Thompson Submachine Gun Has its Start in Chicago

July 1, 2009

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INTRO: Tommy guns and Chicago bad guys are on the big screen again. Johnny Depp stars as John Dillinger in the new film "Public Enemies," which opens in theaters today. "Eight Forty Eight" contributor Robert Loerzel takes a look at Chicago's role in the history of the machine gun.

LOERZEL: Tommy guns got their start in World War One. Armies were stalemated in trench warfare. AN American general named John T. Thompson came up with an idea. Thompson began working on a HAND-HELD MACHINE GUN that could spray a hundred bullets in a few seconds. William Helmer is the author of "The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar." He says Thompson hoped his gun would help American doughboys win the war.

HELMER INTERVIEW, 3:07 — He called it his trench boom. Once you got up to a trench you could sweep it ... from side to side.

LOERZEL: But Thompson was too late. By the time his submachine gun was ready, the war was over. And Thompson didn't have much luck selling the gun to the military or police. So his company started selling it to the public. A few years later, Chicago gangsters discovered the Tommy gun. Local historian Richard Lindberg tells the story.

LINDBERG INTERVIEW, 4:17 — The weapon was used for the first time in Chicago in 1925, when a South Side bootlegger named Edward "Spike" O'Donnell was standing at the corner of 63rd and Western outside of a drugstore. ... 4:46 — A caravan of cars came by and Frankie McErlane ... 4:59 — began firing a trajectory of bullets at Spike. Now, his aim was bad and the kick of the gun caused the bullets to fly over Spike's head and embed in the brickwork above the Weiss drugstore. Spike survived the attack unhurt. 5:34 — Even today at 63rd and Western, you can see the line of bullets embedded in the brick.

LOERZEL: Pretty soon, the Tommy gun was a standard piece in the Chicago gang arsenal. Lindberg describes what happened IN 1926 when the North Side mob attacked Al Capone's headquarters in Cicero.

LINDBERG INTERVIEW, 7:19 — Capone was having breakfast that morning in the little café restaurant facing 22nd Street. 7:38 — And this armada of cars drove slowly past the Hawthorne Hotel, spraying the Thompson submachine gun bullets at everybody who was inside the restaurant. 8:10 — Capone was unscathed, unhurt. He was thrown to the floor by his bodyguard, Frank Rio, and survived. But the force of these bullets completely tore apart the restaurant. It was in a shambles.

LOERZEL: Chicago already had a bad reputation for crime, but this was when it became known around the world as a violent mob city. The machine gun became known as the "Chicago typewriter." The gun starred in movies, newsreels, radio shows and even blues songs.

"GANG BUSTERS" RADIO SHOW — ANNOUNCER: Gang Busters! (siren, machine gun) Emergency flash! A crime wave of the most serious proportions is spreading throughout the United States.

SONG, "MACHINE GUN BLUES" By WILLE "61" BLACKWELL, 0:19-0:31 — I'm going to buy me a machine gun, and a car load of exploding balls.

"LITTLE CAESAR" QUOTE — COP: This is your last chance, Rico. Are you coming out or do you want to be carried out? (Machine gun fire.)

SONG, "MACHINE GUN BLUES" By WILLE "61" BLACKWELL, 2:30-2:40 — I feel like snapping my typewriter in your face. I'm still talking about my typewriter...

"SCARFACE" QUOTE 1: (Machine gun fire)

SCARFACE: Hey, look it. They got machine guns you can carry! If I had some of them, I could run the whole works in a month.

SONG, "MACHINE GUN BLUES" BY PEETIE WHEATSTRAW, 0:20-0:40 — Speakeasy, speakeasy, I let my machine gun rest. It has been smoking all night long, ooh, and you sure knows the rest.

"SCARFACE" QUOTE 2: SCARFACE: There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders, and this is it. Some little typewriter, eh? I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it in big letters.

JOHNNY: Stop or somebody—

SCARFACE: Get out of my way, Johnny, I'm gonna spit! (machine gun fire)

LOERZEL: One of the most notorious Tommy-gun crimes took place on February 14, 1929.

"THIS IS YOUR FBI" RADIO SHOW: The trigger-happy gunman walked into a Chicago garage wearing a stolen police uniform and mowed down seven men — a killing that became famous as the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

LOERZEL: There was a huge public outcry. Legislators in Springfield pushed for a law prohibiting machine guns. Illinois Governor Louis Emmerson signed the ban in 1931. And by the time "Scarface" came out in 1932, the Chicago gangster who inspired the movie was headed to prison for tax evasion.

CAPONE NEWSREEL: That's the end of Mr. Capone and his last glimpse of the outside world for many a day to come.

LOERZEL: In 1933 and '34, a new crime wave hit America. John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, the Barker gang and other desperadoes made headlines with bank heists, kidnappings and murders. Some of them hung out in Chicago. Author William Helmer says Dillinger got his machine guns by raiding police stations and armories.

HELMER INTERVIEW, 16:21 — Stole a couple of machine guns, a bunch of bulletproof vests, a bunch of ammo. Hit a cop over the head with a pistol butt.

LOERZEL: THOSE ACTIONS PARTLY LED TO REGULATION. Franklin Roosevelt's attorney general declared a war on crime, and Congress debated a bill to regulate machine guns. Rifleman magazine warned that the Feds were trying to disarm the American people, but the National Rifle Association said the bill was reasonable. IN 1934, FDR signed the National Firearms Act THAT REQUIRED TOMMY GUN OWNERS TO pay a $200 tax and get permission from the Feds and your local police chief. On July 22, less than a month after FDR signed the law, FBI agents shot Dillinger outside the Biograph Theatre.

DILLINGER NEWSREEL QUOTE: And so ends the career of John Herbert Dillinger, a bullet-riddled carcass on a morgue slab.

LOERZEL: But Helmer says the 1934 law did not keep machine guns away from bad guys.

HELMER INTERVIEW, 24:40 — Criminals didn't have any trouble getting them. They had all kinds of black-market sources.

LOERZEL: John Thompson, the man who made the submachine gun, was not happy when he saw his weapon used by criminals like Capone and Dillinger. Helmer quotes what Thompson said near the end of his life.

HELMER INTERVIEW, 35:27 — It has so grieved me that evil men have stolen my gun and used it for purposes outside our motto, "On the side of law and order."

SCARFACE QUOTE 4: (Machine gun fire)

SCARFACE: Ha ha ha ha ha! Ah, look at them monkeys there!

SONG, "MACHINE GUN BLUES" BY PEETIE WHEATSTRAW, 2:25-2:46 (end of track) — I had a little pal, thought the world and all o' me. He looked at me and said, "Ooh, boy, please let your machine gun be."

LOERZEL: Congress outlawed the manufacture of machine guns in 1986. By that time, sophisticated assault weapons were available. Those guns are semiautomatic, so they aren't covered by the laws regulating machine guns. Lindberg says the Tommy gun had already fallen out of favor with gangsters.
 
LINDBERG INTERVIEW, 25:34 — You could take an automatic weapon like the Thompson gun that weighed maybe 20 pounds and just get a small handheld thing that had the same deadly effect. So the gun became obsolete.
 
LOERZEL: BUT NOT BEFORE THEY DID AWAY WITH HUNDREDS OF LIVES. Chicago's deadliest year in the Roaring Twenties was 1928, when 333 murders or manslaughters were committed with MACHINE guns. AND TODAY, THE VIOLENCE CONTINUES WITH SMALLER WEAPONS. Chicago had 226 gang-related murders last year. That's three times worse than the annual death toll from gangs in the Capone era.

LOERZEL: For WBEZ, I'm Robert Loerzel.