A different St. Valentine's Day story

February 14, 2012

If you're from Chicago, you probably know about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven men were gunned down at the SMC Cartage garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. Most of the dead men were members of the Bugs Moran bootlegging gang. The killings were thought to be ordered by rival gang lord, Al Capone.

Listen to John Schmidt discuss this post on Eight Forty-Eight

After 83 years, there's not much new to be said about the massacre itself. So I'm going to be talking about a neglected postscript.

The original Scarface was one of the movie hits of 1932. As the name suggests, it's a thinly-disguised biography of Capone. Paul Muni is the star.

About halfway through the story, Scarface decides to eliminate rival mobster Gaffney, played by Boris Karloff. Gaffney learns of the plot and disappears. But he can't stay put. One night he goes bowling.

Meanwhile, Scarface is at the theater when word comes that Gaffney has been spotted. So Scarface and some henchmen head for the bowling alley. And they don't take their bowling equipment with them.

Out on the lanes, Gaffney is happily spilling pins."Now watch this one," he tells the guy next to him. He grabs his ball and trots to the line.

Just as Gaffney lets go of the ball, gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor. But the camera follows the ball down the lane. The ball hits the pins and they scatter--all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally falling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene. They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of the slowly toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen. In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original. That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too. Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white. Among them was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.

You may remember Machine Gun Jack as the man responsible for the attack on comedian Joe E. Lewis. History records McGurn as the planner of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Some writers claim he was the lead gunman.

McGurn was a sportsman. He was a scratch golfer and an expert bowler. Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

On St. Valentine's Evening in 1936, McGurn decided to roll a few lines. Along with two friends he drove into the city. They arrived at Avenue Recreation, 805 N. Milwaukee Avenue, about midnight.

McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl. Suddenly, three armed men rushed in, announcing a stickup. During the confusion one of the intruders ran up to McGurn and pumped three slugs into him.

Machine Gun Jack died on alley two with a house ball in his hands. One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body:

You've lost your job,

You've lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know--

You haven't lost your trousers.

The murder was never solved. What's unmistakable is the eerie echo of Gaffney's death in Scarface. Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it. Once again, life imitates art.

Happy St. Valentine's Day.