Sunday, February 14, 2010

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Contrary to popular belief, St. Valentine's Day was not invented by Hallmark Cards. The feast of St. Valentine (of which there is more than one) was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 CE. It was in the 14th Century that St. Valentine's Day became linked to love and romance, at a time when the distinctions between the various Saints Valentine became cloudy. The first valentine sent through the post was in 1806, over one hundred years before Hallmark was founded.

Of course, while St. Valentine's Day is now firmly linked to love and romance today, it must be pointed out that it was first established to commemorate either the death or burial of one of the Saints Valentine. According to the Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493, the first substantial account of any of the Valentines, St. Valentine was a priest who was arrested during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II for marrying Christian couples, then stoned and later beheaded. While Valentine's Day traditionally has a link to love and romance, it would also seem to have a strong link to violence. Indeed, February 14 is also remembered for another act of violence besides the martyrdom of any of the Valentines: the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

 In 1929 the city of Chicago was at the centre of two powerful gangs. The South Side of Chicago was dominated by the largely Italian, Chicago Outfit headed by Al Capone. The Northside was dominated by the largely Irish, Northside Mob, headed by Bugs Moran. The struggle between the two gangs began during Prohibition, when the Genna brothers, partners of the Outfit headed by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, began selling their bootleg liquor on the Northside for half the price that the Northside Mob, then headed by Dean O'Banion, had been selling their own alcohol. While Torrio talked the Gennas out of selling alcohol in the North, O'Banion was still unhappy. O'Banion began to use racial slurs to refer to the Italians, and it would be both O'Banion and Bugs Moran who would first refer to Al Capone with the insult "Scarface."

Things would escalate from there. In 1924 Dean O'Banion was assassinated by members of the Outfit, leaving Earl "Hymie" Weiss in charge or the Northside Mob. It also sparked a war between the two gangs It was on January 25, 1925 that Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran ambushed Torrio outside his home with the intention of killing him. The two men shot Torrio several times, but left him alive when either a gun malfunctioned or they ran out of ammunition. Regardless, Torrio retired and appointed Al Capone the head of the Outfit. Bugs Moran would make attempts on Capone's life. It was after Moran and his men performed a drive by shooting (which he is said to have invented) on Capone's car that Capone started using armoured cars. Moran himself tortured and killed Capone's most trusted bodyguard. On September 20, 1926, Moran and his men launched a full scale attack on Capone's hotel in Cicero, Illinois in an attempt to kill himself.  A few weeks later, on October 11, 1926, Hymie Weiss would be murdered by the Outfit, leaving Bugs Moran in charge of the Northside Mob.

It was following the attack on Capone's hotel and the murder of Weiss that the Outfit and the Northside Mob declared a truce at the  Morrison Hotel on November 21, 1926. The truce effectively divided Chicago between the various gangs, and for a time there would be peace of a sort. Of course, while the Northside Mob and the Outfit were not shooting each other, they did do things to harass each other. Moran would hijack Capone's  liquor shipments, then sell them. Capone burned down Moran's dog track, while Moran burned down one of Capone's clubs. It was not long before Moran began to kill both Capone's gang members and friends. It was not long after an attempt on the life of his friend Jack McGurn by Frank and  Peter Gusenberg and the murders of  Antonio Lombardo and Pasqualino "Patsy" Lolordo by the Northside Gang that the Valentine's Day Massacre took place.

The details of the Valentine's Day Massacre are not known to this day. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that it was Al Capone who ordered the massacre. The only thing that is known for certain is that on February 14, 1929, six men associated with the Northside Mob and Dr. Reinhardt H. Schwimmer (an optometrist who idolised mobsters) were gunned down, facing a wall, inside the S.M.C Cartage Co. garage. As to why six mobsters would willingly stand lined up against a wall to be gunned down, that may have been answered by an eyewitness who lived across the street. She said that she had seen two men dressed as police officers escort two men with their hands in the air, as if they had been arrested, leave the garage. The Chicago Police Department knew nothing of any such arrest. It seems likely that the "police officers" were actually gangsters wearing police uniforms. This would explain why Moran's men and Dr. Schwimmer offered no resistance whatsoever; they thought they were dealing with the police.

As to who was ultimately responsible for the crime, that is not known to any degree of certainty to this day. That having been said, Al Capone was the prime suspect at the time and still thought to be the man most likely to have been responsible for the massacre. Moran and Capone had been rivals for years. And it may not be coincidence that the massacre took place not long after the attempt on the life of Capone's friend Jack McGurn and the murders of Antonio Lombardo and Pasqualino "Patsy" Lolordo.

Because of the paucity of evidence, no one was ever arrested for St. Valentine's Day Massacre. That is not to say that it did not have repercussions. News of the massacre, complete with pictures of  the murdered men, would cause outrage throughout the United States. The Federal government finally took notice of Al Capone's activities, which resulted in Capone's arrest for income tax evasion in 1931. As to Bugs Moran, he would maintain power over his territory until the repeal of the Volstead Act.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre would become the most notorious gangland killing in history. Naturally, it would figure prominently in pop culture. Indeed, it would first be featured in movies only a few years after it took place, in 1932's Scarface. Following the lead in Scarface, the majority of films based around Capone's career have included the massacre in some way. The massacre figured in the 1959 film Al Capone  starring Rod Steiger, as well as the 1975 film Capone. The St. Valentine Day's Massacre was a pivotal part of the plot of the 1969 comedy  Some Like It Hot. It was at the centre of Roger Corman's 1967 movie St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In Brian DePalma's soon to be released prequel to The Untouchables, The Untouchables: Capone Rising, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre will be featured in the plot. The massacre was also the subject of  a TV movie from 1997. It has been the subject of numerous documentaries.

While Valentine's Day is linked with romance and love in the minds of many, it is also known as the date of the most notorious gangland killing of all time. Indeed, one has to wonder that the perpetrator of the massacre did not choose that date for the fact that it would be particularly notable. It shocked the nation at the time and continues to shock to this day. It remains one of the most infamous and despicable criminal acts in the history of the United States and will probably never be forgotten.

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