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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
M1921 Thompson Submachine Gun
10.8 lbs Empty
8 lbs Empty
Rate of Fire
20-rd Box/50 or 100-rd Drums
5-Round Tubular Magazine