CALL ME AL: GANGSTERS AND GAMBLING AT THE ULTIMATE “GIN-JOINT”

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate location for a Halloween Night party of gambling, dancing, and imbibing spirits than the former estate of Al (“Scarface”) Capone on Palm Island.

And this was just the spot chosen for a Wolfsonian fund-raising event in which participants (most of whom were dressed as “hoods,” “molls,” or “flappers”) purchased chips and played games of chance—with all the proceeds being donated to the museum.

EVENT PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF NATHAN VALENTINE / WORLD RED EYE

I had been asked by Ashley Abess, the event organizer, to speak at the VIP celebration, so naturally I drew on materials from the museum library collection for a “show and tell” presentation on Al Capone and his nefarious rise to power in the era of Prohibition and gangland murders.

Although not a particular strength of our collection, we do have a few sheet music covers and postcards from the Prohibition era which showed how unpopular the U.S. laws were and how people with means evaded them with secret stashes and trips outside the states.

GIFTS OF VICKI GOLD LEVI

The library also holds a rare pamphlet written by social critic Harry Gannes and illustrated by Jacob Burck decrying the baneful and corrupting influence that the new and dangerous breed of bootleggers and gangsters like Capone were having on the big city politicians and police forces.

But thanks to a generous donation by Linda La Rocque facilitated by Bliss Van Den Houvel, the library possesses a unique and historically valuable archive of the Miami Beach Greyhound Racetrack which includes photograph albums, scrapbooks, and hundreds of loose black and white publicity photos.

After describing Capone’s early years and his rise to prominence in the Chicago underworld during the era of Prohibition, I thought it appropriate to end with a discussion of a murder-mystery surrounding the fate of his former business partner, Edward J. O’Hare.

A St. Louis lawyer, O’Hare moved to Chicago in 1927 where he immediately recognized the necessity of dealing with the city’s dominant mob boss. The inventor and patent-holder of the mechanical rabbit, “Easy Eddie” approached Capone and struck up a partnership that earned him a fortune as the front man for the mafia kingpin’s investments in a number of racetrack/gambling concessions.

In 1930 O’Hare arranged a lunch meeting with Federal IRS agent Frank J. Wilson, where he agreed to turn over some of Capone’s key financial records, help break the codes, and provide information that would eventually convict his silent partner of tax evasion. O’Hare likely directed investigators to Capone’s bookkeeper, who became the government’s star witness in the 1931 trial of Capone on charges of tax evasion and violations of the Volstead Act enforcing Prohibition. During the course of that trial, O’Hare also alerted the prosecution to Capone’s “fixing” of the original jury; much to Scarface’s chagrin, the presiding judge orchestrated a last-minute switch of the jury. In the end, Capone’s plea bargain was revoked, the jury delivered a guilty verdict, and Capone was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison.

For a number of years after his silent partner went away, O’Hare prospered and lived “the good life.” Prohibition was repealed, mob influence and violence reduced, and no one seemed the wiser of the role he had secretly played as the government’s most valuable informer against Capone. But things changed in late 1939. Harsh prison conditions in Alcatraz and medical problems stemming from syphilis contracted in his youth had reduced the former criminal mastermind to a mental incompetent. Capone was due to be released from federal prison any day, and now “Easy Eddie” was more than a little uneasy, especially after his bodyguard was stabbed and he began receiving threats.

On November 8th, 1939, O’Hare left Sportsman’s Park in Cicero in his Lincoln Zephyr with a loaded semi-automatic pistol in the passenger seat. As he came to the intersection of Ogden and Rockwell, a dark sedan rolled up beside him and two assailants blasted him with a shotgun slugs before speeding away. O’Hare died instantly, his Lincoln careening into a lamppost on the side of the road.

As a racetrack owner “Easy Eddie” had lots of nefarious underworld connections and no one was ever convicted of his murder. But given the “coincidental” timing of Capone’s pending release and their former association, much of the press of the time either directly or indirectly implied a Capone-connection to the gangland-style slaying.

Given Capone’s physical and mental condition, it seems less likely that he had a direct hand in his former partner’s killing. It is, however, certainly possible that Capone’s brothers or other gang members may have taken action independently or on his behalf—given that the family of the ailing mobster were scrambling to raise money to pay off his medical bills and tax fines.

~ by "The Chief" on November 1, 2012.

2 Responses to “CALL ME AL: GANGSTERS AND GAMBLING AT THE ULTIMATE “GIN-JOINT””

  1. It needs to be mentioned that Edward O’Hare was the father of Medal of Honour Recipient ”Butch O’Hare’, who attacked 9 Jap aircraft alone, shot down 5, and crippled anotther. Vhicago main airport was named after him.

    The O’Hare dog racing hare is very popular in England because it’s so quiet and real looking, it’s competitor ‘the Sumner hare’ is noisy and some dogs refuse to chase it – they soon realize ‘it’s a dummy hare’.!

  2. Edward J. O’Hare (known to his friends and family as E.J., not Eddie — the hoods called him that) was indeed the father of Butch O’Hare — but he **wasn’t** the inventor of the mechanical rabbit: he was the attorney for the guy who invented it, Owen P. Smith, starting in 1923. Smith was also a dog track developer and promoter and founded the International Greyhound Racing Association in 1923, of which he was the first high commissioner.
    When Smith died in 1927, O’Hare successfully negotiated with Smith’s widow Hannah, who took over O.P. Smith’s dog racing business, for the exclusive rights to the patent. Controlling the patent made O’Hare a wealthy man: the dog tracks needed that device. O’Hare got into the dog racing business because of Smith, not Capone, and by 1927 was managing a few tracks and also opened one, the Madison Kennel Club, in Collinsville, IL, across the river from St. Louis, his hometown. That track was soon closed down by local officials (dog tracks could only operate by injunction in Illinois then because the state law banning dog tracks was being appealed to the state supreme court; that wasn’t decided until 1931.
    Later in 1927, O’Hare went up to Chicago to license the mechanical rabbit to other dog track owners and decided to open his own track, the Lawndale Kennel Club, in the Lawndale area of Chicago … only a few miles NE of Capone’s Hawthorned Kennel Club on the Cicero/Stickney border at 33rd and Laramie Ave. It was at that point that Capone made O’Hare an offer he didn’t dare refuse: to close the Lawndale track, come manage the Hawthorne track and merge their dog track operations. O’Hare, who already had interests in tracks in Taunton, MA and Florida, figured joining forces was better than dying; but he was never involved in the illegal gambling end of the business (or the bootlegging), and he never socialized with the mobsters, although he did have to represent them in court on occasion.
    St. Louis post-Dispatch reporter John T. Rogers introduced O’Hare to Special Agent Frank J. Wilson over lunch at the Missouri Athletic Club during the summer of 1930, weeks after the murder of Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle, who was bent and hooked up with mobsters himself. rogers knew Wilson because Wilson had already been a source for him, whereas Rogers had known O’Hare in St. Louis for more than 20 years. O’Hare had already thought about being an informant because he wanted to get out from under Capone’s thumb and do legal business only and because he wanted to increase his son’s chances of being able to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis. However, Wilson didn’t offer to help O’Hare with that and O’Hare never asked him for that — because O’Hare had plenty of Irish Congressional connections back in St. Louis. Butch was eventually accepted at Annapolis through the intervention of Rep. John Coughlin.
    When Capone was convicted in 1931 and went to jail, O’Hare could begin to breathe easier. The state supreme court also decided the dog racing case that year and declared that dog racing was indeed illegal. O’Hare then converted Hawthorne Kennel Club into Sportsman’s Park, a thoroughbred horse racing track (it wasn’t called Hawthorne Race Course because there was already a horse track by that name right next door since around 1909). O’Hare then became president of Sportsman’s Park, and still held that position while engaging in a range of other legal businesses when he was assassinated on Nov. 8, 1939. Far from being hoodlum himself, O’Hare was an attorney and entrepreneur who, like many other people during Prohibition, couldn’t avoid dealing with the gangs because the mobs were involved in anything and everything that made a lot of money. If you wanted to do business in Chicago, you had to pick your gang just like you choose business insurance today. It was simply unavoidable. And a lot of otherwise law-abiding people got roped into mob business that way during the 1920s and early 1930s.
    Far too many papers got the details of E.J. O’Hare’s life wrong, but one book written by two naval historians got it right: Fateful Rendezvous: The Life of Butch O’Hare, by Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom. For the correct details on the lives of E.J. O’Hare and Butch O’Hare, consult that book first..

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