On the morning of 14 February 1929, two men dressed as police officers and two men dressed as civilians entered gangster Bugs Moran’s headquarters on North Clark Street in Chicago. Inside, they lined up seven of Moran’s unarmed henchmen against the wall like it was a police raid, then pulled machine guns from their jackets and opened fire. 70 bullets later, all seven mob members lay dead or dying in pools of their own blood.
As the culmination of a gang war between famous rivals Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and George ‘Bugs’ Moran, the bloody events of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre were splashed across the world’s media and came to symbolise the violence of the prohibition era in Chicago.
Chicago was the crime capital of America
Between 1924 and 1930, Chicago emerged as one of North America’s largest centres of gang activity. After the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment – the ban of alcohol – in 1919, prohibition led to the rise of alcohol bootlegging. As a result, crime exploded, with rival bosses protecting their business interests through any means necessary, such as racketeering, intimidation, bribes and murder.
George ‘Bugs’ Moran’s North Side gang were fierce rivals with infamous gangster Al Capone, the latter of whom was known for his ruthless behaviour and willingness to murder to achieve his aims. Moran’s powerful outfit was Capone’s only obstacle in his quest to dominate all of Chicago’s gang activity.
Tensions between the two gangs had been rising for months: Moran’s gang had hijacked one of Capone’s expensive whisky shipments and was also muscling in on some of his dog racing tracks. By 1929, Capone decided that killing Moran was the only way to resolve the gang war.
The massacre was designed to look like a police raid
It is thought that Capone’s gang secretly lured Moran’s North Siders to the garage at the Moran headquarters on the promise of a stolen, cut-rate shipment of whisky supplied by Detroit’s Purple Gang, which was associated with Capone. Two of Moran’s most notorious henchmen, the Gusenberg brothers, were tasked to drive two empty trucks to Detroit to pick up two loads of stolen Canadian whisky. As was the custom, all seven of the victims were dressed in their best suits.
Most of the gang arrived at the warehouse at around 10:30 am. However, since he left his hotel late, Moran wasn’t there. Instead, he witnessed a police car approaching the building in what he assumed was a sting, so turned back and went to a nearby coffee shop. A few other North Side gang members also noticed the car and left.
By complete coincidence, Capone’s lookouts likely mistook one of Moran’s men – a man called Albert Weinshank, who was around Moran’s height and was wearing the same colour overcoat and hat – for the boss himself, so signalled that the hit should go ahead.
After the killings had taken place, the two of Capone’s men in civilian clothing came out onto the street with their hands up, prodded by the two men disguised as policemen. All appeared to be under control.
Nobody was indicted for the murder
As he lay dying from 14 bullet wounds, Frank Gusenberg refused to break his code of silence and told the police “no one, nobody shot me”. When the news of the massacre broke later that day, there was outcry across the US because of the levels of violent crime that prohibition was causing. This drew attention to the gangs, which was a problem for the mob leaders.
Suspicion immediately fell on Capone. Though he wasn’t present at the shooting, upon hearing of the killings, Moran stated “only Capone kills like that”. Capone himself had the solid alibi of being in Florida at the time, but former members of the Egan’s Rats gang who worked for Capone are suspected to have been present.
Most strikingly, members of the Chicago Police Department are thought to have been involved since they wanted revenge for the gang killing of a police officer’s son. This may have been a tactic on the part of the Capone gang, since it gave them a secret degree of legal protection.
Nobody was ever arrested or tried for the crimes because of the lack of distinct evidence. However, the massacre has been widely accredited to Capone’s gang.
The massacre was the last confrontation between the two gangs
From the Capone gang’s perspective, the massacre was extremely effective. Moran had lost seven of his most senior and notorious gang members as a result of the shooting, and therefore diminished in power as a figurehead on the Chicago gang circuit. Capone’s power increased as he was left to rule over the city.
The massacre was also to be the last confrontation between the Capone and Moran gangs, since Capone was arrested and jailed in 1931 for tax evasion, while Moran could no longer control his territory and ceased to be a threat, opting instead to commit small-time robberies until he was imprisoned in 1946.
The crime is a prominent reminder of Chicago’s violent past
Seven years after the massacre, Jack McGurn, one of the hitmen, was machine-gunned and killed in a busy bowling alley. Though he was never charged with the murder, it is likely that the killer was Moran.
Though the site of the massacre itself was demolished in 1967, the bricks of the north wall against which the victims were shot were later bought by a Canadian businessman. For a long time, they were displayed in various crime-related displays before being sold individually. Today, the remainder are in the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
The Saint Valentine’s Day massacre remains seared into Chicago’s memory as one of its bloodiest episodes and a symbol of the gun violence, bootlegging and criminal underworld that riddled the city during the prohibition era.