Johnny Torrio in 1939
January 20, 1882
|Died||April 16, 1957 (aged 75)|
|Cause of death||Heart Attack|
|Other names||The Fox, The Brain, Papa Johnny, Terrible Johnny, The Immune|
|Height||5 ft 6 in (168 cm)|
|Conviction(s)||Violation of the Volstead Act (1925)|
Income tax evasion (1939)
|Criminal penalty||Served a total of 3 years|
Johnny Torrio (born Donato Torrio, Italian pronunciation: [doˈnaːto toˈrrjo]; January 20, 1882 – April 16, 1957) was an Italian-born American mobster who helped to build a criminal organization, the Chicago Outfit, in the 1920s; it was later inherited by his protégé, Al Capone. He also put forth the idea of the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and later became an unofficial adviser to the Genovese crime family.
He gained several nicknames but was mostly known as "The Fox" for his cunning and finesse. Widely considered one of the most influential personalities in American organized crime, Torrio impressed authorities and chroniclers with his business acumen and diplomatic skills.
The US Treasury official Elmer Irey considered him "the biggest gangster in America" and wrote, "He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums. 'Best' referring to talent, not morals." Virgil W. Peterson of the Chicago Crime Commission stated that his "talents as an organizational genius were widely respected by the major gang bosses in the New York City area." Crime journalist Herbert Asbury affirmed: "As an organizer and administrator of underworld affairs Johnny Torrio is unsurpassed in the annals of American crime; he was probably the nearest thing to a real mastermind that this country has yet produced".
Torrio was born in Irsina (then known as Montepeloso), Basilicata, in Southern Italy, to Tommaso and Maria Carluccio originally from Altamura, Apulia. When he was two his father, a railway employee, died in a work accident, and Torrio shortly after emigrated to New York City with his widowed mother in December 1884. She later remarried.
His first jobs were as a porter and bouncer in Manhattan. While he was a teenager, he joined a street gang and became its leader; he eventually managed to save enough money and opened a billiards parlor for the group, and from there grew illegal activities such as gambling and loan sharking. Torrio's business sense caught the eye of Paul Kelly, the leader of the infamous Five Points Gang. Torrio's gang ran legitimate businesses, but its main concern was the numbers game, supplemented by incomes from bookmaking, loan sharking, hijacking, prostitution, and opium trafficking. Al Capone, who worked at Kelly's club, admired Torrio's quick mind and looked to him as his mentor. Torrio, in turn, greatly admired Kelly, who knew much about organized crime culture; Kelly convinced the younger man to dress conservatively, stop swearing, and set up a front as a legitimate entrepreneur.
Capone had belonged to the Junior Forty Thieves, the Bowery Boys and the Brooklyn Rippers; they soon moved up to the Five Points Gang. Torrio eventually hired Capone to bartend at the Harvard Inn, a bar in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn owned by Torrio's business associate, Francesco Ioele (also known as Frankie Yale).
Move to Chicago
Torrio was the nephew of Victoria Moresco, the wife and business partner of "Big Jim" Colosimo, who had become the owner of more than 100 brothels in Chicago. According to Laurence Bergreen, "Torrio is [also] described as Colosimo’s nephew, but in the absence of any evidence to confirm the relationship, it is more likely their kinship was spiritual rather than familial." Colosimo invited Torrio to Chicago to deal with extortion demands from the Black Hand. Torrio eliminated the extortionists and stayed on; he ran Colosimo's operations and organized the criminal muscle needed to deal with threats to them.
In 1919, Frankie Yale contacted Torrio and requested for him to take Capone to Chicago, as Capone had gotten into trouble, nearly getting beaten to death by a member of a rival operation, the Irish White Hand Gang of the Brooklyn dockyards, Yale's great rivals in Brooklyn. They were hunting for a scar-faced man and so Yale sent Capone to Chicago to lie low for a year. Capone, however, never returned to New York, becoming a bouncer at one of Torrio's Chicago brothels and soon became manager of The Four Deuces, one of Torrio's operations.
In 1920, Prohibition went into effect, making all manufacture, purchase, or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. Torrio immediately realized the immense profits bootlegging could bring and urged "Big Jim" Colosimo to enter the business. Colosimo, however, refused, fearing that expansion into other rackets would only draw more attention from the police and rival gangs. During the same period, Colosimo divorced Victoria, Torrio's aunt, and married Dale Winter, an actress and singer. Winter convinced Colosimo to settle down, dress more conservatively, and stay out of the news.
At that point, Torrio realized that Colosimo was a serious impediment to the mob's potential fortunes. With the approval of Colosimo's allies, the Genna brothers and Aiello, Torrio invited Frankie Yale to come to Chicago and assassinate Colosimo. The murder took place on May 11, 1920, in the main foyer of Colosimo's Cafe. No one was ever prosecuted. Torrio took over the deceased Colosimo's vast criminal kingdom and started to venture into bootlegging.
Rivalry with North Side Gang
As the 1920s progressed, Torrio and Capone presided over the expansion of the Chicago Outfit as it raked in millions from gambling, prostitution, and now bootlegging. The Outfit soon came to control the Loop (Chicago's downtown area, as defined by the encircling loop of elevated train lines), as well as much of the South Side. However, it was also intent on seizing the profitable Gold Coast territory, which drew the ire of the powerful North Side Gang led by Dean O'Banion.
The Outfit and the North Side Gang began a fragile alliance, but tension between O'Banion and the Gennas (who were Outfit allies) over territorial rights mounted. The Gennas wanted to kill O'Banion, but Torrio, not wanting all-out gang warfare, resisted the move. Finally, tensions boiled over when O'Banion cheated Torrio out of $500,000 in a brewery acquisition deal and caused Torrio's arrest. Torrio ran out of patience and ordered O'Banion killed. On November 10, 1924, O'Banion was murdered in his North Side flower shop by Yale, John Scalise, and Albert Anselmi. O'Banion's murder sparked a bloody, brutal gangland war between the North Side Gang and the Outfit that eventually chased Torrio out of Chicago.
On January 24, 1925, in retaliation for the O'Banion assassination, North Siders Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and Bugs Moran attacked Torrio as he was returning to his apartment at 7011-13 South Clyde Avenue from a shopping trip with Anna, his wife. A hail of gunfire from Weiss and Moran greeted Torrio's car, shattering its glass. Torrio was struck in the jaw, lungs, groin, legs, and abdomen. Weiss attempted to deliver a coup de grâce into Torrio's skull, but the gun had jammed. Instead, Weiss kicked Torrio repeatedly in the stomach, and Moran hit Torrio with a billy club. Drucci signaled that it was time to go, and the three North Siders left the scene. The severely wounded Torrio survived.
Handover to Capone
Torrio, having undergone emergency surgery, recovered slowly from the assassination attempt. Capone had men guarding Torrio around the clock to make sure that his beloved mentor was safe. Throughout the entire ordeal, Torrio, observing the gangland principle of omertà (total silence), never mentioned the names of his assailants. After his release from the hospital, Torrio served a year in jail for Prohibition violations. Throughout his reign as boss of the Chicago mob, Torrio had witnessed a massive increase in violence within organized crime. The near-death experience frightened him badly; combined with his prison sentence and the increasing difficulty in his work, it persuaded Torrio to retire while he was still alive.
In late 1925, Torrio moved to Italy, where he no longer dealt directly in mob business, with his wife and mother. He gave total control of the Outfit to Capone and said, "It's all yours, Al. Me? I'm quitting. It's Europe for me." Torrio left a criminal empire which grossed about $70,000,000 a year ($997,500,000 in 2018 dollars) from bootleg booze, gambling and prostitution.
Torrio returned to the United States in 1928 as Benito Mussolini began putting pressure on the Mafia in Italy. He is credited with helping to organize a loose cartel of East Coast bootleggers, the Big Seven, in which a number of prominent gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, Longy Zwillman, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky played a part. Torrio also supported creation of a national body that would prevent the sort of all-out turf wars between gangs that had broken out in Chicago and New York. His idea was well received, and he was given great respect, as he was considered an "elder statesman" in the world of organized crime. Once Luciano implemented the concept, the National Crime Syndicate was born.
Torrio engaged in a number of legitimate businesses, including a legal liquor distribution company and a bail bond operation co-owned by Dutch Schultz. Schultz' murder and the threat of an income tax prosecution for his role in the Big Seven, however, led him to plan to depart to Brazil. Before he could do so, however, he was arrested on charges of income tax evasion in 1936 as he went to pick up his passport. Torrio pleaded guilty to those charges in 1939 and served two years in prison.
His years after his release from prison were quietly spent in Brooklyn, St. Petersburg, Florida and Cincinnati. Torrio largely occupied himself in real estate investments and appears to have met his promise to his wife Anna to refrain from any activities that would return him to the sort of notoriety that he had had before his 1939 conviction.
The media did not learn about his death until three weeks after his burial.
In popular culture
Torrio has been portrayed several times in television and motion pictures:
- by Osgood Perkins in the 1932 film, Scarface (as Johnny Lovo).
- by Nehemiah Persoff in the 1959 film, Al Capone.
- by Charles McGraw in the 1959 television series of The Untouchables.
- by Harry Guardino in the 1975 film, Capone.
- by Guy Barile in the 1992 film, The Babe.
- by Frank Vincent in the 1993 The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode "Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues".
- by Byrne Piven in the pilot episode of the 1993 television series, The Untouchables.
- by Kieron Jecchinis in the 1994 television series, In Suspicious Circumstances.
- by Greg Antonacci in the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
- by David John Cole in the 2016 independent film Capone
- by Paolo Rotondo in the 2016 television miniseries The Making of the Mob: Chicago
- by Al Sapienza in the 2017 film Gangster Land
- McPhaul, Jack. Johnny Torrio: First of the Gang Lords. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1970.
- Russo, Gus. The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld In the Shaping of Modern America. ISBN 1-58234-279-2
- Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994. ISBN 978-0-684-82447-5
- "John Torrio Pleads Guilty". Associated Press. April 12, 1939. Retrieved 2012-08-06.
Johnny (the Immune) Torrio, deciding he wasn't immune to relentless government prosecution, pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court....
- Howard Abadinsky, Organized Crime," Cengage Learning, 2009, p.115
- Humbert S. Nelli, The business of crime, University of Chicago Press, 1981, p.163
- Robert G. Folsom, The Money Trail, Potomac Books, 2010, p.231
- Virgil W. Peterson, The mob: 200 years of organized crime in New York, Green Hill Publishers, 1983, p.156
- Curt Johnson, R. Craig Sautter, Wicked City Chicago: From Kenna to Capone, December Press, 1994, p.363
- Maurizio De Tullio. "Non era orsarese Johnny Torrio, padre putativo di Al Capone" (in Italian). Retrieved 17 June 2016.
- Burch, Brian; Stimpson, Emily (21 March 2017). The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues, and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States. Image Books. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-553-41874-3. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
- Bergreen, Laurence (1994). Capone: The Man and the Era. NewYork: Simon & Schuster. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-684-82447-5.
- Schoenberg, Robert (1992). Mr. Capone. New York: Morrow. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-0-688-08941-2. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
- Paul Sann, The Lawless Decade: Bullets, Broads and Bathtub Gin, Courier Corporation, 2012, p.111
- "Johnny Torrio, Ex-Public Enemy 1, Dies. Made Al Capone Boss of the Underworld". New York Times. May 8, 1957. Retrieved 2012-08-06.
The man who put Al Capone into business died unnoticed in a Brooklyn hospital three weeks ago, it was learned yesterday....
- "Torrio Dies. Gave Capone Racket Start". Associated Press. May 8, 1957. Retrieved 2012-08-06.
Johnny Torrio, first of the bigtime bootleggers, died after a heart attack in a Brooklyn barber's chair April 16. So obscure had he become that his death went....
- Jay Robert Nash, The Great Pictorial History of World Crime, Volume 1, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, p.503
- Tim Adler, Hollywood and the Mob: Movies, Mafia, Sex and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011, p.40