Al Capone’s Chicago: When gangsters profited from Prohibition

Lincoln Park in Chicago is a great place to relax on a sunny day. Bigger than New York’s Central Park, it boasts ornate gardens, open fields, ponds, zoo (free, but with a decent array of animals including lions and tigers) and beaches dotted along the edge of Michigan Lake. It is the lung of Chicago and somewhere nice to head if you want to escape the downtown skyscrapers.

Lincoln Park

Sitting in the peaceful lily garden of Lincoln Park, it’s hard to imagine that something so terrible happened near here in 1929. Where a parking lot stands today on North Clark Street, seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side gang were gunned down by those from Al Capone’s South Side gang. The garage, outside which the incident took place was demolished in 1967 unofficially on the orders of the Mayor, but the house across the street which was used as a lookout by the killers survives.

The infamous incident took place on February 14th and so become known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the culmination of five year war between rival gangs in the 1920s when Chicago was considered the organised crime capital of America.

Al Capone, the son of Italian immigrants, had arrived in Chicago from New York in 1919. He quickly rose up the ranks and between 1924 and 1931 became the top gangster in the city. The reason that Chicago became a popular place for Al Capone and other gangsters to hang out was a change to US law that became known as Prohibition.

Drinking goes underground

After pressure from the temperance movement, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in 1920 which with the accompanying Volstead Act, made the production, sale and transport of alcohol illegal. But Prohibition by no means stopped people drinking in cities like Chicago. At the Chicago History Museum you can see an example of an ‘ally cooker’ which was used by households to make liquors. The alcohol produced from these contraptions went way beyond personal consumption, with gangsters picking it for distribution to bars and clubs in the city.

Prohibition created a wave of new secret drinking establishments – known as speakeasies – where it was possible to buy alcohol if you kept your voice down and were prepared to pay a premium. There aren’t many bars left in the city that were once speakeasies, but there are some – including one of Al Capone’s favourites called Green Mill (complete with a space under the bar where alcohol could be hidden).

The era of Prohibition coincided with the arrival in Chicago of black people from the Deep South. They travelled from the Missisippi Delta region in search of a better life – choosing this city because it was a railroad hub – in an event that has become known as the Great Migration. Many bought their music with them and blues, which means “hard times” and had its origins in the slave states of the Deep South, quickly became played in many of Chicago’s entertainment venues.

Louis Armstrong, who made his name in the nightclubs of Chicago,said that “us kids who turned out to be good musicians migrated from New Orleans to Chicago when times were good. There were plenty of work, lots of Dough flying around, all kinds of beautiful women at your service. A musician in Chicago in the early twenties were treated and respected just like – some kind of a God.”

Gangsters like Al Capone made their fortunes selling illicit alcohol in clubs and speakeasies, but he wanted people that he was performing a public service: “I make my money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am.” He added: “I sell and they buy…. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it one a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.”

On the day of the St Valentine’s Day massacre the North Side gang were tricked by Al Capone to be at the garage to receive some bonded Canadian whisky that he said was too much for his South Side gangsters to shift alone. Much alcohol being sold in Chicago at the time was of questionable quality, but this shipment was to be the good stuff at it had the Canadians’ stamp of approval. But when the North Side gang got to the garage they were killed by Al Capone’s henchmen who were dressed as city police.

Site of St Valentine’s Day massacre

After the incident the people of Chicago said enough was enough, and called on the police and the Mayor to do get rid of gang violence from the city’s streets. Crime did start to fall. Al Capone was put into prison, but it wasn’t setting up of 300 deaths – he actually went down for tax evasion. There was a repeal of prohibition in 1933, which took away gangsters’ ability to profit so freely from alcohol sales

Lincoln Park – the neighbourhood which shares a name with the park and where the St Valentine’s Day Massacre took place – is now one of the most affluent parts of Chicago. The leafy streets boast well looked after houses and there are many trendy bars and restaurants. It seems a far cry from the times of Al Capone.

Edge of Lincoln Park

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