American Collections blog

14 February 2012

St. Valentine’s Roses and Massacres


Chicago gangland

Map of Chicago showing areas in which the alleged gangsters and racketeers operate, National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, vol. IV.

With the feast of St Valentine upon us, with the thought that I am being fleeced by chocolatiers and flower sellers, my mind turns to events in Chicago in 1929. In what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, associates of the Chicago South Side Italian gang gunned down seven rivals members of the Moran Gang in the alley behind a garage on North Clark Street.

While these events are well established, some may be interested to explore the FBI file on the subject.  It contains over 100 pages of press articles, FBI memos and other material related to the Justice Department investigation.  Central to the massacre was an effort of Al Capone’s South Side Gang to gain control over the underworld in Chicago and the racketeering activities supplying black market alcohol during prohibition. An indication of the scale of racketeering in the prohibition era can be gleaned from the 1929 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Prohibition (A.S. 495), which claimed that in Illinois alone prohibition agents seized and destroyed over six million dollars of property in the crusade against illegal distilling and bootlegging. In addition to the financial ramifications of prohibition, another useful resource is the Report of the Wickersham Commission or National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (A.S.10/4), which documents criminal activity across the U.S.  The Commission’s five volumes offer an insight into the inextricable connections between crime and prohibition in the period, as well as providing an in-depth analysis of organized crime around the U.S. in enormous detail. 

Mexican stand off
Victims of the St Valentine’s Day Shooting, National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, vol. IV.

The human cost is addressed in a number of sections. One, intriguingly entitled “Reforming America With A Shotgun" (a pamphlet produced by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment), offers a study of prohibition killings that estimates 286 officers and civilians lost their lives in the enforcement of prohibition laws. A further noteworthy element are the evidence statements of witnesses to the Commission, which provide a window into other aspects of the time such as the testimony of John B. Haggerty, president of the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders, who stated in 1920 that a journeyman bookbinder could expect to earn $25 or $26 for a six day week; by 1930 this had risen to $42 for a 44-hour week. An increase in earnings, he wanted to note, could not be attributed to prohibition.

[JJ]

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