5 Things You Didn’t Know About the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Part of the mythology of modern crime, Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre casts a long shadow in our culture even if most people don’t remember why it happened.

Photo overlooking the New Union Station in Chicago, 1924. A bridge is in the foreground.

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February 14th. It’s a day for cards, flowers, and gangland slayings; at least it was on 1929, when five members of Chicago’s North Side Gang and two affiliates were gunned down in a garage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The man at the center of it all, as he was in many things in Chicago at that time, was Al Capone, even though the actual triggermen have never been identified to a certainty. Though the act lives on in various films and as a reference in popular culture, the actual whos and whys have largely been forgotten by the public. Here then are five things you may not know about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

1. What Happened at the Scene?

This much is certain. It was 10:30 am, a Thursday, at the garage on 2122 North Clark Street. Witnesses saw two men dressed as police officers and two other men wearing suits, hats, and overcoats, leaving immediately after the shooting; the “police” held their guns on the other two and marched them away. Minutes later, the actual police arrived. Six men were dead and one, Frank Gusenberg, was mortally wounded, having taken 14 bullets. Yes, 14. Remarkably, he was still conscious but refused to cooperate, even going so far as to say, “No one shot me.” Frank Gusenberg died just a few hours later.

The rest of the victims included: Gusenberg’s brother, Peter; Albert Kachellek, who also went by the name James Clark; Albert Weinshank; Adam Heyer; Reinhardt Schwimmer; and John May. May’s dog, Highball, was also present, but unharmed. Other witnesses outside had seen the “police” and the other two men arrive; the “police” carried Thompson submachine guns and the other two men had shotguns. From what the police discovered inside, the group of four lined the victims up against the wall of the garage and fired repeatedly, even after the men were down.

2. Who Were the Victims?

All seven men worked either directly or indirectly for George “Bugs” Moran. Moran led the North Side Gang, an Irish-American criminal organization, and a major rival to the operations of gangster Al Capone. Kachellek/Clark was Moran’s brother-in-law and right-hand man. Brothers Peter and Frank Gusenberg worked as “muscle” or “enforcers” for Moran. Heyer served as the gang’s business manager and bookkeeper. Weinshank managed businesses that were used as fronts for Moran’s operations. Schwimmer was an associate of the gangsters, a former optician and inveterate gambler. May, an auto mechanic, sometimes did work for Moran’s people.

Over time, it was discovered that men were lured to the warehouse with the promise of obtaining a shipment of Canadian whiskey that had been stolen from Capone. Capone’s associates laid the trap, expecting Moran himself to arrive. However, Weinshank bore a strong resemblance to Moran, and it’s believed that the gunmen went ahead and acted, thinking that they actually had Moran already.

3. What Was the Motive?

Capone’s outfit had clashed with the North Side Gang for years. Since 1924, a number of previous leaders of the North Siders had been killed by men working for Capone or his predecessor in the Chicago Outfit, Johnny Torrio. Their enmity arose from issues stemming from territories, control of various criminal practices in the city, and the general ethnic conflict born from the North Siders being predominantly Irish and the Outfit’s deep Italian background. The immediate flashpoint for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre came from the battle over running liquor in Prohibition-era Chicago, which included Moran men hijacking Capone shipments, as well as Moran’s encroachment on Capone’s dog track and saloon revenues.

4. What Was the Fallout?

The Massacre all but broke the back of the North Side Gang. While it would continue to exist, its power and influence was greatly diminished. Capone’s reach only grew, but the Massacre prompted an outcry from the citizens and greater concern from all levels of law enforcement. While many people were implicated in the crime, no one was ever convicted, and most of the people possibly connected with the actions would be murdered themselves.

The United States government began to get involved, with an IRS investigation into Capone and the eventual dispatch of Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness to the city. Ness formed his famous “Untouchables,” a group of agents known for their refusal to take bribes. The combined efforts of Ness and the other investigations would cost Capone millions and eventually see him convicted on five counts of tax evasion in 1931. Capone served seven years in prison; he was paroled in 1939, but suffered the rest of his life from neurosyphilis and paresis (paralytic dementia) before dying of a stroke in 1947.

5. Why Is It Remembered?

Poster for the film, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Featuring actors dressed in suits and carrying machine guns,
Film poster for The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). (©20th Century Fox)

It’s hard to say why the Massacre casts such a long shadow. Certainly, the association with the holiday is something that cemented it in the minds of the public. The connection with Al Capone, famous in his own right, increases its mystique. And it’s certainly a key event in the much-mythologized Prohibition Era of Chicago. Much like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Massacre has been the subject of many book and film adaptations, either in direct adaptations like the 1959 film Al Capone, the 1967 film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or as an off-screen, background event as in 1987’s The Untouchables with Kevin Costner as Ness and Robert DeNiro as Capone. The Massacre has also become an unlikely staple of comedic references, perhaps most famously in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, which implies that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis go on the run because they witnessed the Massacre.

Feature Image: Chicago in 1924, with the New Union Station in foreground. (Chicago Architectural Photographing Company; Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

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