The Terrible Gennas – Part 1

When people think of Chicago gangsters of the 20s, they normally think of Capone and his south side gang vs. the mostly-Irish North Siders. But here were plenty more. In the center of these two gangs were a coupe of groups like the Circus Gang and the Terrible Gennas, a group of brothers known for being particularly bloodthirsty. Capone and the North Siders actually teamed up to get rid of them.

When prohibition became law, the Gennas hit on the idea of getting permission to make booze legally – you could manufacture industrial alcohol with the government’s permission. So that’s what they did. They would re-distill the stuff and sell it as a drink. In this manner, they soon controlled the Little Italy of the near-west side. They hid still in houses all over the neighborhood, paying the owners 15 bucks a day (roughly 400-500 bucks in today’s money). To be able to pay this kind of money, they must have been making a whole butt load of money. Of course, they got greedy and tried to expand out of Little Italy. Just as the north and south side gangs were going to war in late 1924, they started trying to undercut both gangs. Big mistake.

Bugs Moran, the target of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, got into a high speed chase with Angelo Genna and shot him to death. Mike Genna got into a firefight with the north siders and ended up shot by the cops. Then, in a rare show of unity with the north siders, Al Capone himself supposedly ordered the hit on Tony Genna, who was shot at a grocery store on Grand and Aberdeen.

The grocery store building is still standing. It’s not a grocery store any more, just an apartment that I’m not even totally sure is occupied; several apartments along the strip now serve only to prop up billboards to be seen by cars on the highway that half the neighborhood would eventually be torn down to make way for.

Here’s the place where it stands today:

The surviving Genna brothers wisely left Chicago.

“Al Capone, a punk hoodlum…”

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of running a mini walking tour of a Capone site for a group of 11 year olds from Evanston who were part of a book group that just read an excellent book called “Al Capone Does My Shirts.” We got snowed on pretty badly, but I, for one, had a great time.

Capone walking tours are tricky, because the few actual Capone-related sites left in the city aren’t really walking distance from one another. There’s hardly a building in the city that Capone isn’t said to have owned or used as a hang out, but practically none of those stories are true. Capone was only in charge of the city for about five or six years, spent most of that time at his Miami retreat, and had to keep a low profile when he was in the city to keep from getting killed. Buying up buildings wouldn’t have been safe for him, as it would have made it that much harder for him to cover his tracks and his finances. Strip away the myth from the man and what you have is a thug with a great sense of PR. It’s true that Capone and his fellow gangsters had tunnels all over the place, but they didn’t BUILD them; they just used them. Most of them were built for drainage, coal delivery, etc. They certainly were convenient for the gangsters, though!

By way of getting some of the real facts about him, the IRS has just released several historical records related to Uncle Al, one of which describes him as “a punk hoodlum.” Fascinating stuff!

The Legend of Dillinger’s Ding-a-Ling

Continuing our Dillinger series in honor of Johnny Depp coming to Chicago to start as Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” here a bit on our very favorite piece of Dillinger lore.

In the last post, I noted that to break out of prison with an obviously-fake gun, Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells. Well, that’s actually not far off from the legend. Rumors have gone around for years that Dillinger had a 23″ member that is now on display at the Smithsonian. Here’s the picture of his corpse that started the legend:

Rigor mortis had set in, causing his arm to be bent at the elbow, creating this tent-like protrusion above his crotch. See how the onlookers (except for that one woman) look awfully impressed? It does indeed LOOK like he’s awfully happy to be on the slab.

Once again, if the cast of “Public Enemies” wants to take the best tour in town, we’ll be happy to oblige!

John Dillinger’s Great Escape

In honor of Johnny Depp coming to town to film a Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, here’s a post about John Dillinger’s great escape. In 1934, Dillinger, America’s favorite bank robber, was imprisoned in Indiana, awaiting trial and a sure death sentence. But he carved a fake gun out of wood and used it to break out of prison, leading to a five month man-hunt ending in the infamous Chicago “shoot out” – which was actually probably either an assassination or a hoax, depending on who you believe – outside of the Biograph Theatre, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Here’s a picture of the phony gun:

Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells to pull a scheme like this – that gun wouldn’t fool anyone who looked at it for even a second. I’m no gun nut, but I don’t think the words “colt 38” are normally actually written on the side like that. According to most versions of the story, no one really SAW it – Dillinger stuck it in a guard’s back, said “stick em up!” and soon had acquired several REAL pistols from the guards.

The alley where Dillinger was shot is now between two Mexican restaurants and features of a mural of a guy playing a guitar. Until its recent touch-up job, the painting always made me want to say “hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Here it is, pre-touch-up:

Incidentally, if the cast of “Public Enemies” would like a tour, we’d be happy to oblige 🙂

Al Capone’s World War I Draft Card

From our extensive historical file:

Capone never served, but everyone had to register for the draft. This would have been a couple of years before Torrio brought Capone to Chicago to work at the Four Deuces club on South Wabash.

While digging through the draft card registry, I also found one for my great grandfather which indicated that he had served in the Russian infantry for three years. Boy, must THAT have sucked!