A Forgotten Gang: The Genna Brothers (part 1)

I’ve always had a fascination with the Genna Brothers, an early 20s gang that is nearly forgotten today, though they were known as particularly viscous hoods back in their time. Tony, left, was murdered half a block from my apartment. A couple of them were given funerals on my block, as well.
The Genna Brothers were a refined bunch of gangsters – the kind who had a dozen front row season tickets to the opera. Using loophole in prohibition laws that allowed the manufacture of rubbing alcohol, they paid people all over Little Italy very good money to set up stills in their houses.

In those early days of prohibition, the city was divided into neat lines: The north side was run by, well, the North Siders, led by Dean O’Banion. On the South Side, Johnny Torrio hired some thugs to kill the boss of the area, Big Jim Colosimo, in order to move into the liquor racket. Peace between the two was kept by Mike Merlo, a poltician.

The Gennas were on Torrio’s side, but on the very northern end of it. Having made more liquor than they knew what to do with, they wanted to expand up into O’Banion’s territory, and often told Torrio they’d be only too happy to kill him. Torrio got a taste of O’Banion’s blood after O’Banion double-crossed him in a liqour sale (he told Torrio he wanted out and offered to sell him his business for 500K. He got the money, but the whole thing was a set-up that landed Torrio a short jail term). Two days after Merlo died, a trio led by Mike Genna assassinated O’Banion in his flower shop. The great gang war of the 1920s had begun.

Three of O’Banion’s men (Vincent Drucci, Hymie Weiss, and Bugs Moran, two of whom lived at the Congress Hotel, where Tony Genna also lived in a $100 a night suite) attacked and nearly killed Torrio (after the trio pumped his guts full of lead, Moran fired right at his head point blank – but was out of bullets). Torrio wisely got the hell out of Chicago and turned his operation over to Al Capone, his young lieutenant.

Things were just about to get rough for the Genna brothers…. Three of the brothers would be killed before 1926 was out, and the rest were out of business.

Headlines of the Past

Here are a couple of amusing headlines we’ve run across in our research – the first is from the early 1920s, before the gang war really heated up and the papers still thought of the gangsters as Robin Hood:

And another, from a few years later, when the bootleggers still thought of THEMSELVES as Robin Hood:

We’ve added a bunch of old Tribune headlines to the decorations on our bus, which has been completely updated for 2009!

The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang, Part 4

The reason Cardinella had been saying viana’s name was to assure them that he was going to be brought back to life the next day. Apparently, the great revival plan had already been tested on Viana – and it had worked.

The story is impossible to confirm; it was told in whispers by prisoners over the years, and got back to the county physician. They were able to confirm that Viana’s body had been transported by his friends in a basket lined with hot water bottles into a waiting ambulance that was filled with nurses and doctors, but THAT ambulance was allowd to leave.

According to the stories told for years by prisoners, that ambulance had been driven to a nearby funeral home where the body was laid out on a slab. A team of doctors ministered to it while strange men in robes stood around chanting something – no one knew what – in Sicilian.

And, after several minutes, The Choir Boy opened his eyes and began to groan.

The doctors stepped back and the chanting ceased, and soon the boy’s eyes closed again. He was a traitor to the gang; no one ever intended to allow him to live. The whole thing had only been an experiment to see if Cardinella, too, could be brought back to life later on…

Whether this story was quite true will never be known; at least one book states that the whole story about Cardinella was made up by reporter Ben Hecht in his book “Gaily, Gaily.” This is incorrect; the story there was about a gangster named Frankie Piano who was hanged in 1910 (there was no Frankie Piano, no one was hanged in 1910 in Chicago, and the story about Cardinella was first told by the county physician, an eyewitness, nearly 3 decades before the Hecht story was published). From eyewitnesses, it can be fairly well determined that there was, at least, an attempt to revive Viana, and that Cardinella believed that it had been a success. His friends, those who had been involved in the experiment, must have come out of it with at least enough faith to try it on Cardinella himself.

But maybe they knew that it would never work. Cardinella was a master at using people’s supersitions to frighten them, to hold them in his power. Perhaps his friends were afraid to refuse to carry out his wishes, even after his death.

Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows contains a long chapter retelling the whole sordid tale of the Cardinella gang for the first time. While gangsters like Capone have become legends, the equally deadly Cardinella has been totally forgotten by history – until now.

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 2

Sam Cardinella himself scared the hell out of the guards, who had seen everyone do everything twice. The county physician later said “If I were superstitious, I would say there was something satanic about it.” Others would later describe him as “a human spider, crawling the city, spinning a web of death, and sending boys to carry out his fatal instructions.”

In prison, he was surly and unpleasant. Most of the prisoners ended up making friends with the guards, but Cardinella freaked them out. In prison, he began to refuse to eat, and eventually lost about forty pounds.

The night before his hanging, he was visited by his wife and six children, and finally broke down, crying. The site of this evil, frightening man weeping like a remorseful family man only freaked the guards out further. He spoke in such a thick sicilian dialect that even those who spoke the language couldn’t understand a word he said – except for the name “Viana,” which he repeated over and over.

The next morning, as he was led to the gallows, the frail Cardinella broke down completely, collapsing into hysterical fits. Unable to get him to stand, the guards eventually had to tie him to a chair, and he was hanged chair and all. When he was dead, the body and chair were cut down and released to the custody of his friends, who brought it out to a waiting ambulance.

Weird Chicago Presents:

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales from the book, and presenting a new Podcast of our gallows ghost hunt!

Inside the ambulance, prison officials noticed a couple of men who appeared to be doctors. Wondering what was going on, the warden ordered the men to hold the ambulance in the jail yard for an hour. Soon, the reason Cardinella had been talking about Viana would become chillingly clear…

The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 1

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows.
Click for info! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales here on the blog this week!

In December, 1920, Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Vianna was hanged in the old Cook County jailhouse on Illinois Street. His hanging was a bizarre present for his 19th birthday.

Nicholas was, in fact, a teenage choir boy – and a heck of a singer – when he wandered into a 22nd street pool room around 1917. A week later, he was a criminal. The pool hall was run by a man known only as Il Diavolo – Italian for “The Devil” – who taught the kids who came into his pool room to commit crimes.

The gang was an offshoot of The Black Hand, the Italian gangs that had terrorized the city before prohibition – whenever an Italian came into property, he could expect to get a letter from the Black Hand demanding money. If he didn’t pay up, that property would be bombed. If he STILL didn’t pay up, his family could end up murdered. The Black Hand was responsible for hundreds of bombings over the years, and Death Corner, an intersection in Little Hell (a sicilian neighborhood that would eventually be torn down to make room for Cabrini Green) averaged about a murder a week for most of the 1910s.

But Black Hand operations were only a sideline to the gang on 22nd street, led by the mysterious Il Diavolo, who was, in reality, a shadowy mug named Sam Cardinelli (or Cardinella; the records vary). In his pool room, he taught kids to run hold ups, and how to kill. He’d send them out on errands, then take a cut of the the money. As often as not, he’d then cheat the boys out of their cuts with loaded dice. One wonders if Cardinella thought “Oliver Twist” was a how-to manual.

Each crime the gang commited was a puzzle to the police – no thread seemed to connect them until a few members of the gang were captured in 1920. When they began to confess, it came to light that they’d been responsible for about 400 hold ups, and a few dozen murders, in just the last six months.

“I was only a boy when I went into the pool room,” said Nicholas Vianna, who had killed over a dozen people. “A week later, I was a criminal.” Vianna gave crucial information that helped send Cardinella to the gallows, but withheld a great deal more, even though it sealed his own fate, for fear that Cardinella would have his mother and sister killed.

While awaiting his own execution, he regularly entertained the prisoners by singing – his voice was exceptional. “Beat any show you ever saw!” said one guard. As he was led to the Death Cell (the library, the nicest room in the jail, where condemned men spent their last nights), he sung the aria Il Miserer to the applause of all, then shouted a good-bye and good luck to all of the prisoners “Except for you, Sam Cardinella. May your soul go to hell!”

None the guards could understand why, a few months later, on the night before his own execution, Cardinella kept repeating the name “VIana” over and over….

Note: Records vary on whether Sam Cardinella’s name was Cardinella, Cardinelli, or some variant thereof. This is often the case in these things; the records don’t clear anything up, they just confuse things further. I’m going with Cardinella for this series. Sam’s is the longest story in FATAL DROP – I can’t believe that it isn’t in every Chicago crime book already, but as far as I know this is the first time the story has been retold in book form.

Al Capone’s House for Sale

There’s hardly an old building in the cit that people don’t say was once owned by Al Capone, Chicago’s own real-live version of Jabba the Hutt. Almost all such stories are nonsense; he kept a rather low profile in the city. But there’s one house that we can all agree that he owned down on the south side – and it’s up for sale!

Capone’s House for Sale

Weird Chicago’s own Troy Taylor is quoted in the article!

The house was featured a while ago on the “Cities of the Underworld’ show, though the episode seemed patently absurd to me – as the show generally does. They go to some great places there, but they rely WAY too much on just relaying the wildest, craziest rumors instead of doing actual research. The woman who showed them around Capone’s house seemed kinda like a phony to me – Capone wasn’t in that house after about 1932, when he went to jail. For her to remember him, and what he was like in the house, she would have to be at least 85 or so. She didn’t LOOK any older than about 60 to me.

An Al Capone Relic?

One of Capone’s first gigs in Chicago was working at the notorious Four Deuces club, 2222 S. Wabash, which was Johnny Torrio’s headquarters. It was here that Torrio taught Capone what he needed to know before passing the empire on to him.

The Four Deuces club is long gone today – there’s a vacant lot on the site, but some concrete remains here and there along the edge that are sometimes said to be the old concrete foundations.

A few months ago, while scoping the space out, we found a bizarre little thing poking out of the ground. After digging, we found that it was this:

At first I thought it was a decoration of some sort, but the wiring made us think it might be a railroad signal switch (the label DOES say “Made for Union Switch and Signal Co. by Ward Leonard Electric CO). But it actually appears, according to some readers who seem to know their stuff, to be some sort of heating coil-type mechanism. Was this a part of the Four Deuces? Just some railroad junk?

We’re guessing the latter, but you never know….

The Terrible Gennas 2: The De Cola Funeral Home

On Grand, near Racine, about a block and a half from the site where Tony Genna was killed (see previous post) stands the Bar Casablanca, a Mexican restaurant and bar. Here’s the front of it:

You wouldn’t know it now, but this was the site of the De Cola funeral home which was, according to one local resident, the site of a veritable who’s who of mafia funerals. Certainly it was the funeral home of choice for the Terrible Gennas. At the time, mob funerals tended to be insanely lavish displays – the equivalent of millions would be spent on flowers.

But Tony’s wasn’t like that – his body laid on the slab in the morgue at the place for a while before a very simple service was held, attended only by family. He was, however, given a $5000 coffin. About 30 or so people attended the burial at Mt. Carmel, the suburban cemetery where Capone himself ended up buried. Only one person – apparently Tony’s sweetheart – was seen to sob.

Capone was said to have been the one who ordered Tony’s death, but the police had no leads, and didn’t really seem to care. The papers said there was a lack of interest down at the police station, where the police were perfectly happy just to know that he had been buried without any further gang warfare flare-ups.

Much more information on gangsters can be found in our book, of course!

I’m going to endeavor to put something up here daily between now and Halloween – several posts are being prepared in advance, since we’re AWFULLY busy in October. If you have any subjects you’d like covered on here, let me know!