In the mid-1850s Californians went on a lynching spree against the Sydney Ducks, former inmates of the penal colony in Australia who established themselves as a large organized band of criminals. The same thing happened in New Orleans where citizens, terrorized by an indistinct population of Mafia, Camorra and other Italian criminals, raided a prison and murdered 11 alleged gangsters. Vigilantism, it seems, was part of the American way.
The New Orleans incident was triggered by the shooting death of Chief of Police David Hennessey. The cop lived long enough to identify his murderers as "dagos." On the basis of this rather sketchy evidence, 19 Italian Americans were rounded up; when the first of these were brought to trial, no convictions followed. Shortly thereafter an inflamed citizen group well-organized by certain political and business leaders stormed the jail and brutalized and lynched 11 of the men.
There are those who saw the prisoners as innocent and believed that the true motive for the lynching was not revenge for an officer's death but a determined ploy to undercut the growing economic power of local Italian Americans. However, there is little doubt that the average citizen was convinced he was doing battle with the vile Mafia and reacted according to 19th century American standards.
Yet while vigilantism continued well into the 20th century, such extralegal tactics against what by then had become the very visible threat of the Mafia and its like virtually ceased. Amazingly, the only place where it maintained any momentum was in the most fearsome precinct of American crime, the Chicagoarea domain of the Capone mob.
The cause of the birth of the West Suburban Citizens' Association was a Capone whorehouse opened in 1925 on the southern boundary of Cicero, Illinois. The brothel was near Hawthorne Race Track, where the Capones thought it a civic service to offer a haven of respite for both winners and losers leaving the track.
A local newspaper published a huge story on the brothel that infuriated respectable citizens and led to a meeting of clergymen from Cicero and the surrounding Capone-infested communities. The guiding spirit, the young Reverend Henry C. Hoover of Berwyn, insisted on pressuring Cicero's chief executive and chief of police as well as the county sheriff and the state's attorney. A delegation from the newly formed association was received courteously on all its calls and got promises that action would be taken. None was.
The Citizens' Association decided that it therefore had no choice but to take the law into its own hands. An action committee appropriated a large some of money that was to be expended with no questions asked. The money ended up in the hands of Hymie Weiss, the leader of the O'Banion gang and a mortal enemy of Capone.
The whorehouse shortly thereafter burned to the ground one night. Emboldened by their success, the leaders of the Citizens' Association forced the reluctant sheriff to furnish a token force of deputy sheriffs to make a raid on the Hawthorne Smoke Shop, an innocuous name for the major Capone vice center.
Accompanying the lawmen was the Reverend Hoover—actually he was the the de facto leader of the raid—and scores of the association's most militant members. Much to the chagrin of the deputies, the raiders started ripping the place apart, dismantling roulette wheels, chuck-a-luck cages and crap tables, which they prepared to carry off in three trucks.
A pajama-clad Capone charged over from the Hawthorne Inn next door where he had been sleeping, and screamed at the minister, "This is the last raid you'll ever pull!"
The young minister stared at Capone through his pince-nez and said, "Who is this man?"
Capone identified himself, and Hoover replied, "I thought it was someone like that, more powerful than the president of the United States."
To another raider Capone screamed in frustration: "I own the place!" It turned out to be a most injudicious remark.
Capone goons then struck back. They broke the nose of a raider, a real estate man, with a black jack. Another man was thrown to the ground and beaten, all without interference by the sheriff's men. A few days later a member of the Citizens' Association was shot in his garage and left for dead. He needed a month in the hospital to recover.
Capone's terror-tactic response did not discourage further vigilante attacks on his organization, and taking heart from the Citizens' Association, residents of Forest View set fire to the Stockade, a 60-girl brothel, the largest Capone vice operation in the county.
Frantic Capone gangsters sounded fire alarms and several nearby fire brigades responded. However, instead of stopping the fire, they merely prevented the flames from reaching neighboring homes. An irate gangster demanded that a firefighter turn his hose to the main fire and was told dryly: "Can't spare the water."
After the raid, amused citizens read the angry comments of the Capone forces condemning the lack of law and order in Forest View and demanding an investigation.
The vigilante raids were successful. Although many mob operations were back in place within 24 hours and with appropriate police protection, Capone nevertheless learned that he was better advised to back away from blatant prostitution activities in stiffnecked suburban areas. It was a lesson the crime syndicate learned well in later years.
Ironically, the illegal vigilante activities against Capone were to cause him great legal problems later when the government moved against him on income tax evasion charges. The government not only proved that the Hawthorne Smoke Shop was a huge moneymaker, but also produced members of the West Suburban Citizens' Association who had heard Capone utter those incriminating words during the raid: "I own the place!"