From 1923 through 1930 the beer wars raged in Chicago. Frank McErlane – the gangster the Illinois Crime Survey called "the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago" – stood at the center of this bloody Prohibition Era turf battle.
by Allan May
Frank McErlane – the gangster credited with introducing the Thompson sub-machine gun to Chicago's bloody Beer War during Prohibition – was called "the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago" by the Illinois Crime Survey. He was alleged to have murdered at least nine men, a woman and two dogs.
McErlane's rap sheet begins in 1911. In June 1913, he was sent to Pontiac Prison after he was convicted of being part of an automobile theft ring. Paroled in March 1916, he would be arrested eight months later for accessory to murder in the death of an Oak Park police officer. He served just one year in Joliet for this. Several newspaper articles refer to McErlane taking part in an escape from the county jail in 1918. Other than calling it "sensational," no details are given except that McErlane spent another two years in Joliet for it.
Robert J. Schoenberg, author of Mr. Capone, gives us this description of the killer:
"Frank McErlane, despite his habitual glower, looked to one reporter like a 'butter and egg man,' a portly five-foot-eight and 190 pounds, with blue eyes, a rosary ever-present in his pocket. But his face habitually glowed a choleric red, and when drunk (also habitual) his eyes would glaze over, at which sign his closest friends edged for the door."
The relative calm during the early years of Prohibition in Chicago would be shattered by the great Beer War of 1923. Crafty Johnny Torrio had helped divide Chicago and surrounding towns into different territories. The Torrio-Capone mob had control of almost the entire South and South-West areas of the city, which extended down to Calumet City and Burnham, near the Indiana border, and west over to Stickney and Cicero. Within this area, control was distributed to eight independent gangs that operated in a loose confederation with one-another. The speakeasies controlled by these gangs were supplied with beer from Torrio's breweries.
The only territory that Torrio-Capone did not control was that operated by Joe "Polack" Saltis and Frank McErlane. Saltis supplied his speakeasies from his own breweries.
Left out of this division of territories were four brothers who were dubbed the South Side O'Donnells – Edward (known as Spike), Steven, Tommy and Walter – to distinguish them from the West Side O'Donnells – Klondike and Myles. The two families were not related. The strength of the South Side bunch came from their leader, Spike, who up until 1923 was serving time for a bank robbery. When released, Spike returned to Chicago and began to muscle in on the tremendous profits being made in bootlegging.
O'Donnell's first move was to supply a better product at a lower price than Torrio's beer. Torrio responded by dropping the price of his beer to a level Spike couldn't match. So O'Donnell gathered his brothers and strong-arm associates and began to threaten the saloon owners on the South Side into purchasing his beer at the higher price. (A good visual to this practice is portrayed by George Siegel in the opening minutes of the movie The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.) The O'Donnells' first forays were into the speakeasies controlled by Saltis-McErlane and those of the Ralph Sheldon gang, whose territories abutted each other. Although the members of these neighboring gangs despised each other, they were soon united in a common cause to repel the efforts of the South Side O'Donnell brothers.
On Sept. 7, 1923, the Beer War began. Early that evening Steven, Tommy, and Walter O'Donnell, along with gang toughs George Bucher, George Meeghan, and Jerry O'Connor, invaded the saloon of Jacob Geis, a Saltis-McErlane customer. A few days before, Geis had refused to purchase beer from an O'Donnell representative. On this rainy Friday night, the O'Donnell hoods returned to the saloon. In front of six customers, they argued with Geis about purchasing his beer from them. Geis would not give in. Finally, gang members pulled him over the bar by his head and beat him unmercifully with a blackjack, or revolvers, depending on the story. Whatever they beat Geis with they fractured his skull, injuring him to the extent that when he arrived at German Deaconess Hospital, doctors were quite sure he would die. The tough saloonkeeper pulled through. Also beaten and hospitalized that night was bartender Nicholas Gorysko, who attempted to come to Geis' aid during the attack.
After the Geis shakedown, the O'Donnell gang made an estimated five more "saloon calls" that evening before meeting up with Spike for beers and sandwiches at the gang's regular hangout – Joseph Klepka's saloon at Fifty-Third and South Lincoln Street. At about 11 p.m., Ralph Sheldon, Daniel McFall and two other hoods walked into Klepkas' with guns drawn and confronted the group. One of the O'Donnells reportedly pleaded, "Now give us a square deal. Come outside and fight it out."
McFall, reported to be a deputy sheriff and at other times a bailiff, was armed with a .38 and called out, "Stick up you hands or I'll blow you to hell." He then sent a warning shot screaming over Walter's head, which caused the gang to scatter for the exits at the side and rear. All but Jerry O'Connor escaped. O'Connor, out on parole after having been sentenced to life in Joliet prison, was stopped by McFall who then ordered him out of the saloon.
Standing outside of Klepka's was Frank McErlane. Wearing a long gray raincoat under which he allegedly carried a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun, the puffy-faced killer waited for O'Connor to step out. Although the newspapers reported that O'Connor was shot through the heart with a rifle, Capone biographers and historians claim that McErlane pointed his shotgun at the defenseless man's face and blew away half of his head. After the shooting, O'Connor was dragged to the home of a doctor and deposited on his front steps.
This murderous warning to Spike and his gang to stop their muscling efforts went unheeded. On Sept. 17, the tag team of McErlane and McFall struck again. This time the targets were the two Georges – Bucher and Meeghan – as the two men headed home for supper in a Ford roadster. While stopped near Laflin and Garfield Blvd. a green touring car driven by Thomas Hoban, and containing McErlane and McFall, pulled alongside the Ford roadster. Suddenly guns were extended from the touring car and they blazed away killing Bucher and Meeghan on the spot. The first physician on the scene was Dr. Charles Gartin, who resided on Garfield Blvd. and was the Meeghan's family doctor. Ironically, 10 days earlier, it was at his doorstep that the dead or dying O'Connor had been left, most likely by Meeghan.
Two days after the murders an assistant state's attorney was questioning George Bucher's older brother Joseph. The brother claimed he was the actual target of the killers because he had, "daily for the last three months driven a covered wagon containing 20 barrels of beer for Walter O'Donnell." In a confession which clearly showed the vernacular of the times Joseph Bucher stated:
"Every bozo in this town wants to guzzle a glass of real beer without hearing the angels sing, but it's the poor gink who runs the stuff that gets the bullet through his noodle. Me? I'm through. I wouldn't peddle orange pop at a Sunday school picnic."
This sudden rash of killings caused a momentary crackdown by the police as well as a newspaper outburst. The police response caused a lull in the killings until Dec. 1, 1923. Around 1:30 a.m. two O'Donnell beer trucks were on their way from a Joliet brewery to Chicago. As the trucks rolled past the village of Lemont, two automobiles pulled alongside and forced the trucks off the road. McErlane and William Channell, who was once convicted of killing a woman and was now out on parole, ordered the occupants of one of the trucks, William "Shorty" Egan and Thomas "Morrie" Keane out and onto the road. The two men were then bound and tossed into the back seat of the car and McErlane and Channell drove off. From this incident we get an eyewitness account of the first victim ever taken for a one-way ride who lived to tell about it. In Capone by John Kobler, we hear the gut-wrenching, cold-blooded tale from survivor "Shorty" Egan:
"Pretty soon the driver asks the guy with the shotgun, 'Where you gonna get rid of these guys?' The fat fellow laughs and says, 'I'll take care of that in a minute.' He was monkeying with his shotgun all the time. Pretty soon he turns around and points the gun at Keane. He didn't say a word but just let go straight at him. Keane got it square on the left side. It kind of turned him over and the fat guy give him the second barrel in the other side. The guy loads up his gun and gives it to Keane again. Then he turns to me and says, 'I guess you might as well get yours too.' With that he shoots me in the side. It hurt like hell so when I seen him loading up again, I twist around so it won't hurt me in the same place. This time he got me in the leg. Then he gimme the other barrel right on the puss. I slide off the seat. But I guess the fat guy wasn't sure we was through. He let Morrie have it twice more and then let me have it again in the other side. The fat guy scrambled into the rear seat and grabbed Keane. He opens the door and kicks Morrie out onto the road. We was doing 50 from the sound. I figure I'm next so when he drags me over to the door I set myself to jump. He shoves and I light in the ditch by the road. I hit the ground on my shoulders and I thought I would never stop rolling. I lost consciousness. When my senses came back, I was lying in a pool of water and ice had formed around me. The sky was red and it was breaking day. I staggered along the road until I saw a light in a farmhouse…"
At the hospital Egan would identify Channell through a mug shot. Later a garage attendant identified both Channell and McErlane after the shot-up vehicle was worked on. Schoenberg writes that, "The state's attorney arrested McErlane, held him for a while in the Hotel Sherman, then released him. When McErlane was Finally indicted, he walked when State's Attorney Crowe entered a nolle prosequi for want of witnesses." This most likely was the result of Egan and the garage attendant recanting their stories out of fear for their lives.
After continued pressure from State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe, a grand jury indicted McFall for the murder of O'Connor. Since McFall was carrying a .38 and O'Connor was killed by a shotgun blast, the case was dismissed. McErlane, McFall and Hoban were then indicted for the murders of Meeghan and Bucher. Part of McErlane's legal work in the case was handled by famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Charges would soon be dropped.
Spike and his brothers backed down, for the moment, and the Beer War of 1923 came to a close. Hostilities between the allied Saltis-McErlane / Ralph Sheldon gang and the South Side O'Donnells, would lay dormant for a year. This didn't mean that the vicious McErlane went into hibernation. With things quiet on the South Side of Chicago, McErlane was next heard from in Los Angeles on Nov. 28, where he was involved in a "hi-jacking" foray. In addition, he was held there for a time for his involvement in a shooting and an assault.
On May 4, 1924 McErlane would commit a senseless brutal crime that would highlight his reputation as a homicidal maniac when drinking. McErlane was in a bar in Crown Point, Ind., drinking heavily with two inebriated companions – John O'Reilly and Alex McCabe. When one of the men challenged him to prove his shooting prowess, McErlane pulled out his revolver and took aim at Thaddeus S. Fancher, a local attorney having a drink at the end of the bar. McErlane sent a bullet crashing into the skull of Fancher, killing him instantly. O'Reilly and McCabe were quickly apprehended, while McErlane high tailed it back to Chicago. O'Reilly was convicted for his role in the shooting and was sentenced to life in prison. McCabe was also convicted, but won his release on appeal after a key witness was murdered.
By the spring of 1925, Spike O'Donnell had added re-enforcements to his gang and was ready for another round of mayhem. There would now be a three-way battle going on as the fragile peace that existed between Saltis – McErlane and the Sheldon gang suddenly went sour and turned into open warfare. Most of the hostilities were carried out by the Saltis – McErlane forces against members of the Sheldon gang. In the summer of 1925, the Saltis-McErlane forces first murdered George "Big Bates" Karl and then William Dickman. In September, an attempt was made to eliminate Spike O'Donnell. Eight days later, on Oct. 4, the Ragen Colts Club House – Sheldon's headquarters – was shot up and one "hanger-on" was killed. This was followed nine days later by the murder of Sheldon associate Ed Lattyak. In each of these incidents McErlane was a prime suspect.
In the attack on O'Donnell back on the night of Sept. 25, 1925, the gang leader and a Chicago police officer named Reed were conversing in front of a drug store at Sixty-Third Street and Western Avenue. Suddenly a car containing four men appeared and one of the occupants called out, "Hello, Spike."
Here again we get conflicting stories between the newspapers and Capone biographers. Historians claim that McErlane blasted away at O'Donnell with a Thompson sub-machinegun making this the first time the deadly weapon was used in Chicago gang warfare. Incredibly, the Chicago Tribune's front-page story states, "Four shotguns were leveled at him (O'Donnell). He and Reed fell to the sidewalk and the charges of small shot passed harmlessly over them and into the windows of the drug store. Witnesses said each man in the car fired two cartridges."
It's possible the confusion may be with an incident that happened just five months later on Feb. 10, 1926. This time newspaper headlines screamed, "MACHINE GUN GANG SHOOTS 2," confirming that a machinegun was used to shoot up the saloon of Martin "Buff" Costello, wounding two men inside, including John "Mitters" Foley. McErlane reputedly led the attack. After the shooting, Robert J Schoenberg writes, "The effectiveness of this attack made Detective Captain John Stege announce next day that he wanted some of those Thompsons for his own boys." He then states that Capone was "equally impressed," and ordered a supply for himself.
As if the open warfare was not enough action for McErlane, he and his brother Vincent pulled a robbery in October at the International Harvester Company, killing a man in the process. Before the month was over there was another attempt to kill Spike (there were 10 failed attempts on Spike's life; he died at the ripe old age of 72 in 1962). This time another O'Donnell man, Pasquale Tolizotte, was murdered. Before 1925 came to a close, Joe Saltis was wounded by the O'Donnell gang, and in retaliation "Dynamite Joe" Brooks and Edward Harmening were left lifeless in the back seat of a car.
The year 1926 got off to a slow start. The first South Side beer war shooting didn't occur until Feb. 10 when Sheldon associates "Mitters" Foley and William Wilson were wounded.
The next incident was a double murder that took place on April 15. John Tuccello, a 36-year old father of three, and Frank DeLaurentis, a cousin of "Diamond Joe" Esposito, were alleged to be ex-employees of the decimated Genna brother's gang and had recently hooked up with Ralph Sheldon. Apparently the two attempted to supply beer to saloons in the Saltis – McErlane territory and paid the price. On the Saturday night they were killed, they delivered a barrel of beer to a saloon on Fifty-first Street. There they were followed through the back door by four men who ordered them out at gunpoint.
The two were then taken to a secluded location where they were beaten and shot execution style before being loaded into the backseat of a car. The killers threw a blanket over their bodies, drew the window curtains, and drove the car to West Sixty-fifth Street and Rockwell. There they left the automobile parked outside the home of Ralph Sheldon as a warning to stay out of the Saltis – McErlane territory.
Six days after the discovery of the two bodies, a Chicago police squad led by Captain Stege raided a saloon on West Fiftieth Street. There they arrested McErlane, Saltis and, among others, Walter Stevens, "the dean of all Chicago's gunmen," according to the newspapers. The men were arraigned on federal Prohibition violations because Stege knew there wasn't enough evidence to connect them to the two murders. After McErlane's friends produced his $5,000 bail, Stege had a surprise for him. He served McErlane with a fugitive warrant for the murder of the Crown Point lawyer. McErlane was thrown back into the lockup to await extradition proceedings to remove him to Indiana, where John O'Reilly sat in Michigan City Prison ready to testify against him.
This effectively removed McErlane for the remainder of the South Side beer war. In July 1926, "Mitters" Foley of the Sheldon gang made two attempts to kill McErlane's brother Vincent. In one attack another Saltis gang member, Frank Conlon, was killed. Sheldon knew Saltis would strike back and he warned him to leave "Mitters" alone. Two days later, on Aug. 6, Saltis, Frank "Lefty Koncil, John "Dingbat" O'Berta, and Earl Herbert, killed "Mitters" Foley in an attack. Police captured and jailed the four killers within days; a trial date was scheduled for October.
Saltis, who had a working relationship with Capone, was secretly dealing with North Side gang leader Earl "Hymie" Weiss. Capone uncovered this new relationship as early as Sept. 15, 1926 when Vincent McErlane was arrested in connection with a train robbery with North Sider Peter Gusenberg, a future victim of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
When the October trial of Saltis and Koncil got underway, Weiss, who had recently turned down a peace overture from Capone, sat in attendance. On Oct. 11, the 12th juror was selected and the trial was set to begin the following day. Weiss was returning to his headquarters when he was gunned down in spectacular fashion in front of the Holy Name Cathedral on North State Street. There had been rumors that Weiss was trying to fix the jury for $100,000. When police searched his body they found a listing of all the potential jurors in his pocket.
Weiss's death put Saltis in a precarious position, as he knew that Capone had discovered his treachery. He moved quickly to safeguard himself. It was through this effort that the Hotel Sherman meeting was arranged on Oct. 20. Here key gang leaders, or their representatives, met to hear a peace plan to stop the senseless slaughter that was going on throughout Cook County. Saltis and McErlane, who were still in jail, were represented by Maxie Eisen, a respected labor racketeer.
Ironically, Saltis, the man who sought the peace that the Hotel Sherman Treaty provided, was the first to break it. On Dec. 30, 1926 Saltis gunmen killed Hilary Clements, a member of Ralph Sheldon's gang. Sheldon took the matter to Capone for arbitration. The decision was made that two members of the Saltis gang were to be sacrificed to teach Saltis a lesson. On March 11, 1927, Frank "Lefty" Koncil, who along with Saltis had been found not guilty in the "Mitters" Foley murder the previous November, and Charles "Big Hayes" Hubacek were murdered.
McErlane was acquitted on Nov. 3, 1927 of the murder of Thaddeus Fancher. The key witness against him, Frank Cochran, had been murdered with an axe and the state's case fell apart. For the next two and a half years McErlane seemed to have disappeared from view. Some Chicago historians claim he attended the Atlantic City Conference in 1929. Also, during this time some sources state that he broke with Saltis and joined with the South Side O'Donnells for a while. (If this is true old "Polack Joe" Saltis must have forgiven him as Saltis would serve as a pallbearer at McErlane's funeral a few years later.)
On Jan. 28, 1930, McErlane was shot in the leg and rushed to German Deaconess Hospital. The slug entered his right leg above the knee and shattered the bone. Police officers who questioned McErlane didn't recognize him as the bootleg war killing machine. Using the name Charles Miller, he told police it was an accident that occurred while he was cleaning a gun, a tale backed up by his common-law wife, Marion Miller.
On the night of Feb. 24, McErlane was still in the hospital recovering. His leg, in a plaster cast, hung in the air supported by weights and pulleys to let the bone heal. Around 10:30, while his private nurse was out of the room, two gunmen, believed to be O'Berta and Sam Malaga, appeared at the door and began firing at the immobilized McErlane. The ever-ready gunman, with two handguns under his pillow, pulled one and fired back. McErlane suffered wounds in the chest, left groin, and left wrist – all non-life threatening. His assailants escaped injury, but a .45 automatic dropped at the scene was later traced to Malaga.
Two detectives from the Stockyard's district came out to the hospital to investigate. They hadn't recognized that the wounded man, Charles Miller, was McErlane. It was not until an alert detective lieutenant arrived and had him fingerprinted that the true identity of Charles Miller was revealed. The two detectives who earlier failed to identify McErlane were transferred the following day to "outlying sections" and ordered back into uniforms.
Meanwhile, McErlane refused to identify the gunmen, but in a bit of bravado he told police, "Look for 'em in a ditch. That's where you'll find 'em. They were a bunch of cheap rats, using pistols. I'll use something better. McErlane takes care of McErlane."
Captain John Stege ordered McErlane transported to Bridewell Hospital where police could guard him and because he was an "inconvenience" to the other patients at German Deaconess. McErlane complained, "They'll kill me if you take me out to the Bridewell."
Over the protests of Stege, who wanted to hold McErlane for possession of a concealed weapon, the state's attorney allowed the wounded man to be removed to the home of relatives less than 48 hours after the hospital attack.
On March 5, just nine days after the hospital shootout, "Dingbat" O'Berta and his 28-year old bodyguard/chauffeur, Sam Malaga, were found murdered. Author Kenneth Allsop in The Bootleggers, stated that O'Berta was an Italian who had inserted an apostrophe into his name to make it sound Irish. He described him as, "a ferocious little man built like a fighting-cock who was Saltis's chief torpedo." He apparently achieved this position after McErlane left the gang to work for his former rivals the South Side O'Donnells.
At the death scene, just outside the city limits, O'Berta was found on the front seat of his car on the passenger side, leaning against the door, the top of his head blasted away. Malaga's body was found lying face up in macabre fashion in a water filled ditch with ice forming around it. Police believe O'Berta's killer fired away from the back seat of the automobile.
A side note to this killing was that O'Berta's wife was the widow of pioneer labor racketeer, "Big Tim" Murphy who was murdered in gangland style in June 1928. O'Berta would be buried beside Murphy in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, each reputedly with a rosary in his gun hand.
McErlane's heavy drinking was taking a toll on his mental state. One night in September 1931, he staggered drunkenly around the South Side at 78th and Crandon Avenue, sweeping the street with machinegun fire, shooting at some imaginary assassin.
On Oct. 8, McErlane had a final row with Marion Miller. Police determined that both were in a drunken state and arguing in McErlane's car when Miller pulled a gun, the same one she had wounded him with before, and fired a wild shot at him. McErlane, who had "made peace" with her after the first shooting, was not as forgiving in this second round. He not only shot Miller to death, but he also killed her two dogs, which were riding in the back seat.
Police initially theorized that McErlane had come under attack by his enemies, of which he had many. They quickly discounted this concluding that only McErlane was savage enough to kill a woman and two dogs. Police searched McErlane's home and found an arsenal that included rifles, shotguns, machineguns, and revolvers. They then went to his brother Vincent's house. They arrested Vincent for questioning. Police charged McErlane with the murder. He eventually turned himself in only to be released for lack of evidence.
This latest ordeal made his remaining South Side associates realize that he was out of control. It was rumored that they "raised a pension fund" of several hundred dollars per week for McErlane to retire from Chicago. He relocated to a lavishly furnished houseboat on the Illinois River in Beardstown, Ill., some 200 miles southwest of Chicago.
In the fall of 1932, McErlane became ill. On Tuesday, Oct. 4, he was admitted to Schmitt Memorial Hospital in Beardstown. On Thursday he lapsed into delirium and erupted in a violent fit fearing enemies were on their way to take his life. It took four hospital attendants to subdue him. During his last hours he lashed out at a nurse knocking her unconscious with a punch. Hospital employees discovered four loaded guns under his pillow.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, 1932, one year to the day after he murdered his common-law wife, Frank McErlane succumbed to pneumonia.
The newspapers described McErlane's funeral as "hurried and furtive." After McErlane's father tried to chase photographers away, a nine-car procession, measly by gangland standards, made its way to the cemetery. Like his victim "Dingbat" O'Berta, McErlane was laid to rest in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.
When interviewed about McErlane's death, a former associate remarked, "I don't remember that he ever did anything good in his life. I don't believe he had a friend left."
Allan May's e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net