Giovanni “Papa Johnny” Torrio – Chicago Outfit Boss in the 1920’s

Giovanni “Papa Johnny” Torrio ran Chicago’s Mafia in the 1920s, building it from a prostitution racket into an illegal liquor empire. His feud with Irish-American bootleggers led to the worst violence in the history of American organized crime and paved the way for Al Capone. Later in his life, Torrio helped create the Commission that still governs the mob in America.

No one seems to know for sure where Torrio was born, but it was somewhere in southern Italy on January 20, 1882. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother took him to New York City shortly after.

Torrio grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a slum neighborhood populated by immigrants. His mother remarried, and his stepfather, who owned a grocery store, hired him as a porter. But the store was really an illegal liquor front and served as Torrio’s introduction to crime.

He soon joined a group of teenage boys known as the James Street Gang and rose to become their leader. The James Streeters were allied with the notorious Five Points Gang of lower Manhattan.

Torrio saved enough money to open a billiards hall in Brooklyn where his boys could hang out and orchestrate crimes. The parlor drew a number of rising young criminals, including Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, better known as Al.

Before long Torrio’s business success drew the attention of Paulo Vaccarelli, also known as Paul Kelly. Kelly ran the Five Points Gang and, in the early 1900s, made Torrio his lieutenant. Torrio quickly began to take after his new mentor, transforming his image from that of a street thug into that of a well-dressed businessman with legitimate interests. The change earned Torrio the nickname “The Fox.”

Torrio and his men dabbled in a number of rackets, including prostitution and opium trafficking, but their biggest money-earner was gambling, specifically the numbers game. He also had interests in legitimate businesses, including his billiards hall and a Coney Island tavern named the Harvard Inn. It was there that Torrio, along with his associate, Frankie Yale, first hired Capone.

While Torrio was making his rise in New York, his uncle by marriage, Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, was consolidating control over much of the underworld in Chicago. His enterprise had come to be known simply as the Chicago Outfit.

In 1909 Big Jim was targeted by extortionists, and he called on Torrio to help. Thugs sent Colosimo a “Black Hand” letter, part of a scheme in which immigrants threatened residents with violence unless they paid. Colosimo had engaged in the practice himself, and his wealth now made him a target.

To deal with the problem, he brought Torrio to Chicago to kill the extortionists. A few years later, Colosimo invited his nephew to return and made him second in command.

Torrio put Yale in charge of his New York rackets and moved west, where he and Colosimo continued to build the Outfit’s power and profits, centered around a network of brothels. In 1918 Capone became a suspect in a murder investigation and generated tension in the Brooklyn Mafia by brawling with another gangster, so Yale sent him to Chicago. Torrio put Capone to work in the Outfit.

Then, in 1919, Prohibition arrived and promised millions in profits for organized crime. But Colosimo refused to take part in illegal liquor distribution. He already owned a restaurant that made thousands selling booze to the rich and famous, and he feared interference by the federal government should he expand further into bootlegging.

Torrio was angered by this, and things got worse when Colosimo divorced his aunt. On May 11, 1921, Torrio sent Colosimo to his restaurant to meet with bootleggers. When they never arrived, Colosimo left in anger. On his way out the door, an assassin leapt from the cloak room and gunned him down.

No one was ever charged with the murder, but both Yale and Capone have long been considered suspects. Torrio

Big Jim Colosimo

immediately took over the Outfit and opened the tap on a liquor empire unrivaled in the United States.

Over the next few years, with Capone’s help, Torrio turned the Outfit into a criminal machine. Bootlegging brought in $100 million a year at the height of Prohibition. But it came at a price to both Torrio and Chicago.

The Outfit controlled most of the liquor trade on the South Side, but the North Side was dominated by an Irish-American bootlegging gang led by Dean O’Banion. The two sides fought bitterly for control of the city. At times they managed a tentative peace, but it never lasted.

In 1924, O’Banion sold a brewery to Torrio just before it was raided by police. Torrio, who was arrested and earned a nine-month prison sentence, vowed revenge. On November 10, O’Banion was murdered by gunmen in his flower shop.

The so-called “beer wars,” the most violent episode of organized crime in American history, followed. Mobsters, police, public officials and innocent bystanders were murdered across the city over the next decade. Politicians were bought off, voters beaten, jurors intimidated and almost every element of the political and judicial systems undermined.

Two months after the assassination, on January 24, 1925, O’Banion’s men struck back.  Torrio was returning to his apartment with his wife, Anna, when North Side gangsters Hymie Weiss, George “Bugs” Moran and Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci met him and unloaded their guns into him. Torrio survived, but only barely.

Following surgery and a long recovery, he decided to go into semi-retirement. He handed the Outfit to Capone. His final words as boss: “It’s all yours, Al. Me? I’m quitting. It’s Europe for me.” Torrio left for Italy.

He returned to the United States to testify at Capone’s trial for tax evasion in 1931 and went on to serve as a mentor to Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano and the Genovese crime family of New York. He also came up with the idea behind the National Crime Syndicate, an organization of Italian and Jewish mobsters that operated during the 1930s and ’40s. The Syndicate eventually became the Commission, the governing body of the Italian Mafia in America.      In 1939 Torrio pleaded guilty to tax evasion, the same crime that brought down Al Capone. Upon his release from Leavenworth prison two years later, he left crime and went into the New York real estate business.

Torrio suffered a heart attack on April 16, 1957, while sitting in a barber’s chair, and died a few hours later. He had become so obscure since leaving the Mafia that his death went unnoticed by the press until his will was probated three weeks later.

Comments

  1. Torrio brought one thing to the Chicago crime scene – class, and when he left town, he took it with him. I’m trying to find out where he lived at during his life and have been unable to find addresses
    for his homes in Brooklyn, White Plains, Cincinnati and Florida. If anyone can help me out, I’d appreciate it. Just write to me at burbank1000@comcast.net
    Thaks
    Bob

  2. Hi Bob,
    Thanks for commenting. I’ll see what I can find to help you out. I would be interested in knowing as well.

  3. lee sullivan dummett. says:

    hi michael. john torrio gave his address as 1 coolidge ave white plains NY. his address in brooklyn was on shore rd, but i dont know the number. it was an apartment building. there is a newspaper report where torrio’s brother in law also gives 1 coolidge ave as his address. as well as being a big shot bootlegger, torrio was also a real estate operator, so he had many different properties.

  4. lee sullivan dummett. says:

    john torrio was a genius. he built up the organisation in chicago, then gave it all to al capone. he was also the brains behind the mysterious seven group, who controlled the price and importation of liquor along the eastern seaboard. other members of the seven group included joe adonis, charles king solomon and danny walsh.

  5. Hey Lee, thanks for the assist!

  6. That he was and giving it to Capone was a good move. Unfortunately, Capone wasn’t as wise as his mentor.

  7. Thank you everyone for the information. I’d don’t mean to be a pain in the back side, but I have a few more questions on the homes of Mr. Torrio. I have him living in Brooklyn in 1884 – 1909, 1940 and
    from 1953 until his death. I have two Brooklyn addresses –
    SHORE ROAD – thanks to Lee Dummett – When did he live here?
    9902 3rd Avenue – his last home.
    But I’m missing one more address.
    Also, where did he live at in Cincinnati in 1953?
    Thank you for all the help.
    Best wishes to all of you fellow gangsterites.
    Bob

  8. Hello again
    I know that I’ve been a pest about finding where Torrio lived and all of you were a great help. I did some more searching and found a few more locations. And so I thought I’d share with you my Torrio Tour.
    Take care
    Bob

    THE JOHNNY TORRIO TOUR

    1882 – 1884
    OSARA DI PUGLIA, ITALYWas born here. Left for America when he was two.
    1884 – 1909
    BROOKLYN, NEW YORKAfter arriving in America his family settled here, where he lived until going to Chicago.

    1909 – 1925
    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
    101 WEST 21st STREET
    Lived in the same apartment building as Jim Colosimo when he arrived in Chicago.

    1920s – 1925
    7106 SOUTH CLYDE AVENUE
    Was living here until he was shot down in front of the apartment. He survived, retired and left Chicago.

    LATE 1925 – 1928
    NAPLES, ITALY
    Leased an apartment
    1926
    He had bought his mother a luxurious seaside villa on her native Neapolitan soil a few years back.

    1928
    NEW YORK CITY

    1930s
    ST. PETERBURG, FLORIDA
    1940 – 1947

    8801 SHORE ROAD – BROOKLYN
    (built in 1936)

    1944
    (This is from a crime trial)
    When he bought it for him originally. That was dated
    December 21, 1944. It was water lot opposite park D, left north gate
    6 feet, of Phillips Subdivision, Pass-A-Grille, Fla., with all riparian
    rights thereto, incident and appertaining to said lot D, being other-
    wise described as Washington Park.

    Mr. Rice (interrupting). Well, we are not interested in that legal
    description. That was a piece of property opposite Washington Park
    in Pass-A-Grille?
    Mr. Rice. All right. What did he pay for that property ?
    Mr. Tracey. $10,000.
    Torrio soon sold it for $16,000 around 1945.

    1947
    1 COLLIDGE AVENUE – WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK
    (built in 1928)

    1953
    CINCINNATI, OHIO
    Moved here for a short time before returning to New York.

    BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
    9902 3rd AVENUE
    (built in 1954)
    Last Home

  9. Bob,

    Well done! If i might ask, where di you find your information?

  10. I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and entertaining, and without a
    doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue
    that too few folks are speaking intelligently
    about. I am very happy I found this during my search for something relating to this.

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