I’m a generally law-abiding person. Yet as a life-long Chicagoan, I sometimes find myself strangely resentful of all the attention the New York mob gets from the entertainment industry.
From Godfather to Goodfellas to Donnie Brasco, all the movies are about New York. Even Ben Siegel’s creation of Las Vegas (as depicted in Bugsy) is about the New York mob, although Chicago took it away from them. Dammit, the Chicago outfit was huge! They controlled (and may still control) everything west of the Mississippi, and they deserve some respect. Despite all their activity, there are few news stories and fewer movies.
What’s that you say? Al Capone? Yeah, well, Al Capone ran Chicago a long, long time ago. A lot of stuff has happened with the Chicago mob since then, and you probably haven’t heard of any of it. There are two reasons for this.
First of all, for many years, Hoover’s FBI pretended that the Mafia did not exist, which saved them a lot of investigative work. However, they finally had to admit there might be something to those Mafia rumors in 1957 when some local cops in Appalachian, New York decided to find out more about all the strangers in town and accidentally broke up a nation-wide meeting of 60 mob leaders. Eventually, the FBI launched an investigation into the possible “reactivation of the Capone gang,” as if jailing one guy, even the top guy, had somehow dealt the Mafia a destructive blow from which it was only just recovering. Look, if Tony Soprano got whacked, don’t you think Paulie would move to take over?
Well, when Capone went away, the Chicago Mob was taken over by Frank Nitti. If you’ve seen The Untouchables, this was the guy that Kevin Costner threw off the roof. In the real world, Frank Nitti ran the outfit for about five years and then committed suicide by shooting himself.
No, really. He just walked out into a public park and pulled the trigger. There were witnesses and everything.
This brings us to the second reason you don’t hear much about the Chicago mob: They got smarter. And most of the smarts came in the form of Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo. As some anonymous mobster once put it,
“Accardo has more brains before breakfast than Al Capone ever had all day.”
Oh, he made a few mistakes, but he learned from them. During his first few years in charge (running things for Nitti’s successor, Paul “the Waiter” Ricca, who was in prison), Accardo lived a typically lavish mob lifestyle, and consequently attracted the attention of the IRS. To let the heat die down, he stepped out of the limelight and turned control of the mob over to Sam “Momo” Giancana, who was expected to keep a low profile. Ricca and Accardo realized they had made a mistake at about the time Giancana started hanging out with Frank Sinatra and dating one of the McGuire Sisters. Accardo was put back in charge. (Giancana was whacked a few years later.)
This time around, Accardo kept a much lower profile. How low? Well, Al Capone ran the mob for seven years, and everybody in the world knows his name. Sam Giancana ran it for nine years, and you might have heard of him. But unless you’re a mob watcher, you probably don’t know that Tony Accardo ran the mob for forty years until his death in 1992.
Accardo’s story is certainly interesting enough to make a movie. For one thing, he was probably involved in the St. Valentine’s day massacre. For another, he was one of Al Capone’s bodyguards and enforcers. There’s a scene in The Untouchables where Al Capone beats a guy to death with a baseball bat at a lavish dinner party. That actually happened, except that two guys were beaten to death. Nobody really knows who swung the bats, but right after that Capone gave Tony Accardo his “Joe Batters” nickname. You figure it out.
In the late 70’s, a burglary crew ransacked Accardo’s house, looking for anything worth stealing. Nothing happened for a full year, and then their mutilated bodies started turning up all over town.
Another time, some guys burgled a jewelry store and got away with a huge haul. The owner was not involved with the mob, but he knew Accardo from around the neighborhood, and decide to ask him if anything could be done. Accardo agreed to help. This wasn’t really mob business, so nobody got killed this time, but the thieves did give it all back.
When the FBI first started investigating the Chicago mob, a few suspicious characters dropped in to visit the agents’ families while they were working. There was no overt threat, but the implication was clear. The FBI agents retaliated by visiting the colleges where some of the mobsters’ kids were taking classes. They made a huge show of it, asking lots of questions guaranteed to embarrass the kids and letting everyone know about the suspected mob connections. Shortly afterward, the mob and the FBI cut a deal that whatever happened in the future, they would leave each other’s families alone. Both sides stuck to the deal, although some of the mobsters were later shocked to discover that, to the FBI, mistresses didn’t count as family.
In all those years, despite everything that went on in Tony Accardo’s empire, he never had to spend even a single night in jail. Perhaps the closest he came was when the cops picked him up for something and threw him in jail in the evening. With the courts closed for the day, it looked to the cops like even Tony couldn’t get out of spending the night. To their surprise, a judge showed up later that night at the jail with an order to release Tony Accardo.
He was the most powerful mob boss of his time, and at least as important to the history of the Chicago mob as Al Capone, yet most people have no idea…because that’s how Mr. Batters wanted it to be.