I hate to call it an average day, but it was. Just about a quarter past ten that gray Thursday morning, it was a bitter 18 degrees Fahrenheit, usual for Chicago in February. The day before an inch of snow had fallen, but as Elmer Lewis struggled eastbound through traffic on North Webster Avenue, his greatest obstacle was his own Nelson-LeMoon delivery truck. As he entered the intersection with North Clark Street (above), a four door Cadillac sedan heading south ran the light. Lewis swerved onto Clark, but the truck's solid rubber tires slid on the cold pavement and Lewis' truck tapped the steel bumper of the big passenger car. Seeing the Cadillac was a police car, Lewis pulled over in front of 2156 North Clark Street. But the uniform cop driving the big Cadillac just smiled, showing a gap in his teeth, and drove on. No damage done, Lewis proceeded to complete his delivery for the Beaver Paper Company, and the cop proceeded with the murder of seven men in less than six seconds.
When the technocrat Colonel John Thompson (above) resigned from the U.S. army in 1914, it was with the specific intent to get rich. He immediately found employment building factories for Remington Arms Company, but also found time to form a partnership with John Blish who had invented a unique breech system for an automatic weapon. Together, as the Auto-Ordinance Company, they spent five years in raising money and development. Their final design was just under three feet long and just under 11 pounds in weight. It fired a heavy .45 caliber lead bullet at 935 feet per second. And it could fire one thousand of those rounds a minute. But the design was finished too late to profit from the First World War.
One block further south, the sedan pulled to the west side curb in front of 2122 North Clark Street (above). The bottom half of the front window of the nondescript single story building identified it as the SMC Cartage Company. A new driver slipped behind the wheel and left the engine running. Four men climbed out. The two in police uniforms were carrying shotguns. They were followed by two civilians wearing heavy overcoats. The uniformed officers purposefully strode through the unlocked front door. Past a tiny office was a second door, and through that was the 110 foot long garage. Parked head-in facing the west wall were three delivery trucks. Scattered beyond were three more trucks and two cars. A mechanic worked over one of the trucks, his dog, a German Shepard named “Highball” was tied to the bumper. Beyond, six men wearing overcoats, were smoking, drinking coffee and talking. The cops yelled for the men to put their hands up- this was a raid.
Initially Auto-Ordinance sold the guns for $200.00 each, with a standard 20 round “stick” magazine, or optionally circular magazines, of 50 rounds and 100 rounds each, for another $20 - $25. Because the gun was so expensive, at half the price of a new Model T Ford, police departments, government guards, corporate strike breakers and messengers, even the United States Marine Corps, could not afford many. Also war surplus weapons had depressed the market. The gun was heavy and was inaccurate at anything over 50 yards. The company also felt the need to provide buyers with a disclaimer: “Thompson-guns are sold you with the understanding that you will be responsible for their re-sale to those on the side of law and order.” By 1925 Auto-Ordinance was reduced to marketing the gun at $175 to western ranchers and farmers, available at gun shops, hardware stores, and by mail. Still, by 1928, sales were so bad John Thompson was replaced as Chief Executive Officer of Auto-Ordinance.
The police officers ordered the men, including the mechanic, to line up single file and put their hands against the north wall of the garage. While one officer held a shotgun on the seven, a second patted them down for weapons, tossing their handguns to the floor. The men peacefully complied probably because police “shakedowns” like this were common. The men in the freezing garage this morning probably assumed once these rouge cops realized who they were rousting, apologies would be offered. They probably thought that - right up until they heard the bolts on two Thompson machine guns being pulled back, in preparation for firing.
In November of 1925 Auto-Ordinance shipped one Thompson Machine gun with the serial number of #2347 to Mr. Les Farmer, a sheriff's deputy in Marion Illinois. He was a known member of a St. Louis mob called “Egan's Rats”. On Monday, March 28, 1927 two former “Rats” members, Fred “Killer” Burke (above), and Gus Winkler, used the gun in the ambush of three gangsters in Detroit, Michigan. At 4:45 that morning Frank Wright, Joseph Bloom and George Cohen knocked on the door of Room 308 of the Milaflores Apartments. Abruptly the stairwell door at the end of the hall swung open, and Burke blasted a machine gun down the hallway. Two of the men died instantly, literally cut to pieces. Frank Wright, died 20 hours later. His only comment was, “The machine gun worked. That's all I can remember.”
Standing about ten feet from the wall, the two men in overcoats pulled Thompson machine guns. One gun had a 50 round circular magazine, the second a 20 round stick. When they they pulled the triggers, the two guns fired their 70 rounds within six seconds. Yes, it was that quick. In that frighteningly short time each of the seven victims received at least 15 wounds
On the first day of July, 1928, brutal crime boss Frankie Yale, aka “The Beau Brummnel of Brooklyn”, was caught alone on New Urecht Avenue when a Buick sedan pulled up next to him. From the front and back passenger seats gunmen opened fire with Thompsons. The body of Frankie's Lincoln coup was armor plated, but not the windows. Still, he was able to accelerate away from the gunfire. The assailants caught up with him at 44th street, where shotguns joined the volley of fire. Hit in the back of the head, Frankie crashed into the fence of the brownstone apartment building at 923 44th street. When examined by police, Frankie was adorned with a 4 carat diamond ring and a large hole in the back of his head (above)..
At the end of the line, 40 year old Pete “Goosy” Gusenberg staggered to his left and fell face down on the seat of a wooden chair. Forty-two year old James (Kachellek) Clark dropped forward onto his face against the wall. Optician Dr Reinhardt Schwinner, business manager Adam Heyer (aka John Snyder), nightclub manager Albert Weinshank, and 39 year old mechanic John May fell onto their backs. The final victim, 37 year old Frank “Hock” Gusenberg, dropped face down. One police officer then stepped forward and delivered two point blank shot gun coupe de grace to John May, obliterating his face. The four intruders then purposefully strode back out of the front door, pantomiming an arrest. The Cadillac sedan then continued south on North Clark. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was over. From start to finish it had taken less than five minutes.
On October 19, 1928, Auto-Ordinance shipped three Thompsons, (serial numbers #6926, #7580, #7699) with three 50 round magazines to Peter Von Frantzius Sporting Goods, 608 Diversey Parkway, Chicago. The shipment was recorded as received on October 23rd; and according to records trans-shipped that same day to a Railway Express warehouse in Elgin, Illinois, where it was to be picked up by a private customer, Victor Thompson, who resided at the Fox Hotel, in that city. However the package lay unopened and unclaimed in the warehouse until authorities opened it in the summer of 1929. The box which should have contained three Thompson machine guns and magazines, was filled with packing material and four bricks.
The first police officer on the scene, Sargent Thomas Loftus, found Frank “Hock” Gusenberg,
trying to climb into one of the straight back chairs next to his brother's body. Loftus had grown up in the same East Side neighborhood as Frank. His childhood friend was now bleeding profusely from 14 bullet wounds, but still recognized him. Loftus asked, “Who did it?” Gusenberg wheezed “I won't talk,” and then urged Loftus to take him to a hospital. Hank Gusenberg died three hours later in Akexian Brothers Hospital. Highball, the now abandoned German Shepard, was so excited and unruly, he had to be destroyed.
From the beginning it was called “The Massacre”. Eight months afterward deputy police commissioner John Stege told a reporter, “When a representative of the Auto-Ordnance company...said he wanted to help me in tracing the guns...I told him the help he could give me was to go back and close the gun factory. The weapons are absolutely of no value to...anyone other than criminals We would never dare use one of them,” he added, because “too many innocent people might be killed.” The Chicago Tribune interviewed Mr V.A. Daniels, who admitted reselling Thompsons to criminals for two hundred dollars profit apiece. “It's no problem to buy machine guns. All I had to do was to send to New York for them and they shipped them to me.” Auto-Ordinance was so eager to makes sales, that even after a $180 check from Daniels bounced, they allowed him to continue buying Peter Von Frantzius, whose store had facilitated the transfer of at least three machine guns to Chicago mobsters, and charged just $2 to file down the serial number on any weapon, admitted under oath he felt no moral responsibility. He said all he cared about was making money.
On December 14, 1929, 11 months after “The Massacre”, a minor traffic accident in St. Joseph, Michgan lead to the death of police officer Charles Skelly. The shooter's car was later found abandoned, and the registration traced back to a Fred Dane. When police searched his home they found Dane gone, but under a bed, in a large trunk, they found two Thompson machine guns, serial #2347 and #7580. They also found information indicating that Fred Dane was really Fred “Killer” Burke (above).
Peter Von Frantzius admitted selling the three missing Thompsons to Frank V. Tompson (above), who claimed to have resold them to James “Bozo” Shupe. Shupe refused to talk to authorities, and he and a friend were killed in a shootout on July 31, 1929, outside of a tobacco store on West Madison Avenue
Once Fred Burke was identified as the police officer who waved on truck driver Elmer Lewis, the two Thompson Machine guns found in Michigan were sent to Chicago to be tested by ballistics expert Calvin Goddard (above, left). Examining ejection markings on shell casings, Goddard proved both guns had been used in “The Massacre:, and that #2347 had also killed Brooklyn's Frankie Yale and was used in the 1927 “Milaflores Massacre” in Detroit. In addition, ammunition found at Burkes' home and produced by the United States Cartridge Company during 1927-28 was also proven to having been used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Eight months after “The Massacre” the stock market crashed, and unable to effectively stop the Great Depression from engulfing the nation, the Republican dominated 71st Congress of 1929 -1930 was replaced by the divided “do nothing” 72nd Congress, (271 Ds to 271 Rs in the House and 48Rs to 46Ds in the Senate). This logjam produced the November 1933 Democratic sweep, propelling Franklin Roosevelt (above) into the White House, with the Democratic dominated 73rd Congress (311 D's -114 R's in the House, 60 Ds to 35 Rs in the Senate). And it is interesting to note the the first two pieces of legislation introduced by this public mandate were not geared toward solving the financial crises, but first the repeal of Prohibition, and second The National Firearms Act (NFA), the law that removed the Tommy Gun from the market place.
It did not make the gun illegal. It simply taxed it out of existence. Under the NFA any gun that fired more than one bullet with one pull on the trigger, now carried a tax of $200 – thus more doubling the price of the weapon. When added to the Thompson's weaknesses – its inaccuracy and its weight – the tax drove Auto-Ordinance to the brink of bankruptcy. It is interesting that ten years after “The Massacre”, as the United States was gearing up for World War Two, a new company, Savage Arms, took a fresh look at the Thompson design. They discovered that by removing John Blish's ingenious breech system, the weapon remained fully automatic, but this significantly reduced the price of manufacture.
The garage at 2122 North Clark Street eventually became an antique furniture store, before, finally being torn down in 1967. Today it is a parking lot. Fred Killer Burke (above) died in a Michigan prison. And the gun he made infamous is still sold by Auto-Ordinance, who are still profiting from selling a weapon of mass destruction which in comparison to modern assault weapons is now seen only as a romantic anomaly.
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