Thursday, March 19, 2009

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

At the beginning of our tours, I often ask if there are any places people especially want to see. The most common request is probably the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the spot where 7 gangsters working for Bugs Moran and the North Side gang were lined up and shot, presumably by people working for Al Capone.

Newspaper shot of the scene, with the bodies drawn over so readers didn't have to see Reinhardt Schwimmer's brains oozing out over his fallen hat. Schwimmer was not a gangster, but a 29 year old optomotrist who had retired to live off his investments and thought hanging out with gangsters was awesome.

In today's vernacular, we would say that he wanted to roll with the gangstas, but he was white and nerdy. If you thought he had no brains in his head to hang out with these guys, come on the tour - we have the real picture on the bus.

Questions abound about the massacre - who were the shooters (there's a new theory every few months)? What was REALLY going on in the SMC Cartage Company, the Clark Street garage where it all went down? Was Moran the target, or was Capone trying to get rid of the north side gunmen who had the irritating habit of trying to shoot him? How many look outs WERE there, exactly (some say they were in one building, though they were probably in every building on the block). And, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, is it haunted, or what?


The SMC Cartage Co on 2/14/1929. The building to the left of it is still standing, but there's a little field and parking lot where the cartage company used to be now.

As for the hauntings, we hear some stories from the people who live in the senior apartments next door. One old guy who hangs around the site tells us he hears screams all the time. One woman told me she had to hang a dress over her mirror because she kept seeing gangsters in it. But the guy is usually drunk, and the woman's story seems to be little more than an excuse for her to tell me about judgement day. Other tours make a big deal out of the orbs that are often photographed on the site, but the ghost pictures from there have been pretty thoroughly debunked at this point. So it MAY be haunted, but the ghosts don't generally have the courtesy to show up on tours. They can easily be FAKED, but that ain't how we roll, son. We'll go there, all right (especially if someone asks for it), but we don't generally spend too much time at the site - we'd rather concentrate on places that seem to have been more active lately.

Quietest of all the ghosts, perhaps, is the infamous Highball the Dog:


Highball was the only survivor of the massacre - one of the more popular ghost stories is that dogs go nuts near the fence. Whatever it was that freaked dogs out there seems to be gone; we've heard this enough from people who lived near the site in decades past that we're willing to believe it, but in recent years we've seen dozens of dogs go by the site without incident.
We used to tell the ghost dog story, but not so much now; it's Lincoln Park, after all, and dogs were walked by the fence during the tour regularly. When they walked by without incident, as they always did, we wound up looking stupid. We're pretty adamant about not wasting people's time with complete nonsense on Weird Chicago :)

The general theory about the ghost dog is that Highball was so freaked out that, though he didn't die, he left behind some sort of psychic imprint (or residual energy, if "psychic imprint" is too new agey for you) that dogs picked up on, but that energy/imprint eventually dissipated into the environment. These imprints don't really last forever - another example of them is the ghostly Lincoln funeral train that used to be seen all over the country, but hasn't been reported in years, to my knowledge.

But ghosts or none, there are mysteries to be solved. Who were the shooters? Capone's main hit man, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, was apparently shut up in a hotel room with a blonde showgirl (who he later married) that day. Capone himself was in Florida. One of the more common theories now is that Capone brought in some guys from Missouri to do the job, but it seems unlikely that he would have trusted such a huge job to any but his must trusted men.

Perhaps the best chance we had at finding out died hours after the shooting. Two of the victims lived long enough to answer a few questions. One said "coppers did it;" (this, combined with witnesses saying they saw cops without badges enter the building, leads most people to conclude that the shooters were disguised as cops). The other guy was Francis Gutenberg. One of the cops on the scene knew him slightly (though he later claimed to have been his best friend, and to have been the first guy on the scene) asked him over and over who shot him, but Gutenberg insisted on playing by the rules of the game even up to the end;. Squealing was forbidden.

"Shot me?" he asked. "Why, nobody shot me!"

In any case, the massacre was the beginning of the end for the Capone gang. The scene of carnage shocked people out of thinking of Capone and the gangsters as Robin Hood-type characters. The garage was torn down in the 1960s, and bricks from the North wall were eventually used as a urinal at a 20s-themed restaurant in Canada. The bricks now command pretty high prices on the collectors market, but I would advise against buying them - no so much for the fact that they're said to be cursed as the fact that if all the bricks SAID to be from the massacre were gathered up, we could probably build the Chicago Spire out of them.

5 comments:

Mario Gomes said...

Nice blog Adam! You are 100% correct in dubious people out there trying to pass off surrounding bricks as coming from the actual wall where the members of Moran's gang were lined up and shot.
Buyer beware!

Anonymous said...

FYI - the guy with the brains oozing from the shotgun hole in his head was not Schwimmer - it was mechanic John May. Schwimmer is laying next to him with the flower in his lapel. And Frank Gusenberg was the only one to survive the intial shooting - there were not two still alive as you stated...

JT

Rhonda C. Poynter said...

Greatly enjoyed stumbling across your page and will follow you from now on - re the massacre, I have a peculiar little connection that my father (kind of a "It's cool to hang with dubious sorts" hood himself) never let me forget: in 1963, we were living in the apartments just a block down. Which way, I can't tell you, and obviously I don't see anything that fits on Google Map, now. Anyhow, we lived on the 4th floor of this place, and one morning I decided to liven things up by falling out of the window my mother had opened for summer air. I bounced off the sidewalk, was mentioned in the Chi paper as a miracle toddler of sorts, and from that moment on Dad introduced me as, "This is my kid that landed on the sidewalk in front of the Massacre." Well, he did tend to exaggerate...but it gave me a career as a writer, and yes, I do recall falling. Maybe those kinds of things just happened (happen still?) in the general area of all that strange energy??? =)- Rhonda C. Poynter

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is right. And he (subrepticiously) points to another inaccuracy: the surnamename of the "few hours survivor" is Gusenberg and not Gutenberg. And Highball is not infamous, he was only a mere spectator which saw (and felt) his master's (John May) death and was exposed to a great deal of noise and flashes. Not an easy thing, even for an Alsatian dog. May Highball's and May's souls rest in peace...

Anonymous said...

I think it is appropriate to say Highball was infamous. He was an infamous dog - the only thing that survived one of the most notorious crimes in history. Yeah, "infamous" is okay.

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