Al Capone and the Jewelers’ Building

In my gig as a tour director for student groups, I take a lot of other peoples’ boat tours, bus tours, and walking tours. One thing I’m always curious to see is how they’ll tell the story of Al Capone throwing parties in the dome of the Jeweler’s Building at Wabash and Wacker. According to most tales, the dome was once home to the Stratosphere Club, a speakeasy that was either owned or frequented by Al Capone, depending on who’s telling the story. Some are quick to point out that Capone’s connection is just a rumor, others really double-down on saying it was true.

Capone stories almost always fall into the “Not true, but it should be” category of Chicago lore – and that of other cities, as well. I can’t even tell you how many tourists have assumed that I know all about their small town, because it was where Al Capone had his summer home/hideout/warehouse. It seems that there’s hardly a town in the midwest where kids aren’t told that Al Capone used to hang out in town a lot.

The other story of the Jeweler’s Building is that it once housed an elevator for cars, so that jewelry dealers who worked in the building would never have to step out of their car with their valuable stock and into Roaring 20s Chicago, even for a second. Instead, they could drive right into the building and be lifted right up to the floor where their office or showroom was.

Digging into the newspaper archives, it’s quite clear that the elevator story is true: much was made of the car elevator when the place was built; the twenty-three story garage took up about 25% of the total building’s space at the time. A 1924 article in the Tribune said that it would be the tallest garage in the world.  It didn’t totally protect the builders – shortly after it opened (and was quickly renamed The Pure Oil Building), there was a big jewelry robbery there in 1926; three young bandits burst into a gem shop with pistols and made off with $25,000 in jewels.

And the Stratosphere Club in the dome was certainly a real place – but it wasn’t a speakeasy, and there’s no way that Al Capone was ever there.

When the 40-story Jeweler’s Building was first built in the 1920s, the dome seems to have sat empty for some time. In 1932 it was reported in the Tribune that a hawk had taken up residence in the dome and was preying on migratory birds in the loop.  A reference or two in the archives seems to indicate that it was used for storage.

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

The creation of the Stratosphere Club was announced in the press in the Jan 10, 1937 Tribune article entitled “City’s Highest Restaurant Being Built.” Owned by Paul Streeter and taking its name from a club that had been in Rockefeller Center in New York, the club was set to open in March, and would cover four floors – a kitchen on the 37th, a regular restaurant on the 38th and 39th, and a cocktail lounge on the 40th, with decorations to make it look as though one was in a hot air balloon. By March of 1937, when it opened, Capone had been in Alcatraz for some time, and liquor was perfectly legal again.

The club was a hit, by most accounts, but my 1954 the space had been converted into a showroom for a commercial artist (and still using the old circular bar at the time); it’s now the showroom of architect Helmut Jahn.

None of the necessarily proves that there wasn’t a speakeasy there in the 1920s, after it was first built, but people were generally pretty open in reminiscing about their favorite speakies in later days, and I’ve never found a reference to indicate that there was one in the dome. It’s one of those Chicago stories that isn’t quite true – but it should be.

Detective John W. Norton: From H.H. Holmes to Al Capone

norton4Back when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term as president, an old pickpocket named George Summers spoke to the Tribune about the old days. “You know what’s the matter with the cannon (pocket picking) racket today?” he asked. “Stickups! These young punks ain’t willing to go through a long apprenticeship anymore, like we had to. You had to be good to be a dip…. In my time tailors made mens’ pockets so deep it took 15 seconds for a good man to pinch a poke. Nowadays they’re so shallow it can be done easy in five.”

The first time Summers was arrested was during the 1893 World’s Fair. The detective who’d arrested him, John W. Norton, was still active when Summers made his statement in 1939. When asked why he’d become a detective in the first place, Norton said, “I was a damned fool. Like all kids, I thought it would be grand to be a policeman.”

Though his name comes up in a lot of works on Chicago crimes of the 1920s, none of them seem to realize just how far back the man’s career went. Back in 1895, he was one of two detectives who were in charge of investigating the the “Holmes Castle” on Sixty-Third Street. Later recaps of his career only really talked about the last half of it, so it took me a while to realize that the “Lt. John Norton” mentioned in so many cases of the 1910s and 20s, and who became Chief of Detectives from 1930-32, was the same “Detective Norton” papers were always talking about during the Holmes case!

To say Norton had a long and fruitful career barely hints at things.  Just a brief overview:

In 1889, Norton made the news for the first time after arresting a member of a coal-burning gang who’d been on the run for nine months. Not yet with the police, he was working as a private detective for a railroad company at the time.

Detective Norton

Norton in 1895

In 1892, now with the Chicago Police, Norton was involved in a fierce battle with pickpockets at Clark and Madison. Having caught one, another pointed a gun at Norton’s head and said “let the fellow go, or I’ll blow your brains out.” Norton knocked the gun aside and managed to draw his own, wounding the would-be killer (and getting smashed on the head in the process). This was the first of many wounds he sustained on the job.

In 1893, he made national news for his attempt to capture Barney Burch, a notable pickpocket, who escaped by throwing red pepper in Norton’s eyes.

In 1895, Detective Sgt. Norton and Inspector Fitzpatrick supervised the explorations of the HH Holmes “murder castle.” Of the two, he comes off better; Fitzpatrick was far more apt to see a rope and assuming there must have been hangings. Norton seems a bit more cautious.

In 1920, when Big Jim Colosimo was killed, Norton was the one sent to interview the widow, Dale Winter.

Also in 1920, he was instrumental in getting Carl Wanderer to confess that he’d set up the whole “ragged stranger” case.

And that same year, he was on the squad that took down the Cardinella Gang. 

In 1926, when asst. state’s attorney William McSwiggin was shot to death in a drive-by (along with members of the O’Donnell gang, with whom he was hanging out for reasons never entirely clear), police raided all sorts of known Capone hideouts. Norton was on the raid at Capone’s brother’s place that uncovered a whole arsenal full of weapons. Rifles were disguised as curtain rods.

Detective Norton at right. When he found all the guns in hidden compartments at Ralph Capone's house, did he think back to digging through the hidden compartments at the HH Holmes "murder castle" more than 30 years before?

Detective Norton at right in 1926. When he found all the guns in hidden compartments at Ralph Capone’s house, did he think back to digging through the hidden compartments at the HH Holmes “murder castle” more than 30 years before?

1930, he was made chief of detectives (replacing a man J. Edgar Hoover said was getting give grand a month from Capone), in in 1931 was in charge of such duties as controlling the crowds outside of Capone’s trial.

In 1940, when he retired after more than 50 years as a detective, with over 100 citations for bravery to his name, he’d been serving as  commander of the Maxwell Street Police Station.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard with calling the guy a “hero.”  The 50 years that Norton was with the force are not exactly 50 proud years in Chicago police history; it was a long era of corruption, incompetence, and police brutality. The Maxwell Street Station he commanded, in fact, has a particularly grim repuation. And Norton was sort of an old-fasioned detective – a bit more likely to use his billy club than his magnifying glass.  “I am not of the Sherlock Holmes type,” he once said. “(But) I consider myself a close student of crime. I have made the running down of criminals my business. Then, too, it is a pleasure to me. It is almost my whole enjoyment, and to work overtime is no hardship… I do not want it understood that I have no faith in the theory of deduction; I have the greatest faith in it, but I consider it secondary to the plain methods of police work.”

But Norton was only rarely accused of forcing a confession out of anyone (which, in context, is a pretty good record), and I’ve never found anything about him being on the take during prohibition, or any other charges of corruption, which is almost a miracle, given his era. It just amazes me that the same man worked against both H.H. Holmes and Al Capone!


Capone’s Underpants

All over Chicago, people will point to fur dealers, suit shops, and any number of places, saying that Al Capone was once a regular customer. Sometimes it seems that there’s hardly a third or fourth generation Chicagoan around who doesn’t have a story about their grandfather selling Al Capone his suits.

At his October 1931 income tax trial, though, it became clear that Capone’s shopping habits were much more mundane – most of his furnishings and clothing came from Marshall Field’s.

E.M. Arl of the custom shirt department took the stand to say that Capone would purchase a dozen or so custom-made shirts at a time, priced at $18-30 each ( a hell of a lot for a shirt at the time; the jurors were noted to gasp when told the price). He was also shown to have bought 18 collars at two bucks each, 24 monograms for just under a buck, and more. Earl A. Corbin, from the custom tailor department, mentioned selling Capone 28 ties at five bucks each, as well as lots of neckwear and handkerchiefs. A man from the suit department showed that Capone often had fittings both in the store and in his suite at the Metropole hotel (where he lived before taking up his more-famous residence at the Lexington in 1928), and bought his suits with cash. Most cost $135 each and were bought in lots of half a dozen.

Mr. J. Oles, assistant buyer for the men’s underwear department (yes, there was a guy whose job was to be asssistant buyer at the men’s underwear department) testified that Capone had bought three “union suits” (a style of one-piece long underwear) in 1927 for $12 each, as well as nine undershirts and nine shorts for five dollars each – an underwear purchase totalling over $100 in 1927 money (about three grand today). Two more underwear salesmen came forth with similar stories, and Capone swas seen to grin sheepishly when J. Pankan, a salesman, testified that Capone had purchased four $12 suits of “hand glove silk” underwear in 1928.

“What is hand glove silk?” asked the attorney.

“The materials of which ladies gloves are made,” said the salesman.

The Marshall Field is now a Macy’s, but still bears the Marshall Field’s plaque on the outside, and doesn’t seem a whole lot different on the inside now to me than it ever was. Then again, I wouldn’t really know, as I’m not the kind of guy who goes around spending that kind of scratch on underwear. Still, this particular revelation does make me want to head out there next time I need a new pair.

An Al Capone Mystery Quote

“They call Al Capone a bootlegger. Yes, it’s bootlegging while it’s on the trucks, but when your host at the club, in the locker room, or on the Gold Coast hands it to you on a silver tray, it’s hospitality.”

The above quote shows up in several Al Capone bios, and was paraphrased in the film of The Untouchables. But the exact source of the quote seems to be a mystery – as does the exact quote itself: whether he said “silver tray,” “silver platter” or “silver salver” varies every time the quote comes up.

One bio pinpoints the date Capone gave the quote as around December 20, 1927, when Capone was in Chicago after a disastrous trip to L.A. when he was ordered to get out of town. Back in town, he served eight hours in Joliet for carrying a concealed weapon. He spoke to reporters a lot during that brief stay before heading to Miami, but I can’t find a paper or contemporary account with that particular quote. It would be more in line with the kind of stuff he was saying at the conference he gave a couple of weeks earlier, just before heading to California in the first place (the Trib‘s headline was ‘YOU CAN ALL GO THIRSTY’ IS BIG-HEARTED AL’S ADIEU.

For a while I thought it was one of those Capone quotes that was made up years later (like “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word,”) but most of it (minus the first sentence and using “silver salver”) turns up at the head of an editorial about Capone in the Christmas, 1927 issue of the Milwaukee Journal. 

Anyone out there have a better source?

Al Capone Meets the Cops

Ninety years ago this month, in late August of 1922, Al Capone was involved in the first dust-up big enough to get his name into the Chicago paper. They referred to him as Alfred Caponi (they’d keep calling him “Caponi” for years) in the brief item describing an altercation in which he comes off as a massive douchebag.

Al, it seems, was driving around the loop, drunk out of his mind, and crashed into a parked cab at Randolph and Wabash, injuring the cab driver so badly that he needed hospital attention.

A classier gangster would have run around spreading out cash to keep people quiet, but Capone lacked class in those days. As the Trib put it, “Caponi jumped from his machine, pulled a revolver, flashed a deputy sheriff’s badge and threatened to shoot one of the witnesses, who declared the accident had been Caponi’s fault.”

Capone was arrested and taken to the Central police station, where he threatened to have the arresting officer fired, and told anyone who would listen that he had “pull” that would make life miserable for all of the cops present. “I’ll fix this thing so easy you won’t know how it’s done,” he declared.

Christ, what a douchebag.

Capone was booked on three charges: assault with an automobile, driving while intoxicated, and carrying a concealed weapon. True to his word, he was bailed out and never went to court to deal with any of the charges. At this point in time he was still working for his mentor, John Torrio, who may have been the first gangster ever to say “I own the police” and mean it. You wouldn’t have caught Torrio out driving drunk and waving guns around, though. Capone got better at P.R. later; in 1922 he was just a kid in his early 20s and acting like a frat boy whose daddy is on city council.  He was right, though, about being able to “fix” the thing – the case never went to trial.

Al Capone: Songwriter

A song by Al Capone has been recorded; the manuscript is up for sale. Apparently he wrote a lot of music while in Alcatraz, where he served several years for tax evasion (and being a colossal jerk, of course).

The whole story is right here. It’s a bit heavy on the “Capone was really a good guy” angle, which always kinda bugs me, since the man was really little more than a human Jabba the Hutt, but fascinating reading nonetheless.

The Death of Machine Gun Jack McGurn (and an era)

The imprisonment of Al Capone and the end of prohibition pretty much spelled the end for the gangster era in Chicago (at least for the time being), but there were still scores to be settled.

Capone’s favorite hit mad, Machine Gun McGurn, fell onto hard times and began to receive anonymous valentines in the mail, presumably from gangster who blamed him for the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Now, McGurn was a tough character. As part owner of The Green Mill, an uptown speakeasy (still operational, though now fully legal), he talked one entertainer who performed there into staying by cutting his throat in the alley.

But in the mid 30s, with the gang on hard times, the North siders were still angry at him and the south siders were sick of him. Both sides had reasons to want him dead, and, to this day, no one knows WHICH side got him.

But on February 15, 1936, McGurn was bowling at the Avenue Recreation Room, at 805 N. Milwaukee (where the H&R Block is now) when gunmen from some gang or another wandered into the room and shot him to death. At his feet, they left him this valentine:

“You’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your dough
your jewels and cars and handsome houses
but things could still be worse you know…
at least you haven’t lost your trousers!”

Worst. Rhyme. Ever.

The Death of Hymie Weiss: Al Capone’s revenge

With Torrio out of the way, the trio of Weiss, Drucci and Moran made Capone their target and launched one attack after another on him. Capone was repeatedly lucky to escape with his life. Naturally, he fought back.

Weiss, somewhat remarkably, lived for nearly two years after the gang war started before being shot right across the street from Schofield’s Flowers, where Dean had been killed.

Lookouts had been stationed in the next building north of Schofields. Shots fired out the window hit five people and killed 2 of them – including Weiss.

Photo of the building with lines tracing the path of the bullets – the flower shop is visible on the left.


Diagram of the crime and getaway routes of both the killers AND surviving victims.
The crowd gathers around the body of the other victim: Paddy Murphy.

The cornerstone of Holy Name Cathedral, across the street, was badly damaged in the asault. It’s been fixed up today, except for one hole that is said to be a bullet hole still in place from the hit. People tend to refer to it as the real deal, though commenters disagree, and I find it a bit unlikely myself.

next: the death of Machine Gun McGurn….