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Johnny Torrio: Part 1

The early years of the gangster who "made" Frankie Yale and Al Capone two of the most powerful men in the country. Torrio was a member of New York's infamous Five Points Gang before he launched a more successful career as part of "Big Jim" Colosimo's Chicago Outfit.

Johnny "The Fox" Torrio Johnny Torrio was born in the village of Orsara near Naples, Italy in 1882. In 1884, his widowed mother emigrated to New York and Johnny grew up in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His first job was as a porter in his stepfather’s grocery store, but he later he worked as a bouncer at Nigger Mike’s, a rough bar located on Pell Street. Though he was slight in build, "Little Johnny" became leader of a band of youths known as the James Street Gang. In the early days, the gang members made their income as thieves until Torrio had saved enough money to open a gambling den under the guise of a pool hall. By this time, Torrio was a well-known loanshark and had earned the accolade "Terrible Johnny" for his cruelty towards those who were indebted to him.

The James Street Gang soon attracted the attention of Paul Kelly, leader of the hugely successful Five Points Gang. In 1905 the James Street Gang became the Five Points Juniors acting as a training ground for future members of the Five Pointers. Torrio began working at the Pearl House dance hall owned by Jack Sirocco, a respected Kelly lieutenant. When Sirocco defected to the Eastmans, Torrio became Kelly’s number two. Johnny admired and imitated his boss and Kelly taught the young tough about art and culture. He convinced Torrio to dress more conservatively, stop swearing and set up a front as a legitimate businessman.

However, the Five Points Gang’s constant warring with the Eastmans and Gophers bothered Torrio. Apart from the very real fear of being killed in one of the gang’s territorial squabbles, the violence was drawing too much attention to gang. After a huge gun battle on Rivington Street in 1903 involving about 100 gangsters, New York politician "Big Tim" O’Sullivan was threatening to withdraw the political protection that Kelly and his gang enjoyed. Torrio announced his opinion that Paul Kelly was leading the gang in the wrong direction, and that he was setting up his own operation in the Brooklyn docks. He took most of the Five Points Juniors and many of the senior members with him.

Despite this, Torrio and Kelly remained on good terms and occasionally worked together. Johnny set up numerous legitimate business interests, but his main business was the Italian lottery; supplemented by bookmaking, loansharking, hijacking, prostitution and opium trafficking. The lessons he learned from Kelly stayed with him and he became known as "the Fox" due to his cunning and diplomacy.

Torrio often paid local kids to run errands for him, and through this practice he met a youngster who was destined to become the most infamous gangster of them all: Alphonse Capone. Al became a member of the Five Points Juniors, and later a fully-fledged Five Pointer. Torrio was Al’s mentor and after the move to Brooklyn, he got Capone a job at the Harvard Inn, a renowned gangster hangout owned by Francesco Iole aka "Frankie Yale".

Though he was an important underworld figure in New York, Torrio is best known as a Chicago gangster. His first introduction to the Windy City came in 1909 when his Aunt Victoria Colosimo (nee Moresco) requested his aid. Victoria was a prolific Chicago madame and her husband "Big Jim" Colosimo was the city’s most successful crime boss. However, Big Jim was being blackmailed by a group of anonymous extortionists who signed their letters with the imprint of a Black Hand, the standard Italian signature for such letters. Victoria took the threats to her husband’s life seriously enough to enlist Torrio’s help. Johnny arranged for payment to be made to Chicago’s Black Hand, but when the extortionists attempted to collect their money at Archer Avenue, they were gunned down by Torrio and a gang of hirelings.

Yale was Torrio’s chief lieutenant, and when Torrio finally moved to Chicago, Yale was given complete control of "the Fox’s" New York interests. In Chicago, Torrio became the manager of Colosimo’s Café, the headquarters for "Big Jim" Colosimo’s Outfit located at 2126 South Wabash Avenue. When a Chicago gangster &quout;Sunny Jim" Cosmano sent a Black Hand letter to Colosimo demanding $10,000, Torrio ambushed him with a shotgun, hitting him in the stomach. Though Cosmano survived, he fled from Chicago. As a reward, Torrio was promoted and with his new-found wealth, he bought a red Cadillac. He also opened a bordello on 2118 South Federal Street with his cousin Rocco Vanillo as manager.

Soon Torrio was swamped with work. He managed much of Mr. and Mrs. Colosimo’s prostitution rackets, transforming the seedy brothels into classy houses filled with sweet-looking "virgins" instead of sleazy whores. These up-market ventures attracted a wealthier clientele who could well-afford the luxuries that Torrio provided. He then became involved in Colosimo and Maurice Van Beaver’s white-slave trade. Girls, most of whom were immigrants who couldn’t speak English, were kidnapped, raped and forced to work as prostitutes. Many of them were underage teenagers. To prevent the girls’ families from locating them, Colosimo and Van Bever normally traded these slaves with contacts in Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee and New York.

Torrio had trouble over the slave ring on at least two occasions. The first time, he, Maurice Van Beaver, Julia Van Beaver (Maurice’s wife) and five others were arrested for transporting girls across state-lines for the purposes of prostitution. The witness was a turncoat pimp named Joe Bovo, who later refused to testify after the defendants convinced him that it would be bad for his health. All members of the ring escaped prosecution.

In 1911, one of the slaves escaped and reported her ordeal to the police. The authorities hid the woman in Bridgeport Connecticut and prepared indictments against Colosimo, Van Bever and Torrio; but Torrio managed to locate the witness through his old gang, now lead by Frankie Yale. Two men passing themselves off as federal agents took the girl into the car and murdered her. She had been shot 12 times and her body was left in a graveyard.

While all this was going on, Torrio never lost his respectability. He lead a kind of double life, posing as legitimate businessman Frank Langley. In 1912, he married a Jewish girl named Anna Jacob and by all accounts, he was totally devoted to her, avoiding the company of mistresses that was enjoyed by most of his peers. He never swore, smoked or gambled, and even before the Prohibition, he gave up alcohol. But despite his gentlemanly demeanour, he was a pimp, a slaver and a murderer.

During the summer of 1914, the Chicago Police Department’s Morals Squad closed down bordellos all over the Levee, the city's red light district. On July 16, Colosimo’s brothel "The Turf" on 22nd street was raided. As prostitutes, pimps and customers were being driven away, a riot broke out and two detectives stayed behind trying to get the crowd under control. Torrio drove towards the gathering in his car, with his cousin Rocco Vanillo and another gangster named Mac Fitzpatrick in the back. Vanillo and Fitzpatrick jumped out of the car, drew guns and opened fire on the police. At the same time, two patrolmen came around the corner, saw the detectives firing and shot at them. When they realised they were firing at the wrong people, they attacked Vanillo and Mac Fitzpatrick. One of the detectives was killed and the three other cops were injured. Vanillo was also injured, but he and his partner escaped in Torrio’s car. The autopsy showed that the detective had been killed by a "dum-dum" bullet, a non-police issue round that breaks apart and expands inside the body.

Continuing pressure from the Morals Squad convinced Torrio to move his prostitution business out of the Levee. In 1914 he set up several road houses, 24-hour brothels that catered for people on the road to and from Chicago. These were located in and around Burnham, a small Illinois village on the Indiana border. The first of these bordellos housed 90 girls and made a profit of $9,000 in the first week. Other road houses included the Speedway Inn managed by Jewish pimp Kid Grabiner, and the Burnham Inn managed personally by Johnny Torrio. Torrio gave cash rewards to roadside vendors who rang the Burnham Inn whenever they saw state police on the road. Torrio would then set off an alarm system that sounded throughout his Burnham brothels. On hearing the alarm, the occupants of each house would walk a few yards to cross the state lines and avoid arrest.

Burnham’s mayor John Patton received a percentage of the profits for allowing the whores to work unhindered. Patton proved a useful contact for Torrio when he had to deal with drunken gangster "Dandy" Joe Fogarty at the Burnham Inn. Fogarty became very abusive and threatened Torrio before he was shot dead by Sonny Dunne and Tommy Enwright. Torrio was brought in for questioning but released after an hour.

Back in New York, Al "Scarface" Capone was having trouble with the police over a murder investigation. Frankie Yale contacted Torrio asking if he could help Capone get on his feet outside New York. Capone joined the Chicago Outfit in 1918. He began as a bouncer and caller at one of Torrio’s brothels and was later promoted to manager of Torrio’s headquarters, the Four Deuces. Opened in 1919 at 2222 South Wabash Avenue, on the same street as Colosimo’s Café, the Four Deuces was a cheap saloon, gambling den and house of ill-repute.

1920 heralded the Volstead Act that prohibited the manufacture, distribution and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Gangsters all over the country took advantage of the new constitutional amendment and sold their own brands of bootleg liquor to the thirsty masses. Colosimo and Torrio served booze in &quout;speakeasies" throughout the city, but Colosimo was planning to wind-down his business. He was already a multimillionaire who felt that expanding into new rackets would only increase his workload and attract even more attention from the police and rival gangs. This attitude frustrated Torrio who had to stand by and watch other hoods make a fortune manufacturing cheap booze and smuggling quality produce from Canada.

"The Fox’s" uneasiness quickly turned to anger. In 1920, Torrio’s Aunt Victoria Colosimo was devastated when "Big Jim" left her for another woman. Colosimo took up with Dale Winter, a singer from his Café. He filed for a divorce and received it on March 20 1920. Less than three weeks later, on April 7, he married Ms. Winter and the couple spent their honeymoon in Indiana. Dale had a profound effect on Colosimo’s lifestyle. She convinced him to settle down, dress more conservatively and stay out of the newspapers. While Torrio continued to pressure Colosimo into expansion, the new Mrs. Colosimo was convincing him not to take any risks. Colosimo spent more and more time with his bride, staying away from his whore houses and business associates. These changes did not pass the Chicago underworld unnoticed, and people started saying that he was " going soft&quout; and that he was under his wife’s control. Torrio now had three reasons to hate Colosimo, the man had mistreated Victoria, was an embarrassment to the Outfit and was impeding plans for further development. He called a meeting with Colosimo’s allies the Genna brothers and the Aiello brothers, telling them he wanted to murder Colosimo and take over the Outfit. They all agreed not to oppose the move.

On Tuesday May 11, one month after his wedding, Colosimo was at home when he received a phone call from Torrio. Johnny told him there were two shipments of whisky coming to the Café and Colosimo needed to be there to collect it. Angry at the disruption, Colosimo told him deal with it himself but Torrio insisted that the bootleggers wanted to deal with the boss personally, and told him to be there at 4pm sharp. Colosimo was there one time, but was agitated when he discovered that none of the staff knew anything about the whisky deliveries.

Meanwhile, Frankie Yale, Torrio’s right-hand man from his New York days had been eating at the restaurant. He left shortly after Colosimo arrived, leaving an obscure message on the check, "So long Vampire, so long Lefty". As Colosimo was making his exit, Yale, from his hiding place in the restaurant cloakroom, fired 2 shots with a .38 calibre revolver. A waiter saw him leap out of the booth, snatch his victim’s wallet and run out the door. Colosimo died on the floor of his Café. Later, when lawyers were attending to his estate, they expected to find $500,000 in cash alone, but could only locate $67,500 in cash and bonds and $8,894 in jewellery. According to rumours, Torrio took his boss’ money as well as his life.

The police arrested Joe Moresco thinking that he had murdered Colosimo to avenge the divorce of his sister. But when they interrogated Moresco, they found he had an alibi. More than 30 suspects were interviewed, including Victoria Moresco and her new husband who were both in Los Angeles when the murder took place, Dale Winter Colosimo and Johnny Torrio. According to investigators, Torrio appeared very upset over the violent death of his boss and ex-Uncle, but they were sure that even if he hadn’t been the killer, he was definitely involved in planning the murder.

The police began looking for Frankie Yale after the waiter picked out his mugshot. Yale was arrested while boarding a train to New York and was identified by the waiter from a line up. Police heard rumours that Yale received $10,000 from Torrio after the murder, rumours that were denied by both suspects. Yale avoided trial when the waiter refused to give evidence in court.


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