WHO RAN POLICY?: The Real Bosses of Chicago Policy
By Michael Theobald
While illegal lotteries ran in Chicago as far back as the 1860s, the first real policy boss of Bronzeville was Mushmouth Johnson.
John V. Johnson was born in St. Louis, the son of a nurse who had once worked for Mary Todd Lincoln. Arriving in Chicago around 1870, he worked as a waiter, first at the Palmer House, then at the gambling house run by Andy Scott, where he soon became a bouncer. He earned the name “Mushmouth,” allegedly because of his prodigious capability for swearing. Scott saw potential in Johnson and entered into a partnership with him to tap into Chicago’s growing black population. With Scott’s backing, Johnson opened the Emporium Saloon at 464 S. State Street where, among other games of chance, policy could be played.
Within a few years Mushmouth, who never actually gambled himself, became known as “the Richest Negro in Chicago.” Politically connected with notorious First Ward Alderman Hinky Dink Kenna, Johnson turned out the black vote for the Democratic Machine and was richly rewarded for it. Mushmouth also worked closely with Big Jim Colosimo, the original mafia boss of Chicago, who would later be killed by his lieutenants, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.
A civic clean-up campaign in 1903 pushed Mushmouth out of his location and further south, to Bronzeville, where he opened up the Frontenac Club. But hard living and police harassment had taken a toll and Johnson died in 1907, revered in the neighborhood for his philanthropy and his power.
Mushmouth’s main rival in Bronzeville was Bob Mott, who used the proceeds from his policy and other gambling operations to open the New Pekin Theater, the first black-owned and operated playhouse in America, which became the first cultural heart of Bronzeville, attracted some of the top African-American talent of the day, at least until Mott passed away in 1911. In the following years, the Pekin Theater became a notorious dive, and when two policemen were shot there in 1920, the place was shut down and, ironically, became a police station until it was torn down to be replaced by the Dearborn Homes housing project.
The most famous of the policy operators in Chicago, though, were the Jones Brothers, Ed, George, and Mack. Born in Arkansas, they were the sons of a Baptist minister who had come north and died soon after, leaving the boys with a $16,000 life insurance payout. They used the money to start a taxi business, and from there Ed, the oldest, drifted into the policy racket as a runner. Soon they were running their own wheel, earning $10,000 to $15,000 a day, along with a reputation for integrity in paying winners. The Jones Brothers amassed a huge fortune, investing in real estate, opening the first black-owned department store in Bronzeville, and buying estates in France and Mexico.
When the IRS sent Ed to prison for tax evasion, he was befriended by Sam Giancana, a low-level mobster who wanted to hear all about how policy was run. A few years later, after serving his term, Ed Jones was kidnapped, and after paying off a ransom estimated at $100,000, he retired to Mexico along with his brothers, leaving the operation to his top lieutenant, Ted Roe.
The mob, led by Giancana, continued to push at the Bronzeville policy racket, making several attempts on Roe’s life, bombing his house, shooting at his wife and kids, and so on. Giancana tried to make a deal with him. They needed a black face in Bronzeville to run the operation, but Roe refused, telling Giancana, “I’d rather die first.” “Well, buddy boy,” Giancana answered, “you just might.”
All-out war ensued, with hits on both sides and the mob actively hunting Roe.
In August of 1952, Roe was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and told he had only a short time to live. Dismissing his bodyguards, he dressed in his best suit and walked down South Michigan Avenue. A car pulled up and put eight bullets in his head. Giancana was later caught on a wire telling an associate, “That bastard went out like a man. He had balls. It was a fuckin’ shame to kill him.”
The Chicago Outfit took control of policy in Bronzeville and ran it until finally put out of business by the biggest gang of all—the State of Illinois and the Illinois lottery.