Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bugs Moran vs. Al Capone: the informed approach

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.

When researching and writing The Man Who Got Away, I spoke to recognized experts such as Mario Gomes, John Binder, Rick Mattix, and Bill Helmer; interviewed elderly individuals who knew George Moran, and spent years examining FBI reports, court and prison records, and files retained by the Chicago Crime Commission. I soon understood that Moran did not lose the war with Capone because of poor leadership, mental fallibility, or any reason typically offered by those who don't want to do the work it takes to put the bigger picture together. Moran lost because he was up against a stronger mob, one that predated the North Side gang by at least twenty years.

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.

Moran's North Siders, on the other hand, sprang into existence at the dawn of Prohibition, along with hip flasks, speakeasies, and bobbed hair. Dean O'Banion, the gang's sly and charismatic founder, was a brilliant businessman who invested his money in breweries and his charm in favorable partnerships, and by 1921 he controlled all bootlegging north of Madison Street. But when he crossed Johnny Torrio in 1924, he was shot to death in the flower shop that he operated as a sideline. His murder began the six year gang war that killed over six hundred men and disgraced Chicago for all time.

O'Banion's successor, Earl 'Hymie' Weiss, (see photo, provided courtesy of Mario Gomes) was a brainy dynamo who chased Torrio out of Chicago and gave the newly ascended Al Capone nightmares until  October 1926, when a machine gun fusillade mowed him down outside Holy Name Cathedral on State Street.  Vincent Drucci then took over, but his uneventful leadership was cut short in April 1927, when he cursed a temperamental cop and was shot in the back of a police vehicle.

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.


Joel Greenberg said...

Hi Rose. As usual, an interesting and well researched piece.

John D. said...

Very informative post, Rose. It sounds to me like the author of that book started with a conclusion and then worked it backwards, probably cherry-picking the research. Sadly, that technique is not uncommon these days.