Book Review - Chicago Assassin: The Life and Legend of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and the Chicago Beer Wars of the Roaring Twenties by Richard J. Shmelter
How quickly we forget the reality of the "good old days"... That thought kept going through my mind as I read Chicago Assassin: The Life and Legend of "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and the Chicago Beer Wars of the Roaring Twenties by Richard J. Shmelter. This is an excellent biography of a major crime figure during the days of Prohibition, and Shmelter captures both the personalities and sentiments of that period in American history.
Innocence Interrupted; Innocence Lost; "Noble Experiment, " Life-changing Decision; Chicago's Underworld Rises; Terrific Timing - Terrible Tool; Gunning for Gennas, Amutuna Gets the Hook; "Joe Batters" and "Momo"; Vengeance, Conflict, Exodus; Capone vs. Weiss - Round One; Capone vs. Weiss - Knockout Blow; On Top of the World; Aiello Threatens the Empire; The Joker; McGurn Has the Last Laugh; Close Calls; Jack Meets Louise - Frankie Meets His Maker; Return to Chicago, Unrest in the Unione; Violent Valentine; Aftermath of Carnage; The "Blonde Alibi"; The Walls Begin to Crumble; The Empire Descends; Wedding Bells, Al Goes Away; Vindication, Alienation; The Comet Vanishes; Whatever Became of ... ?; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Shmelter starts McGurn's story back in Italy, when his parents met and decided to emigrate to America. Vincenzo Gibaldi, aka Jack McGurn, was a typical kid raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, but his life was forever altered at the age of five when his father was gunned down by two men who mistook him for a rival gang leader. McGurn's mother remarried and Jack appeared to be a model son, but he was plotting his revenge for the death of his father. McGurn tracked down the killers and assassinated them in cold blood, starting him on a path defined by the ability and willingness to kill anyone as a hired assassin. This path was cast in stone when his second father was also gunned down by gang members over the sale of sugar to other gangs for the production of bootleg liquor. He started to work for Al Capone's organization, and quickly rose up the ranks to become Capone's most trusted bodyguard and triggerman.
As Prohibition continued and the Chicago Beer Wars grew more heated, shootouts among rival gangs became commonplace. The Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy gun as it was nicknamed, was the weapon of choice for gangsters, and McGurn could handle one with the best of them. Capone used McGurn both as a planner and as a triggerman, and soon McGurn was living the life of a high-profile gangster, complete with fancy clothes, loads of money, and beautiful women. But through all of this, he had to be aware of the fact that he was a constant target of rival gangs, and his life could be snuffed out at any time. The downhill slide for both Capone and McGurn started with the Valentines Day Massacre. That slaughter changed the public's perception about organized crime, and government officials started to crack down hard on those groups. Although it was never proven that McGurn actually took part in the killing, the general feeling was that he and Capone had orchestrated the whole thing. When Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison, McGurn no longer had the protection he was used to, and the new leader, Frank Nitti, took his revenge on McGurn and tossed him out of the organization. The Depression, constant police harassment, and failed business ventures took their toll, and McGurn was reduced to a shadow of his former glory. And even that shadow came to an end when three unknown assassins tracked him down to a bowling alley and ended his life in a hail of bullets. A fitting end to a person who lived his life gunning down others.
Apart from the fact that Shmelter writes a compelling narrative, he also captures the harsh reality of the Roaring Twenties. I kept thinking that we tend to look back at those times as the "good old days" and think our level of criminal activity and corruption is unprecedented. In reality, things were as bad if not worse back then, and all we're doing is repeating history over and over. I would recommend this book on a number of levels, ranging from a fascinating read to a sobering look at our past. In terms of "recreational reading", this is one of the best books I've read this year.