St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

One February evening on Chicago’s north side, seven well-dressed men were found riddled with bullets inside a garage located at 2122 N. Clark Street. They had been lined up against a wall, with their backs to their executioners, and shot to death. With the exception of Dr. Reinhardt H. Schwimmer, these men were mobsters working under the leadership of gangster and bootlegger “Bugs” Moran. Within a few seconds these seven men had become a sordid piece of Chicago’s history: the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The building was named the S.M.C. Cartage Company Garage, a red, brick structure. A group of men had gathered there that morning, a meeting set up by a Detroit gangster who told Bugs Moran that a truck full of hijacked whiskey was on its way to Chicago.

One of the men was Johnny May, an ex-safecracker who had been hired by George “Bugs” Moran as an auto mechanic. He was working on another truck that morning, with his dog tied to the bumper, while six other men waited for the truck of whiskey to arrive. The men were Frank and Pete Gusenberg, and James Clark (Moran’s brother-in-law) was also there. So were Adam Heyer and Al Weinshank; and Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer, a young optometrist who had befriended Moran and hung around the liquor warehouse for the thrill of rubbing shoulders with gangsters.

Bugs Moran was late for the morning meeting. While the seven men waited inside of the warehouse, they had no idea that a police car had pulled up outside, or that Moran had spotted the car and had quickly taken cover. According to eyewitnesses, four men got out of the police car, two of them in uniforms and two in civilian clothing. They entered the building and a few moments later the clatter of machine-gun fire broke out. Then four figures emerged and drove away. May’s dog, still tied to the bumper of the truck, was barking and howling; when neighbors arrived to see what was going on they discovered the bloody scene.

Moran’s men had been lined up against the rear wall of the garage and gunned-down. All seven eventually died, but the main target (Bugs Moran) had been missed; he’d figured the arrival of the police car to be some sort of shakedown and had hung back. Being late never paid-off so well! When the machine-gunning began, Moran fled.

When the bodies were discovered in a bleeding heap on the floor of the garage, it seemed that no one could have survived the attack. However, this proved to be untrue. One investigator on the scene found Frank Gusenberg lying unconscious amongst the bloody corpses, breathing heavily and choking on his own blood. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where investigators waited for their only possible lead to wake up and reveal who was responsible for the murders. Their greatest fear was that he would die before they had the opportunity to question him. Eventually he did wake. However, when he was asked for the identity of the killer, he simply stated “I’m not gonna talk,” and died. Without Frank Gusenberg’s testimony and with only a few eyewitnesses outside the garage, the investigators had to return to the scene of the crime and try to piece the murder together with what little information they had.

Surprisingly, while Moran quickly targeted Capone as ordering the hit, the authorities weren’t so sure. Investigators on the scene found the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to be somewhat puzzling. The victims were mobsters, with an endless supply of weapons and a well-known capability for brutality. Why would they turn their backs and face the wall without putting up a fight? That was one of many questions to be answered, and would prove to be a key clue in explaining the murders.

Another question came about after an eyewitness gave her account of what happened on that night in 1929. She lived directly across the street and had a perfect view of the garage. She claimed to have seen two uniformed policemen exit the garage while escorting two plain clothed men who held their hands up in the air, as if they were under arrest. Of course, this had comforted the shaken woman, thinking that the loud gunfire that she had just heard had been resolved and the parties responsible were being taken into custody. However, the Chicago police had no record of any such activity at 2122 Clark Street until they arrived on the scene to find the horrifying blood bath.

After a re-enactment of the crime, authorities concluded that the two men dressed as policemen entered the garage and acted as if they were police on a common investigation. The Moran outfit automatically assumed that they were policemen on a routine sting. It was obvious that they didn’t suspect that the two “policemen” were killers or they certainly would have never been killed without a fight. But as it was, the mobsters seemed to have cooperated with the costumed officers and consequently let the fake policemen disarm them and force them up against the wall. As soon as their backs were turned, they were shot down.

Therefore, the eyewitnesses were somewhat accurate when they claimed to have seen two policemen arresting two men. What they had actually seen was four brutal murderers making their cleverly-planned getaway. If a neighbor or neighbors looked out after such rapid and explosive gunfire, what better way to calm their nerves than by letting them think that everything was under control? The mysterious killers drove away, long before anyone thought to call the police; the neighbors saw from their windows that the police were already there.

Capone had been in Florida at the time of the massacre and upon hearing the news he publicly stated, “The only man who kills like that is Bugs Moran.” At the same time, Moran was proclaiming, “Only Capone kills guys like that.”

Al Capone was never arrested for the crimes, nor were the mysterious gunmen ever identified. Instead, he was blandly indicted for tax evasion some years later and spent seven years in prison, only to be released to retire in Florida where he died from syphilis in 1947. No one will probably ever know who the actual shooters were, but one of them was probably Machine Gun McGurn, one of Capone’s most trusted men.

Moran, of course, was right – Capone had been behind the killings. Some would argue that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is not noteworthy as a gangland murder (these syndicate ‘hits’ were common throughout the 1920s, especially in Chicago). Some believe that these murders are so special because of the effect they had on the general public, and the outrage that followed emphatically demanded that something had to be done. Ironically, it is possible that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre marks the beginning of the end for Al Capone and his empire. He’d gone too far, authorities were outraged, and even his interested (if not all-out adoring) public had lost their attraction to him and his mystique. Capone had finally overstepped his bounds, and had mortally wounded not only Bugs Moran’s gang but his own as well, if indirectly.

In 1967 the famous garage that was home to the massacre was demolished. However, the bricks from the bullet-marked rear wall were purchased and saved by a Canadian businessman. In 1972 he opened a nightclub with a Roaring 20’s theme and rebuilt the bullet-ridden wall as an attraction. The club continued to operate for a few years and when it closed, the owner placed the bricks into storage. He then offered them for sale with a written account of the massacre. He sold the bricks for $1000 each, but soon found that he was getting back as many as he sold. It seemed that anyone who bought one of the bricks was suddenly stricken with bad luck.

According to the stories, the bricks themselves had somehow been infested with the negative energy of the massacre. Whatever the legend of the bricks themselves, and whether or not they have been “haunted” by what happened, there is little doubt about the site on Clark Street itself. Even today, people walking along the street at night have reported the sounds of screams and machine guns. Those who are accompanied by dogs report their share of strangeness too. Animals appear to be especially bothered by this piece of lawn, sometimes barking and howling, sometimes whining in fear.

The building itself is long-gone, but the area is marked as a fenced-off lawn that belongs to the nearby nursing home. Five trees are scattered along the lawn in a line, the one in the middle marking the location where the rear wall once stood. Visit the spot yourself – you might just hear the events of that Valentine’s Day so many years ago!