Magazine article The Spectator

'Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition', by John J. Binder - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition', by John J. Binder - Review

Article excerpt

In 1981, an FBI team visited Donald Trump to discuss his plans for a casino in Atlantic City. Trump admitted to having 'read in the press' and 'heard from acquaintances' that the Mob ran Atlantic City. At the time, Trump's acquaintances included his lawyer Roy Cohn, whose other clients included those charming New York businessmen Antony 'Fat Tony' Salerno and Paul 'Big Paul' Castellano.

'I've known some tough cookies over the years,' Trump boasted in 2016. 'I've known the people that make the politicians you and I deal with every day look like little babies.' No one minded too much. Organised crime is a tapeworm in the gut of American commerce, lodged since Prohibition. The Volstead Act of January 1920 raised the cost of a barrel of beer from $3.50 to $55. By 1927, the profits from organised crime were $500 million in Chicago alone. The production, distribution and retailing of alcohol was worth $200 million. Gambling brought in $167 million. Another $133 million came from labour racketeering, extortion and brothel-keeping.

In 1920, Chicago's underworld was divided between a South Side gang, led by the Italian immigrant 'Big Jim' Colesino, and the Irish and Jewish gangs on the North Side. Like many hands-on managers, Big Jim had trouble delegating, even when it came to minor tasks such as beating up nosy journalists. When the North Side gang moved into bootlegging, Colesino's nephew John Torrio suggested that the South Side gang compete for a share of the profits. Colesino, fearing a turf war, refused. So Torrio murdered his uncle and started bootlegging.

Torrio was a multi-ethnic employer. Americans consider this a virtue, even among murderers. The Italian 'Roxy' Vanilli and the Irishman 'Chicken Harry' Cullet rubbed along just fine with 'Jew Kid' Grabiner and Mike 'The Greek' Potson -- until someone said hello to someone's else's little friend.

Torrio persuaded the North Side leader Dean O'Banion to agree to a 'master plan' for dividing Chicago. The peace held for four years. While Torrio opened an Italian restaurant featuring an operatic trio, 'refined cabaret' and '1,000,000 yards of spaghetti', O'Banion bought some Thompson submachine guns. A racketeering cartel could not be run like a railroad cartel. There was no transparency among tax-dodgers, no trust between thieves, and no 'enforcement device' other than enforcement.

In May 1924, O'Banion framed Torrio for a murder and set him up for a brewery raid. …

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