Dion O'Banion: Altar Boy Gone Wrong


dion o'banion
". . . and he never left home without telling me where he was going or kissing me good-bye."

VIOLA O'BANION, the wife

mr. and mrs. o'baniono'banion"We're businessmen without high hats," Dion O'Banion used to say, and it was sort of true. He had a flower shop in Chicago and he could furnish wreaths and garlands in any quantity. If the floral pieces were for a funeral and you were shy a corpse, he could furnish that, too, if he was so minded. That's how diverse his business was, and flowers and cadavers were only a sideline. Dion O'Banion also ran the bootleg liquor and manned the gambling traps for the Gold Coast and the slums north of the Loop; he wouldn't dream of limiting his public services to the carriage trade when the other side of the tracks teemed with decent, honest, hard-working citizens equally in need of diversion. He was poor himself before he went wrong. The elder O'Banion, a plasterer, had a time scraping together the few dollars for the lad's surplice and cassock back at the turn of the century when he was in the choir at the Holy Name Cathedral.

moranNobody could say how bright little Dion called Dean or Deanie and sometimes "Gimpy" because an accident had left him with a limp got off the straight and narrow. Maybe it was because he grew so fast. Even in his teens he had enough brawn to take a job in McGovern's Saloon in the Little Hell section, running beer and sentimental ballads to some very tough customers. Before long, he was an apprentice stick-up man and safe-blower and a muscleman in the Chicago newspapers' early circulation wars. He did time in Bridewell for burglary in 1909 and for assault in 1911. He was caught tampering with somebody else's vault in the Postal Telegraph building once but beat that rap. He got into the trade in stamp-free liquor fairly early, using hijacked supplies because his capital was low. two-gunCome Prohibition's golden flow, he was a fairly well-established tradesman and his firm abounded in such true and trusted chums of his young manhood as Hymie (The Polack) Weiss, George (Bugs) Moran, Vincent (Schemer) Drucci, Louis (Three-Gun) Alterie, and assorted PFC's. Once this happy go-lucky set was caught borrowing 1,750 barrels' worth of pre-war bonded Kentucky bourbon from a warehouse, but the proprietors and even the police guard appeared to be helping them with the million-dollar haul, so that case never got to the annoying courtroom stage.

torrioWhen Johnny Torrio inherited Big Jim Colosimo's throne, he summoned O'Banion. Deanie was not above heisting an occasional truckload of his liquor, so Torrio explained to him that this form of poaching would be frowned on in the new and more formal organization of the underworld empire. He said O'Banion and his playmates could have the whole North Side preserve cathedralfor their very own exploitation, plus some brewery interests, but they would (A) have to cease all hijacking and (B) observe the territorial rights of their underworld neighbors. Otherwise, trouble. O'Banion got in line and, while he lived, it proved to be a good idea.

The ex-choir boy tied up the loose ends in the retail liquor outlets in his barony, not overlooking the drugstores, and tightened his grip on the varied gambling activity. He passed up the prostitution industry, having a decided aversion to the love-for-sale bit. Even without this lush sideline, O'Banion got so rich that he shed his former coloring as a hoodlum and brawler. He dressed better but conservatively and got his nails manicured. He married Viola Kaniff, a nice girl with some book learning, and had her dress up their Pine Grove Avenue love nest with good paintings. He put in a $14,000 player piano and a console radio. He had some tuxedos made (with special pockets for artillery). He went to Mass regularly. He made pilgrimages to his boyhood streets in Little Hell and spread odd sums among the needy. ("I am a swell fellow," Dean might say, "a very swell fellow.") And he acquired half a touch of respectability by buying a half interest in William F. Schofield's flower shop on North State Street, right by the Holy Name Cathedral. He loved flowers. He would spend lots of time in the shop.

Trouble in Paradise

"Good men must not obey the laws too well."

flower shopFor all his outward Peace of Mind, Dion O'Banion, Baron of the North Side, had a king-sized assortment of headaches, tabled below:

I He talked vaguely about retreating from Chicago to more genteel environs and got Johnny Torrio to buy his $500,000 interest in the giant Sieben brewery. Then Reform Mayor William E. Dever ordered a police drive on illegal beer operations, and both O'Banion and Torrio were arrested when the raiding forces got around to Sieben's. Torrio didn't mind that pinch so much but couldn't shake the nagging feeling that Deanie always well-connected in official circles knew the crackdown was coming before he sold his piece. This sort of dark suspicion in the racket empire's throne room wasn't calculated to do O'Banion any good.

II He took to feudin' with the Genna Brothers, also known as The Terrible Gennas. He said they were selling their home-cooked, corn-sugar alcohol in hundreds of friendly tenements in his bailiwick for three dollars per gallon, while his had a six dollar to nine dollar price tag. The Gennas, so affluent that they had five police captains and four hundred patrolmen on their payroll, drawing $350,000 a month in "ice," charged in turn that O'Banion had fallen into his old habits and was hijacking liquor out of their West Side domain. Hymie Weiss suggested to O'Banion that the Gennas were most excitable fellows and might get violent. Deanie cast off his new-found respectability for a moment. "Aw," he said, "to hell with them Sicilians." It was not a nice way to talk in Chicago in 1924.

III He got into an inter-mob squabble over a matter of $30,000 in IOU's spread around the syndicate's Cicero gambling casino, The Ship, by Angelo Genna. Al Capone wanted to write off Genna's losses as trifling, but Deanie insisted that a man should pay his debts. O'Banion paid no mind to Capone, The Ship's skipper-of-record, and told Genna to get up the thirty Big Ones or else. Again, no way to talk to people named Genna.

IV He touched off a noisy municipal scandal, quite innocently, by filling the Guest of Honor's chair at a testimonial dinner and accepting a $2,000 platinum wrist watch set in diamonds and a smattering of rubies. Mayor Dever raised the City Hall roof the next day because the highest police brass had attended the affair, breaking bread with such celebrated O'Banion associates as Schemer Drucci, Hymie Weiss, Bugs Moran and Three-Gun Alterie. The storm didn't quiet down until Chief-of-Detectives Michael Hughes turned in his badge and gun, all the while protesting that he left the affair "almost at once" when he learned to his dismay that it was a memorial to the living O'Banion.

Flowers and Bullets
"We usually meet all of our relatives only at funerals where somebody always observes: 'Too bad we can't get together more often.'"

merlo funeralMike Merlo, first president of the Unione Siciliana, passed away in Chicago on November 8, 1924. He died of natural causes, an unusual avenue of exit for the society in which he dwelt. It was a nice thing, in a way, because it meant there would be no recriminations in the underworld, no petty finger-pointing, no hard feelings. Everyone could get together to give Mike Merlo a funeral befitting his exalted station. Thus, the next day, orders for floral tributes poured into the O'Banion-Schofield flower emporium in unprecedented quantities. John Torrio selected a $10,000 display. Al Capone picked out an $8,000 item. Someone else told O'Banion to rustle up a floral effigy of the departed Merlo life-size, of course. caponeThat night another party ordered an elaborate spray and said he would send around for it at noon. O'Banion said he would attend to that one himself and he was out front, clipping some chrysanthemums, when three men came in at the appointed hour.

O'Banion limped toward them he evidently knew the trio and extended his right hand. The man in the middle took the proffered handshake and held tight. The other two drew revolvers and pumped fire into O'Banion until he slumped to the floor. Then the trio hurried to an undertaker's limousine waiting at the curb. When the police arrived to inspect the remains, they found that the executioners had held their guns so close that there were powder bums among the six gaping holes ripped into the husky gangster's head and torso. The shop's porter, who was on the premises during O'Banion's anselmi and scalisedemise, had no idea what the three messengers of death looked like. Nor could anyone else in the noonday crowd outside throw any light on this point. With O'Banion's own hard lips and blue eyes forever closed, the usual fruitless investigation followed. The police called in everybody, more or less, and let them all out again. Torrio and Capone were invited downtown, along with Mike Genna, Albert Anselmi and John Scalisi. The latter two, the most accomplished torpedo men in The Terrible Gennas' troop, were widely credited with the deed. Others said that Frankie Yale, nee Vale, a citizen of Brooklyn but a dear friend of Torrio's, was in on the job. newspaperIn any case, nobody was held long enough to delay the funeral and Dion O'Banion, departing at 32, got a $100,000 send-off that made the Mike Merlo obsequies look like the services for any Skid Row bum.

angelo gennaThe carcass lay in state at the Sbarbo Funeral Home in a $10,000 bronze casket, with solid gold candlesticks and silver angels at either end. Forty thousand persons filed past the bier in three days and the funeral itself, ablaze in flowers and regal trappings, drew 20,000. The mourners included Torrio "From Johnny," his floral tribute said and Capone, and Angelo Genna, newly installed as president of the Unione Siciliana. O'Banion's forlorn lieutenants stood on the other side of the grave, weeping real tears in copious amounts. The choir boy gone bad was denied Catholic rites but the Reverend Patrick Malloy came out to Mount Carmel Cemetery without his priestly vestments and said three Hail Mary's and the Lord's Prayer. Father Malloy had grown up with Deanie in Little Hell; he would not abandon him at the end.

graveO'Banion's last resting place lay only forty feet from a granite mausoleum where a Bishop and two Archbishops reposed, so when Viola O'Banion built a tall shaft over his grave with the inscription, "My Sweetheart," George Cardinal Mundelein asked her to take it down in favor of a less ostentatious headstone. Viola did that, but she paid the deceased linked to twenty-five unsolved killings but never once arrested in such unpleasant circumstances the ultimate tribute. "Dean loved his home and spent most of his evenings in it, fooling with his radio, singing a song, listening to the player piano. He was not a man to run around nights with women. I was his only sweetheart . . . mayorsHe never left home without telling me where he was going and kissing me good-bye."

For such a homebody, the O'Banion slaying had the most curious repercussions, starting right after the funeral, when Louis Alterie publicly challenged the assassins to a pistol duel. He said he would meet the enemy at State and Madison Streets at any time, including High Noon. Alterie's bold declaration horrified Bill Dever. "I am staggered," the Mayor said. "Are we living by the code of the Dark Ages or is Chicago part of an American commonwealth?"

The answer would come very fast in the high-level gunfire that marked 1925 as one of the Lawless Decade's more interesting years in that department, anyway. Deanie O'Banion was a likeable fellow. His playmates stood loyal not only unto death but also unto the next round of bloodletting as well.

Post a Comment