Friday, November 11, 2005

How Claude Murphy Got into the Outfit: A Very Short Career. Part II

When he had just come up to Chicago from Mississippi, Claude Murphy told me he was young, ambitious and eager to please any employer. He was born in 1908, Until he came along the only black to be anyway close to the Outfit was one William Crutchfield, a porter at Charles Dion O’Banion’s flower shop directly across from Holy Name Cathedral. O’Banion was a sentimental type: drawn to the church where he had been an altar boy and chorister. Then his voice changed which made him ineligible as a boy tenor. At sixteen he became a singing waiter at McGovern’s, a north side speakeasy. Then he got into the newspaper business--not as a journalist but as a circulation expert. His job was to serve the Hearst Chicago Examiner where he expertly overturned the competition’s delivery trucks, set them afire and beating up dealers who sold them. All newspaper circulation directors had crews that performed similar duties while the directors turned a blind eye. O’Banion was told he had a definite future in the newspaper circulation business but he was disdainful of it.

Deciding on aesthetic grounds not to continue working for Hearst, O’Banion went into business for himself: commonplace activities such as burglary, safe-cracking and highway robbery. In addition, he was a consultant to the Hearst people but he rather fancied working for himself rather than under supervision. O’Banion recruited what he considered a crack staff of experts including one Henry Wajiechowski, of Polish heritage, another altar boy and choir singer at Holy Name who voluntarily left the good graces of the Church when he became conflicted between its moral teachings and a Ziegfeld Follies dancer named Josephine Libby with whom he took up a simulated connubial residence without benefit of marriage.. Because O’Banion had trouble pronouncing Wajiechowski’s name when he had to refer to him in a hurry, he shortened it: he shortened Henry to Hymie and Wajichowski to Weiss. Since then the Jews have believed one of their number named Hymie Weiss was the brains of the O’Banion group but they are wrong.

O’Banion’s main line of work was rum-running, gambling and prostitution as result of a treaty he concluded with the Sicilian Johnny Torrio—but there is no doubt that he took the job as manager of Schofield’s Flower Shop at 738 N. State because he admired flowers. That and the fact that funerals and weddings utilized floral pieces which O’Banion supplied but principally because of the lavish funerals that were held when his associates (as was likely) was cut down in the prime of life.

Torrio, a Naples import, hired as his top aide a Brooklyn native, Alphonse Capone. Torrio had the moniker “Terrible John” which was deceptive because he stood no higher than Capone’s chest and was a pale, round-faced, wide-eyed man with small, delicate artist’s hands and feet. Torrio and O’ Banion hit it off immediately and their pact found room for the two gangs, about which O’Banion was careful not to insult because of Torrio’s Sicilian background. Unfortunately for O’Banion, he was not entirely blemish free of ethnic racism. Unfortunate characterizations escaped his lips on one occasion following a disagreement. O’Banion was a true entrepreneur. He persuaded fifty Chicago speakeasy owners to move to Cicero where he sold them good quantities at low cost. Torrio and Capone felt they should get a percentage of the revenue; O’Banion demurred. Difficulties mounted until O’Banion made the statement : “Tell them Sicilians to go to hell.”

It was more than an ungrammatical utterance but an unfortunate statement of crass bigotry. On November 10, 1924 while O’Banion was in the rear of his shop, clipping the stems of some choice chrysanthemums and the porter Crutchfield was sweeping up. O’Banion was preparing a floral display for the funeral of one Michael Merlo, president of Union Sicilione. Then a dark blue nickel-trimmed Jewett sedan glided to a halt before Holy Name cathedral. The driver kept his car idling and three men got out, crossed the street and entered the flower shop. When they entered the shop, a tinkling bell rang out announcing the customers. Crutchfield was waved to go to the backroom which he did with alacrity. O’Banion emerged in shirt-sleeves, a pistol visible in his vest holster. “Hello,” said O’Banion when he saw them, “are you boys here from Mike Merlo’s?” Mike Genna, known familiarly as “Il Diavolo [the Devil]” but an affable sort, gripped O’Banion’s hand and didn’t let go. O’Banion sought to free his hand but was unsuccessful. They pumped five shots into O’Banion and one, for good measure, in his mouth and then again, since they were ordered to complete whatever they began, in the temple.

The Church gave O’Banion some difficulty in death because George Cardinal Mundelein ordered that no funeral mass could be offered in behalf of one who was, at sketchy count, responsible for, by the Church’s count, twenty-five murders. But despite this, one priest who was known charitably as a confessor to the Outfit and who had amassed the biggest Bingo party in the archdiocese, attended and supported by Union Sicilione, gave O’Banion a requiem funeral mass. That so enraged the Cardinal that he banished the priest to the farthest point on the globe he could imagine: the nation of Panama. It took many years before the priest, one Michael Malloy, was allowed to come back to Chicago whereupon he won great plaudits for successful fund-raising which led to his promotion as a monsignor. But I digress.

One who recounted the story about O’Banion’s murder in detail to me, in addition to Claude Murphy who had heard it as a legend and verbally as was told the early books of the Bible until someone wrote the words down, was Msgr. Ignatius McDermott. It so happened that the man to become known as Father Mac was, at age 17, skipping school from Quigley preparatory seminary when he heard the shots and saw the Italian gentlemen sprinting across the street. Thereupon Msgr. McDermott was confronted with the first dilemma of his life: whether to tell the cops what he saw and acknowledge that he was in the vicinity when he was supposed to be elsewhere—or not. Fortunately he did not have to make that resolution as Crutchfield talked to the police with such excitability that they had trouble transcribing his thoughts and told him to slow down or they would have to hold him as an uncooperative witness. .

It was in the spirit of that time that young Claude Murphy, then also 17, determined to get a job in the Outfit. Of course he was turned away because of his race. But he was a determined sort. He started parking cars in a parking lot. Then one day came his chance. He always marveled at how organized the Outfit was but examining it up close, he saw some organizational flaws. One day when he was spotting cars at a prominent hotel, a huge black Packard pulled up in the back seat of which was a proud little woman of ostensibly Italian heritage. She alighted and the driver, a man with a sleek black pompadour and wing-tipped shoes beckoned to Murphy. He said, using as disgusting epithet the “n” word: “Here, n-----, see this lady? She wants to be driven home and I can’t do it. I’m givin’ you $10.” Then he drew his face close to Murphy’s. “Don’t scratch that car, hear me? And see that the old lady gets anything she wants. She’s Mrs. Capone.”

Claude was thrilled. He quickly deduced: Not Capone’s wife, Mae Coughlin Capone, not his sister, Matilda or his other sister, Rose. This was none other than Teresa Riola Capone, his mother. He drove her to her home on south Prairie avenue near St. Columbanas in a two-story, fifteen room red brick which Al had built—and, to his surprise, they hit it off! . She was so happy with his on-the-spot tour that she invited him in. The upstairs parlor of No. 7244 had floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The bathroom, she told him, had accouterments imported from Germany with a seven-foot bathtub. A steel gate shielded the house from an alley. She proudly pointed out that the walls were impervious to bullets. Claude arranged to be her driver on any occasion where she wished to get some air and told her about the man who had referred to him with the disgusting epithet. She put her hand to her bosom and said she would tell her son about it as soon as he came home. Then he went home, satisfied that he had made an opening for what would be an auspicious career.

Oh, look at this: I’ve gone on too long. There will have to be a third installment but I assure you I’ll complete it tomorrow.

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