An Account of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In what came to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, seven members of Chicago’s Irish mob were gunned down by members of the competing Italian crime syndicate. The event was a turning point for organized crime in Prohibition-era Chicago, as control shifted hands from the Irish to the Italian mob. Moreover, this event gave Al Capone, one of the most notorious mobsters in history, firm control over illegal activities in most of Chicago and made Alphonse “Scarface” Capone a household name. The slaying was in response to a long series of killings and retaliation killings by the two gang rivals, but was the most decisive of such actions. Whereas the Irish, led by the Morans and O’Banions, had owned the organized crime sector in the north of the city for a large part of its history, now the Italians, newly headed by Capone, were making their presence known.

Summary Overview

In what came to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, seven members of Chicago’s Irish mob were gunned down by members of the competing Italian crime syndicate. The event was a turning point for organized crime in Prohibition-era Chicago, as control shifted hands from the Irish to the Italian mob. Moreover, this event gave Al Capone, one of the most notorious mobsters in history, firm control over illegal activities in most of Chicago and made Alphonse “Scarface” Capone a household name. The slaying was in response to a long series of killings and retaliation killings by the two gang rivals, but was the most decisive of such actions. Whereas the Irish, led by the Morans and O’Banions, had owned the organized crime sector in the north of the city for a large part of its history, now the Italians, newly headed by Capone, were making their presence known.

Defining Moment

Mob violence in the 1920s was not unlike gang warfare in the modern period, involving illegal activities, such as buying and selling banned substances; violent altercations between different groups; and the police trying to keep it all under control, often without much success. While 1920s mobsters were more likely to hire someone to kill another person than to commit a drive-by shooting, the dynamics within the organizations remained the same. Each area of a city tended to be run by a group or family, just as the northern part of Chicago was run by the Moran/O’Banion group and another was run by Capone. These territories were constantly being challenged, with each family trying to expand its illegal empire in order to gain more power and money. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre shifted the balance of power, placing Al Capone at the top.

The reporting of the event was widespread, with many newspapers outside of Chicago taking an interest. The killings represented an unprecedented collective assassination by one group directed toward another. While the locations of storehouses for liquor and other illegal goods was something of an open secret, rarely were they directly attacked. Such an attack showed the brazen character of Al Capone and his desire to be “top dog” in Chicago, without adhering to accepted gangland behavior. This action was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: no longer could mob violence be allowed to go unchecked, as the gangsters no longer confined themselves to mostly out-of-sight killings. By using police uniforms in committing these murders, Capone set off a chain reaction that involved not just the Chicago police department but also the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Justice Department, and even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This reaction produced both new laws and new teams of lawmen working to check mob power and send gangsters to prison–including Al Capone, who was ultimately jailed for tax evasion following an IRS investigation.

Author Biography

The author of this piece is not named. The New York Times, however, has been in print continuously since 1851 and styles itself as providing “All the news that’s fit to print.” While the events described in the article occurred in Chicago, they were powerful enough to draw the attention of the Times and many other newspapers. The New York Times has been awarded twelve Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other newspaper, and is internationally renowned for its articles and publication. The printing of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre story in the Times immediately after it occurred shows the impact the event had on editors, readers, and the culture at large.

Document Analysis

This document is a detailed accounting of the “most cold-blooded gang massacre” in Chicago’s history by a journalist for The New York Times. Printed the day following the commission of the crime, many of the details were still obscured as the investigation had not been completed. From the headline and sub-headlines, however, most of the general points are quite clear. The rest of the article gives more detail, but the main issues, such as the rivalry between the two gangs, the use of police uniforms, and the police chief’s declaration of “war” against the gangs jump out at readers, capturing their attention and enticing them to read the rest of the article.

After giving a brief accounting of the event, the first subtitle, “Capone’s Name is Mentioned,” gets right to the heart of the massacre, showing that this was not some random act of violence between two rival gangs. It was a well-planned slaying designed to weaken the North Side Gang and put Capone in a stronger position, allowing him to control more territory and more sales of illegal goods. Even though much of the detail and the precise timeline of the crime was still unknown, this article manages to explain what police investigators encountered, including the crime scene as it was left by the killers and the names of those involved.

One of the most intriguing parts of the attack is the use of police uniforms, or possibly “dirty” police officers themselves, in the commission of the crime. This, in particular, seems to have riled the Chicago chief of police, the police commissioner, and the officers working the case. Capone had crossed a line by employing the badge in carrying out his dirty work. As Police Commissioner Russell states, it represents a clear challenge to law enforcement. Capone felt that he could get away with anything–he was, in fact, something of a media star prior to this event. Now, however, the police would act prove that he was subject to the law like any other man. While the next years were not exactly the “knell of gangdom in Chicago,” they did produce new ways to impede mob activities and a strong commitment to imprison those involved in organized crime. The public no longer saw Capone as a star, and the FBI dispatched “g-men” (government agents), like Eliot Ness, to pursue him.

The Times article’s last section, “North Side Gang ‘Dynasty’ Falls,” is devoted to the vanquished Irish mobsters. The Morans and O’Banions had been staples of Chicago crime for years before their deaths. These last two paragraphs, then, seem to be a nod to the old days, when crime families conducted their business, but mostly kept a lower profile. New criminals, such as Al Capone, were more flagrant in their law-breaking, causing more problems for the community and upsetting the status quo. Elsewhere in the piece, it is mentioned that Bugs Moran was missing and may have been one of those seen being led out of the building by the men in police uniforms. As it later turned out, however, Moran was still alive and well: he and a couple of his associates had been approaching the storehouse when they spotted the police vehicle used in the attack and reversed their tracks.

Essential Themes

This document was among the first in innumerable recountings of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, some more true than others and some heading more in the direction of myth and legend. Al Capone, arguably one of the most famous and surely the most mythologized gangsters of the time, made his mark on Chicago with this event, having recently moved from New York. But the killing also led to the police creating ways to put gangsters in jail. So while the Italians were now generally in charge of organized crime in Chicago, the police were spurred to taking the steps necessary to break their power. Al Capone was never arrested for the murders he had committed, but only for tax evasion. Creativity on the part of law enforcement agencies became the way to temper mob violence. Building on these changes, new laws, such as the invention of the Racketeer Influences and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, were created which allowed police and FBI units to arrest gangsters for activities exhibiting patterns employed by organized crime and for ordering crimes to be committed by others under their command. This eventually led to the decline, although not the complete eradication, of organized crime and the mentality of untouchability, or impunity, which characterized mobsters at the height of the Prohibition Era.

Possibly the most lasting impact of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, however, is its presence in fictionalized accounts of mob activities and the mobsters themselves. Hundreds of books, movies, and songs comment on the events of the massacre and the people involved, many with little criticism of the illegality of the actions or the fear they created in civilians. One significant point to note, however, is that before the massacre, film depictions of gangsters frequently presented them as brazen heroes who knew how to outsmart the “cops” (and deliver liquor to the thirsty masses). After the massacre, the movie industry enacted standards (the Hays Code) that prohibited the showing of mobsters as winners in the battle between police and criminals; the “crooks” always had to lose in the end.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Al Capone: Icon. Narr. Chip Bolcik. PBS. WGBY, Boston, 22 Jul. 2014. Television.
  • Allsop, K. The Bootleggers: The Story of Chicago’s Prohibition Era. London: Arrow Books, 1970. Print.
  • Helmer, W. J., & A. J. Bilek. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: The Untold Story of the Gangland Bloodbath that Brought Down Al Capone. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2003. Print.
  • Iorizzo, Luciano J. Al Capone: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
  • Helmer, William and Rick Mattix. Public Enemies: America’s Criminal Past, 1919–1940. New York: Checkmark Books, 1998. Print.
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