Valentine’s Day 1920′s Style
If you’re not feeling all lovey-dovey this Valentine’s Day, then read on. Instead of discussing romance and passion, I thought we’d take a look at something that happened on this day 85 years ago, something so unromantic that it will take your mind off flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. What happened all those years ago would forever solidify the link between Chicago and gangsters of the Roaring Twenties. Yes, the event I’m talking about is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
While conducting research for my novel DOLLFACE I discovered that Chicagoans have a perverse sense of pride where this lineage is concerned. Its legend is woven into the city’s history and people are endlessly fascinated by the bloodshed and what led up to it.
So travel back in time with me to the days of Prohibition. The Volstead Act or the ‘Noble Experiment’ as it was called, went into effect in January of 1920 and gave rise to the country’s most notorious gangsters, especially in Chicago. The demand for alcohol presented profitable opportunities for many streetwise young men, including the twenty-one-year old Al Capone who controlled Chicago’s Southside Gang. His rivals in the Northside Gang were providing liquor to their territory and guarding their turf with Tommy guns and their own band of gangsters.
If both gangs had stayed on their own sides of town, all may have been fine, but that wasn’t the case. Chicago soon became embroiled in the infamous Beer Wars, which resulted in five years of bloody warfare that culminated in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Though there was no polar vortex on the morning of February 14th, 1929, Chicago temperatures were hovering in the teens. And what happened sent a chill through the nation. Bugs Moran, the remaining leader of the NorthSide Gang, was told that a special lorry of hooch was being delivered to his garage at the SMC Cartage Company located at 2122 N. Clark Street at half past ten in the morning. Bugs was the obvious target and had he not been late—conflicting reports say that he’d stopped for a haircut, or simply overslept—he would have met with the gruesome death that left seven of his underlings brutally murdered by nearly 100 bullets.
There are many theories as to who was the architect of this bloodbath, but most fingers point toward Capone, even though he was down in Florida at the time. Others insist it was Detroit’s Purple Gang. But regardless of who masterminded this infamous hit, a lot of serious planning went into pulling it off. Whoever it was sent a police car to the garage and dressed his hit men in police uniforms, posing as officers conducting a raid. Two “policemen” and two plain clothes men—all with concealed Thompson submachine guns—went into the garage on the pretense of a raid and opened fire on the men before fleeing the mock arrest.
A mass slaughter like this had never occurred before and it shocked the city, the country and the world. The horror of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre resulted in ordinary, law-abiding citizens demanding an end to the gangland violence. It also fueled the fight to repeal Prohibition.
So thanks in part to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, liquor is legal again and it’s a good thing, because I can’t imagine celebrating Valentine’s Day without a toast or two or three. Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day.
Renée Rosen is an advertising copywriter who always had a novel in her desk drawer. When she saw the chance to make the leap from writing ad copy to fiction, she jumped at it. A confirmed history and book nerd, Renée loves all things old, all things Chicago and all things written. A graduate of American University in D.C., Renée has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Complete Woman, DAME, Publisher’s Weekly and several other now sadly defunct publications. She is the author of Every Crooked Pot and Dollface, A Novel of the Roaring Twenties. She lives in Chicago where she is currently working on a new novel, What The Lady Wants: A Novel of the Gilded Age coming from Penguin/NAL fall 2014.