Bugs Moran: Requiem for a gangster

July 12, 1946

George "Bugs" Moran steps from a black Ford this humid summer evening with two pairs of handcuffs on his wrists and a smile on his face. His pin-striped navy suit is rumpled from the seven-hour drive, but his tie is flawlessly knotted and his dark hair is as sleek as a mink. He smirks at the photographers bunched at the entrance of Dayton's central police station. He laughs at a cop's joke until tears trickle down his face.

He is a master in his element, like DiMaggio in the batter's box or Veronica Lake in a nightgown. And if his good cheer is more than show biz, why, you can hardly blame him. Getting out of trouble made Bugs Moran famous.

Seventeen years earlier, on St. Valentine's Day, he slipped away from his Chicago headquarters when he spotted men in police uniforms outside. Hours later, the papers shrieked the bloody news:

7 Chicago Gangsters Slain by Firing Squad of Rivals ... Moran's Staff Wiped Out.

A fellow gets only so much luck in a lifetime, and Moran broke the bank that day. A prudent man would know that and walk away from the table. But prudent men aren't nicknamed "Bugs." There was always another racket to bust into. Another scheme to cook up, another failure to stack on his shoulders like a pillory.

So don't pay too much attention to that smile as the flashbulbs snap. Look instead at the facts: Moran, a guy who was once Al Capone's arch-rival in the bootlegging business, who paid off cops and judges like he was tipping waiters, is charged with robbing a Dayton barkeeper of a measly $10,000. That used to be a day's losses at the dog track.

And look at Moran's new pals, also charged with the robbery. They're a cheap Illinois gunman and a petty Dayton crook - not exactly the high-class chums criminal royalty deserves.

Moran has taken a tumble, all right, but he's still the biggest mobster Dayton has ever seen, and he's about to treat the city to one of the strangest trials in its history. These swarming newsmen don't yet know the half of it. Before this tale is over, it will become a lurid tapestry of desperate bank heists, bumbling FBI agents, missing loot and murder.

Maybe that's why Moran is smiling. He knows his dam of secrets is cracking, and when it spills, this town is going to flood. Maybe then he'll get what he has always deserved.

A requiem fit for a kingpin.

***

Had Julius and Diana Moran stayed in St. Paul, Minn., perhaps their son, a big-boned, thick-featured lad they christened George Clarence, would have become a wheat farmer or an insurance man. But a few years after George was born in 1893, the family moved to Chicago.

The city crackled with sin. Brothels with names like the Bucket of Blood and the Sappho packed a red light district. Extortionists preyed upon their countrymen in the heaving ethnic ghettos. Cops were as dirty as a killing floor, and politicians winked at gambling, boozing and whoring while snatching graft with both hands.

Young George marinated in this broth of vice until one day he decided, "Me, too."

A kid with a dream has to start somewhere, and when Moran was 16, opportunity presented itself in the form of a poorly guarded delivery horse. He unhitched the nag, led her to a secret stable, and demanded cash for her return. Just like that, he was in the rackets.

As with so much to come in Moran's life, the caper ended badly. It brought him two years in the Joliet Penitentiary, an Illinois institution that rehabilitated him as efficiently as a case of Scotch treats a lush. He returned twice more for robbery convictions; by the age of 28, he had spent a total of nine years in Joliet.

For a man with Moran's ambitions, though, it was a productive time. He made contacts and built influence, and upon his release in 1923, he joined forces with another up-and-coming Chicago hoodlum, Dion O'Banion.

O'Banion was a floral shop owner and one-time church choir tenor who killed as mindlessly as most men check their watches. He got his start cracking heads for publisher William Randolph Hearst, convincing newsstand owners it was wise to carry the Herald Examiner instead of the Tribune . He graduated to political enforcer on Chicago's prosperous northeast side, stuffing ballot boxes, bribing poll workers and intimidating election judges.

When prohibition arrived in 1920, O'Banion had the muscle and cash to become an immediate titan. He bought distilleries and breweries and became known as a purveyor of the finest booze available. But with Al Capone and other gangsters chafing to break into his territory, O'Banion needed help. He called on Bugs Moran.

Legend has it the two met at the McGovern brothers' cafe and saloon, a hive where Moran hung out between prison stints and where O'Banion worked as a singing waiter. Moran, whose unpredictable and violent temper had earned him his nickname, joined O'Banion on safecracking jobs, and was groomed quickly to be a loyal retainer.

He aped O'Banion's stylish wardrobe, donning a white snap-brimmed hat, a blue serge suit, a diamond tie stickpin and pearl gray spats. When he hit the nightspots with his boss, he always wore a tuxedo. Out of deference, he carried only two guns to O'Banion's three.

The high times lasted a year, until the jovial O'Banion lobbed one too many insults at his Sicilian rivals. On Nov. 10, 1924, three men entered his flower shop to pick up a $750 funeral arrangement for a deceased Mafioso. The one in the middle extended his hand for a shake, and when O'Banion took it, the man clamped tight. The other two emptied their revolvers into the mobster.

Next up was Earl "Hymie" Weiss, a man five years Moran's junior but O'Banion's trusted lieutenant. With Moran and Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci, Weiss vowed death to the Italian mob. The trio slew most of the Genna brothers. They scared boss Johnny Torrio so badly that he fled to Italy. And in a daylight attack on Sept. 20, 1926, they pumped more than 1,000 bullets into Al Capone's Cicero headquarters. Capone, though, was untouched.

A month later, Weiss was dead, cut down by Capone's machine gunners as he walked to his office. That gave the post to Drucci, who, the next April, was slain by a policeman.

Moran's moment had arrived at last.

He took command as the booze war burned with unprecedented savagery. Hijackings and bombings were business tools more common than handshakes. Truces faded with the sun. Bodies fell like shell casings. All the while, the money kept pouring in.

Moran put together the biggest still Chicago had ever seen - three warehouse floors of tubes, pipes and barrels capable of pumping out, in today's dollars, $1 million of alcohol each week. He turned his gang's attention to profitable side ventures, such as wresting control of the city's laundry industry and taking over the Poultry Union and the Kosher Meat Peddlers Association.

Mindful of his public image, Moran promoted himself as the toughest of the tough guys. He drove around Chicago unprotected, begging for a hit. He bragged to reporters: "(Capone) always has guards. I travel around with a couple of pals. (Capone) can't sleep nights. If you ask me, he's on dope. Me, I don't even need an aspirin."

Once, when Moran came to court to sign some routine papers, three bailiffs reasonably assumed he was supposed to be locked up and moved to cuff him. Moran knocked them cold.

"Sorry, judge," he told the astonished jurist who investigated the cacophony, "but these clowns were trying to throw me back in the can."

Moran enjoyed his reputation as a jolly marauder, and undoubtedly felt a thrill when on the evening of Feb. 13, 1929, he received a phone call from a hijacker promising a truckload of stolen whiskey. Moran arranged to take delivery at his warehouse the next day.

Running late at the appointed time, he was walking toward the warehouse when he saw four men, two wearing police uniforms, enter the building. Fearing a raid, he veered into a coffee shop across the street.

Seven of Moran's gangsters were waiting for the booze shipment inside the warehouse. Taken by surprise by the uniformed men, they surrendered their guns and lined up against the wall.

There was a noise audible on the street. Passers-by probably took it for the sound of a jackhammer.

The four men left, but Moran stayed put. Only when a crowd gathered at the warehouse did he vanish into the city. Police arrived, followed swiftly by a pack of reporters. They walked into a scene of incomparable carnage.

The floor and walls were wet with blood. Six men were dead, a seventh dying, all of them raked with bullets. It was a slaughter. It was, the papers decreed, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

It was also a failure. Al Capone's killers had wanted Moran, and mistakenly thought he was inside the warehouse. He made it to his hideout, foaming with vengeance and swearing death to his enemies.

Moran didn't understand - not then, not for years. His gang was gone. Capone had won. Chicago was over for him.

He needed new turf, a town where the pickings were easy, the competition light and the cops no match for his criminal genius.

He needed a town like Dayton.

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