Part II: Chicago's Unione Siciliana 1920 - A Decade of Slaughter

Oct 14, 2009 - by Allan May - 0 Comments

Mike Merlo

Mike Merlo

As president of Unione Siciliana, Mike Merlo was able to keep the peace among Chicago's various underworld factions during the early years of Prohibition. When he died of cancer in 1924, Al Capone set his sights on taking over control of the Unione and its fabulously profitable "alky" stills. First Angelo Genna and then Samoots Amatuna were murdered -- each within six months of taking over the Unione – paving the way for Capone's man to become president.

by Allan May

'In Chicago, the 'Unione' was in the early period of Prohibition engaged in a kind of piecework, sweatshop, alcohol-distilling enterprise. Hundreds of Sicilian immigrants were equipped with stills, and they sold their alcohol to the central organization.'

--Theft of the Nation, by Donald R. Cressey:

When Mike Merlo, the president of the Unione Siciliana died of cancer in late 1924, Chicago's Little Italy turned into a battlefield of competing bootleggers. At stake were the immense profits Prohibition had unleashed. His death would trigger a series of events that would change the face of Chicago's underworld, paving the way for Al Capone to gain control of the coveted Unione.

Ironically, Merlo's death did not create front-page headlines. In fact, below is the entire article from the back pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune covering his death:

Michael Merlo, 44, 433 Diversy Parkway, president of the Union Sicilian society and a leader of Chicago Italians in the Democratic party, died yesterday at his home of a complication of diseases. Mr. Merlo is survived by his wife and six children.

This was hardly a fitting accolade to Merlo's prestige in the community, especially in view of the $100,000 in floral tributes spent on his funeral.

Merlo was born in Sicily in 1880 and came to America when he was 9 years old. While rising in stature within the Unione Siciliana, he exploited the membership to increase his political power, but he was said to have had a genuine concern for the welfare of those in the community. Merlo worked hard to maintain the peace in the Chicago underworld. He had the respect of not only the Torrio/Capone mob and the Genna brothers, but also of the North Side Gang headed by Dion O'Bannion.

In Edward D. Sullivan's Rattling the Cup, he describes the Genna family as, 'the most tempestuous, vengeful and reckless family of fireworks that ever whirled itself to death and disorder in Chicago's crime history.' The six Genna brothers – Angelo, Antonio, Mike, Peter, Sam and Vincenzo – dominated bootlegging in the 19th Ward, now more popularly known as Little Italy. When Prohibition began they found there was a fortune to be made. The brothers were able to obtain a federal license to manufacture industrial alcohol. They then re-distilled the alcohol to make it palatable and sold it illegally. From their headquarters, a three-story warehouse on Taylor Street, they watched the money pour in and their product pour out. Soon they were unable to keep up with the demand.

Henry Spignola, a lawyer, businessman and politician, whose sister later married Angelo Genna, arrived at a solution to this problem. With financing from Johnny Torrio, the Gennas installed stills in the homes of Little Italy's residents. Beginning with a few hundred, the numbers of stills in these mostly tenement flats grew into the thousands. With relatively little work to be done, the still watchers earned $15 a day. As the Gennas' power and influence grew in Little Italy, the brothers jumped on the political bandwagon of 'Diamond Joe' Esposito, the Republican ward boss. They also had a large number of policemen from the Maxwell Street Station on their payroll protecting their alky-cooking operations from harassment. Five police captains were said to be included in their payroll.

With their immensely successful alky cooking operations the Gennas soon had a surplus of bootleg alcohol and began to push the product outside of their agreed upon territory. As they moved north and east they butted heads with Dion O'Bannion's North Side Gang. O'Bannion supplied a better product compared to the Gennas' 'rot gut' whiskey, so the brothers tried to level the playing field by lowering their prices by $3 to $6 a gallon.

O'Bannion could be savage and unpredictable. Out of respect for Torrio, whose genius had helped establish the individual gang territories in the city, O'Bannion complained to him instead of declaring war on the Gennas. Torrio's influence was enough to make the Gennas recede, although there remained a few border skirmishes.

In the spring of 1924, O'Bannion hijacked a shipment of the Gennas' alcohol and the precarious peace was teetering. Both Torrio and Merlo used their persuasive talents to keep the Gennas from retaliating. Then O'Bannion dropped a bombshell. He went to Torrio and told him that he had had enough and that he was retiring to Colorado. O'Bannion asked Torrio to purchase his share of the Sieben Brewery, which they jointly owned. The price was $500,000.

O'Bannion had been informed that the Chicago police had plans to raid the brewery. O'Bannion concocted a plan to make sure Torrio was there when the raid took place. Since this would be Torrio's second prohibition violation, if convicted, he faced certain prison time. During the early hours of May 19, 1924, Torrio, O'Bannion and 29 others were arrested at the brewery. Torrio soon realized O'Bannion's treachery. In addition to the humiliation of the arrest, O'Bannion refused to return the money Torrio had paid him for his share of the brewery.

In the weeks following the raid, hostilities increased between the North Siders and the Gennas. During this time it was reported that O'Bannion's second in command, Hymie Weiss, suggested caution in the gang's activities against the brothers. O'Bannion is said to have replied with a snarling, 'Oh, to hell with them Sicilians.' These words quickly got back to the Gennas and their allies – Torrio and Capone.

Over the summer of 1924 and into the fall, Mike Merlo was still preaching peace and discouraging any plans to kill O'Bannion. Torrio and the Gennas bided their time. O'Bannion had part ownership in a Cicero gambling den called the Ship. He, Weiss and fellow North Sider, Vincent 'the Schemer' Drucci would stop by weekly for their split of the profits. On Nov. 3, they met Capone at the Ship, where he was surrounded by three Franks – Maritote, Nitti and Rio. As Capone was divvying up the profits, he told O'Bannion that Angelo Genna had lost a lot of money at the club the previous week. In addition to dropping an untold amount of money, young Angelo had run up a $30,000 marker. Capone suggested that as a courtesy to Genna that they tear up the IOU. O'Bannion responded by heading to the nearest telephone and ordering Angelo Genna to make good on the marker within the week.

This incident proved to be the last straw. Five days later, Mike Merlo succumbed to cancer. The Torrio/Capone/Genna forces, who had capitulated to Merlo's pleas for peace, used the Unione Siciliana leader's passing to initiate their plot to murder O'Bannion. On Sunday night, Nov. 9, Vincenzo Genna arrived at Schofield's flower shop, which O'Bannion jointly owned (he had a love for arranging flowers). Genna picked up a $750 wreath – casing the shop before he departed. Later that evening, Frank Uale (pronounced and sometimes spelled Yale), at onetime Capone's New York City mentor and recognized as the national head of the Unione Siciliana, called Schofield's and placed a $2,000 flower order (some references say it was Angelo Genna who placed the call). The order was to be picked up at the shop the following morning.

Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 10, three men entered Schofield's flower shop. Two were members the Unione Siciliana and would gain a reputation as Chicago's most proficient killers – Albert Anselmi and John Scalise. The third man was never positively identified, although he was believed to be either Frank Uale or Mike Genna. A porter sweeping up in the back room watched either Uale or Genna shake O'Bannion's hand. As the porter turned his back to continue his chore he heard five gun shots. Turing back around he could see the man was still grasping O'Bannion's hand. The North Side gang leader was killed instantly.

Before Merlo died, a lieutenant, believed to be Anthony Lombardo, hired a sculptor to create a wax likeness of the Unione Siciliana leader's head. Done in a tint that mirrored Merlo's skin tone, the waxen head was taken back to a studio to be completed. Matching brown eyes were implanted and eyebrows and eyelashes made from actual black and gray human hair were added. The head was mounted on a copper wire frame built to match Merlo's measurements. A suit of blue flowers completed the effigy. At the funeral home, it was said that 'fear gripped' the thousands of mourners who came to pay their respects until their eyes became accustomed to the candle lit likeness of the former leader.

Merlo's funeral was held on Nov. 13. Three thousand mourners gathered around his home the day of the funeral and followed the procession to St. Clement's Church for high mass. The 266-car cortege made its way to Mount Carmel Cemetery led by the life-sized effigy of Merlo. At the cemetery the crowd of mourners swelled to 10,000. Among the honorary pallbearers were Mayor William E. Dever, State Atty. Robert E. Crowe, Police Chief Morgan A. Collins, and Cook County board president and future mayor, Anton J. Cermak. The following day Dion O'Bannion was buried in the same cemetery.

Police arrested Uale several days later as he was at the train station on his way back to New York. Samoots Amatuna provided an airtight alibi for Uale by producing a waiter who swore he had served lunch to the two men at the Palmer House restaurant while the murder was taking place. This, plus the fact that it would have been questionable for Uale to use his name while ordering the flowers and then showing up to murder O'Bannion, led some crime historians to believe it was Mike Genna who actually held the hand of the North Side leader that day,

O'Bannion's death would be avenged. In January 1925, a North Side hit squad consisting of Weiss, Drucci and George 'Bugs' Moran shot and seriously wounded Johnny Torrio outside his apartment. Torrio eventually recovered, served his sentence from the Sieben Brewery raid, and left Chicago behind. Capone took over the Chicago rackets and would battle the North Side followers of O'Bannion in a war that raged on for four more years culminating in the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

Angelo Genna:

Angelo Genna, the youngest and most volatile of the six brothers would take Merlo's position as president of the Unione Siciliana. Angelo was one of the top gunmen during Anthony D'Andrea's ill-fated attempt to take over the Democratic political leadership of the 19th Ward. Of the estimated 30 murders that took place during that war the only person ever prosecuted was 'Bloody' Angelo – for the killing of Paul Labriola. At the trial, Angelo was ably defended by D'Andrea's friend, Stephen Malato, who resigned his position as assistant state's attorney to handle the case.

Angelo also went free for the murder of Paul Notti in 1922 even though Notti, from his deathbed, had identified Genna. The defense was able to prove that Notti was under the influence of an opiate at the time for pain; the judge tossed the confession out. In August 1922, Angelo interceded for two friends in a Mann Act violation, where a 15-year-old girl was taken across state lines for purposes of prostitution. On the day before the trial was to get underway, Angelo stopped the young lady on the street and told her if she testified that he would kill both her and her mother. The brave girl went to court and exposed the threat. Angelo Genna was sentenced to Leavenworth Penitentiary for a year for the threat in November 1922.

With Merlo's death the Torrio/Capone combine saw the opportunity to install its own man as head of the Unione Siciliana. Antonio Lombardo was a friend of Capone and the Aiello brothers, with whom he was a partner in a cheese business. Capone felt his relationship with Frank Uale, the national head of the Unione, would help him get Lombardo the top position, and this would eventually lead to Capone's control of Little Italy's alky cookers.

This plan of the Neapolitan Capone didn't sit well with the Sicilian Gennas, who, as members of the hierarchy of the Unione, saw the position of president as one of prestige and honor among their Sicilian brethren. The brothers quickly lobbied the rank and file and pressed hard to put Angelo in as the next president. Capone, unhappy at the turn of events, bided his time under the patient leadership of Johnny Torrio.

Capone biographer Laurence Bergreen gives us the following account:

'The selection of Merlo's successor provoked Frankie Yale to return to Chicago. As head of the powerful New York branch of the Unione, Yale had considerable influence over the selection of who would fill the corresponding post in Chicago. He conferred with Torrio and Capone, and the three men decided to appoint Angelo Genna …who wanted only to see Dion O'Bannion in his coffin. As the new president of the Unione Sicilione, Angelo had no objection to the immediate elimination of a certain North Side bootlegger who had recently humiliated him on the telephone over a little IOU.'

On Jan. 10, 1925, after his ascension to the Unione Siciliana throne, Angelo Genna got married. Kenneth Allsop in his classic work, The Bootleggers: The Story of Prohibition, claims, 'They (the brothers) had married off Angelo to Lucille, younger sister of an important member of the Sicilian community. The marriage was a happy consummation of this business bond, the fusion of money and blood in the manner which the Sicilians valued.'

The wedding was viewed as a 'social and commercial conquest.' Angelo advertised the blessed event in the newspaper with an invitation to the entire neighborhood – 'Come one, come all.' Three thousand 'guests' were in attendance at Carmen's Hall of the Ashland Auditorium on the city's West Side. The highlight of the reception was a 12-foot high, 2,000-pound wedding cake. Described as the 'most elaborately decorated cake ever baked in Chicago,' it was designed by a local artist/sculptor.

The newly married couple moved into a $400 a month hotel suite on Sheridan Road near Mayor William Hale 'Big Bill' Thompson's home, just north of the Gold Coast. The honeymoon would be a short one. Four months had passed since the wounding of Johnny Torrio. During this relative calm only two underworld murders had been recorded – Walter O'Donnell, the brother of Spike, and Harry Hassmiller were murdered in a roadhouse in Evergreen Park, Ill., on April 17. The calm was about to end and the killings that followed did not favor the Gennas.

Packing a wad of cash totaling $11,000 into his pocket, Angelo Genna kissed his 18 year-old wife Lucille goodbye and headed out the door on the morning of May 25, 1925. Angelo was on his way to purchase a dream home Lucille desired in Oak Park. As Angelo tooled down Ogden Avenue in a new $6,000 roadster, a sedan with four men in it began to overtake him.

At the sound of sawed-off shotgun blasts, Angelo floored the gas pedal and the chase down Ogden Avenue reached speeds of 60 miles-per-hour. Angelo, who always carried at least two guns, pulled one from a belt holster and returned fire. At Hudson Avenue, Angelo tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a turn. His car crashed into a lamppost and Angelo was momentarily stunned by the collision. The sedan pulled broadside and the assassins fired a barrage at the helpless man.

The sedan sped away and when bystanders arrived they found Genna trying to reach for his second gun, the first lay emptied nearby. One of the shotgun blasts had severed his spine. Angelo was taken to Evangelical Deaconess Hospital. As he lay mortally wounded on the operating table a detective sergeant gave him the bad news.

'You're going to die, Angelo,' he said. 'Tell us who bumped you off.'

Genna shrugged his shoulders in arrogance.

Lucille Spignola Genna was rushed to the hospital. Calling him 'sweetheart' she asked who had shot him. Genna shook his head and soon died. Sam Genna, who had arrived too late, Lucille and Peter Spignola were taken to the detective bureau where they were questioned by Chief of Detectives William Schoemaker and Captain John Stege. No information was forthcoming other than, 'Angelo had no enemies, everybody liked him.'

At the coroner's inquest, a young man came forward to say that he was close enough to see the license plate number of the killer's automobile. A check of motor vehicle records showed the car had been stolen two weeks before the murder. Without a clear-cut explanation, police attributed the murder to the North Side gang in retaliation for the killing of O'Bannion and claimed that Weiss, Drucci and Moran were three of the four men in the car, the driver of which was alleged to be Frank Gusenberg, one of three brothers in the gang.

Angelo Genna's funeral procession consisted of 300 automobiles, 30 containing flowers. The Catholic Church denied him a church ceremony and burial in consecrated ground. Genna's active pallbearers were all members of the Unione Siciliana. Among the mourners were a state senator, two state representatives, 'Diamond Joe' Esposito, and Al Capone. Oddly enough, Alderman John Powers, whose associates were murdered by 'Bloody Angelo,' was also in attendance. In a unique twist to this funeral, Angelo's 'crepe-hung,' shotgun-peppered roadster was towed along.

Angelo's death and the loss of leadership of the Unione Siciliana were the least of the remaining brothers' worries. Capone had covertly stolen away the firepower of the Gennas – Scalise and Anselmi. On June 13, 1925, Mike Genna was killed by a police officer interrupting what crime historians believed to be a one-way ride for him by Scalise and Anselmi. On July 8, Antonio was murdered on the street. In a period of 44 days three of the Genna brothers were killed. Later, on Jan. 10, 1926, Angelo's brother-in-law, Henry Spignola was murdered. The remaining Genna brothers – Peter, Sam and Vincenzo – fled to Sicily. The Genna family's reign over the Unione Siciliana had lasted a little over six months.

'Samoots' Amatuna:

Samoots, whose real name was Samuel Samuzzo Amatuna, had a short but colorful career in the underworld. Called the 'Beau Brummel of Little Italy' by the newspapers, his rise and fall paralleled that of the Genna family with whom Amatuna was once closely associated.

In 1916, at the age of 17, Amatuna's rise in the crime world began when he was credited with the murder of D'Andrea foe Frank Lombardi on Feb. 21. Five years later, on March 8, 1921, he was a participant in a Genna hit team that killed both Paul A. Labriola and Harry Raimondi. In the Maxwell Street neighborhood where he was so popular, Amatuna had the reputation of a tough guy who never carried a gun. Apparently when he did carry one, he was accustomed to using it.

In the wake of Angelo Genna's murder, and without the blessing from New York, Amatuna seized the opportunity to make himself head of the Unione Siciliana. He accomplished this by hiring two bodyguards, Edward Zion and Abraham Goldstein, and then walking into the Unione headquarters and proclaiming himself the boss.

The real muscle of the Genna gang came from the killing duo of Scalise and Anselmi, who, unbeknownst to Amatuna and other Genna loyalists, had switched allegiance to Capone. The two were facing separate trials for the recent murders of two police officers who were killed during the ill-fated attempt to murder Mike Genna. Amatuna busied himself and his men with raising $100,000 for their legal defense.

While this was going on, Antonio Genna was murdered and the remaining three brothers fled town. This left Amatuna with the unenviable task of trying to regroup the remnants of the once powerful Genna organization.

In addition to rebuilding an underworld empire left in shambles, Amatuna was also planning his wedding, which was to 'set a new high-mark in the festivities of the kind.' Amatuna was engaged to Rose Pecorara, the sister-in-law of the late Unione president Mike Merlo. The wedding was planned for the previous December, but postponed when Merlo passed away.

On Tuesday night, Nov. 10, 1925 Amatuna and his fiancée had tickets to attend the opera to hear Aida. As was his custom before any social event, Amatuna visited his barber at the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt. After receiving a shave and a manicure, Amatuna was preparing to leave when two men entered the busy shop and drew guns. As the pair started shooting, Amatuna ducked behind a chair while barbers and customers dove for cover. Both gunmen fired four times each, but only one bullet struck Amatuna, entering his neck and coming out his back below the shoulder blade. Friends of Amatuna's standing outside the shop rushed in after the gunmen fled and carried him to a taxi which took him to the hospital.

At Jefferson Park Hospital Dr. Gaetano Rongo, the former D'Andrea supporter attended to Amatuna. The bullet that entered Amatuna's neck passed close to his spinal cord. Doctors feared that if he lived he would be paralyzed. Amatuna lingered through Wednesday, but by Thursday afternoon he knew he was dying. His brother had spent the afternoon canceling wedding arrangements that had been made for the following week. Meanwhile, preparations were underway for a deathbed wedding for late Thursday night. Before the ceremony could begin, Amatuna slipped into a coma. At 2 a.m. Friday morning he was pronounced dead.

The wake was held on Nov. 16 at Miss Pecorara's home where $20,000 worth of floral arrangements spilled out onto the front lawn, back lawn and neighbors' lawns. The following day the funeral cortege wove its way through Little Italy, passing the barbershop where Amatuna was shot. The procession ended at Mount Carmel Cemetery where Amatuna was placed in a temporary vault. His body would soon be sent home to his native Sicily where it would be buried in consecrated ground with much pomp.

A friend of Amatuna's, speaking anonymously, told a reporter after the shooting, that the relationship between Amatuna and the Genna's had soured sometime before Amatuna took over the Unione. Amatuna had confided to a policeman friend that he was in debt some $22,000 due to the money he had to cough up for the Scalise and Anselmi defense fund. Meanwhile, the police, incensed over the killing of two fellow officers, kicked over all of the stills in the Maxwell Street territory of the Gennas. Amatuna complained, 'More than half of those stills were mine.' The friend stated that each time Amatuna set up a new still, 'it cost him $800 to $1,000, and every time he set one up the police came along and kicked it over again.'

After Amatuna's funeral his ex-bodyguards were next to go. On Nov. 18, after returning from the funeral, two men shot Edward Zion to death in his driveway. On Nov. 20, Abraham Goldstein was shot twice in the head while standing in a drug store.

Over the years the killers of Amatuna were believed to be Jim Doherty of the West Side O'Donnell gang and Vincent Drucci of the North Side gang. In his book Mr. Capone, author Robert Schoenberg presents a logical argument that the killers were actually members of the Capone mob instead of Doherty and Drucci. Whatever the case, Capone was certainly the one who benefited. Finally he was able to get his own man into the presidency of the Unione Siciliana, and second, he now believed he had the Genna's 'fabulously profitable alky-cooking empire' to himself.

Amatuna's time atop the Unione Siciliana leadership was under six months, just weeks short of Angelo Genna's reign.


Next: Part III of Chicago's Unione Siciliana: 1920 – A Decade of Slaughter
Capone finally gets his man, Anthony Lombardo, in as president of the Unione Siciliana. Lombardo's murder at the hands of the Aiello brothers sparks another gang war. Capone's men murder national president Frank Uale in New York, and Unione Siciliana representatives from around the country arrive in Cleveland to discuss a new leader.

Allan May's e-mail address is:

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