On Thursday, February 14th, 1929, four members of Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit – two of them disguised as police officers – walked into a garage in Lincoln Park, Chicago and machine-gunned seven men. The victims were all believed to be associates of the rival North Side Gang. However, two bystanders (a mechanic and an optician) were also caught in the spray. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre went down in history not only because of its brutality but because it marked the beginning of the end for Capone. Alcatraz was beckoning, you see.
The St. Valentines Day Massacre remains an unsolved case. The gunmen were never convicted, perhaps owing to the Omertà cult that surrounded Chicago’s gang activity. Indeed, when one of the victims, Frank Gusenberg, was found by police and asked who had shot him, he replied: “Nobody shot me,” before being consumed by a velveteen sleep. Even without witnesses, it was clear who had ordered the killing: Al Capone. The Chicago Outfit had been fighting with Bugs Moran’s Irish and Polish North Side Gang over brewing and liqueur distribution for years. The two gangs had tried to make peace but failed. With the armistice breached, Moran sent a group of men to take down Capone once in for all; this too failed. The bloody killing on Valentines Day, 1929 was both a retaliation and an attempt to end the five-year war that had left dozens pock-marked with gun wounds
Capone is one of the first true criminals-as-celebrities. For many Chicagoans, he was a Robin Hood figure, whose illicit trade would have been celebrated if it weren’t for the temperament big-wigs at the top. In reality, though, Capone had corrupted the very heart of Chicago politics, openly allying his gang with the city’s then-mayor, William Hale Thompson. The coalition was the logical conclusion of an administration that had allowed the line between Chicago’s gangs and its police force to become virtually indistinguishable. As the Chicago Tribune said of Thompson following his ousting: “He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of civilization”. But, with The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, something changed, and the federal government resolved to take Capone down once and for all.
93 years after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s legacy continues to cast a long shadow over the streets of Chicago. Within years of the shooting, the infamous wall where the victims had been lined up and murdered had become an object of fascination. Located on 2122 North Clark Street in Lincoln Park, the local authorities had barely had the time to wash the blood off the brickwork before the wall became a tourist hotspot. But by 1949, the shock value had started to fade, and the garage was turned into an antique furniture store run by an elderly couple who had no idea of the site’s bloody past; that is until the waves of tourists returned.
But even after the site was demolished in 1967, the wall continued to haunt the collective imagination – with one businessman, Geroge Patey, buying the pile rubble for “a few thousand dollars”. With his 414 bricks in tow, he toured America, showing them in galleries, shopping malls, and museums – although the National Exhibition Grounds deemed them too violent a subject. As the punters started losing interest in grisly murders, Patey considered using them to decorate his home, but instead chose to put them in his doomed crime museum, which folded almost as hastily as it had been put together. Following this failure, he used them to decorate the walls of his roaring 1920s-themed nightclub, which (surprise surprise) also turned out to be a flop. Then, in 1996, The Mob Museum in Las Vegas managed to acquire all of the bricks that Patey hadn’t sold off as souvenirs. You can find another section of the wall in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Today, those fragments of brickwork are all the remains of one of the bloodiest gang killings of America’s prohibition era.