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
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.