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!

 

The Death of Hoops-a-Daisy Connors

Hoops a Daisy

Henry “Hoops-a-Daisy” Connors is not one of Chicago’s better-known gangsters. In fact, if he didn’t have such a swell nickname, I doubt any attention would have been paid to him at all. It hasn’t, really. Looking him up now, all I’m seeing about him are vintage newspapers and one mention in one of my own books.

Hoops-a-Daisy was born around Erie and Wells back when the neighborhood was known as “Smoky Hollow” and grew up to be a gangster. In 1914, according to police records reported in the Tribune, he shot and killed a man he said he hurt his sister. He did some time for counterfeiting in Toledo, and in 1928 he took a gun away from a bartender and shot him with it.

By 1929, he was known as a political hanger-on, switching sides among various aldermen and aldermanic candidates in the 42nd Ward, where he had been trying to open dives of his own while living in a room at the Wacker Hotel (now the Felix). On September 1, 1929, he came into the C and O Restaurant looking for trouble.

The C and O Restaurant and Cabaret, 509 N. Clark, was a hangout both for gangsters and politicians – there was a lunch room up front, a cabaret in the back, and, off and on, a casino in the basement. Booze seems to have flowed pretty freely, even though prohibition was in full effect. Though not one of the better known gang hangouts today (it’s overshadowed by places whose gang history is wildly exaggerated), it sure as hell seems to have been a tough place in its day. It’s even been suggested that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was not really a Capone job, but revenge for the killing of William Davern in the C&O in 1929  (though the real killer in that version of events was in jail at the time, so most historians tend to brush it off).

Months after the massacre, a drunken Hoops-a-Daisy walked into the C&O and approached a table occupied by James McManus and Ernest Fontana, a pair of north side gangsters.  According to the Evening Journal, McManus later said “Connors came up to our table, evidently intoxicated, and said ‘Come n in the back and I’ll give you a drink. We refused, saying we were busy.”

The two were apparently old pals of his from when he supported Dorsey Crowe as alderman, but had quarreled with him since he switched his allegiance for Crowe’s opponent. Going into the back with him seemed like a bad idea.

“Then Connors pulled a gun and swore,” McManus went on, “ordering us to get into the back room. That’s when the shooting started.”

Connors stood  on the step that separated the lunch room from the cabaret, swearing and pointing people around with his pistol. As he did, someone standing behind him opened fire. When the police arrived, Connors was lying dead across the dividing line between the lunch room and the cabaret, having been shot in the back, the eye, and the groin. There were many witnesses, including a couple of cabaret singers, a musician, a waiter, and several customers, but none claimed to have seen the killer.

McManus and Fontana were said to have blamed Conners for the recent killing of John E. Bowman, and it was speculated that he had come to the C&O to kill them for daring to think such a thing (or perhaps for knowing too much). In the coming weeks, several other gang killing would be connected to the Connors killing: less than two weeks later, a carnival barker and 42nd ward political hanger-on named Charles Brown was “taken for a ride” and thrown out of a car to die of his wounds at 53rd and Lowe.  Some said Brown was an informer for prohibition agents, others said it was all a gambling fight, but police theorized it may have been retaliation for Connors’ killing.

The next month, George Riggins, a friend of the slain Bowman, was in his gambling house near Madison and Racine when six gangsters came in. They robbed 30 dice players, then put Riggins against the wall, cussed him out, then shot him nine times. Police speculated that this was revenge for the Connors killing, as well.

Whether these killings were really connected to Connors will likely never really be known, and neither will the identity of his killer. Like the story behind his fantastic nickname, they’ll probably remain mysteries for all time.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Dog

One of the venerable ghost stories of Chicago concerns the one survivor of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: Highball the dog, who was tied to one of the axles of the trucks in the garage. Some say it was his hysterical barking that brought the attention of the neighbors to the garage after seven guys affiliated (in one way or another) with the Moran gang were lined up against the wall and shot there. 

Highball
Though the dog was not killed (at least not right away; the cops apparently had to put him down), it’s said that his panic left a sort of “psychic imprint” on the grounds, and that, after the garage was torn down in the 1960s, dogs walked past the fence would go nuts. I stopped telling the story on tours long ago; too often, I’d tell the story, then someone would walk past the fence with a dog that didn’t react at all, and I’d end up looking stupid. I make it a point not to tell stories that can easily be dismissed. People can fact check me on their phones these days. I’m ready with an Evernote account full of primary sources on all the stories I tell (even though I know some people would prefer it if I exaggerated the stories and insisted that every legend and ghost story they ever heard was 100% true).
The other night, a couple of people actually snuck some dogs onto my tour bus in bags (crowds in October get kind of strange, to say the least). I normally don’t stop the bus at the massacre site – the old folks’ home on the grounds isn’t wild about tours, and there’s not much to see, anyway – but in this case, knowing that we had a dog aboard, I decided to give it a shot.
The dog, for its part, walked casually through the fence, relieved itself, and walked right back to its owner. 
No, for the record, we don’t allow dogs on the bus, with the rare exception of seeing-eye dogs.

The New Booze, 1920

In 1920, “new” illegal booze hit the market as soon as the old stuff was prohibited. Before the gangsters got all their ducks in a row and started brewing regular old beer in the same breweries that had operated before, the market was flooded with terrible “bathtub” spirits.

In September, about eight months into prohibition, a “roving reporter” for the Tribune asked a few people on the street what they thought of the new stuff, which was obviously not that hard to get. Their responses are priceless.

“There’s a fight in every pint and a murder in a gallon. I used to drink the old stuff, but I’ll tell the world I leave the new alone.” 
—J. W. Gibson, salesman
“I liked the old stuff better. It was much cheaper and you didn’t feel so bum the next a.m. The only difference I see is that they’ve raised the price of headaches.” 
—J. W. Johnson, chief vault clerk
“You could take a half dozen shots of the old stuff and never feel it. If you take two drinks of the new booze, it’s good-bye, George.” 
—Harry Brown, broker
“The effect is altogether different, judging by the stories I read in the papers. I would say the new booze excites a man to do things he never would have done under the influence of the old.” 
—John Schmidt, investigator
“Because they can’t get it they want it all the more. The new stuff is causing more deaths every day. It knocks you off your feet, and after taking a half dozen shots you want to climb a tree.” 
—M. Winsberg, saloon proprietor

It’s probably worth noting that only the investigator said he only knew about it from reading it in the papers, which comes off like saying, “Well, I haven’t tried it, but my friend has, and he told me….”
This article was uncovered by William Griffith while researching his new book for Globe Pequot Press, American Mafia: Chicago, due out later this year!

“Miracle” on Ashland Blvd, 1931:

In 2005, traffic was ground to a standstill when a salt stain said to resemble the Virgin Mary appeared at the Fullerton Underpass.

This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened – and another time it not only attracted what may have been an even bigger crowd, but turned out to be the result bouncing off the window in the home of a former gangster!

In mid July, 1931, a man walking down Ashland noticed a glowing image that resembled Mary and the Baby Jesus on a brick wall at 1105 S. Ashland, just near Roosevelt Road. He fell to the ground in devotion. Another guy nearby though he had fainted and ran to help, then saw the image and knelt down himself.

Within hours, the crowd had gotten so big that 400 police officers had to be brought in; some papers say that 50,000 people filed past to see the mysterious image, including several hot dog and ice cream vendors. There’s some newsreel footage out there someplace, and a lot of shots of the crowd, but I don’t think the image photographed well; all I could find in the newspaper archives down at the library was some pictures of the wall space where it was supposed to appear.

above: images from the American and the Herald

The newspaper men seemed, to a man, not to think there was anything holy about it, and most just saw dim light, not something that looked like Mary unless you were really looking for it (not unlike the salt stain – I couldn’t never tell what they were looking at there myself), but were still unable to figure out what the source of the light could be. On the second day, they were scraping it with knives trying to see if it was just phosphorescent paint – but to no avail. The image remained, glowing brighter as the night got darker, and the “miracle” was reported in newspapers around the country.

On the second day, though, the mystery was solved – the image a street light that was bouncing off a window across the street, being distorted into its odd shape by a lace curtain on the window. To what must have been everyone’s great surprise, the police knocked on the door of the flat where the window was located and found it was the home of Sam Genna of the Genna Brothers, the gang that had controlled Little Italy until three of Sam’s brothers were killed in rapid succession a few years before.

“I don’t know nothing about any miracle,” Sam said. “Get out.”  One can only imagine what he’d been thinking of the crowd on his lawn up until then; another named, a grey haired man known as Dr. Stoll, was particularly annnoyed at the whole thing. “Terrible, terrible it was,” he said. “I told ’em it was all a crazy humbug or something, but I couldn’t stop ’em. Neither could the police. They just trampled into my yard, broke into my house, sat on my back steps and watched that silly light on the wall.”

The police, no longer afraid of the once-notorious Genna Brothers by 1931, pushed right past him, despite Sam’s protestations that he had company, and despite the fact that such an unwarranted search was not remotely constitutional, and firmly established that moving the curtain up and down could make the “apparition” appear and disappear. The police announced to the crowd that it was all a “big fake,” and the crowd dispersed. Sam Genna lived relatively quitely for the next twenty years until his death of natural causes.

At the left here is the Tribune’s shot of the crowd, which they estimated to be around 7000 at the time the photo was taken.

I’m not sure that providing a rational explanation like that would make so many people disperse so quickly these days – the shrine around the spot where Our Lady of the Underpass appeared is still there today, going on eight years later. At least a large handful of such a crowd now would probably stick around saying unkind things about scientists and skeptics. Lt. Joseph Pierott’s announcement that everyone should go home and go to bed or he’d “run them in” would surely be seen by some as anti-Catholic suppression. The talking heads and pundits would have a field day.

BTW – here’s the inside of the Genna Brothers’ tomb at Mount Carmel; Tony Genna’s crypt is on the lower left; he was shot at Grand and Aberdeen in 1925, at a grocery store that stood where the pest control place is now.

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?