Ragen’s Colts

White mob hunts for blacks
White mob hunts for blacks

The recalcitrant Irish gangsters were the most reluctant to join with other ethnic gangs in what was to become organized crime in America. Many important Irish gangsters, unable to conform to the syndicate mold, had to die. There were Mad Dog Coll in New York and Dion O'Banion in Chicago, to name two. But some Irish gangsters were finally tamed and joined up, their descendants today important allies of mafiosi in many cities.

In Chicago Al Capone's toughest chore was making peace with Irish gangsters. He was far more successful with the Jews, the Poles and even the blacks. There were times when he must have felt sure that Ragen's Colts were a lost cause.

The Colts were at the pinnacle of their power in the first two decades of the century, dominating the South Side of Chicago around the stockyards. Described as racists, jingoists, political sluggers, bootleggers and murderers, they, like many other gangs in early Chicago, started out as a baseball team. Frank Ragen, the star pitcher, was also the star political operator of the outfit which was officially called Ragen's Athletic and Benevolent Association.

Ragen soon proved invaluable to the Democratic Party in the city, offering Colts' firepower and muscle in campaigns. Many members of the city council and state legislature owned their election to the gang. "When we dropped into a polling place," one Colt bragged, "everybody else dropped out."

By 1902 the gang numbered 160, and just six years later it adopted a motto, "Hit Me and You Hit 2,000," which was probably only a slight exaggeration. Over the years the list grew of aldermen, sheriffs, police brass, country treasurers and numerous other officeholders beholden to the gang. Even Ragen himself took a job as a city commissioner.

But, as always, the most notable members of the gang were accomplished criminals. Among such worthies were Gunner McPadden with a list of homicides to his credit so large that no one, McPadden included, could make an accurate count; Dynamite Brooks, a saloon keeper with the reputation of killing when he got drunk; Harry Madigan, another saloonman and owner of the Pony Inn in Cicero, who was charged with several kidnappings and assaults during various elections; Stubby McGovern, a deadly hit man who bragged he never failed in an assignment; Danny McFall, who despite murdering two business competitors was named a deputy sheriff; Yiddles Miller, a boxing referee and notorious racist, who denounced the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of "nigger lovers"; and Ralph Sheldon, a fearless bootlegger and hijacker said to "take no prisoners."

Besides providing political muscle duty and operating a number of rackets, the Colts were always ready to provoke a race riot, starting one in 1919 that nearly destroyed the city. A black youth swimming off a South Side beach strayed into white, segregated waters. Bathing Colts promptly stoned and drowned him. The Colts then took to the streets baiting blacks.

After nightfall they roared into the Black Belt, shooting blacks on sight, dynamiting, and looting shops and homes and setting others on fire. Black veterans of the war seized up their service weapons and fired back. Rampaging blacks in turn overturned streetcars and automobiles carrying whites and destroyed property. The rioting continued for four days before finally wearing itself out, leaving 20 whites and 14 blacks dead, with another 1,000 burned, injured and maimed.

With the onset of Prohibition even the Ragen Colts had no time for organized bigotry. They shifted into bootlegging. Ralph Sheldon formed a splinter group which had little interest in making or importing booze, much preferring to hijack the wares of other gangs, a habit not conducive to peaceful racketeering.

Still, Capone showed extreme tenderness dealing with the Colts although he was forced to do battle with them, seeing the possibility of winning their cooperation, something he had consistently failed to do with the forces of other Irish mobsters like Dion O'Banion and Spike O'Donnell. Eventually most of the Colts, even Sheldon who for a time had shifted alliances from one group to another and would do so again, joined the combination. Today the descendants of the original wild Colts remain important figures with organized crime.