THE CHICAGO OUTFIT
By Michael Theobald
Go to any city around the world and say you’re from the Chicago, and one of the first things you’ll hear is “Al Capone,” followed by the sound of a tommy gun. It’s inescapable. And while the Capone era is the most famous in Chicago’s organized crime history, its roots are older and it continues to the present day.
The Italian neighborhoods of Chicago around 1900 gave birth to a number of street gangs, as well as the traditional Black Hand groups extorting money from small businesses.
Into this world came Jim Colosimo, born in Italy in 1877 and arriving in Chicago in 1895. As a petty criminal, he came to the attention of “The Lords of the Levee,” First Ward bosses Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin, the vice kings of the city, who controlled gambling, prostitutions and other rackets, and who had a stranglehold on city politics. Those political connections enabled Colosimo to consolidate the various Italian gangs into what would become the Chicago Outfit.
By 1910, Colosimo ruled over a criminal empire of 200 brothels and assorted gambling operations. To help run things, Colosimo brought Johnny Torrio, a veteran policy operator, from New York, and a few years later Torrio brought a young street tough named Al Capone to the city to provide muscle.
When Prohibition began in January, 1920, Torrio saw the possibilities, but Colosimo refused to get involved in that business. On May 11 of that year, Torrio told Colosimo about a liquor shipment that was supposed to arrive at his Four Deuces Club at 2222 South Wabash. Colosimo went to the club to wait on the shipment and was murdered there, probably by Capone or another New York import, Frankie Yale.
Torrio took control of the gang, which moved rapidly to eliminate rivals and expand their bootlegging operations. They went to war with the Dion O’Banion’s North Side Gang. O’Banion was murdered in his flower shop in 1924, and a few months later, Johnny Torrio was shot outside his apartment. He survived the attack, but decided to leave Chicago and move back to his native Italy. He told Capone, “It’s all yours, Al. Me? I’m quitting. It’s Europe for me.”
Capone was now in full control of the Chicago Outfit. He wiped out the North Siders at the St. Valentines Day Massacre in 1929, but in 1931 he was convicted on tax evasion charges and sentenced to 11 years, some of them in Alcatraz.
Capone left Frank Nitti in charge, and with the repeal of Prohibition and the end of that river of money, the Outfit found new ways to bring in cash, particularly labor racketeering. They pushed into the Hollywood unions, extorting cash from the studios to avoid work stoppages. A federal investigation followed in 1943 and Nitti found himself under a grand jury subpoena. Claustrophobic after an earlier prison stint, and blamed for this trouble by the his number two man, Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and enforcement head Tony Accardo, Nitti committed suicide.
Ricca became the official boss of the Outfit, but when he went to prison on a tax beef in 1945, he left Accardo in charge. On his release two years later, Ricca stayed behind the scenes, discussing decisions with Accardo and approving hits by saying, “Make him go away.”
The men spotted a rising star in the Outfit, a one-time street hood named Sam Giancana. Giancana had started off as a member of the 42 Gang, essentially an Outfit farm team during the Capone Era, developing a reputation as a good wheel man and a money earner.
Serving a term in the federal prison a few years earlier, Giancana had befriended Ed Jones, the top policy operator in Bronzeville, who had been convicted on tax evasion charges. Jones explained the whole policy business to Giancana. The mobster told his brother, “Nobody in the syndicate knows. Nobody. They never dreamed the colored bosses were rakin’ so much in. Nobody knows but me.”
Giancana realized that delivering the policy racket to the Outfit was his route to power in the organization. In 1946, his men kidnapped Ed Jones. He was released after a few days and $100,000 payoff. Jones and his brothers took the hint and left Chicago for their estate in Mexico.
Giancana took control of most policy operations in Bronzeville, with the exception of those run by Ted Roe. He tried to convince Roe to follow the Jones brothers in skipping town, or even partnering with the Outfit, but Roe refused. Finally, in 1952, Giancana killed the last black policy boss.
Within a few years, Accardo followed Ricca in stepping behind the scenes, leaving Giancana in day-to-day charge of the Outfit. But Giancana’s flamboyant, public lifestyle—hobnobbing with showgirls, regularly turning up in the newspapers—rubbed his old bosses the wrong way, as did his refusal to share in the profits of some of his overseas gambling operations. In 1966, he was forced to step down when he went to prison for a year. On his release, he moved to Mexico, but was deported back to the U.S. in 1974. Back in Chicago, he tried to reassert some of his old power, but his bosses had had enough. On June 19, 1975, Giancana was murdered in his suburban Oak Park home. His killer was never identified.
Paul Ricca died in 1972 and Tony Accardo ran the Outift until his death in 1992, having never spent a night in jail in his life. Today the Outfitt is still around, involved in gambling, prostitution, and loan sharking, under the alleged leadership of John “No Nose” DiFronzo, but they’re a pale shadow of what they once were. Federal law enforcement, old age, and a changing world have left them behind.