The Undertaker's Friend

William "Shoes" Schoemaker - The Undertaker's Friend
William "Shoes" Schoemaker

An ordinary green leather chair in the office of William "Shoes" Schoemaker, Chicago's chief of detectives in 1924, became known as "the Undertaker's Friend" or the "Green Chair Curse." Many apprehended mafiosi were grilled by Schoemaker as they sat in the green chair, and Schoemaker and journalists soon noted that many of the criminals so grilled died in gangland slayings shortly thereafter.

Considering the high mortality rate during Prohibition's booze wars, the death toll was a rather underwhelming discovery but the newspapers, always alert for a new angle on the bloodletting, seized upon the story of a "curse" and started calling the chair "the Undertaker's Friend." Shoes, realizing he was on to a good thing, began keeping a record of the criminals who sat in the chair and later died violently. When the "preordained" occurred, Shoes marked an X next to the gangster's name.

On the X list were such noteworthies as the bloody Genna brothers (Angelo, Tony and Mike), Mop Head Russo, Porky Lavenuto, John Scalise, Albert Anselmi, Samoots Amatuna, Antonio "the Scourge" Lombardo, Schemer Drucci, Pickle Puss DePro, Zippy Zion and Antonio "the Cavalier" Spano. Some of them plopped down in the chair with bravado; others trembled with fear.

It made no difference. The results were inevitable. Stories related how many mafiosi adamantly refused to sit in the chair (Sicilians were said to be the most superstitious of all criminals). An almost certainly apochryphal tale relates that Al Capone himself declined an offer from Shoes to take a seat.

Shoes retired in 1934 at which time there were 35 names in his notebook, 34 X-ed out. Only one criminal, Red Holden, was still among the breathing, and he was doing that in Alcatraz for train robbery. "My prediction still stands," Shoes said in his parting shot. "He'll die a violent death. Maybe it'll happen in prison. Maybe we'll have to wait until he gets out. But mark my words, it'll happen."

Shoes died four years later. The chair had passed to Captain John Warren, Shoes's aide, who also kept track of the green chair's death toll. Warren died in September 1953, and the score stood at 56 out of 57—Red Holden was still alive. Released from Alcatraz in 1948, he promptly got involved in a number of shootouts, all of which he survived.

Then he was sent up for 25 years on a murder charge. On December 18, 1953, Holden died in the infirmary of Illinois's Statesville Penitentiary. Predictably various publications assured their readers that Holden went out bragging. He had beaten the curse of the Undertaker's Friend.

Holden's demise also sparked a newspaper hunt for the green chair. It was traced to the Chicago Avenue police station, where it had been consigned to the cellar after Captain Warren's death. When a maintenance man discovered it had become infested with cockroaches, he chopped it up and disposed of it in the furnace.

It was of course the end of the curse, and in fact, some argued the green chair had ended up with a perfect record, since it had been destroyed before Holden died of natural causes.