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This Day in History: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Jenna Chamberlain (1L) and Anisha Karia (1L)

The mafia has always been a source of fascination for me; in particular, the rise of the mafia at the time of prohibition. A time where one law spurred more corruption and mayhem than alcohol ever could. A couple of years ago, on a trip to Las Vegas, I went to The Mob Museum. I was so excited about this pilgrimage. A museum reserved specifically for the mafia in a town created by the mafia. For someone interested in this topic, it was a dream. As I went through the museum, I stopped to read every sign and look at every picture. I learned about the temperance movement, the origins of the mafia, the creation of Las Vegas, the trials, the lingo, everything I could want to know.

Yet there was one part of the museum that struck me in a very different way. As I stood and stared at the real wall where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred, riddled with bullet holes, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of reality. My rose-coloured glasses came off, and my glamorized view of the mob fell away. Events like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre are difficult to discuss, as they represent real violence and murder. However, it is also important to remember them as a learning opportunity. Such violent acts came from, among other problems, a combination of the 18th amendment in the United Stated (the prohibition of the production, sale, and transport of alcohol) and the stigmatization of immigrants, particularly from Italy and Ireland. This is something that could occur in the political climate of today. Therefore, as law students, we should remember these events, not with a romantic view, but with a realistic view of the policies that created them.

Chicago in the 1920’s was an extremely violent city. With the 18th amendment in full effect (due to temperance groups convinced that alcohol was ruining the country), importing and making illegal alcohol became a huge market. Bootleggers of all kinds were benefitting from this new, rich, underground market. One of them, and probably the most widely known, was Al Capone.

Capone was born in Brooklyn in 1899 and was a first generation American in a large Italian family. At a young age, he became part of a local gang and began working his way up the ladder. Along the way he met Johnny Torrio, a neighbourhood gang leader. In 1919 Capone and Torrio moved to Chicago. Chicago, full of corruption and bribery, was an easy place to bootleg. Their only problem was the rough North Side gang, made up of Irish and Polish mobsters. The leader of the North Side gang was Dion O’Bannion, a smart but violent man who had a love for floral arrangements. Torrio and O’Bannion set up territories so the gangs would not overlap in their dealings. However, Capone often ignored these boundaries and would trespass onto North Side territory, stealing their business. In 1924, in an effort to reduce the competition, Capone’s men shot O’Bannion in his flower shop.

They knew there would be backlash from the attack, and they were right. Torrio was shot soon after. Although he miraculously survived the attack, he decided to retire and passed the leadership role to Capone. With Capone taking over the business, violence between the two rival gangs raged on until it reached a climax – the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, five of Capone’s men, dressed as police officers, pretended to raid one of the North Side’s liquor storage units. They lined up seven of the gang members along a wall, and shot them. Their aim was to kill the new North Side leader, Bugs Moran, however, he was running late and arrived after the attack.

The massacre is still considered one of the most violent mafia attacks in history. It spurred federal police action to stop organized crime. In particular, President Herbert Hoover and director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (no relation), organized agents to take down Capone. They wanted to make an example of him to other gangsters. However, neither Al Capone, nor any other member of his organization were convicted in relation to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Al Capone was eventually convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion in 1931.

The 18th amendment was repealed in its entirety in 1933, just 13 years after it came into effect. In those 13 years, organized crime syndicates across the country grew exponentially. Although it may have prevented many from consuming alcohol, its overall effect was negative. The purpose of law should be to prevent, rather than create, corruption and gang violence. Laws, like the 18th amendment, can have the opposite effect to what the writers intended. Consequences should be considered before putting into place new legislation.