By Frank Iannamico
The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Just about everyone has heard of this infamous crime that occurred on February 14, 1929, during the heyday of gangsters and lawlessness in Chicago. There have been a number of films made about the massacre but, in true Hollywood style, the actual events have often been misrepresented for dramatic effect.
At approximately 10:40 a.m. on Thursday, February 14, 1929, what witnesses described as a “detective’s car” pulled up to 2122 North Clark Street in Chicago. This was the address of the S-M-C Cartage Company garage, a known location from which Chicago gangster George Moran ran one of his illegal operations. Several men got out of the car; two of the men were dressed as police officers. The “officers” entered the building and ordered the seven “suspects” that were in the garage to line up against the north wall of the brick building. After the men complied several more men allegedly entered the building through the front door. The men were armed with two Thompson submachine guns and a 12-gauge shotgun. Without warning they opened fire and unmercifully cut the men down with seventy .45 caliber rounds and two shotgun blasts. Over thirty .45 caliber bullets were removed from the victim’s bodies. Two of the victims, John May and Reinhardt H. Schwimmer, in addition to numerous .45 caliber hits, had shotgun wounds. These men had been on the far right end of the lineup. One man, Frank Gusenberg, survived the shooting only to die a few hours later. He was not pictured in the crime scene photos.
The victims were identified as brothers Frank Gusenberg and Peter Gusenberg who were known Moran gunmen; Albert Kachellek, career criminal and Moran gunman; John May, a former small time criminal who was working as a mechanic in the garage maintaining Moran’s beer trucks; Adam Heyer, the Moran gang accountant and lessee of the garage where the crime occurred; Albert R. Weinshank, a Moran gang member said to have resembled Moran in build and manner of dress. It is widely held that the lookouts posted across the street may have mistaken him for Moran, prematurely setting the massacre in motion. The seventh victim was Dr. Reinhardt H. Schwimmer, a Chicago optometrist who was said to enjoy associating with gangsters. The suspected shooters were Fred Burke, Gus Winkeler, Robert Carey and Fred Goetz, although no one was ever charged with the crime.
Many details of the shooting remain a mystery due in part to the gangster’s code against telling the police anything, and potential witness’ reluctance to see anyone “committing a crime.” The original objective of the shooting was believed to be to eliminate North Side Gang boss George “Bugs” Moran, one of Al Capone’s main adversaries. Moran, who lived only a few blocks away, was allegedly on his way to the garage when he saw the police car and ducked into a café.
On the afternoon after the shooting a Cook County Coroner’s Jury was formed to investigate the murders. Coroner Herman Bundesen led the investigation and enlisted the help of forensic expert Major Calvin Goddard. During the investigation a number of Thompsons were examined and fired in an attempt to connect the bullets taken from the bodies, and cartridge cases found at the scene, to the guns used in the crime by a new scientific method Goddard had perfected. Goddard and his team had no luck in finding the murder weapons until December 16, 1929. Following a minor traffic accident in Benton Harbor, Michigan a police officer was shot and killed by a man attempting to leave the accident scene. The suspect in the shooting was identified as Fred Dane of Stevensville, Michigan. After police went to Mr. Dane’s residence a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Dane let the police into the house. Inside of a bedroom closet police discovered two Thompson submachine guns. One was identified as serial number 2347 and the other Thompson had the serial number ground off. In addition to the Thompsons, police found several 50 and 100 round drum magazines, various pistols, shotguns and police uniforms. Fingerprints taken from the house identified Fred Dane as gangster Fred Burke who was wanted by police for numerous crimes.
(Dan’s Notes: Both the Roger Cox and the Tracie Hill books on the Colt Thompsons list the St. Valentines Day Massacre gun as serial number 2374. The Herigstad book corrects this, in that number 2347 was in fact the 1921 Colt used in the Massacre as recorded in this article. It was a clerical error in the FBI files that listed 2374 as the weapon seized, and Syd Stembridge had a copy of a letter to that effect from the FBI. Colt 1921 Thompson serial number 2374 was acquired by Stembridge Gun Rentals in the late 1920s, and was registered by them in the 1934 National Firearms Act. It was sold by LMO in 1999. It was number N832 in the Stembridge listings. At the time, it was blanked and had been used in many movies since 1929, the barrel had been replaced, there was no forend, it had a 1928A1 buttstock. It has since been restored.)
The Thompsons found at Burke’s residence were tested and positively identified by Calvin Goddard on December 21, 1929, as the guns used in the massacre. The Thompson with the serial number ground off was identified by Goddard to be Thompson serial number 7580. Goddard was able to determine through the microscopic examination of the seventy .45 caliber shell casings found at the garage that Thompson number 2347 had fired fifty rounds and Thompson number 7580, had fired twenty rounds. The cartridges used in the crime were manufactured by the United States Cartridge Company sometime between July 1927 and July 1928.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre was a milestone for law enforcement as it was one of the earliest cases where forensic evidence was used to identify weapons that had been used in a crime. Unique projectile markings, shell casing extractor marks and firing pin indentations were used to connect Thompson submachine guns serial numbers 2347 and 7580 to the massacre and other crimes, including the New York murder of gangster Frankie Yale in 1928. The murder weapon in the Yale case was Thompson 2347.
Although no individuals were ever charged with the murders, many of the main suspects met untimely, violent deaths. Suspected shooter Fred Burke was arrested and convicted for the murder of the policeman in Michigan receiving a life sentence. Burke died in prison in 1940 of natural causes. Ironically, George Moran outlived all of his would be assassins and Al Capone; Moran died in prison in 1957 of lung cancer.
Thompson number 7580, a Colt 1921AC model with a Cutts compensator, was shipped from the Auto-Ordnance factory on October 19, 1928, as part of a shipment of three other Thompsons and three 50-round L drums. Peter Von Frantzius Sporting Goods, Chicago, Illinois, had purchased the guns. The guns were in turn purchased by salesman Frank V. Thompson who paid cash for the guns and later resold them. He testified later at the Coroner’s inquest that he sold gun 7580, with the serial number removed, to James “Bozo” Shupe of Chicago. When questioned about the gun, Shupe refused to answer. On July 31, 1929 Shupe was found murdered on Chicago’s West Side. At some point the Thompson was passed to Fred “Killer” Burke. The suspected origin of the other Thompson, a 1921A model serial number 2347, and how it ended up in Burke’s possession is conjecture. The gun was alleged to have been purchased by Leslie Farmer, a Deputy Sheriff of Marion County, Illinois. Farmer was reputedly associated with the Eagan’s Rats gang of St Louis, Missouri. Fred Burke was known to have once been a member of the same gang.
The Thompson submachine gun along with the merciless St. Valentine’s Day shooting no doubt figured in the eventual implementation of the 1934 National Firearms Act and the accompanying $200 Federal transfer tax on machine guns. Prior to the passing of the Act, sales of Thompsons and other machine guns were totally unrestricted, and readily available to anyone who could afford the Thompson’s then lofty $200 price tag.
The annual meeting of The American Thompson Association (TATA) was held in Ohio on August 11 and 12, 2006. Coincidently, my birthday falls on August 12, and, unbeknownst to me, I was about to receive quite a memorable birthday surprise. At my age, I like to keep events such as birthdays as low key as possible. However, my son Nick, who runs a popular Internet site for Thompson enthusiasts, apparently announced on the discussion board the significance of the day and I was inundated by birthday greetings the entire weekend.
One of the exhibits at the TATA show that immediately caught my eye was the absolutely fantastic St. Valentines Day Massacre display featuring, of all things, the two original Thompsons used in the shooting. The display was the work of Thompson enthusiast Chuck Schauer who was instrumental in getting the Berrien County, Michigan Sheriff’s Department to bring the guns along for the display. Lt. Michael W. Kline, Quartermaster and PPCT Defensive Tactics Instructor of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, accompanied the Thompsons and assisted Chuck in manning the display. In addition to the two infamous Thompsons, the display included many crime scene photographs and artifacts such as Fred “Killer” Burke’s bulletproof vest. Photos in the display included the alleged planners, shooters, victims and the men of the Coroner’s jury.
The annual Thompson show and shoot is a two-day event. Friday is reserved for viewing the displays, making purchases, meeting up with old friends and making new ones. Saturday morning is the “shoot” portion of the event, consisting of shooting and scoring paper targets, and the popular head to head pepper-popper competition. When Saturday morning arrived we all met at the range. While everyone was busy preparing the range for the day’s activities, Chuck and Mike approached me and asked if I would like to fire one of the Thompsons from the display. At first I was a little stunned and replied, “What Thompson?” I quickly realized that they meant one of THE Thompsons. I quickly replied with an enthusiastic yes! I carefully took the Thompson serial number 2347 from Officer Kline, and gently pulled the actuator knob rearward and inserted a fully loaded 50-round L drum. Taking aim, I squeezed the trigger of the gun to which it replied with a quick bark dumping all fifty .45 caliber bullets downrange without the slightest hesitation. I was smiling so much my face hurt.
Many people look down on gangster history and their artifacts believing it glorifies the criminals. I think of it more as a tribute to the brave and tenacious lawmen that hunted down the criminals and brought them to justice. Good or bad, history is history, and to omit the bad we would fail to learn valuable lessons.
I would like to sincerely thank the following who helped contribute to this article: Chuck Schauer, Lt. Michael Kline, the Berrien County, Michigan Sheriff’s Department and David Albert.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N6 (March 2007)