The Guns of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: Al Capone Gets Away with Murder

We find the 1920’s-era gangsters and their tools of destruction endlessly fascinating. Sadly, like pirates, they were in actuality cold-blooded killers in possession of few if any admirable traits.

This next installment in our study of assassination guns takes us to a dark place. Most assassinations are driven by some warped form of patriotism. The killing is intended to send a message or right some perceived political wrong. However, at other times men commit premeditated mass murder based upon pure unfiltered greed. This is the sort of killing we shall investigate today.

Chicago has had a long and sordid history of organized crime and violence that persists to the present day.

What is it about Chicago? Nowadays Chicago’s annual body count is higher than that of New York and Los Angeles combined. Despite some of the most draconian gun laws in the country (there are exactly no gun shops within the confines of the city of Chicago), Chicagoans cannot seem to keep from offing one another at a simply breathtaking rate. The country is shocked by the numbers, and contemporary politicians dig deep to find pyrrhic solutions. However, it turns out that shooting each other has been a bit of a pastime in Chicago for some time now. Maybe it’s something in the water.

The Players

George “Bugs” Moran led the Irish criminal gang that ran the northern half of Chicago during the Roaring Twenties. 

The demarcation was as stark and deadly as the battle lines in a war zone. The Irish under George “Bugs” Moran owned the northern part of the city. The Italians led by Al “Scarface” Capone ran the south. What was at stake was the lucrative business of prostitution, illegal gambling, and “speakeasies,” underground watering holes where the enterprising partier could find alcohol during a time when alcohol was illegal from sea to shining sea. There were other dark pursuits, but these three accounted for most of the take.

Alphonse Gabriel “Scarface” Capone ran the Italian mafia in the southern portion of Chicago during the infamous gangland wars of the 1920’s.

Al Capone was an archetypal professional criminal, a real-life super villain in the days before big screen superheroes.

How lucrative was all this underground trade? At the apex of his power Capone was making $60 million per year on illicit alcohol, $25 million on gambling, and $10 million on vice and similar sordid recreational pursuits. He employed around six hundred gangsters to keep his sundry enterprises running smoothly. Adjusted for inflation Capone’s empire would be worth around $1.3 billion today. During the 1920’s this was literally unimaginable wealth. One of the ways Scarface Capone kept his businesses successful was by proactively discouraging competition.

Bugs Moran had muscled in on a series of saloons as well as a dog track that Capone felt should be his own. In response, Capone decided to send a message on February 14, 1929, at a garage called the SMC Cartage Warehouse. Any man who has had a girlfriend should know that February 14 is St. Valentine’s Day.

Five members of Moran’s North Side Gang had been lured to the garage with the promise of a stolen, cut-rate shipment of Canadian whiskey. Two of Moran’s men, the brothers Frank and Peter Gusenberg, were German-American contract killers who had shown up planning to drive a pair of empty trucks north to pick up the stolen booze. Peter went by “Goosey.” Frank was known as “Gusenberger.” Frank was a bigamist who was married to two women, Lucille and Ruth, who were neither aware of the other.

The other three stalwart members of the North Side Gang included Moran’s brother-in-law and second-in-command Albert Kachellek, Adam Heyer, the gang’s bookkeeper, and Albert Weinshank, the manager of several mob-run cleaning businesses. Also present were Reinhardt Schwimmer, a former optician who now called himself a professional gambler in the employ of the gang, and John May, an auto mechanic. Moran himself was supposed to have been present, but he spotted a police car as he was walking to the warehouse and slipped into a nearby coffee shop. This decision saved his life.

The bad blood ran deep between the two groups. Moran’s gang had tried and failed to kill Jack McGurn, a Capone associate. They had been more successful with local mafia presidents Pasqualino “Patsy” Lolordo and Antonio “The Scourge” Lombardo.

The Hit

This innocuous warehouse ultimately served as the site of one of the most infamous mass murders in American history. It is the parking lot for a nursing home today.

Capone’s men arrived in a Cadillac and a Peerless sedan. Four men entered the back of the garage. Two were dressed in police uniforms.

What we know for certain is that all seven of Moran’s men were lined up facing the back wall of the brick warehouse. At that point two of Capone’s men opened fire with M1921 Thompson submachine guns. One Thompson fed from a fifty-round drum, the other from a twenty-round stick magazine. The gangsters emptied both guns tracking from left to right, continuing to fire into the fallen bodies after they dropped to the floor. Both submachine guns were fired until they were dry.

Frank Gusenberg was a polygamist German-American contract killer who met his gory end during the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

The other two killers carried shotguns. John May and Albert Kachellek were both shot in the face with 12-gauge rounds, likely after the Thompsons had done their work. The damage that resulted left them all but unrecognizable.

There were two survivors of the attack. John May’s dog Highball came through without a scratch. The dog was so traumatized, however, that the Chicago PD was ultimately forced to put him down.

Even by the violent standards of the day, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre shocked the country.

Frank Gusenberg was conscious when the real police arrived, having absorbed a sum total of fourteen bullet wounds. He lingered on for three hours before he died. During this time he adamantly refused to tell the police who had shot him, remaining a loyal gangster to the very end.

During the St. Valentine’s Day massacre seven members of the Moran gang were stood up against a wall and machine-gunned.

John May’s dog Highball came through the attack unscathed. However, the poor hound was so traumatized by the event he had to be euthanized.

The Guns

The M1921 Thompson submachinegun has been inextricably linked to the gangland killings of the 1920’s.

The two Thompson submachine guns were ultimately definitively tied to the murder through forensic ballistics. This burgeoning science matched spent bullets to a gun via the unique impressions made by the gun’s rifling. The path by which the cops came ultimately to possess the guns is convoluted. One of them was also tied to the murder of Frankie Yale, a mob boss in Brooklyn who had run afoul of Capone.

Les Farmer, a Deputy Sheriff in Marion, Illinois, originally bought one of the Thompsons, serial number 2347, in 1924. Three years later the gun came into the possession of Fred “Killer” Burke, a cold-hearted murderer who likely used the same gun in March of that year during the Detroit Milaflores Massacre. Thompsons cost a cool $200 new back then and could be bought freely over the counter just like spark plugs or hair grease. Adjusted for inflation that comes out to about $2,800 today.

The two Thompson guns used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre are currently owned by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department in St. Joseph, Michigan.

The elegant lines of the Thompson submachinegun have become iconic.

The second gun, number 7580, was sold through a Chicago sporting goods store to Victor Thompson who listed his address at the time as the Fox Hotel in Elgin, Illinois. The gun was subsequently passed on to James “Bozo” Shupe, a small-time thug with ties to Capone’s gang. Both Thompsons were ultimately seized by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department in St. Joseph, Michigan, where they still reside. These guns are literally priceless today.

The two shotguns were never recovered. As they were smoothbore weapons there was no way to connect a particular gun to the rounds fired that day. For the purposes of our assessment, we will use a Winchester 1897 pump gun. The 1897 breaks down into two pieces for easy portage and sports a five-shot tubular magazine underneath the barrel. The gun has an exposed hammer and is as complicated as a sewing machine inside. Lord help you if you foolishly take the thing completely apart. Ask me how I know this.

The 1897 Winchester pump shotgun was the product of John Moses Browning’s remarkable mind.

The 1897 Winchester breaks down easily into two compact components for easy portage.

Trigger Time

Though heavy, the Thompson submachinegun is still a respectable close combat tool even by today’s standards.

The Thompson submachine gun was a truly revolutionary weapon for its day. Designed as a “trench broom” for use during the First World War, the Thompson was heavy, bulky, and complicated. However, it was and is a remarkably effective close combat weapon.

The buttstock removes easily with the press of a button, and the gun points naturally from the hip thanks to its dual pistol grips. The gun fires from an open bolt and takes both drum and box magazines. Box mags insert from the bottom. Drums slide in from the side. The bolt has to be retracted to load a drum.

The buttstock on early M1921 and M1928 Thompsons slides off with the press of a button.

Thompson drums come in 50 and 100-round versions. They are installed from the side of the gun.

The fire control system of the Thompson consists of a pair of left-sided levers. The rear lever is the safety. The forward switch is the fire selector.

The Thompson gun is really unduly bulky with a drum magazine installed.

There are two fire control switches on the left side of the gun. The forward switch is the fire selector, while the aft switch is the safety. The magazine release is easily accessible by the left thumb when the gun is fired right-handed. The actuator on early Thompsons is oriented on the top of the receiver. The guts of the gun are characterized by the infamous Blish lock, an overly complicated bronze contraption that was expensive to make and has been shown to be fairly superfluous.

Those early M1921 Thompsons cycled at around 900 rounds per minute. The gun’s hefty bulk and solid design made the gun frightfully controllable despite its heavy .45ACP chambering. The bolt locks to the rear automatically on the last round fired. To put the gun back in action just swap magazines and squeeze the trigger. Nothing is faster, even today.

The Winchester 1897 shotgun runs just like every other 12-gauge pump gun on the planet but with a twist.

The 1897 Winchester pump 12-gauge is a sleek, lithe, and fast-firing scattergun.

Care must be exercised when running the 1897 lest the bolt nip your strong hand during cycling.

The exposed action means you have to be careful while running the gun fast lest you let the bolt slip back during cycling and nip your hand. Additionally, the sear system is such that you can hold the trigger back and fire the gun as fast as you can work the forearm. Both the Thompson and the 1897 Winchester were perfect for this sort of close-range carnage.

Aftermath

The Thompson gun cuts a dashing pose despite its dark and sordid applications.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was front-page news across the country.

An enterprising Canadian businessman bought the back wall of the SMC Cartage Warehouse as it was being torn down and sold the bricks as souvenirs.

While it is presumed today that Capone’s men were behind the St. Valentine’s Day hit, no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the murders. There have even been rumors that the Chicago Police Department was involved as payback for the murder of a police officer’s son.

Al Capone was ultimately convicted of tax evasion, of all things, and spent eight years of an eleven-year sentence in a federal penitentiary. He died of syphilis and related complications in 1947 at age 48. His reign as a crime boss lasted only seven years and ended with his incarceration at age thirty-three.

The players involved came from variegated backgrounds and enjoyed a litany of colorful sobriquets. Crane Neck, Hop Toad, Doc, Killer, and the Blonde Alibi were among some of the more memorable. Their gangs were called the Purple Gang, Egan’s Rats, the Chicago Outfit, and the American Boys. In 1967 the warehouse was demolished to become the parking lot for a nursing home. The bullet-scarred bricks were sold by an enterprising Canadian businessman who had the foresight to purchase the wall as it was being torn down. He made a killing.

Technical Specifications

M1921 Thompson Submachine Gun

1897 Winchester

Caliber

.45ACP

12 Gauge

Weight

10.8 lbs Empty

8 lbs Empty

Length

33.7 inches

39.25 inches

Barrel Length

12 inches

20 inches

Action

Blowback—Blish Lock

Pump-Action

Rate of Fire

900 rpm

N/A

Feed System

20-rd Box/50 or 100-rd Drums

5-Round Tubular Magazine

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next historical gun***

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • John Quiroz February 27, 2019, 10:31 pm

    My money is still on the theory that Al subbed the work to an out of town Outfit, The Purple Gang from Detroit. He knew that would own it, regardless. Then he retreated to Lansing, Mi (as he frequently did). The Purple doesn’t get nearly the recognition for their part in starting ” This thing of Ours”. After all, a lot of folks are unaware of this, but prohibition started in Michigan two years earlier than the rest of the country. They learned first, and then N.Y. & Chicago families often went to them for direction. Say what you will, but where else was there a Don of forty years, that died of natural causes while breathing free air.

  • Beachhawk February 19, 2019, 2:35 am

    Another great article, Dr. Dabbs. Thank you.

  • EDWARD BUDZYNSKI February 18, 2019, 9:45 pm

    AS A YOUNG MAN I DELIVERED ICE THERE WHEN IT WAS THE LINCOLN PARK RIDING ACADEMY. THE BULLET HOLES WERE STILL IN THE WALL WITH NOTES AROUND THEM.

  • Kurt February 18, 2019, 9:06 pm

    The nearest I have come to shooting a Thompson is a Ingram A6, It’s not as heavy and cumbersome as a Thompson as its made from stampings. It is the most controllable sub gun I have ever shot. At fifty feet you can hold it on a paper target and dump a entire 30 round magazine on that paper. I can imagine a Thompson is even more controlable because of the weight. Full auto does not hold my interest very long though. Long range is my cup of tea. Its just different.

    • Ejharb February 27, 2019, 7:58 pm

      The challenge to me would be to learn to control the weapon enough to deliver accurate 3 round bursts in a chosen 4 inch spot on a b36 silouette and while on full auto be able to deliver accurate single round hits to 25 yards. I’m kind of fascinated by subguns.sadly my career doesn’t permit much indulgence

  • Christopher S. February 18, 2019, 5:23 pm

    Great article. Thanks for going the extra mile with the added research. A part of American history that should be remembered.

  • IDAN GREENBERG February 18, 2019, 2:00 pm

    Another enjoyable article from Dr. Dabbs. I used to be a member of the Thompson Collectors Asso. and have owned many registered selective fire Thompsons, enjoying shooting them at paper, ground and aerial targets. With some practice the adjustable sight models, are surprisingly accurate at distance for an open bolt full auto, on semi. If one keeps the bursts short, they are amazingly controllable on full auto. While the bolt does lock back on the last shot, when the box magazine is used, the bolt goes all the way forward into battery when a drum is used, on the last shot. The later simplified M1 and M1A1 of WWII or later production, will not take the drums, unless they are specially modified. One can interchange the 1921, with the slower cyclic rate 1928 bolt, actuator recoil spring and guide, to slow down, or speed up the rate of fire, in a few minutes. Steel cased ammo must not be used, as the extractors tend to break with it and brass cases are preferable. If your Thompson has the Cutts compensator, lead bullets should be avoided, as the lead tends to clog the gas ports and is difficult to remove, when built up. The Thompson will work well filthy, but included in some of that muck, must be some oil. In my experience, even a Marine Corps clean Thompson must have some oil in the action to work reliably. Another good idea is to not use insensitive primer ammunition, as the Thompson surprisingly has a relatively wimpy primer strike for an open bolt submachinegun, compared to other open bolt designs. Most of the post WWII West Hurley drums are not reliable, unless an expert has tweaked them. But an undented Bridgeport drum from WWII, or a pre WWII drum works fine. A surprising number of Colt, Savage and Auto Ordinance Thompsons that work with the drums are not reliable with the box magazines, the magazine catches not lifting the mag body high enough. This causes feeding issues until repaired, so the catch lifts the magazine high enough to meet the steep Thompson feed ramp. The West Hurley addressed Thompsons generally are of sorry quality, compared to those of WWII or earlier production. But they can be made to work well, by stuffing them full of WWII era parts. Hollywood tends to use West Hurley mfg. Thompsons now, as the older models are worth too much for actors and stuntmen to beat up. That is a nice, early 1928A1 Auto Ordinance, Bridgeport, Conn. WWII production gun you show closeups of in the article. To learn more about Thompsons there are lots of good books, with the one by Tracie Hill most recommended. Every responsible, reasonably well trained shooter should fire a select fire Thompson Submachinegun at least once in their life.

    • JCitizen February 18, 2019, 10:04 pm

      You are right about the West Hurley’s – the only glaring defect mine had was the Cutts compensator was not drilled in sync with the threads, and consequently the bullets bounced off one side of the exit hole on the compensator and caused terrible inaccuracy and shooting to the right. I ordered an old one, and just like you said about WW2 parts it worked perfectly. I almost changed the whole barrel for an older one just because the machining was beautiful on the older barrels I had. I liked the older lower receivers too, but the green olive drab of the war 1928s didn’t match the blue. I decided it wasn’t wise to change too much about the gun , because it would affect the value even if it wasn’t a top value gun.

  • Zupglick February 18, 2019, 12:42 pm

    Biggest gang on the planet. United States Government.

    • Marc A Kappel February 18, 2019, 2:19 pm

      I think CHI’Nah has us beat there chief

  • AJ February 18, 2019, 12:35 pm

    As a Chicago native, I realize Capone was ruthless. But he was also one of the ones who taught progressives the error of their ways. If it wasn’t for alcohol operations like his, the prohibition would probably still be a thing, or at least have lasted longer.

    He was a real gangster, but his illicit operations kept money flowing into the economy in a time when corruption was blatant.

    A lot of readers need to remember this: if these gun ban proposals continue to sprout up, eventually we will all be as “bad” as Capone in the eyes of the government.

    These treasonous dogs now want to blatantly limit our rights. People like Capone wouldn’t stand for it.

  • FirstStateMark February 18, 2019, 12:21 pm

    Glamorizing mass murder and the head of the Chicago mob to sell your gun. How pathetic!

    • Christopher S. February 18, 2019, 5:28 pm

      No one is glamorizing mass murder. It’s a history lesson. What’s pathetic is what you left wingers read into every story. Go back to your cosmo and let the adults speak.

    • Robert Messmer February 18, 2019, 6:36 pm

      Quote: “However, at other times men commit premeditated mass murder based upon pure unfiltered greed. This is the sort of killing we shall investigate today.” How is this ‘glamorizing’ mass murder? And no where did I find any offer to sell any gun. Not sure what article you read but obviously it wasn’t this one.

    • James R Shumate February 19, 2019, 10:13 am

      Spoken like a true child with no understanding of events. Welcome to actual media. This isn’t HuffPost fake news propaganda. This is history. And who is selling a Thompson MG on here?!?

  • durabo February 18, 2019, 11:41 am

    The only real loss was that of “Highball.”

  • Mike in a Truck February 18, 2019, 10:42 am

    We begged .We pleaded.We whined and cried.Even tried holding our breath.But our heartless Battery Commander refused to let anyone draw the two Tommy Guns from the arms room on range day. They were scheduled to be sent to Depot Maintenance for demill. How sad.

  • PHILIP HONES February 18, 2019, 10:29 am

    There is an FBI museum in Las Vegas that I visited a few years back and I thought they has a section of the wall with bullet marks still showing.

    • Shawn February 18, 2019, 5:12 pm

      Yes, they do. They have a number of the original bricks, if not all or most of them (ones that were actually salvaged). The wall they have on display is a mix of the originals, and some new materials. I don’t believe the original wall actually survived in it’s entirety. There’s a photo on the museum’s website that shows the guy who initially bought them. He’s posing with them and there’s nowhere near enough shown to make up an entire wall.

  • Bruce February 18, 2019, 10:20 am

    There is a fake mock-up of the wall in the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Very interesting place if you love the ” Mob ” stuff. I can’t remember if they have one of the original bricks or not….

    • Shawn February 18, 2019, 4:56 pm

      Yes, they have several of the original bricks, if not all or most of them (the ones that were actually salvaged anyways). The entire wall that they have on display is a mix of the originals and some new materials, as I don’t believe the original wall actually survived in it’s entirety. There’s a photo on the museum’s website that shows the guy who initially bought them. He’s posing with them and there’s nowhere near enough shown to make up an entire wall.

      The museum’s fairly interesting. It’s about the only thing I actually cared to see during my visit to Las Vegas. Not a fan.

  • warlord1958 February 18, 2019, 9:45 am

    The Berrian Co. Sheriff’s department displays these Thompson’s at the Michigan Antique Arms show in Novi, MI a couple times a year.

  • christopher scallio February 18, 2019, 9:30 am

    The primary use of the Thompson Machine Gun in Americana history was for Labor Relations.
    The Communists were instigating Unionization, and Management were defending their property
    from trespass and destruction. Some private security died while more protesting rioters died.

  • joefoam February 18, 2019, 8:17 am

    History continues to repeat itself. Gangsters in Chicago murdering each other and guns being made the scapegoat. What is with that town?

    • KurtW February 18, 2019, 9:11 am

      The Criminal Minds………… in Politics – that’s what.

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