Friday, February 16, 2007

John Gotti

The American gangster has become as American as say - apple pie! For decades people have both marveled at and been reviled by this genre of criminal activity in the United States.

Few organized crime figures have completely captured the attention of the public as John Gotti has over the past 20 years. We have had our celebrity mobsters in the past. Underworld figures like Al "Scarface" Capone and Jack "Legs" Diamond captured the public's fascination during the 1920s. In the 1930s it was a different brand of criminal that became popular. Bank robbers like John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and "Baby Face" Nelson were the rage of what was known as the Mid-West Crime Wave.

The 1940s brought us Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and the killers of Murder, Inc. Along with the glamour these individuals provided, their murders made for exciting front-page headlines, not to mention sensational photographs.

While there were no prominent names during the 1950s, that decade nevertheless brought organized crime to the forefront, due to the efforts of law enforcement. It began with the televised Kefauver hearings in the early 1950s and made a big splash with the infamous Apalachin conclave in 1957.

The turbulent 1960s passed none too quickly with its political / sociological upheaval and in gangland we saw for the first time warring within the various crime families - the Gallo / Profacci War and the Banana War. As the 1970s dawned gangsters began not only vying for newspaper headlines, but now television airtime. Mortal mob enemies "Crazy Joe" Gallo and Joseph Colombo were the media targets of New York City and the city knew how to promote them. Both flamboyant characters would meet brutal, albeit well-publicized endings.

By the mid-1980s federal law agencies, with the help of local law enforcement, began to dismantle organized crime families across the country. In the midst of this effort, John Gotti stepped forward and captured the public's attention in what seemed like the final gasp for the Hollywood-style gangster to leave his mark in the annals of American criminal history. Gotti became the darling of the New York media. With his habit of coming through criminal trials unscathed and penchant for expensive and fashionable attire, he became the icon of the American gangster.

As Gotti rose to the top he left behind a bloody trail of bodies, as well as an assortment of embarrassed law enforcement agencies. Putting him away became an obsession that would cause the government to go after him with no holds barred . In 1992 the man who had gone from the Dapper Don to the Teflon Don was convicted of RICO charges in Brooklyn's federal district court. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Looking back at Gotti's reign one can see that his only true achievement as a Mafia chieftain was to captivate the public's attention. At this, Gotti had few equals. But as a leader he was quite lacked the ability that characterized the careers of such mob luminaries as Capone, Luciano, Lansky, Torrio, Costello and Gambino. In the end it was Gotti's ego and carelessness that led to his downfall.

At the end of his first decade in prison, the 61-year-old Gotti died on June 10, 2002 from complications of head and neck cancer. It seems almost ironic, as if Gotti were having the last laugh at the federal government by cheating them having spent only 10 years behind bars. If there is anything positive that can be said for Gotti, it's that he took his punishment like a man. Still defiant of the government, one is left to wonder if John Gotti, the Dapper Don, would have wanted it any other way.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sam Giancana

Gilorma (Sam) Giancana was born in Chicago on 24th May, 1908. At the age of ten he was expelled from Reese Elementary School and was sent to St. Charles Reformatory. This did not have the desired effect and in 1921 joined the 42 Gang. Over the next few years he was arrested for a variety of different offences.

In 1926 Giancana was arrested for murder. However, charges were dropped after the key witness was murdered. He was later sent to prison for theft and burglary. On his release he went to work for leading gangster Paul Ricca. By the 1950s Giancana was one of the leading crime bosses in Chicago.

In 1960 Giancana was involved in talks with Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), about the possibility of murdering Fidel Castro. It is claimed that during the 1960 presidential election Giancana used his influence in Illinois to help John F. Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon. The two men, at that time, shared the same girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner.

After becoming president John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, as U.S. Attorney General. The two men worked closely together on a wide variety of issues including the attempt to tackle organized crime. One of their prime targets was to get Giancana arrested.

On 22nd November, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. Rumours began to circulate that Giancana and other gang bosses such as Santos Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, and Johnny Roselli, were involved in the crime.

In 1975 Frank Church and his Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities discovered that Judith Campbell had been involved with both Giancana and John F. Kennedy. It emerged that during the 1960 presidential election Campbell took messages from Giancana to Kennedy. Campbell later claimed these messages concerned the plans to murder Fidel Castro. Kennedy also began an affair with Campbell and used her as a courier to carry sealed envelopes to Giancana. He told her they contained "intelligence material" concerning the plot to kill Castro.

Giancana was now ordered to appear before Church's committee. However, before he could appear, on 19th June, 1975, Sam Giancana was murdered in his own home. He had a massive wound in the back of the head. He had also been shot six times in a circle around the mouth.

On 14th January, 1992, the New York Post claimed that Hoffa, Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello had all been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Frank Ragano was quoted as saying that at the beginning of 1963 Hoffa had told him to take a message to Trafficante and Marcello concerning a plan to kill Kennedy. When the meeting took place at the Royal Orleans Hotel, Ragano told the men: "You won't believe what Hoffa wants me to tell you. Jimmy wants you to kill the president." He reported that both men gave the impression that they intended to carry out this order.

In 1992 Giancana's nephew published Double Cross: The Story of the Man Who Controlled America. The book attempted to establish that Giancana had rigged the 1960 Presidential election vote in Cook County on John Kennedy's behalf, which effectively gave Kennedy the election. It is argued that Kennedy reneged on the deal and therefore Giancana had him killed.

In his autobiography, Mob Lawyer (1994) (co-written with journalist Selwyn Raab) Frank Ragano added that in July, 1963, he was once again sent to New Orleans by Hoffa to meet Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello concerning plans to kill President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was killed Hoffa apparently said to Ragano: "I told you could do it. I'll never forget what Carlos and Santos did for me." He added: "This means Bobby is out as Attorney General". Marcello later told Ragano: "When you see Jimmy (Hoffa), you tell him he owes me and he owes me big."

Mafia crime boss Sam Giancana (right) and an unidentified man appear before a Senate Labor Rackets Committee hearing, at which he refused to testify, invoking the 5th Amendment. 1959.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker stood 4�11" in her stocking feet, weighed 90 pounds, had Shirley Temple-colored strawberry-blond ringlets, was freckle-faced and, according to those who knew her, was very pretty. Born October 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas, her parents were hard working laborers plunked down in life among the lower caste. A good student in high school, she excelled in creative writing and displayed a dramatic flair for the arts. Her favorite color was red; when she could afford it, she wore fashionable clothes dominating that color. She loved hats of all kinds. As a child, her father died young and her mother was forced to bring her and her two siblings to Cement City, near Dallas, where they lived with Mrs. Parker�s parents. Married too young, at age 16, her immature rattle-brained husband wound up in the penitentiary a year later. For money, she was forced to become a waitress. Bored and poor, she knew life had something more to offer.

Clyde Chestnut Barrow stood 5�7," weighed 130 pounds, slicked back his thick brown hair in the style of the day, and parted it on the left. His eye color matched his hair. Women found him attractive. He came into this world as one of many children born to dirt-poor tenant farmer parents barely making a living on the cotton fields of Teleco, Texas. Moving with his parents, brothers and sisters to the Dallas outskirts, where his father ran a gas station (in which the family members crowded as one into a tiny back room), Clyde quickly learned to abhor poverty. Bored and poor, he too knew life had something more to offer.

Bonnie and Clyde were meant for each other. And they clung to each other while they fought back against the elements. These elements were destitution and a government they took for its face value. They were children of a nationwide economic depression that not unlike France in the late 1700s had its upheavals -- and those who tried to keep small the size and impact of the upheavals.

An anger dwelt within Clyde, having been born ragged and made more ragged by the Depression. He sometimes killed in cold blood, and always tried to justify the murders as if he had a right to pull that trigger, thus releasing somehow the seething that built up like a volcano deep inside him. Perhaps he actually believed in his own special privilege. As the fame of Bonnie and Clyde grew, they shot their way out of police loops, each time growing tighter and tighter, and claimed that the "laws" they killed just happened to get in the way between their fiery outcry and the rest of the country. Their killings were not personal, they contended. But, the government took them personal. And Bonnie and her man were marked for death.

Depression had lowered a hideous shroud over the nation. The American Dream collapsed along with Wall Street in 1929. Pride of freedom became a joke. "The country�s money simply declined by 38 percent," explains E.R. Milner, author of The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. "Gaunt dazed men roamed the city streets seeking jobs...Breadlines and soup kitchens became jammed. (In rural areas) foreclosures forced more than 38 percent of farmers from their lands (while simultaneously) a catastrophic drought struck the Great Plains...By the time Bonnie and Clyde became well known, many had felt the capitalistic system had been abused by big business and government officials...Now here were Bonnie and Clyde striking back."

While they terrorized banks and store owners in five states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico -- Americans thrilled to their "Robin Hood" adventures. The presence of a female, Bonnie, escalated the sincerity of their intentions to make them something unique and individual -- even at times heroic -- and above similar activities of all-male motor bandits like John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Historian Jonathan Davis, in an excellent A&E Cable Network-produced Biography on the two bandits, says of Bonnie and Clyde�s crimes, "Anybody who robbed banks or fought the law were really living out some secret fantasies on a large part of the public."

Even more than their insurgence against their status in life was Bonnie and Clyde�s devotion to their own. With police and government detectives constantly on their trails, sometimes literally by inches, they time and time again risked their own lives to protect the other. Says Marie Barrow, Clyde�s sister, in Biography, "They never worried about anything else but each other."

When on the lam, they found time to visit their Dallas-area families, risking capture more than once. Marie asserts that her brother and father had concocted their own signal to let the families know when the outlaws were in town: Clyde would pause the latest of his stolen automobiles in front of the Barrow service station and from the car toss a soda pop bottle containing directions to a place of rendezvous. "My mother would fix them something to eat," she adds.

In their getaway cars, Clyde and Bonnie habitually carried a Kodak box camera; they loved to pose in dramatic tableaux wielding shotguns and revolvers, self-parodying the gangster image they realized they had earned. More than that, they loved to pose together, embraced or kissing, having other gang members do the snapping. When they died, the police found an undeveloped roll of film under their car seat -- photos of them together, looking adventurous and deeply in love.

They knew they were going to die, maybe next week, maybe next month. Maybe in the morning. They never pretended they might be the only exception to the standard, "Crime doesn�t pay". But, because they knew their time was limited -- their crime spree lasted less than two years -- they decided to let all hell break loose in the meantime to whoop and holler it up till death do them part. Bonnie�s last request to her mother was, "Don�t bring me to a funeral parlor. Bring me home."

The last two years of their lives, once they met, were a whirly-gig. Never-ending highways burning in the Southwest sun; dusty backroads; the scorch of over-heated radiators; the burn of rubber; the stifled crampedness of one car after another; their only air the hot breeze they channeled through rolled-down car windows. Fast life. A die-young life. And they wouldn�t have traded it for the world.

They were Bonnie and Clyde.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Al Capone

Al Capone

Al Capone is America's best-known gangster and the single greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order in the United States during the 1920s Prohibition era. Capone had a leading role in the illegal activities that lent Chicago its reputation as a lawless city.

Al Capone's mug shot, 1931.

Capone was born on January 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. Baptized "Alphonsus Capone," he grew up in a rough neighborhood and was a member of two "kid gangs," the Brooklyn Rippers and the Forty Thieves Juniors. Although he was bright, Capone quit school in the sixth grade at age fourteen. Between scams he was a clerk in a candy store, a pinboy in a bowling alley, and a cutter in a bookbindery. He became part of the notorious Five Points gang in Manhattan and worked in gangster Frankie Yale's Brooklyn dive, the Harvard Inn, as a bouncer and bartender. While working at the Inn, Capone received his infamous facial scars and the resulting nickname "Scar face" when he insulted a patron and was attacked by her brother.

In 1918, Capone met an Irish girl named Mary "Mae" Coughlin at a dance. On December 4, 1918, Mae gave birth to their son, Albert "Sonny" Francis. Capone and Mae married that year on December 30.

Al Capone

Capone's first arrest was on a disorderly conduct charge while he was working for Yale. He also murdered two men while in New York, early testimony to his willingness to kill. In accordance with gangland etiquette, no one admitted to hearing or seeing a thing so Capone was never tried for the murders. After Capone hospitalized a rival gang member, Yale sent him to Chicago to wait until things cooled off. Capone arrived in Chicago in 1919 and moved his family into a house at 7244 South Prairie Avenue.

The unpretentious Capone home at 7244 South
Prairie Avenue, far from Chicago's Loop and
Capone's business headquarters.

Capone went to work for Yale's old mentor, John Torrid. Torrid saw Capone's potential, his combination of physical strength and intelligence, and encouraged his portigi. Soon Capone was helping Torrid manage his bootlegging business. By mid-1922 Capone ranked as Trio�s number two men and eventually became a full partner in the saloons, gambling houses, and brothels.

Al Capone

When Torrid was shot by rival gang members and consequently decided to leave Chicago, Capone inherited the "outfit" and became boss. The outfit's men liked, trusted, and obeyed Capone, calling him "The Big Fellow." He quickly proved that he was even better at organization than Torrid, syndicating and expanding the cities vice industry between 1925 and 1930. Capone controlled speakeasies, bookie joints, gambling houses, brothels, horse and race tracks, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries at a reported income of $100,000,000 a year. He even acquired a sizable interest in the largest cleaning and dyeing plant chain in Chicago.

Although he had been doing business with Capone, the corrupt Chicago mayor William "Big Bill" Hale Thompson, Jr. decided that Capone was bad for his political image. Thompson hired a new police chief to run Capone out of Chicago. When Capone looked for a new place to live, he quickly discovered that he was unpopular in much of the country. He finally bought an estate at 93 Palm Island, Florida in 1928.

Political cartoon depicting Chicago's growing reputation for violence.

Al Capone

Attempts on Capone's life were never successful. He had an extensive spy network in Chicago, from newspaper boys to policemen, so that any plots were quickly discovered. Capone, on the other hand, was skillful at isolating and killing his enemies when they became too powerful. A typical Capone murder consisted of men renting an apartment across the street from the victim's residence and gunning him down when he stepped outside. The operations were quick and complete and Capone always had an alibi.

The Tribune headline after the St.
Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929.

Capone's most notorious killing was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, four Capone men entered a garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. The building was the main liquor headquarters of bootlegger George "Bugs" Moran's North Side gang. Because two of Capone's men were dressed as police, the seven men in the garage thought it was a police raid. As a result, they dropped their guns and put their hands against the wall. Using two shotguns and two machine guns, the Capone men fired more than 150 bullets into the victims. Six of the seven killed were members of Moran's gang; the seventh was an unlucky friend. Moran, probably the real target, was across the street when Capone's men arrived and stayed away when he saw the police uniforms. As usual, Capone had an alibi; he was in Florida during the massacre.

Capone masterminded the 1929 St. Valentine's Day
Massacre, which left seven men dead, but was in
Florida when it happened. All but one of the victims
were members of rival "Bugs" Moran's gang.

Although Capone ordered dozens of deaths and even killed with his own hands, he often treated people fairly and generously. He was equally known for his violent temper and for his strong sense of loyalty and honor. He was the first to open soup kitchens after the 1929 stock market crash and he ordered merchants to give clothes and food to the needy at his expense.

A line outside Capone's "Free Lunch" restaurant, Al Capone

Capone had headquarters in Chicago proper in the Four Deuces at 2222 S. Wabash, the Metropole Hotel at 2300 S. Michigan Avenue, and the Lexington Hotel at 2135 S. Michigan Avenue. He expanded into the suburbs, sometimes using terror as in Forest View, which became known as "Caponeville." Sometimes he simply bribed public officials and the police as in Cicero. He established suburban headquarters in Cicero's Anton Hotel at 4835 W. 22nd Street and in the Hawthorne Hotel at 4823 22nd Street. He pretended to be an antique dealer and a doctor to front his headquarters.

Capone maintained a five-room suite and four
guest rooms at the Metropole Hotel (2300 S.
Michigan Avenue). The hotel served as his base
of operations until 1928.

Because of gangland's traditional refusal to prosecute, Capone was never tried for most of his crimes. He was arrested in 1926 for killing three people, but spent only one night in jail because there was insufficient evidence to connect him with the murders. When Capone finally served his first prison time in May of 1929, it was simply for carrying a gun. In 1930, at the peak of his power, Capone headed Chicago's new list of the twenty-eight worst criminals and became the city's "Public Enemy Number One."

The popular belief in the 1920s and 30s was that illegal gambling earnings were not taxable income. However, the 1927 Sullivan ruling claimed that illegal profits were in fact taxable. The government wanted to indict Capone for income tax evasion, Capone never filed an income tax return, owned nothing in his own name, and never made a declaration of assets or income. He did all his business through front men so that he was anonymous when it came to income. Frank Wilson from the IRS's Special Intelligence Unit was assigned to focus on Capone. Wilson accidentally found a cash receipts ledger that not only showed the operation's net profits for a gambling house, but also contained Capone's name; it was a record of Capone's income. Later Capone's own tax lawyer Lawrence P. Mattingly admitted in a letter to the government that Capone had an income. Wilson's ledger, Mattingly's letter, and the coercion of witnesses were the main evidence used to convict Capone.