it
was a routine police raid: maybe somebody had forgotten
to pay off the cops, maybe — not that anyone thought
this likely — they were police officers really trying
to bust criminals. One person watching was Moran himself,
who was running late that morning. At the sound of gunfire,
he drove away. The killers had missed their main target.
It was the howling of the dog that attracted
passers-by to look in the warehouse. Frank Gusenberg
was still alive, despite having been shot 22 times.
“No one… nobody shot me,” he said. He died three hours
When the police started work on the
case, they uncovered link after link with the Purple
Gang. Not least, according to witnesses, a man answering
the description of Eddie Fletcher, who had stood in
the dock alongside Charles Jacoby, had rented an apartment
on the other side of the street from the warehouse 10
days previously. So what was a Detroit operation doing
in Chicago, involving itself in what looked like a turf
war between Capone’s mob and Moran’s Northside Gang?
The Purple Gang began in the back streets
of Detroit. The sons of Eastern European immigrants
who had arrived at the end of the 19th century, they
started their crime small, as children, but moved into
gambling and liquor as they grew up. They gained their
name from a shopkeeper who said there was something
wrong with the boys — something off-colour, or “purple.”
The bosses were Charles Jacoby’s brothers-in-law, Abe
and Raymond Bernstein. In those days, a “Little Jewish
Navy” and a number of Irish operations ran liquor across
the Great Lakes from Canada to the USA. This brought
in good money, but there was more to be made from extortion.
The Purples soon started a racket against legitimate
businesses in Detroit, including cleaners and dyers.
It was as a result of the murders of
cleaners and dyers who refused to pay up that Jacoby
and the rest ended up in court. In April 1928, Detroit
Police Commissioner William Routledge told reporters:
“Rounded up and waiting for trial are a bunch of Jacoby’s
terrorists, the so-called ‘Purple Gang.’”
Capone realised he had to work with,
not against, the Purples. He may have wanted to add
Detroit to his territory. Its hard-working, hard-drinking
population was ripe for his liquor operation. But he
realised the Purples had the city sewn up.
In 1928, on Septem-ber 13 (my birthday),
the jury acquitted Charles Jacoby and other Purple Gang
members of the cleaners-and-dyers extortion racket.
After the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Detroit Police
Inspector Henry Garvin told the press he didn’t believe
the Purples could be involved in anything “so ruthless”
in Chicago. This was not the experience of the people
of Detroit. It was Purple Gang member Zigmund “Ziggie”
Selbin who so liked a ring he saw that he cut off its
owner’s finger to get it.
In 1929, the gang’s bosses were asked
to the infamous meeting of mafia bosses in Atlantic
City — made famous in “The Godfather” films. But by
1930, their reign was crumbling. A botched attempt to
kill Garvin left both him and a little girl wounded.
To show the perversity of gangland-police relationships
in those days, Garvin then himself botched an attempt
to cover up a Purple Gang crime — carried out in a car
traced to Charles Jacoby.
Few of “Jacoby’s terrorists” had long
lives. In July 1929, the body of 25-year-old Irving
Shapiro was pushed out of the door of a fast-moving
car. In 1933, Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were murdered.
Irving Milberg and Raymond Bernstein were sentenced
to life in 1931 for the massacre of three rival gangsters.
By the time Elvis Presley sang, in his
1957 hit “Jailhouse Rock,” that “the whole rhythm section
was the Purple Gang,” they had been inside for more
than a quarter-of-a-century. In 1963, Raymond Bernstein
was released, after suffering a stroke. He died three
Two who escaped both the law and the
bullet were Abe Bernstein, who died of a heart attack
at the age of 75 in 1968, and Charles Jacoby, who reportedly
died in his bed, an old man.
Downtown today, within the Loop, Chicago
is a clean city, keen to distance itself from its past.
The only gangs that are left push drugs in the western
and northern suburbs. And I’ve been unable to count
Charles Jacoby as a close relation. That’s diaspora