A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Kroll’s Chronicles: American Gangsters

The Life of Johhny Torrio

The 1920s was a hectic time for America, with the uprising of crime and gangster activity. Similar to 2020, where things continue to amaze us, making history. Everyone will have to remember the 2020s so we can look back on it, just like how we look back to the 1920s.

100 years ago, there were events taking place that would shape our country to what it is today. Whether that be the invention of the car radio, women’s right to vote, bubblegum, or even the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. In 1919 the 18th amendment was created, that prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. The amendment not only made alcohol illegal, but also sparked a huge flame in the world of crime.

In 1882 in Orsara, Italy, a man named Johnny Torrio was born, destined to become something great. At the age of two, Torrio was moved to New York with his widowed mother, and by 1904, he was in his first gang, the “James Street Boys.” Torrio moved to Chicago in 1910 to be with his uncle Vincenzo Colosimo, aka “Big Jim Colosimo”, who was already getting into trouble, owning large chains of brothels. Colosimo took Torrio under his wing and showed him the ropes of the Chicago underworld, having him establish his uncle’s status as Chicago’s premier gangster. 

By 1920, prohibition had started, and Torrio discovered the immense value of providing beer to citizens. He discovered this by accident, having bought a brewery shortly after the start of prohibition in an attempt to start another brothel. After deciding to stay with brewing, and purchasing four more shut down breweries, Torrio had caused the public to go on a drinking frenzy when his brew started to sell. Colosimo was still getting recognition for all of Torrio’s hard work, and with Colosimo doing nothing for the company but getting paid, something had to be done. 

On May 11th, 1920, Torrio had told his uncle to join in for a business meeting at his restaurant at 4 p.m. to discuss with another bootlegger. Colosimo was surprised when 4 p.m. had arrived and he was the only person at the restaurant. After waiting for a short time, he decided to leave, but as he left the building he was met with several shots to the body, causing his death. To this day, the killer identity is still unknown, though it is thought that Torrio had someone hired to kill him. 

Colosimo’s had the first extravagant gangster funeral held in Chicago, hosting many that came to mourn the death of Colosimo. Judges, politicians, and even police were present to show respect to Chicago’s once great gangster. With his uncle out of his way, Torrio had essentially been handed Chicago’s most powerful underworld gang. Torrio continued to spread his empire through towns such as, Forest View, Burr Oaks, Stickney, and many more. 

On January 24th, 1925, Torrio was shot by rival bootleggers and was sent to prison after surviving his wounds. In prison, Torrio had given his good friend, Al Capone his power to practically all of Chicago. When Torrio was released several years later, he retired to Italy but not for long, returning back to New York and investing in several bootlegger companies. By 1936 Torrio was yet again sent to prison for tax evasion and served 2 years. After being let out, he decided to retire again, very wealthy, but died due to a heart attack in 1957, having accomplished being a founder of modern organized crime in America.

Al Capone’s uprising

Gangster activity was increasing by the year, all because of a simple law. The 18th amendment had made the creation, sale, and transportation of alcohol illegal, though it seemed that this only made things worse. Now that people were not allowed to have it, the law only made alcohol’s value go up allowing people to take advantage of the situation and make all the money they could ever want. 

In 1899 in Brooklyn, New York, Alphonse Gabriel Capone (Al Capone) was born, with the future of being the most infamous gangster in Chicago. Before any of his gangster activity, Capone was just a simple kid growing up, going to school and being a kid. It was when he and his family had moved to a different neighborhood in Park Slope, this is where Capone had met his future wife, Mary Coughlin, and his mob mentor, Johnny Torrio.

Torrio and Capone’s relationship started with Capone running simple errands for Torrio. Capone still was working two legitimate jobs, in a munition factory and as a paper cutter, with gang activity in his spare time. When 1917 rolled around, Capone got his first job for Frankie Yale as a bartender and bouncer. This is when Capone had got his famous nickname, Scarface, which he hated with a passion. He made a comment to a woman at the bar, whose brother did not appreciate and slashed Capone in the face. 

A year later, at age 19, Capone had both a kid and a wife, and thought that it was time to make an honest living. This lasted two years, ending with the death of his father and receiving an invitation from Torrio to come to Chicago for work. The year was 1920 and prohibition was put into place, making alcohol illegal. Torrio thought it would be great business to start bootlegging, adding it to his businesses of gambling and prostitution. 

Capone was both a petty thug and a bookkeeper so he brought his street smarts and number skills to Torrio’s operations. His skills were recognized and was promoted quickly to Torrio’s partner, but they were quite different from each other. Though Torrio liked to keep a low profile, Capone preferred to be known, and got himself arrested for drunk driving, but getting immediately let out due to connections with the city government. 

Capone cleaned himself up and began to focus more on business. This was later interrupted when rival mobsters shot Torrio and almost Capone, getting Torrio sent to prison. This is when the decision to make Capone leader of the entire operation. Ignoring Torrio’s previous advice, Capone began to live life publicly and luxuriously, moving headquarters back to Chicago, bringing in around 100 million each year. 

Early 1929, there was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where “Bugs” Moran, Capone’s long-time rival, was planning on killing both Capone and his top hit man, Machine Gun Jack (Jack McGurn). McGurn and Capone ended up surviving and killing 7 of Moran’s men disguised as police officers. By now, the public has had enough of the violence in the area and knew something had to be done. President Hoover ordered the federal government to do anything they could to get him arrested, and they did, for tax evasion on 22 counts. 

Capone was used to being arrested and felt confident that he could work his magic and get out in a sentence no longer than 2 and a half years. When the judge was not taking his bribes or threats, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Two years went by and there were reports of him bribing guards, forcing them to move Capone to the notorious prison Alcatraz in 1934, stuck there with no other option but to wait. Six years went by and he starts to endure the effects of neurosyphilis, a disease that attacks the brains of victims suffering from syphilis. Capone was released to attend a mental hospital for the next three years. Being cleared to leave, Capone lived out his last 5 years of life with his wife in Miami, ending his great impact on the world, dying of cardiac arrest in 1947.