St. Valentine's Day Massacre
2122 N. Clark St.

Site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre

looking southeast on the site-looking northeast on the site

Tree marking the spot of the rear wall against which Moran's men were lined up and shot-Tree marking the spot of the rear wall against which Moran's men were lined up and shot

2003 NB

I visited the site on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon. I didn't believe the ghost stories--which said the echoes of screams and gunfire still reverberated from the lot and dogs walking by on leashes suddenly turned and barked at it--not because I don't find ghost stories plausible, but because, at the Web site where I read them, they seemed so contrived. Still, I appreciated the cloak of sunshine and streams of passersby as I approached the lot where the S.M.C. Cartage garage once stood. As I walked the length of the sidewalk along the lot, then walked back, a hush seemed to surround me. The street is very narrow here, walled off by stone homes on both sides, and the murmur of pedestrians' voices and whooshing of passing cars seemed to fade. It wasn't supernatural, but it wasn't just my imagination either. What was my imagination was that the people now passing the iron fence along the lot were all beginning to look stout and five or ten years older than they actually were, like Al Capone himself. I was psyching myself out as I approached the tree awkwardly sprouting from the middle of the lot, marking the place where the rear wall of the garage stood. I reached the tree and then flinched as a man appeared in the window of the adjacent townhouse--no doubt wondering what some nut with a camera was doing looking at a tree in the middle of a vacant lot. He looked like Capone, too. On the walk back home I was staring at the ground, calming myself, when I stopped short at the sight of streams of red berry juice on the sidewalk, not unlike (it seemed at the time) the blood in the pictures on the front pages of local newspapers the morning after the infamous shooting. Now I was really psyching myself out. Before I got home I was relieved to be confronted by a yellow jacket the size of a size C battery that hovered right in front of my chest. I froze and clenched my fist. It was great to be freaking out about something normal again.

The S.M.C. Cartage site was appropriately deserted. When I visited, a couple dumpsters were parked in the lot, bearing debris from a renovation of the seniors home to the north. For years, of course, the city wanted to forget about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the warehouse where it happened. But after the tourism binge of the 1990s and yuppification of Lincoln Park, I was glad, and amazed, that no one had built a gangster-themed diner on the site (oh great, I just gave some idiot entrepreneur an idea). The lot is not completely deserted; author Richard Lindberg reports that the site is visited by thousands of tourists each year. But if the site is not exactly haunted, it is indeed desolate.

On the morning of February 14, 1929, seven men--six mobsters of Bugs Moran and a young optometrist who hung out with them for kicks--had gathered at the S.M.C. Cartage garage expecting a shipment of bootlegged whiskey from Detroit. Instead, late in the morning, a police car pulled up outside and five men got out, three in police uniforms and two in trenchcoats. Apparently Moran himself had already come and gone from the garage, although one Web site says he had just pulled up and high-tailed it out of there when he saw the police car. The three pseudo-policemen went inside and told Moran's men they were on a raid. The gangsters presumably believed the visitors, or else they would have put up a fight. As soon as the seven men were lined up facing the back wall, the two men in trenchcoats entered with machine guns and opened fire, felling each of their helpless targets. One report says the pseudo-police then escorted the men in trenchcoats back out of the garage with their hands up so as to dupe neighbors into believing the situation was under control. But Lindberg says the cops came just a few minutes later and discovered the grisly scene of the seven bodies on the ground. The tethered dog of one of the Moran men was barking hysterically. Six of the men (including the optometrist) were dead; the seventh briefly regained consciousness in the hospital long enough to tell police, "Nobody shot me," and then died.

"Only Capone kills guys like that!" said Bugs Moran upon hearing of the massacre. His rival was indeed responsible for the strike that crippled Moran's North Side gang, but with no eyewitnesses--and with Capone in Florida at the time--there was no evidence with which to lock anyone up. Capone was never arrested and the gunmen were not identified for another six years (upon a jailhouse confession by one of Capone's low-ranking thugs). The massacre did, however, ruin Capone's popular reputation; the public thought he had gone too far, and in 1930, he was named "Public Enemy Number One" by the Chicago Crime Commission.

The S.M.C. garage on Clark Street was torn down in 1967--some twenty years after an owner unaware of its history tried to open an antiques store in the building (more visitors wanted to see the building than his antiques)--but the 414 bricks from the back wall were salvaged by zany promoter George Patey, who reassembled the the men's room of his Vancouver nightclub in the 1970s. Apparently the bricks were subsequently being sold via the Web site www.caponewall.com, but the site went offline in 2003.  -NB

-Picture of crowd gathering outside the S.M.C. garage after the massacre from the Chicago Historical Society.
-More about Al Capone and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre from the Chicago Historical Society
-More about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre from MysteryNet.com (beware dubious accuracy) 
-More about the 414 bricks from Mario Gomes' Al Capone museum
-FBI file on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre
-More about Al Capone from PBS.org 
-See chapter on St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Return to the Scene of the Crime (listed here) by Richard Lindberg.


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma