Saturday, November 12, 2005

Claude Murphy Gets His First—and Last—Big Outfit Assignment III.

Fresh from a vital friendship with Al Capone’s mother, Claude parked cars for only a day or two when he was accosted by a gentleman with a sleek pompadour and wing-tips. “I unnerstan’” he said, “you wanna associat’ wit’ us, well you can’t. Not here. But you’ll start out in East St. Louis and we’ll see that you get there.” It was his first big break. He got on a train for East St. Louis with the fare paid by the Outfit and with instructions on how to contact the East St. Louis subdivision of the Outfit.

Murphy did this and soon was routed to a meeting in a garage where he was told that he would be the wheel man for a bank job. Not particularly edifying but it was a start. “The way you do this is,” said a sandy-haired man wearing a cap, “you drive us to this location” showing a map. “It is very important that you stay in the car and keep the engine runnin’. In a short time we will come runnin’ out and you’ll drive us” and he pointed to the map, outlining the direction. “At this place” indicating a garage, “you’ll drive us in to the garage here and we’ll change cars. Then you’ll drive us here”—indicating on the map. “Now we want you to run the route with Freddie here so you get the layout of the town.”

Freddie and Murphy made the route. Freddie said he was impressed with how quickly Claude took to the instructions. “It’s important,” Freddie said, “that you keep the engine runnin’ so that you’re ready to go when we come runnin’ out of the bank.” Claude understood completely. He determined to be the best wheel man in the Outfit.

The next morning, full of importance for his mission as wheel man, Claude drove them all to the bank, parking adjacent to the bank. His colleagues left the car and walked into the bank. Claude was very nervous and greatly interested in seeing that this first job went well. He kept his toe on the accelerator, revving it up to that when they came running he would be ready for them. As he was revving up the car, a policeman across the street saw the car and came over to him, signaling for Claude to roll down the window. This Claude did.

“You’re going to run that car!” said the cop. “Running it like that. Don’t do it! Take your foot off the gas, you’hear?”

Claude did as he was bidden. The engine flooded. The cop went on his way and Claude struggled to start the engine but it was stalled. Then the group ran out of the bank and yelled, “Start the engine!” Claude shouted: “I can’t!” He tried futilely. As he almost stood up trying to get the car to start, the group ran out but were picked up by the police—as was Claude. They were convicted of robbing the East St. Louis bank and Claude was the accessory. Claude received a shorter term than did they since the state maintained that Claude was the wheel-man and not the perpetrator. They swore at Claude and shouted, as they were being taken away. But, then, they were racists anyhow.

In prison, Claude served his time profitably, reading and reflecting. One day reading a magazine he spied an ad and sent in $10 to get a mail-order license as a minister of the Divine Freedom church with headquarters in Atlanta. When he came out, in about three years (while his colleagues still were serving with much time ahead of them) he returned to Chicago with no interest in returning to the Outfit. And of course since the rumors circulated through the Outfit, it had no interest in him. Since the Outfit was—and continues to be—a racist organization, Claude told me that forever after because of him they swore not to allow any African American to be associated with them. Which is a break for the African Americans. I think he exaggerated his importance. Yet it is true that there are no blacks in the Outfit even today. Unlike his associates who served quite long terms, Claude continued to be well-off—not from his marriage but from his annulment. As a man of some property he, understandably, joined the Republican party and quickly became a ward committeeman. He never married again, believing that being married once was sufficient and in line with his theological beliefs as certified by the degree in the ministry.

At his last hospitalization, I visited him at Rush-Presbyterian where he had a private room and was surrounded by admirers who saw that he had far richer food than ordinary hospital fare. He was old and ill but cheerful for he had come a lot way. His last greeting to me was the same as his first: “Ha, buddy.”

1 comment:

  1. Didn't you just love the part about Al Capone's mom??