Chicago in the 1920s could be a dangerous place if you got on the wrong side of the wrong people. Smiling Joe Lewis found that out on November 9, 1927.
Lewis was an up-and-coming young cabaret singer. For a year he'd been the star attraction at the Green Mill in Uptown. Then he signed on at the rival Rendezvous Lounge.
One of the Green Mill owners was Machine Gun Jack McGurn. With a nickname like that, you can surmise how McGurn settled his disputes. He warned Lewis that he'd never live to open at the Rendezvous.
Lewis did open, and performed to packed houses. A week later, on the morning of November 9, he was sleeping in his room at the Commonwealth Hotel. There was a knock at the door. Half dozing, Lewis got up and automatically opened it.
Three strangers pushed past him into the room. Two of them brandished guns, the other carried a ten-inch hunting knife. "Just one favor, Joe," the third man said. "Don't yell."
The third man punched the knife into Lewis's jaw and began carving. This went on for maybe a half-hour. When they were satisfied that Lewis had learned his lesson, they left.
Lewis managed to crawl out of his room. The housemaid found him and he was rushed to the hospital. He spent six hours on the operating table. He stayed alive.
The attack on Lewis shocked unshockable Chicago. Within a few months the three attackers turned up dead. McGurn was never connected with the crime. But McGurn's boss, Al Capone, later gave Lewis $10,000 to help pay his medical bills.
Joe Lewis had suffered a fractured skull. He had over a dozen knife wounds in his head. Part of his tongue was cut off. His right arm was paralyzed and his left wasn't much better. His mind was cloudy. He had to be re-taught how to speak.
Though his singing voice was gone, Smiling Joe eventually resumed his career as a nightclub comedian. Now calling himself Joe E. Lewis, he became one of the highest-paid entertainers in Las Vegas. In 1957 Frank Sinatra starred in a film bio of Lewis titled The Joker Is Wild.
Machine Gun Jack McGurn was killed in a bowling alley in 1936. Joe E. Lewis survived him by 35 years