John Torrio

John Torrio
John Torrio

His contributions to the fathering of syndicate crime were enormous. Johnny Torrio taught Al Capone all he ever knew. Yet that hardly measures Torrio's impact on organized crime. He was nicknamed "the Brain," a sobriquet borne, significantly, by two other men—Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky.

Crime historians agree that this trio, often working in tandem and certainly conferring frequently, laid out the basic strategy for organizing crime in America. Lucky Luciano, similarly, is recognized as the "doer" who ultimately carried out the plan.

If there is any knock on Torrio it is that he failed to develop a doer to carry out his plans to the fullest. His protégé, Capone, did not organize crime in America and, in fact, never completed the chore of organizing Chicago although he was nearing that goal when he went to prison in the early 1930s. Experts agree Chicago was the toughest place of all to bring under organized control; by comparison Luciano, with strong assistance from Jewish mobsters, had a relative breeze in New York.

Even after Luciano and Lansky succeeded in genuinely organizing crime, they frequently sought out the advice of the then-retired Torrio. (By that time Rothstein had been murdered.)

Born in Italy in 1882 and brought to New York at the age of two, Torrio grew up in the ghetto of the Lower East Side. He was still in his teens when he rose to the positions of subchief in Paul Kelly's huge Five Points Gang, one of the city's two most powerful (the other being the Eastmans), and of head of his own subgang, the James Streeters.

Torrio managed in this period to avoid ever being arrested although his reputation as a tough young gangster grew. Known as Terrible Johnny, he took part in a number of gang battles and was adept with fists, boots and knives. As an opponent, he was regarded as cold, cruel and above all calculating.

He was extremely short but his natural meanness qualified him as a bouncer at Nigger Mike's on Pell Street, regarded as one of the roughest and wildest joints in Manhattan, where, incidentally, Irving Berlin got his start as a singing waiter.

By 1912 the Bowery was no longer a big-money center, and Torrio shifted his personal interests to a bar and brothel for seamen in an even tougher section near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Now and then he offered strong-arm employment to one of his James Street gang, a big, bullying teenage hoodlum named Al Capone.

Torrio felt the rewards of the whoring business were limited; he got into hijacking and narcotics. He expounded on how crime could be made into a big business. Those who listened to him, including Capone started calling him "the Brain."

As early as 1909 Torrio was trekking west to Chicago from time to time to do mob chores for his uncle by marriage, Big Jim Colosimo, the biggest whoremaster in that city. Around 1915, when Torrio was 33, Big Jim offered Torrio a full-time job with him.

Torrio turned over most of his Brooklyn racket operations to his partner, Frankie Yale. In Chicago Torrio took over running most of Big Jim's whore joints, everything from such landmarks as the House of All Nations to the low-cost joints on what was known as Bedbug Row. Under Torrio all of these places upped their revenues handsomely.

Late in 1919 Torrio brought Capone out to Chicago, after he was informed Capone was having some troubles concerning a couple of murders. Technically, Capone was to help out in the whorehouses, but actually Torrio wanted Capone as his link for Prohibition and the bootlegging that would follow, knowing the racket would be worth a mint. The only trouble was that Torrio couldn't interest Big Jim in the booze business.

He had made the mistake of making Colosimo so rich that he was lazy and couldn't see the need for more money. Torrio understood that Big Jim was a hindrance to his own ambitions and to the operation in general. He resolved that he had to go. By this time Capone was Torrio's number one aide, but he knew neither of them could assassinate Big Jim without coming under immediate suspicion. Frankie Yale came west to handle the job.

Once Colosimo was erased, Torrio simply moved in and took over the entire organization. Anybody objecting had to deal with Capone. However, Torrio didn't see himself merely as the head of Big Jim's old empire. He wanted to build a new kind of empire in Chicago, one that brought all the gangs under a single confederation.

Mug shot of Italian-American mobster Johnny Torrio, in the immediate aftermath of his 1936 arrest for tax evasion.
Mug shot of Italian-American mobster Johnny Torrio,
in the immediate aftermath of his 1936 arrest for tax evasion.

Each gang would have its own area to milk without any competition. He called all the gangs together—the Italian gangs, many of whom were mafioso, the North Side Irish, the South Side Poles, etc. He promised them that they'd all make millions and, what was more important, actually live to enjoy their wealth. Torrio did not believe in the veiled threat; the alternative, he said softly, was war and he would win that. It was join the new syndicate setup or, sooner or later, die.

The various gang leaders were tough men who'd made it to the top because they could shove better than others, but most of them were persuaded, by Torrio's logic and perhaps as well by his threats. Some of the others, especially among the Irish gangs, said they would join up but didn't.

War soon raged, with the tough North Siders headed by the murderous and erratic Dion O'Banion. The Italian Genna gang joined but never stopped double-dealing, continuing to invade other territories with its lowerpriced rotgut. The wars that raged often were multisided and marked by double crosses, with henchmen bribed to kill their own leaders.

Several Genna men fell, but O'Banion remained a thorn. Then suddenly O'Banion sent word to Torrio that he wanted to quit the rackets and get out. If he could sell his Seiben Brewery for a half-million dollars, he would be through. Torrio jumped at the offer.

It was a cheap price to pay to have O'Banion go away. A week after the deal was finalized and O'Banion got his money, federal agents raided the brewery and confiscated everything. Torrio realized O'Banion had suckered him. He discovered O'Banion had been tipped off that the federal action was in the works and had cunningly let Torrio take the loss.

Torrio stormed about his office, brandishing a gun and screaming he'd have vengeance on the Irish mobster. It was an uncommon reaction from Torrio who seldom let his emotions show. Torrio made good on his threats. Frankie Yale, Colosimo's assassin, was sent for again. Yale and two hoods, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, murdered O'Banion in the flower shop he ran.

Capone was overjoyed by O'Banion's murder, but Torrio knew it would only produce more gang conflict. O'Banion's gang, now bossed by Hymie Weiss, would fight and the longer it took Torrio to subdue them, the greater the chances other gangs would start revolting. As expected, Weiss and some of his boys tried to ambush Torrio as he was riding in his limousine.

The chauffeur and Torrio's dog were shot to death, but Johnny escaped with just two bullet holes in his gray fedora. Torrio had Capone and his gunners out looking for Hymie Weiss but Hymie Weiss stayed undercover. Then on January 24, 1925, Torrio was ambushed in front of his apartment building.

He was cut down with a shotgun blast and then a second gunman pumped four slugs into him. Hit in the chest, arm and stomach, Torrio hovered near death for a week and a half while Capone kept a troop of 30 hoods stationed around the hospital to ward off any further tries at him.

After Torrio recovered, he did a lot of thinking. His dream for a syndicate setup in Chicago was far from realized and any hope for a national syndicate was still far in the future. And there was an excellent chance he'd be killed. He'd survived five years at the top in Chicago gangland, no easy task. He was 43 years old and had $30 million. Torrio's pioneering was done. He told Capone: "It's all yours, Al. I've retired."

Torrio walked away from what was up until then the greatest setup ever established. It was he rather than Capone who had first said, "I own the police force." Now he was going to retire in Brooklyn after lazing around for a year or two in the Mediterranean sun.

The law and the press often expressed doubts that he really retired, but basically he did except for occasionally playing elder statesman. Luciano and the emerging national crime syndicate often sought his advice, as did Capone.

Torrio attended the underworld's landmark 1929 Atlantic City Conference, and it is known that his counsel was sought before the decision was voted to hit Dutch Schultz because of his dangerous plan to assassinate prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. It was said that several Murder, Inc., hits also required his approval. Torrio said it wasn't so at all, that he was a has-been who just wanted to die in bed.

In April 1957 Johnny Torrio sat down in a Brooklyn barbershop chair and suffered a heart attack. He lingered long enough to die in bed. He was 75.

Ironically, a few months later, Albert Anastasia was assassinated in a barber chair in Manhattan. Anastasia had been relaxing with his eyes closed when the assassins struck. Torrio, on the other hand, had not been an assassination victim and hadn't expected to be. But in the barber chair, he had been sitting Chicago-style—with his eyes wide open and the chair facing the door so that he could see who was coming. Johnny Torrio was the cautious one right to the very end.