It’s surprisingly difficult to get at the facts behind the history of organized crime. The topic doesn’t typically attract the attention of Ivy League history departments. And most of the key witnesses to significant events—rub-outs and the like—are either dead, because they’re the victims of organized crime, or are themselves criminals, and thus professional liars. Then there’s the challenge of penetrating the fog of sentimentality perpetuated by films from The Godfather on down.
Yet, as is proven by countless volumes lousy with hearsay—and an astonishing number of websites catering to a curious breed of mafia hobbyist—it can be fun and profitable to romanticize old-school sociopaths.
John J. Binder is not in that business.
Anyone who’s watched a documentary about the Chicago Outfit—as Chi-town’s mob has come to be known—has likely seen Binder with his walrus mustache and thick mop of salt-and-pepper hair as he supplies expert commentary in his splendid Chicago accent.
Binder may now be able to claim the title of leading scholar of organized crime in Chicago thanks to Al Capone’s Beer Wars, his new 400-plus-page book about what really happened in the vice-ridden Windy City between 1920 and 1933. This, of course, is when Prohibition kicked in. And all students of mob history agree that America’s disastrous experiment in outlawing booze was the greatest gift the bad guys ever received.
Binder approaches his topic with the academic rigor you’d expect from a retired professor with a Ph.D. in finance and economics from the University of Chicago. A diligent—if not obsessive—investigator, he ferrets out untapped primary sources and submits them to statistical analysis.
Based on a meticulous examination of 729 Prohibition-era gangland murders documented in a Chicago Crime Commission study, for example, he argues that there were far fewer bootlegging-related killings in Chicago than had been believed.
“Everyone has seen the numbered list,” Binder told me when I interviewed him in
Chicago. “But no one studied the victims case by case to determine who they were—the what, where, and how they died.”
Binder and an equally indefatigable colleague, Mars Eghigian Jr., the author of a biography of Capone’s successor Frank Nitti, did just that. Their study was published in an academic journal.
“If you go and look at each individual case and study the weapons used and the motives,” Binder said, the evidence suggests that “virtually every conclusion about gangland killings in Chicago during Prohibition is wrong.”
Of the 729 killings, just 41 percent were related to bootlegging, and only 140 of the victims were members of an established bootlegging mob, according to Binder.
Binder also tackles the conventional wisdom that the Tommy gun was the weapon of choice for mob hits. Not so, he said, because automatic weapons are very inaccurate.
“If you’re trying to not hit bystanders, and you’re trying to just hit the target, that becomes a bit of a problem,” he said. “In terms of gangland killings, which are essentially assassinations, quite often a pistol or a shotgun is sufficient. If you can’t kill the victim or victims with a pistol or a shotgun, you’re in the wrong profession.”
None of which is to say that Chicago wasn’t a pretty dangerous place back in the day, as Binder reminds us in his book by quoting from a 1932 newspaper advertisement: “Bullet Holes Rewoven Perfectly in Damaged Clothes—Low Price.”
Among Binder’s other findings: The Beer Wars were not simply a conflict between the Italian Capone South Side gang and the Irish North Side gang. Nor were these gangs by any means the only gangs involved in bootlegging. At the start of 1924, there were 12 major bootlegging gangs in Chicago. By 1932, 11 major bootlegging mobs remained inside the city limits.
“This Irish North Side vs. all Italian South Side, that’s a laughable description of the ethnic development of the city of Chicago,” he said.
Capone’s gang was admirably inclusive. His chief lieutenants included Jake “the Greasy Thumb” Guzik, who was Jewish, and Murray Humphries, a Welshman.
And the nominally Irish North Side gangs were not exclusively Irish.
“If you look at the leaders of the North Side gang from Dean O’Banion to Bugs Moran,” Binder said, “only one of them was Irish and that was O’Banion.”
Bugs Moran, the intended target of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, was actually the child of French immigrants who arrived in Chicago via Canada. And his predecessor, the not-very-Irish-sounding Hymie Weiss, was not, as his name suggests, Jewish.
“He was buried in a Catholic cemetery,” Binder reports. “He carried a Bible around with him every day.”
Binder spends nine pages refuting the claim in a recent Capone biography that
Capone did not order the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. And he disputes the theory promulgated by a prominent Chicago newspaper columnist that Capone was a figurehead who took the heat for the true Outfit leader, Paul “The Waiter” Ricca.
Binder also challenges the widely accepted notion that the execution of seven of Bugs Moran’s men in the garage on North Clark Street on Valentine’s Day in 1929 promptly ended the Irish North Side Gang.
“There’s this myth that starts the day after [the massacre],” Binder says. “You have headlines in at least two papers, ‘Moran Gang Wiped Out.’ I have no idea who conjured that up. Because it’s easy to name 15 top guys, major guys, in the North Side Gang who were still alive, plus the probably 200-plus gunmen who were in that gang.”
Capone, with his roly-poly figure and comic book face, was a curious mix of pop-culture anti-hero and brutal killer, a gangster who couldn’t resist speaking to the press—always a bad idea for a mob boss. He is often referred to as both an organizational genius—and something of a clown. So how smart was Capone?
“I don’t think Capone was stupid by any means,” Binder said. “He had the two major skills required of a gang leader, especially a gang leader during gang wars. One, he had the military ability. He could lead a gang effectively and fight his enemies during the Beer Wars.”
The second talent was, of course, his business savvy.
“An army, regardless of how big it is, runs on something. There has to be an economy it runs on,” Binder said. And Capone “effectively ran a multi-million-dollar business empire.”
Given Binder’s deep knowledge of Capone and the Outfit leaders who succeeded him, I found it hard to resist running a few other mob legends past him.
First, Binder doesn’t believe the stories that Capone had squirreled away millions, money that he could not locate after his release from prison once syphilis-related dementia had set in.
“It’s nonsense to think there’s a lost Capone fortune,” Binder said. “Capone spent it as fast as he got it. He kept thinking that there’s always going to be more. “
What about Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana’s widely cited claim that the Outfit swung the 1960 election in favor of JFK?
“There’s no convincing evidence, and some of the assertions are worse than empty,” Binder said.
In 1960, certain Democratic wards in Chicago were entirely controlled by the Outfit. “They called the shots. They appointed the political leaders of the ward. They appointed the alderman,” he said, adding that these were wards that “regularly voted 85, 90 percent Democratic. Therefore, Jack Kennedy, an Irish American Catholic, was especially popular in some of those wards and got a very large plurality.”
The districts hardly needed the Outfit’s strong arm to sway them. But after Kennedy’s overwhelming victory in Chicago, Giancana “shot his mouth off and took credit for it,” Binder said.
Is it true the mob stayed out of the narcotics business?
Not really, according to Binder.
“Even during Prohibition, there are a number of references to Capone being involved in narcotics. It’s a myth that the Chicago mob didn’t touch narcotics,” said Binder. “As a friend of mine says, ‘they did everything else. Why would they shy away from narcotics?’”
Did the mob kill JFK?
“No evidence whatsoever. Lots of innuendo and assertions. Because on this side of the Atlantic, if you want to concoct a good conspiracy theory, it must involve the mob and the Kennedys. This is what people do to sell books.”
Binder, though, is not averse to earning a buck from his expertise. Along with a partner, he owns a huge collection of photos of Chicago mobsters and mob hits, which he routinely licenses to the producers of TV mob documentaries.
Binder’s book, naturally, is sprinkled with 114 photos from his archives. It’s a gruesome gallery of scary-looking dudes and grotesque murders, and I for one am grateful that the photos are in black and white.
“I have some mob hits, color photos, from the ’60s and ’70s, and those can be quite vivid with the red,” Binder said, “especially when they put the shotgun right up to someone’s head and take off parts of the anatomy. You tend to bleed out quite a bit.”
Binder’s collection now includes about 2,500 photos.
“It began as a hobby,” he told me with a smile, “and got totally out of control.”