Johnny "The Fox" Torrio: The Father of Modern American Gangsterdom

Oct 14, 2009 - by Allan May - 0 Comments

Johnny "The Fox" Torrio

Johnny "The Fox" Torrio

A mentor to Al Capone, a confidante of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, Torrio even managed to win the begrudging respect of law enforcement.

by Allan May

Some people think that Johnny "The Fox" Torrio retired from organized crime after he turned his crime empire over to a young Al Capone in 1925. Far from it. Many crime historians believe that Torrio’s most significant contributions to organized crime came years later, an opinion shared by Torrio’s contemporaries on the other side of the law. Virgil W. Peterson of the Chicago Crime Commission called Torrio, "an organizational genius." Elmer Irey, the famous head of the Treasury Department’s Intelligence Unit, called Torrio, "the father of modern American gangsterdom." Irey claimed, "He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums. And when I say best I am referring of course to talent. Not morals."

The events leading to Torrio’s exodus from Chicago began on May 19, 1924 when North Side Gang leader Dion O’Banion, somewhat of a fox himself, delivered Torrio into the hands of federal authorities. O’Banion, Torrio and Capone jointly owned the Sieben Brewery. When O’Banion was tipped off to an upcoming federal raid on the brewery he went to Torrio and Capone with a concocted story about retiring and heading west. He sold his share to the two and made plans to meet Torrio at the brewery the night of the raid.

When the federal raiders appeared, Torrio realized O’Banion had doublecrossed him. He also realized that because this was his second federal offense that he faced certain prison time if convicted. Torrio seethed in anger and plotted O’Banion’s death. On Nov. 10, 1924, O’Banion was gunned down in his own flower shop.

The murder of the popular O’Banion infuriated the North Side Gang. On Jan. 24, 1925 North Siders Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and George "Bugs" Moran caught up with Torrio when he and his wife Anna returned home from an afternoon of shopping. Torrio was seriously wounded in the chest and neck. Torrio quickly recovered, served his time – a nine-month stretch in the Lake County Jail – and left Chicago for New York with an armed escort.

Torrio wanted to live in semi-retirement in Italy with his beloved wife. Arriving in New York to set sail, he met with Charles "Lucky" Luciano to discuss his future plans. In the book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, the mob boss discusses their meeting:

"…he (Torrio) had millions stashed away. He told me he wanted to talk over a plan. He thought booze was gonna become legal again and he wanted to become my agent in Europe, to start buyin’ up legal options on the best Scotch to get ready for the end of the Volsted Act. This was seven long years before Repeal, and it was almost impossible to believe. Here was a guy predictin’ that my whole fuckin’ bootleg business, and everybody else’s for that matter, was gonna wind up in the shithouse."

The following day Torrio again met with Luciano. This time Charlie Lucky invited Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Lansky was of the same opinion as Torrio about looking ahead and getting into legitimate businesses. Before leaving, Torrio told the group, "You’ve gotta get into the big politics; you can buy the top politicians the same way you bought the law." It was apparent Costello took note of the advice.

The Torrios set sail for Italy in late 1925. They leased an apartment in an upscale Naples’ neighborhood. Although only 43, Torrio was enjoying retirement. He and Anna took weekend trips together, attended the opera, and enjoyed the warm climate. Their plans to remain in Italy came to end when Benito Mussolini declared war on the Mafia. Fearing for their safety, the Torrios returned to New York in the spring of 1928.

Torrio met with Luciano, Costello and Joe Adonis and was brought up to date on the events going on in both New York and Chicago. He was told his protégé Capone had turned Chicago into a Wild West show. Torrio heard that Frank Yale, a long time friend of his, was now at odds with Capone over booze shipments Capone suspected Yale had hijacked. Capone soon dispatched a hit squad to murder Yale. Though saddened by Yale’s murder, Torrio stayed away from his opulent funeral not wishing to advertise his return to the states.

Torrio exercised his organizational skills after the death of Arnold Rothstein in November 1928. He helped organize all the prominent bootleggers and rumrunners along the Eastern Seaboard into a loose cartel, an arrangement which allowed them to pool their resources. The cartel stretched from Boston to Philadelphia and the members became known as the "Big Seven."

In May 1929, mobsters from across the country met in Atlantic City to discuss new ways of cooperating with each other. Depending on which book you read, the meeting was the brainchild of Lansky, Costello or Torrio (even Abner Zwillman’s biographer claims "Longy" was responsible for the summit). Whatever the case, Torrio was seen as the elder statesman at this conference. The mobsters met to forge relationships and prepare for the day when Prohibition would end.

One of the concerns the group had was the recent rash of bloodshed in Chicago. Between February and May 1929, 10 men had been brutally murdered in two highly publicized incidents. One was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the other the baseball bat beating deaths of Albert Anselmi, John Scalise, and Joseph Giunta. Capone biographers believe that Torrio convinced Capone that doing a little jail time would help take the heat off everyone. After the meeting, Capone and a bodyguard went to Philadelphia where Scarface allowed himself to be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Capone, thinking he would get 90 days, was slapped with a one-year sentence.

During the bloody Castelammarese War, Torrio kept a low profile. After the smoke cleared, he became a regular visitor at Luciano’s Waldorf Towers apartment on 50th Street near Park Avenue in Manhattan.

Torrio’s influence during this period was apparent again in the spring of 1934. In his book, Lansky, Hank Messick states that a meeting was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan attended by mobsters from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, and Minneapolis. Presiding over this meeting, at which Messick claims that the national crime syndicate was established, was Johnny Torrio.

As early as 1928, Torrio had warned the mob bosses of New York about watching their tax returns. Luciano stated, "That was when Johnny Torrio told everyone of us that we better start fixin’ up our income tax returns. A lot of us did that, startin’ with 1928, to show some legitimate business." In Chicago, the government was already prosecuting cases against Ralph Capone, Frank Nitti, Jake Guzik, Terry Druggan and Frank Lake. While Capone languished in a Pennsylvania prison, Torrio referred his own tax attorney to him. A couple years later, during Capone’s tax evasion trial, Torrio was brought back to Chicago to testify. Though he was never called, no one expected he would reveal anything about his old protégé.

In the early 1930s Torrio purchased the Prendergast & Davies Company, LTD. for $62,000. The company was a wholesale liquor concern as well as an importer. Torrio set up an in-law as president of the company and hired a few former bootlegging pals to help run it. Although it was a legitimate operation, Torrio wanted his name kept out of the records for tax purposes. However, when a jealous competitor turned informer the government was alerted to Torrio’s hidden ownership in the firm.

The government was already in the process of putting a tax-evasion case together against Torrio. Investigators had discovered his role in the Eastern Seaboard liquor cartel as well as his hidden ownership in a government-licensed alcohol denaturing plant in Baltimore.

While this was going on Torrio fled to St. Petersburg, Fla., in the wake of the murders of Dutch Schultz and three of his gang members. Torrio and Schultz owned two-thirds of the Greater City Surety and Indemnity Company and were in a position to create a monopoly on bail bonds in the city. After Schultz was shot Torrio’s name came up several times during the delirious deathbed ramblings of the Dutchman and the police wanted to question him.

When Torrio realized the depth of the government investigation, he quickly sold Prendergast & Davies to a Boston group, turning a $93,000 profit. He then tried to leave the country and booked passage for Anna and himself to sail from Quebec to Rio de Janeiro. On April 22, 1936, Torrio went to the White Plains Post Office to pick up his passport. There he was arrested by an Internal Revenue agent and jailed at the Federal Detention House in Manhattan on a $100,000 bond.

Anna brought the $100,000 in cash, wrapped in a newspaper, to bail her husband out. While Torrio was signing a receipt for the return of his personal possessions, he was served with a warrant charging him with forgery. He then waited another two hours while Anna trotted out and fetched another $4,000 for bail on these charges. Still later, a New York City police captain arrested Torrio for vagrancy. Anna bailed him out again. As Torrio left the Coney Island Municipal Court he tripped and fell while trying to dodge newspaper photographers. An embarrassing photograph of the sprawling Torrio appeared in newspapers across the country.

Government agents prosecuting Torrio came to the conclusion that he owed $110,277 in back taxes and penalties for the years 1933 through 1935. William H. Boyd, a "section chief" with 18 years of government service, recommended to the court a cash settlement of $100,000, but no criminal prosecution. The offer stunned members of government agencies who had investigated Torrio and an investigation of Boyd was initiated. The FBI quickly discovered a connection between the two men; Torrio held the mortgage on Boyd’s home. Boyd was suspended from his job and ordered to report to the FBI for questioning. Instead, he went home and hanged himself.

Torrio’s trial got underway March 29, 1939. Bail was revoked and Torrio spent his nights in a detention center. The jurors were sequestered with deputy marshals guarding them. Both of these precautions were normally reserved for capital murder trials.

The government presented a host of witnesses during the first week, including imprisoned narcotics peddler Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg. Late in the trial information was introduced tying Torrio to Schultz and the Greater City Surety & Indemnity Company. Schultz’s widow, Frances, and his attorney, Richard "Dixie" Davis, were due to testify. In addition, reporters discovered that Al Capone had been questioned at Alcatraz about Torrio’s finances and his tactics for hiding income. A 50-page statement from Capone allegedly had been prepared. Both revelations made the front pages. At this point Torrio decided to plead guilty.

Although Torrio was looking at 12 years in prison, Prosecutor Seymour Klein asked for and received a sentence of just two-and-one-half years. Torrio was also ordered to pay $86,000 in back taxes and fines.

As Torrio was led away a curious reporter asked him, "Why did you change your plea?"

Torrio replied, "Mrs. Torrio told me to do it."

The "Fox" never revealed why he changed his plea. Asked by reporters if he thought the Schultz or Capone revelations had anything to do with the guilty plea, Prosecutor Klein replied he had been intending to "present witnesses with first-hand knowledge of the Torrio-Boyd relationship." Klein felt the story of the "bribery and suicide" scandal would provide a lot of weight for the jury.

Journalist and author Jack McPhaul wrote the biography, Johnny Torrio: First of the Gang Lords, in 1970. McPhaul was a veteran Chicago newspaperman, his career dating back to 1923. He interviewed Seymour Klein about the Capone incident and was told that the news stories about the statement were incorrect. Klein told McPhaul that, "Capone did not want to say anything against Torrio." An associate of Klein later told Capone biographer John Kobler that even though Capone’s mind was already in a state of deterioration he still "fended off probing questions" and said that Torrio had been like a father to him.

Torrio was imprisoned at Leavenworth Penitentiary. Lepke Buchalter who received a 14-year sentence on narcotics charges soon joined him there. Soon Lepke would be on his way back to New York and finally the electric chair in Sing Sing after Abe "Kid Twist" Reles ratted out the Murder, Inc. gang.

On April 14, 1941, after having served just 23 months, Torrio was paroled. According to Jack McPhaul, Torrio, after realizing the humiliation his wife experienced when his parole officer performed an inspection of their Brooklyn apartment, made Anna a promise that "never again would he bring her grief."

Like many leading members of the New York underworld, Torrio sweated out the ramblings of Abe Reles, and later the rumors that Lepke himself was going to spill what he knew about his crime associates. Torrio spent those dreadful years vacationing in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the winter months. True to his word to Anna, Torrio stayed clear of illegal activities and focused his energies in the real estate market. During this time he and his wife were the target of an extortion plot in which two Brooklyn men threatened to kill them if $10,000 was not paid. Torrio, at Anna’s urging, took the extortion note to his probation officer. In an ironic twist, Torrio worked with the FBI to lay a trap for the two men. Although the men failed to show, the pair was arrested six months later and Torrio testified in federal court.

Torrio’s name came up briefly during the Kefauver hearings in the early 1950s. Although they were close friends and business associates for years, Costello told the committee he had met Torrio only twice. On two earlier occasions, in 1943 and 1947, Costello, testifying under oath, denied that he had ever met Torrio.

McPhaul takes us through the twilight years of Torrio’s life. In 1953, Torrio and Anna moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for a short time where he was involved in real estate. The couple returned to Brooklyn where Torrio tended to his business interests, went to real estate auctions, and drove around the city appraising properties.

On the morning of April 16, 1957, Torrio sat down in a barber’s chair for a haircut and suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to Cumberland Hospital. With his devoted wife Anna at his bedside the "Fox" died peacefully at 3:45 that afternoon.

McPhaul writes that Torrio had a sparsely attended funeral with burial at Greenwood Cemetery. This was unlike the many lavish funerals Torrio had been a part of during his days in Chicago. McPhaul claims that Torrio had been buried for three weeks before the newspapers found out about his passing.

Despite the fine investigative work McPhaul did on his biography of Torrio, he made one interesting mistake. He talks about Torrio reading a newspaper article on the suicide death of his long-time friend Abner Zwillman. McPhaul states that Torrio sadly "put down the paper and sighed. He had many good recollections of Longy." The problem is Zwillman committed suicide in February 1959, nearly two years after Torrio’s death.

It is interesting to note that the three men who were given credit for the Atlantic City Conference, and who helped create the organized crime structure that still exists in the United States today – Lansky, Costello and Torrio – all died peacefully of natural causes in a hospital bed with their wives near their side. Maybe in the end that’s the truest sign of success for a mob boss.


Allan May’s e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net

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