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History of Violence: Chicago During The Capone Era and Today

Chicagoans and non-Chicagoans alike are familiar with the legacy of Al Capone. The king of crime ruled Chicago’s underworld during the “sinful, ginful” 1920s, and experts say he was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murders of between 300 and 700 people.

This reputation — combined with all the violence that’s been reported in Chicago lately — got Hyde Park resident Molly Herron wondering about murder numbers and how violence feels to average Chicagoans. So she wrote to Curious City with a question along these lines: How does Chicago’s gang violence today compare to gang warfare under Al Capone?

It's a good question, because the answer challenges what we think we know about violence and murder in both Capone's time and ours. Yes, there are crime stats that compare violence in the two eras, but those numbers actually obscure the most interesting points of comparison that stretch almost a century, like how people have been killed, who was targeted, and why.

And, spoiler alert: Both eras are pretty sad.

By the numbers

When comparing violence across time in Chicago, there are two reasons to use homicide rates, as opposed to figures such as shootings or “violent crimes.” First, from a legal standpoint, murder is the most serious violent crime. Second, homicides are less likely to go unreported. When someone is killed, there’s a body, and sooner or later someone is going to notice it.

Lastly, homicide rates allow the best apples-to-apples comparisons when adjusting for population. Homicide rates often represent the number of reported homicides per 100,000 residents. That’s important because you’d expect a city with a larger population to have more homicides; what really matters is how many people are killed per a certain portion of the populace. According to Census Bureau records, Capone’s Chicago had about 3.3 million residents, while around 2.7 million residents lived in the city in 2016.

Back to Molly.

Her question implies that violence — murder in particular — in Chicago today is the worst it’s been since, perhaps, the 1920s. And she’s not alone: A good number of people have that impression.

But it’s not true, and here’s how we know.

The period between 1925 to 1931 includes the period when Capone was considered the chieftain of Chicago’s gangland, and it ends with his imprisonment. The average homicide rate during Capone’s reign was about 12 murders per 100,000 residents, according to numbers collected from bulletins of the Chicago Crime Commission and the Illinois Crime Survey of 1929.

Bottom line: The homicide rate was probably lower during the Capone era than in 2016. But it wasn’t much lower than rates seen in the past dozen years or so. It’s also important to point out that murder rates in the Capone era and last year are both lower than rates seen during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

That’s the big picture, but several sources warn against this kind of quantitative comparison — or they suggest taking it with a grain of salt. For one thing, you naturally introduce error when you compare data generated by different agencies. For another, without cross-referencing the historical numbers with coroner’s reports, newspaper articles and state’s attorney’s documents, for example, you can’t do much more than just take those numbers at face value.

That is, the comparison is revealing, but not so precise.

Despite the woolliness involved in comparing Capone-era homicide rates with today’s, though, it’s still useful to compare the two eras when it comes to how people were killed, why they were killed, and who was killed.

What weapons were used?

According to an analysis of Chicago police records by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, 90 percent of Chicago homicides in 2016 involved guns. The crime-related guns recovered most often by the Chicago Police Department were 9mm handguns followed by .44 caliber pistols.

In 1926 the majority of homicides — a little over 70 percent — were committed with guns. But back then, the typical hardware looked a little different.

“The big thing about Al Capone and his gang was they introduced the ‘Tommy gun,’” says Leigh Bienen, director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

Invented for soldiers fighting in World War I, the Thompson submachine gun had a 50-plus-round drum magazine for extended automatic fire. The Tommy gun was Capone’s weapon of choice and became so closely associated with Chicago gang warfare that it was known as the “Chicago typewriter.”

Left: Chicago Police Department Capt. John Stege demonstrates a Thompson submachine gun at police headquarters in 1927. Right: Capt. Stege examines recovered rifles and shotguns in 1929. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0082620, DN-0087280)

The preferred weapon for close-range shooting was the sawed-off shotgun. Made by sawing off the barrels of a shotgun with a hacksaw, the sawed-off shotgun was not particularly accurate, but at close enough range it didn’t really matter; the gun could blast hinges off doors and eradicate a person’s features.

Beyond guns, the bomb was one of the primary tools used by gangsters, according to the authors of the Illinois Crime Survey. “While the bomb, so far, has proved more bark than bite,” they wrote, “it has done much to confirm and aggravate the bad reputation of Chicago as a gang center and crime-ridden community.”

Although other cities struggled with organized crime during Prohibition, only Chicago seemed to have a bomb problem. Capone had his own bomb squad, and members of gambling and liquor syndicates used dynamite to eliminate their competition, scare enemies, and expose corrupt, adversarial politicians. Fragmentation grenades, which look sort of like pineapples, became so associated with the Chicago Outfit’s (often successful) attempts to rig local elections by intimidating voters that they were nicknamed “Chicago pineapples.”

Why were people killed?

According to the Crime Lab report, most shootings and homicides in 2016 stemmed from “some sort of altercation.” A footnote in the report suggests that most of these altercations take place between members of different street gangs. But as Crime Lab analyst Max Kapustin notes, “altercation” may cover anything from a dispute over drug territory to a revenge killing to an argument turned deadly — so “what that means in practice is anyone’s guess.”

In recent years, a growing share of Chicago’s street violence has been attributed to fracturing gang leadership and frayed relationships between civilians and cops. And there is at least a perception that more violence is being used to settle “petty” disputes — some of which arise over social media. “It's oftentimes something really simple, like someone sold [drugs] to someone else's girlfriend or their clothing or whatever,” Kapustin says, but he points out “to [the people committing these acts], it’s not petty. If it’s worth pulling out a gun over, it's quite serious.”

During the 1920s, the most visible cause of violence in Chicago was organized crime. Alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and extortion were just a few of the rackets Capone was involved in. During Prohibition, alcohol trafficking was lucrative enough that it led to some of the most publicized murders and acts of violence during the conflicts that became known as Chicago’s Beer Wars.

But gangsters didn’t just kill each other over bootlegging territory. One illustrative case is the murder of Joe Howard, a small-time crook with no known gang affiliation.

Howard had been arrested on burglary charges and was known to police as a “dynamiter” — meaning he tossed bombs into liquor establishments if they didn’t pay him money. In 1924, Howard held up Jack Guzik — a sort of fixer and financial manager to Capone — outside a South Side gambling house. During the holdup, Howard said something insulting about Capone, Guzik’s boss. Word got around and Capone — not one to stand for an insult — told one of his guys to go find Howard.

From there, stories diverge. One story has it that Capone’s guy found Howard at a bar, gave him a few drinks, and when Howard was good and drunk, Capone was called and came and shot him. Another is that Capone’s guy shot Howard himself. Either way, Howard ended up dead — all because he called Capone a “pimp.” (Of course, Capone was a pimp; he just didn’t like to be called one.)

Saloons and gambling houses were frequent sites of bombing, by competitor syndicates as well as 'dynamiters' -- a.k.a. professional extortionists. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0007393)

Keep in mind that there were plenty of gang murders that had nothing to do with Capone. Even during periods of relative peace between gang leadership in Chicago, underlings and peripheral figures carried out “guerilla wars.” Violence flared-up, too, when political leadership in the city (and so gang protection) shifted.

Leigh says violence was broadly used during the 1920s as a means of “social and political control.” 

Who was killed? 

On the internet, you’ll find a common trope about how violence in 2016 seems “random” compared to the more “targeted” violence of Capone’s era — a view that Molly had been leaning towards, too. When the Chicago Tribune reported on a January 2016 killing at a Chicago Hyatt hotel, for example, the article’s comment thread (now cleared out) referred to the difference between violence today and during the 1920s. “Chicago saw less blood spilled during the days of Al Capone,” wrote one commenter. Another added, “It was more targeted and less random back then.” A third: “At least they weren’t killing innocent people, they killed who they were after, much more professional.”

When it comes to which era actually had more “targeted” violence, Kapustin says that’s tough to sort out. For one thing, he says, you can’t really know how “random” a homicide is without knowing who the intended target was. In some cases it’s obvious, but in many others, it’s not clear. Without contextual details — which arrive later, if ever — most acts of violence seem random. And, Kapustin says, “even targeted killings are often carried out in a way that is anything but targeted.” And that’s how you end up with bystanders killed.

The takeaway: Evidence suggests both eras experienced targeted as well as non-targeted violence. And, particularly in the Capone era, targeted victims weren’t limited to other “gangsters.”

During the 1920s, violence was targeted, but targeted victims included lawyers, newspaper reporters, police officers, saloon owners, and testifying witnesses. This was in part because organized crime was so intertwined with politics and business in the city.

Take the case of the 1926 murder of William McSwiggin, the assistant state’s attorney who tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute Capone for the murder of Joe Howard two years earlier. McSwiggin, along with two North Side gangsters, was gunned down outside a Capone-controlled bar called the Pony Inn. There are a couple of theories about what motivated the murder: a territorial execution of the O’Donnell brothers, who had a growing feud with Capone, in which McSwiggin became an unlucky bystander; or a retaliatory slaying against McSwiggin for the case he had aggressively prosecuted against Capone.

When Chicago police did investigate a murder, particularly one thought to be perpetrated by members of a crime syndicate, they hit a powerful wall of silence — a case of so-called “Chicago amnesia.” Gangsters faced a powerful stigma against “rats” and “squealers,” and civilian witnesses were hesitant to testify, lest they be killed. In 1926 and 1927, as reported by the Illinois Crime Survey, Chicago police didn’t solve a single gang murder.

This makes it hard to determine whether victims were directly involved (as, say, peripheral racketeers) or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s evidence to suggest, however, that there were cases of mistaken identity. During the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for example, the shooters didn’t kill George “Bugs” Moran, their intended target.

And — although it didn’t happen all that often —  bystanders were liable to get caught in the crossfire, just as they are today.

Left: Although they were known for their accuracy, machine guns didn't always hit their targets. (Chicago Tribune, 1931) Right: A witness in a kidnapping trial murdered in a saloon in 1928. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0086947)

Beyond gangs

Today’s definition of a “gang” or “gangster” is slippery, and it was during the 1920s, too. Kapustin says “the gang landscape today in Chicago is extremely fluid and extremely fractured”— so any determination of gang membership by CPD is “at best going to be off of somewhat outdated, somewhat incomplete information, and at worst very outdated, very incomplete information.”

Even so, in its report on Chicago gun violence, the Crime Lab found that between 2015 and 2016 the percentage of homicides suspected to have been committed by gang members fell, while the percentage committed by non-gang members rose.

Similarly, during the 1920s, a growing portion of crimes were committed outside traditional “gangs.”

The Chicago Taxi Wars, for example, were disputes between employees of two major taxi companies: Yellow Cab and Checkered Cab. Throughout the 1920s, drivers shot at each other’s cars — sometimes while passengers were inside — and the casualties were highly publicized. Ostensibly driven by economic and territorial issues, the Taxi Wars were also personal, as many of the Checkered drivers had been fired by Yellow Cab and held grudges against their former employer.

The public’s lack of faith in law enforcement to solve murders led to vigilante justice and revenge murders. “Private justice was substituted for criminal justice,” a Chicago Tribune reporter wrote in the aftermath of a 1924 killing. That particular story had started with the murder of a cab driver. When the accused assailant appeared in court, the cabbie’s father shot him, purportedly because he had no faith that the assassin would be punished. A writer for Chicago American continued the story: “The slaying in the County Building was a commentary on the cheapness of human life in Cook County.”

As the authors of the Illinois Crime Survey saw it, the most insidious effect of Chicago gang violence of the 1920s was not the dissolution of society into “lawlessness”: It was that the gangster supplanted the legal system of law and order with a system of his own. He used force to accomplish and guarantee trade regulations, to free himself from competition, to resolve conflicts and settle disagreements, to reward his friends and punish his enemies. And other people saw him do it. And simultaneously they saw corruption among judges, abuses by police, and the selfishness of politicians.

These people felt themselves, often rightly, to be disadvantaged in a world that was dead set against them. And they saw the gangster get ahead.

Parting thought: How did the violence feel?




The fact that our questioner, Molly, selected the 1920s as the comparison point — as opposed to, say, the 1980s or 1990s — says something about the way violent crime is covered. Why did she choose the Prohibition period?

“It’s the most violent time I could think of in Chicago history,” she says. As we know, Capone’s era was likely not the city’s most violent, but it’s understandable to connect the two time periods that way.  Real violence in both eras — ours and the 1920s — has been sensationalized by the media. “Sure, we have crime here,” said Mayor William Hale Thompson in 1928. “Chicago is just like any other big city … except we print our crime and they don’t.”

In the 1920s most Chicagoans heard about citywide crime through newspapers, which were published about three times daily but focused readers’ attention on just a few dramatized, operatic stories.

It was quite different from today’s coverage, which involves a 24-hour news cycle and an ongoing scroll of Twitter and Facebook posts about the latest shooting or weekend body count.

Compared to the way crime was covered in the 1920s, today’s coverage “makes you feel it's more pervasive than it is,” says Leigh. “But it also trivializes it, in a weird way.”

More about our questioner

Courtesy Molly Herron

Molly Herron has always been fascinated by the American Mafia. Like Capone, she moved to Chicago from New York City — 18 years ago, in her case — and lives on the South Side. She’s a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, and she works with a number of folks who regularly experience Chicago gang violence and the trauma that comes with it.

For Molly, the experience of violence comes mostly through the news. That changed last summer, when her son witnessed a drive-by shooting while playing baseball at a park near their home.

Molly says she loves Chicago and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Still, she isn’t blind to the fact that there is violence in the city — and many people don’t have the choice to escape or look past it.

Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project — and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor — Leigh Bienen offers this advice to Molly: “For people who are really interested in murder and want to do something about it, look at the criminal justice system in the city. Is it effectively dealing with murder? Is it really as bad as we think it is? Is it the way we think it is? And so, then, what do we do about it?”

Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s intern. Find more of her work at maggiesivit.zone


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