While visiting my local bookstore, I saw (yet another) Al Capone bio in the True Crime section. I picked it up and began flipping the pages.
I've lost count of how many versions of the Capone story I've read, but if a person's life fascinates me enough, I can always enjoy a new book on the subject. Unless it's written from a myopic perspective, as this one was. Five minutes later I put it back on the shelf and bought a novel instead.
According to the author, George 'Bugs' Moran was dimwitted. He lost his gang and his North Side territory because he was too stupid to protect either from the intellectually superior Capone's invasion. When a writer presents that argument, I know that they haven't done their homework, and thankfully, so does anyone else who has a decent understanding of the Chicago beer wars.
The genesis of the Capone syndicate was the vice ring organized during the early 1900s by Big Jim Colosimo, a flesh trader and political precinct captain. Big Jim stuffed enough dirty money into the pockets of his ward aldermen and the local cops to operate with impunity. His organization was still going strong at the time of his May 1920 assassination, and when his successor Johnny Torrio added bootlegging to the business roster, the resulting riches made it nearly invincible.
After Drucci's funeral, Moran inherited the dwindling remnants of a mob that had been gradually decimated by the ongoing battle with the much larger Capone syndicate. By that point there was no way he could have emerged the victor, although a former judge recalled in his memoirs that many Chicagoans who had been following the war from the safety of their newspapers were rooting for Moran to win. He did make successful inroads into labor racketeering and dog racing, suggesting that if he had been able to direct the gang's fortunes during peacetime, history might have remembered him differently.
Mario Gomes, Capone expert and webmaster of the encyclopedic My Al Capone Museum website, says, "Though greatly outnumbered by the Capone gang, the North Siders held the fort for many years thanks to the leadership of George Moran. Moran and his men had to constantly out-think and stay one step ahead of the Capone boys in order to survive. (The North Side) was very lucrative, so no wonder it was the last bastion Capone craved so badly. Moran has earned double the respect I have for Big Al."
George Moran may not have been an ingenius strategist like Johnny Torrio or Dean O'Banion, but neither was he the over-muscled dolt of popular lore. He was a hands-on leader, taking the same chances his underlings did, but in the Chicago of his day, that elicited respect, not derision. Even if he had been more proactive than reactionary, he lacked the manpower to beat Capone.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 marked the end of Moran's reign over the North Side. For over a year, the shaken gangster debated the feasibility of continuing the fight, briefly partnering with minor league Capone rivals like renegade Sicilian Joe Aiello and pimp Jack Zuta. In late 1930 he finally conceded defeat. But he did not slink away in disgrace. The door had closed in Chicago, but he found windows of opportunity elsewhere.
He retained control of his dog racing and labor racketeering interests, both of which remained profitable. On the bootlegging front, Moran moved his breweries outside the Chicago city limits and used his Canadian connections to supply liquor to the Chain O' Lakes area in northern Illinois, a district that soaked up booze like a sponge during the summer months. Having heard good things about the West Coast from a former North Sider who moved there in 1925, he sent emissaries to Los Angeles. Their reports were so favorable that Moran moved in, building breweries and terrorizing the local underworld so thoroughly that the LA County sheriff told newsmen about tough hoodlums literally "begging for protection from Bugs Moran gangsters." If Repeal had not interrupted the invasion, Moran might eventually have taken over the city's liquor distribution and been remembered as a successful booze baron in his own right.
In closing, George Moran was not a bulb with low wattage. He was outmanned and outgunned in Chicago, but when given the opportunity to start over elsewhere, he met instant success. Unfortunately for writers only interested in the quick buck, the truth can take time to uncover, so an entertaining fiction is often substituted. That does not bode well for the future of history.