Friday 14 February 2003, 12 Adar 5763 Erev Shabbat 




Purple hearts

Charlie Jacoby

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 later.

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 years later.

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 for you.