The Most Spectacular Example of Lawlessness & Gangsterism in the 1920s

Al Capone had the nickname
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the morning of Feb. 14, 1929, five members of George Moran's bootlegging gang and two bystanders were killed simultaneously by machine gun fire in a gang war for control of illegal beer and liquor sales in Chicago. The fact that gangsters had staged a mass killing in broad daylight shocked the people of Chicago and the entire United States.

1 Chicago Beer Wars

When beer and other forms of alcohol were made illegal under Prohibition, organized crime groups stepped in to supply the demand for intoxicating beverages. These bootlegging gangs soon clashed over territory. In Chicago, a gang led by florist Dion O'Bannion controlled illegal liquor sales on the North Side and a gang led by Johnny Torrio controlled the South Side. After several years of gang warfare, North Side gang leader Dion O'Bannion was assassinated in his flower shop and replaced by George "Bugs" Moran. Torrio handed over control of the South Side gang to Al Capone. Even before the massacre, newspapers were referring to this conflict as a war.

2 The Massacre

On Feb. 13, 1929, George Moran received a phone call from someone offering to sell him a truck full of bootleg liquor for a good price. Moran told the caller to have the truck brought to a garage the next day, but the call was a set-up. Moran slept in and didn't make it to the appointment on time, but five of his top gangsters did. While the men were at the garage, a police car pulled up in front of the building and five men got out. Three were wearing police uniforms. The five men went into the garage, lined up Moran's men, a mechanic and another bystander against a wall and shot them all in the head, chest and stomach with machine guns and shotguns.

3 The Aftermath

Most of the victims of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre were killed on the spot, but one of the Moran gunmen died later in the hospital without giving police any useful information. If the massacre was intended to remove George Moran as leader of the North Side mob, it was a failure. However, with his top gunmen the Gusenberg brothers among the victims, Moran was no longer able to present a major threat to Capone's South Side mob. Capone went on to become even more of a celebrity than he already was, while Moran faded into criminal obscurity. The fact that the killings had happened during daylight and that the killers had been dressed as police officers shocked many people. The "Chicago Tribune" ran an editorial asking whether the city was completely under the power of the gangsters.

4 Capone's Conviction

Because Capone benefited from the massacre, most historians believe he was the one who orchestrated it. However, he was definitely not there in person -- he was in Miami. Jonathan Eig, author of "Get Capone," proposed that the massacre was the work of a much less famous gangster, William White. Whoever ordered the killings, the widespread belief that Capone was responsible and the public shock at his defiance of law and order led federal prosecutors to focus on convicting him on any charge they could make stick. Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for 11 years. No one was ever convicted for the massacre itself.

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.