by Mark Karadimos
Chicago and Cicero have unfortunately grown synonymous with crime, gangsters, and bloodshed. The 1920s and 1930s were a cause for those associations. Gangsters such as Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and John Dillinger paved a path for Chicago and Cicero that was brutally violent, unlike the romanticized portrayals of characters within a variety of Hollywood films. This site on gangsters will exist as a chilling reminder of this criminal scourge.
Allow me to share with you a summarized look at early 20th Century gangsters, their criminal activities, their politics, and the lives of several gangsters.
Gangsters of the early 20th Century were bold and violent. They wouldn't think twice of opening up with machinegun fire to destroy the innocent (and corrupt) lives of those who stood between them and their underground plans. That is either what they did themselves or were the orders they gave. This was true of Al Capone, Antonio Lombardo, Ralph Capone, Claude Maddox, Louis Campagna, and hundreds of others.
Gangster business started out simple, with alcohol. During the time of Prohibition, organized crime seized on the opportunity to provide liquor to thousands of speakeasies and lounges across the region. They fought off competitors by killing off the competition. They intimidated bar owners into becoming partners by blowing up the businesses of those who refused to comply.
Gangsters moved further into crime by delving into prostitution, labor unions, and racketeering. Al Capone got started as a bouncer for Frank Yale and John Torrio. He most likely enticed passersby to sample the prostitutes. When Capone later established himself as a boss, his tentacles ventured out into labor unions and politicians. His most notable political partner was Cicero Town President Joseph Z. Klenha, all which is well documented.
It is apparent that many people saw gangsters as the purveyors of good times via spirits and speakeasies that served them. However, gangster connections with politicians allowed them to amass control and power, so much so that they were able to intimidate, extort, and murder with near full immunity. Murders rates were very high at the time and people knew gangsters acted with impunity, making gangsters scary characters.
All this came crashing to a halt when public tolerance grew short. The reason the public turned vehemently against gangsters was due to the total disregard gangsters had for the law and the fact they flaunted their violence. Capone may have had something to do with the high-profile killing of Assistant State Attorney William H. Swiggin, who had gangster ties. Capone also mastermind the Valentine's Day Massacre, killing many people in a single hit. This made it impossible for gangsters to continue business as usual under the cloak of darkness.
Commissions were formed and federal prosecutors, like Robert Kennedy years down the road, began creatively attacking gangsters. Al Capone and Ralph Capone were found guilty of tax evasion. Joseph Aiuppa got prosecuted for killing hundreds of doves. Prosecutors gathered informants and infiltrated gangs.
Most people think the life of a gangster was exciting and they consequently emulate their lives, even if only in imagination. However, the truth is a far different picture. Capone died a confused, pathetic man -- of syphilis. Others died slowly of infections from gunshot wounds, like Dillinger. Some got outright assassinated, like Joe Aiello, who crossed Capone with a plan to poison him. Then there is the pathetic death of Frank Nitti, who had to commit suicide using three bullets because he failed twice. Nitti looked over his shoulder and saw what was coming; he folded up under pressure when he realized public srutiny and the impending doom of federal prosecution was bearing down on him.
It is true that Al Capone had a soup kitchen in one of the roughest parts of Chicago and that he was extremely generous to the people there. Stories tell of Big Al, as he was sometimes known, feeding those that had very little. I sincerely believe those stories are true.
Nevertheless, Al "Scarface" Capone and other gangsters like him laid a wake of destruction in Cicero and Chicago. Gangsters did not care if in the process of retaliating against a rival gang some innocent bystander got hurt or killed. They would pay off police officers and judges when they could and coerced or killed witnesses when they had to. When you look at the totality of their lives and the full wake of their destruction, these men were not fun nor were they role models.
Gangsters' surroundings were absolutely seen as expendable. Bosses viewed lieutenants and henchmen as replaceable as were the tavern owners and labor unions they racketeered. They demanded special privileges and were eager to harm good people to get them.
When reflecting back on the lives of gangsters, I strongly suggest viewing those days without the Hollywood hype. Remember that lives were ruined and people were gunned down in the streets with machineguns. Entire cities were literally pilfered by using corrupt politicians, coercion, and murder. They were not simply some good ol' boys who hooked up the populace with a few drinks.
The rotten legacy of gangsters still infects us today. Corruption in Illinois is still being exposed. The hard work of tireless and good-willed investigators, prosecutors, and citizens who demand a better society can keep modern gangsters' general acts of selfishness at bay. Hence, several high profile cases where mayors, presidents, leaders, crime figures, and bosses have occurred and have sent a clear message to those who may think of abusing the public trust. These modern gangsters have to keep looking over their shoulders now, like Frank Nitti.
When we remain complacent and accept less from politicians, police officers, and people in positions of authority, we will reap the natural consequences.
When we remain vigilant and become intolerant of all manifestations of gangster-like behavior, we will gain the society we deserve.
This site is to be viewed as a historical piece. The intent of providing the information that has been gathered and reported here is to provide a clearer understanding of Chicago and Cicero's past.
It will become clearer as information is digested here that Cicero has moved on from its gangster past. Old hotels and gambling halls have been demolished and replaced with elements seen as more functional to the needs of its inhabitants. New schools are utilizing modern strategies and new technologies. Strong efforts are continuously being made to help Cicero youths make wise choices and take ownership of their futures. They are being taught that a clean life is a happy life.
Cicero has shed its gangster past.