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History of the Chicago Mob

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Organized crime has played a major role in the history of many American cities. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Chicago mob and see how they rose to prominence, as well as find out what happened to them.

The Chicago Mob

Have you ever watched any of those old gangster movies? There are some great ones out there, full of drama and excitement. But far from the studios of Hollywood, a very real gangster history exists. We're not talking about petty theft or violence purely for the sake of violence, what we're talking about is true organized crime, criminal efforts focused on making money through tightly-controlled and managed organizations.

These crime syndicates operate at a very high level of sophistication, featuring their own ranks of bureaucratic administration, distribution, and muscle. Of the powerful organized crime syndicates in the United States, few have achieved the power and influence of the Chicago Outfit, a branch of the American Mafia. It may seem the stuff of movies, but the Chicago Outfit has had a very real impact on American history.

Origins

To understand the Chicago Outfit, we have to step back a bit into the late 19th century. American industry was booming, bringing immigrants to major cities in droves. However, in an era of intense economic competition, political corruption, and no government regulation of business, workers were paid very little and treated very poorly.

Many turned to crime, organizing street gangs in cities like Chicago. The criminal markets were established, networks were formed, and the only thing left was to organize them. The people to take that opportunity were immigrants mostly from Southern Italy who had experienced the organized crime syndicates that dominated Naples and Sicily.

As the mob grew in American cities, they took control of drug, gambling, and prostitution rings, and became substantially wealthy. They also relied heavily on extortion, relying on what was called the Black Hand, or threatening violence unless paid off. Basically, people had to pay the mob in order to be protected from the mob. The name, Black Hand, comes from extortion letter demanding payment that was stamped with a black hand.

Rise of the Outfit

The Chicago Outfit was founded in this world of growing organized crime. Its growth was really thanks to Giacomo 'Big Jim' Colosimo, who consolidated the Outfit's power and wealth through hundreds of brothels. However, they really became a world-famous criminal institution thanks to the Eighteenth Amendment. This constitutional amendment outlawed alcohol, introducing a period known as Prohibition in 1920.

With alcohol now illegal, the Chicago Outfit found a new crime opportunity. Colosimo's nephew, Giovanni 'Papa Johnny' Torrio, wanted the Outfit to focus on beer and liquor, but Colosimo disagreed. So, Torrio had Colosimo killed, and started expanding the Outfit's focus.

Giacomo Colosimo
Colosimo

As The Chicago Outfit developed the underground markets for alcohol sales, they started moving into other gangs' territories, sparking a bloody period in the city called the Beer Wars. The Chicago Outfit controlled the South Side of Chicago, the Irish-American gangs controlled the north, and violence erupted between these groups. Torrio retired after an attempt on his life. He handed over the Outfit to a man whom he had brought in back in 1919, and who had quickly risen through the ranks: Alphonse Capone.

Al Capone
Al Capone

The Outfit under Capone

The Chicago Outfit reached its heyday under Al Capone. Throughout the late 20s, the Outfit bought out almost the entire Chicago police force, dominated illegal alcohol transport, or bootlegging, and became extraordinarily wealthy. How much money did they have? They literally could not get rid of it fast enough. Capone and the Chicago Outfit ended up opening soup kitchens, and other charity organizations, just to get rid of their money. In an era when the government wasn't helping anybody, and corrupt businesses extorted workers, this made Capone a folk hero. There are actually stories of people standing to applaud for Capone when he walked into a room, or was recognized at a baseball game.

Soup kitchen

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