Charles Dean O'Banion: Part 2

During the Prohibition, Dean O'Banion's larcenous sense of humor got him in a lot trouble with powerful Italian mobsters Johnny Torrio, Al Capone and the Genna brothers, a situation that lead to his death in Schofield's Flower Shop in 1924.

In July 1922, O'Banion was charged with robbery when the police caught him trying to steal alcohol, but he was never convicted. In April 1924 he was indicted along with Dan McCarthy and Hymie Weiss for conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act after they were caught hijacking a liquor shipment. Once more, no conviction was recorded. However, his biggest robbery was probably the break-in at the Sibley Warehouse, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone's whisky repository, in May 1924. The Northsiders made-off with about 2,000 barrels of whisky, an estimated $1,000,000 haul. With typical O'Banion humor, they replaced each one with a barrel of water. Using a counterfeit receipt for the purchase of the whisky from Sibley, O'Banion used the booze to buy shares in the Cragin distillery in the city's Northside.

Dean was fond of "joking" with Torrio and Capone. He pulled off another one of his pranks in February 1924 when he got a phone call of his men, John Duffy. After a drunken row with his live-in girlfriend Maybelle Exley, Duffy waited for the woman to go to bed and then smothered her with a pillow. As he sobered up, he realized the bad predicament he was in and panicked. He rang O'Banion who promised to help him out and asked to meet him at the Four Deuces, a club owned by Torrio and managed by Capone. Duffy waited for Dean but left when his boss didn't show up. Then he spotted O'Banion in his car outside and the two went for a drive.

Perhaps Dean, who was known for fits of morality, was abhorred by the slaying of a woman. Or maybe he was afraid that the terrified Duffy would co-operate with the police if arrested. Whatever the reason, the Northsider boss killed his underling and dumped him, making no effort to conceal the body. Dean planned it so that the Four Deuces was the last place his victim was seen alive, making Torrio and Capone the prime suspects in the police investigations and drawing a lot of unwanted attention to their illegal club.

Despite O'Banion's trickery, the Outfit still included 24 Northsiders among the 250 gangsters who rigged the Cicero elections on April 1 1924. Cicero is a small town outside Chicago and was controlled by Torrio and Capone during the 1920s. Dean demanded payment for the use of his men, and Torrio gave him an exorbitant reward for his services. The Northsiders received territory in Cicero that was spending $20,000 per month on bootleg alcohol, and on top of that, O'Banion got a 25% share in Cicero's largest casino, the Ship. But even this wasn't enough to satisfy O'Banion. He went to every speakeasy he could find in Capone's territory and used a combination of violence and cheap liquor prices to lure many of them into the Northsider's section of Cicero. O'Banion's turf became the most profitable in the town, bringing in $100,000 per month.

Capone was furious, but Johnny Torrio still wanted to keep the peace with the Irish gangster. To appease Capone, Torrio tried to buy the territory back with an equally valuable portion of his prostitution rackets. O'Banion scoffed at the offer and derided Torrio for being a pimp.

Meanwhile, a crime family known as the Genna brothers began selling whisky in Chicago's Northside, undercutting O'Banion's prices. This violated the rules of the Chicago Syndicate, and O'Banion complained to the syndicate's leader, Johnny Torrio. The Genna's were staunch allies of Torrio, who was not going to fight them on behalf of someone who had caused him so much hardship. He told O'Banion that above all else, the Genna's were members of the Unione Siciliana (a cover for a national alliance of Sicilian gangsters, a forerunner of La Cosa Nostra) and that they only answered to the Unione's Chicago president, Mike Merlo. The Northsiders knew that Merlo would never take their side above his own men, so they began to exact revenge by hijacking the Genna's liquor trucks. The Genna's wanted to go to war, but their boss Mike Merlo told them that they should try to resolve the matter peacefully.

It seemed like nobody would go to war with the Northsiders, but in May 1924, O'Banion went too far. He announced that he was retiring to Colorado and asked Torrio to buy out his share of the Sieben Brewery for $500,000. Torrio jumped at the chance to be the brewery's sole owner and to get the troublesome Irishman out of Chicago. Dean insisted on closing the deal at the Sieben itself, and while they were settling their business, the brewery was raided by Prohibition agents. The two gangsters were arrested and O'Banion received a $1,000 fine (the maximum penalty for a first offence under the Prohibition Act). This fine was more than covered by the $500,000 payment he received for the now-redundant brewery. However, the consequences were far worse for Torrio. For him, a prison sentence was compulsory as it was his second offence. As he awaited trial, he began to question why O'Banion had been so eager to meet at the brewery at that particular time, and suspected that his Sieben partner had set him up.

Dean did indeed spend a few months in Colorado, either to authenticate the story of his retirement or to stay out of Torrio's way. He, his wife Viola and a large entourage of bodyguards went on a long vacation from July to October 1924. They stayed at a ranch belonging to Louis "Two Gun" Alterie, a Northsider enforcer and union racketeer who liked to portray a cowboy image.

The reason O'Banion returned in late October was to organize the "fix" for the November elections in the 42nd and 43rd wards of Chicago. Though he had always worked for the Democrats, his party began to worry when he was seen about town with members of the Republican party. To keep him on side, the Democrats threw a testimonial bash in his honour, presenting him with a plaque and a $1,500 platinum watch. Interestingly enough, on Election Day November 4, still wearing the watch, he supported the Republicans and celebrated victory in a North State Street speakeasy where he shot the knobs off several doors. But while the Northsiders were celebrating, they did not realize the danger their leader was in.

The night before, Dean had gone to the Ship casino in Cicero, which he and Torrio owned. Torrio told him that he wanted to write-off a $30,000 debt that his friend "Bloody" Angelo Genna owed after a bad-night's gambling. This gambler was one of the Genna brothers that had been selling whisky in the Northside. When O'Banion left the casino, he went to the nearest telephone booth and threatened Genna, telling him to pay up within a week. The Genna brothers went straight over to the Ship, furious over the insult. Torrio explained that he was going to write-off the debt and he let them know about all the trouble he had with O'Banion. Between them, the gangsters decided to get rid of the Northside boss.

As they spoke, the Unione Siciliana president Mike Merlo was on his death-bed, the victim of an arduous struggle with cancer. Merlo had overuled the Gennas' decision to kill O'Banion in the past, but they knew that once Merlo passed away, they would be free to make their move. Merlo died on Saturday November 8 1924. As usual, all the gangsters in the city ordered their flowers through Schofields Flower Shop and O'Banion was swamped with work. On Sunday November 9, Vincenzo Genna went into the shop and bought a $700 funeral wreath, taking care to examine the Northside headquarters thoroughly before he left. That night, someone using the name Frank Yale phoned in an $2,000 order. New York gangster Frankie Yale was the national chairman of the Unione Siciliana and a close friend of Johnny Torrio.

Schofield's Flower Shop On November 10, the morning of the funeral, three men entered the shop to collect Yale's flowers at about 11:30am. A porter working in the shop recognized that two of the men were John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, two hit men for the Genna family. The identity of the other man is unknown, but the most popular theory is that it was Frankie Yale himself. The porter went to the back room while O'Banion dealt with the men. As he shook hands with the unknown assassin, the man pulled on his arm, throwing him off balance. The porter rushed out to the counter when he heard gunfire, and he saw "Yale" clutching O'Banion's hand. The three killers ran out the door and escaped in a dark blue Jewitt. "Devil" Mike Genna was believed to be the driver. O'Banion had been shot six times and was already dead when an the police and ambulance arrived.

Frankie Yale was arrested on suspicion of murder, but he said it would be ridiculous to give his own name when ordering flowers from someone he was going to kill. Also a waiter testified that Yale had been eating at a restaurant when the shooting took place. A popular theory is that this waiter was "Samoots" Amatuna, a member of the Unione Siciliana who worked for the Gennas. Although many people think Yale was the killer, there is another story that suggests Yale actually was at the restaurant as the waiter had claimed. Supporters of this theory allege that Angelo Genna ordered the flowers in Yale's name, and that O'Banion was killed by Anselmi, Scalise, Mike Genna. After the O'Banion hit, Hymie Weiss became the Northside boss and the gang spent the next few years waging a bloody war with the Outfit and the Gennas.

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