A BOTTLE OF GHOSTS: Capturing the Memory of Chicago's Unforgettable Valentines Day
As a longtime Chicago historian and ghost hunter one of the very first fragrance collections I was determined to make when I began making perfumes was a dark and rollicking lineup of "public enemies" -inspired scents.
When I led the Chicago Hauntings ghost tours in Chicago for nineteen years we made nightly pilgrimages to several sites known to be haunted by the looming figures of Chicago's Gangland past. After all, these sites and the personalities who linger at them form a primary essence--no pun intended--of Chicago's historic appeal. For better or worse, we cannot get enough of their brash and unapologetic tales.
Indiana farm boy turned Chicago gunslinger John Dillinger (pictured right), his right-hand man "Baby Face" Nelson, kingpin and florist Dion O'Banion, shot to death in his State Street flower shop (pictured below) in a brutal "Chicago handshake"---an unsuspected pistol in the stomach.
The grandaddy of all Gangland crime sites on Earth was the last stop of the night on most of our tours: the iconic address of 2122 North Clark Street, the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
This matchless event inspired not one but two of our Public Enemies fragrances. "Alibi" is an olfactory memorial to Louise Rolfe, the so-called "Blonde Alibi" of the Massacre. A blend of strawberry and gunpowder, mixed with clove and geranium, I wanted to capture the deceiving beauty of this legendary liar, whose boyfriend--Machine Gun Jack Mc Gurn ( pictured with Louise at the beach, below) -- was almost certainly the lead gunman in Capone's Valentine coup d'etat. Rolfe, however, swore up and down the block (and with unblinking calm) that Mc Gurn was with her that blustery February morning.
Then there is "1929," a fragrant tribute to Chicago's criminal kingpin, Al Capone. To mark his memory we married the elements that came to mind when we thought of his caricatured imprint: fragrant basil wafting from Sunday dinner tables at the Capone house on Prairie Avenue, the scent of rain on Chicago's night streets, the rich leather seats of the mob boss's touring car, and the smell of his endless cigar shop visits.
But finding physical reminders of Capone is not easy, and crime buffs eager for a tour of Chicago's Gangland attractions are often disappointed by the city's lack of preserved locations. Many of the most notorious sites in the history of Chicago organized crime no longer exist, leaving no evidence but memories of the madness with which they were connected. Gone, for example, is Big Jim Colosimo's restaurant at 2128 South Wabash Avenue where the owner prided himself both on his smoothly-run empire of vice and the "1 million, 500,000 yards of Spaghetti Always on Hand." Also gone is Sharbaro and Co. Mortuary, 708 N. Wells Street, which hosted two of the biggest funerals in gangland history: one in November 1924, when Dion O'Banion was carried out the front door in a $10,000 casket; the other in October 1926, after Hymie Weiss was gunned down on the sidewalk across from Holy Name Cathedral.
The Four Deuces Saloon, now a vacant lot at 2222 S. Wabash, long ago welcomed Al Brown from Brooklyn to his first Chicago job as the bouncer who would become Alphonse Capone. Later, the Lexington Hotel at 2135 S. Michigan Avenue would serve as the seat of Capone's crime kingdom. Alas, that palace, along with Capone's own fifth floor suite, has also been demolished in recent years.
For organized crime enthusiasts, however, more missed than any of these is the warehouse which stood at 2122 N. Clark Street, where on Valentine's Day 1929, one of the most gruesome multiple homicides in gangland history was committed.
The building nearly eluded description: a one-story red brick structure, 60 feet wide and I 20 feet long, tucked between two four-story buildings that in 1929 somewhat towered over the S-M-C Cartage Company garage between them. On the morning of February 14, a sordid group was gathered inside in retreat from a typical snowy Chicago morning. Ex-safecraker Johnny May, having been hired as an auto mechanic by the notorious gangleader, George "Bugs" Moran, was stretched out under a truck fixing a wheel. Living out of a slipshod apartment, May was grateful for the 50 bucks a week he got from Moran to support his wife, six children, and a dog named Highball, who happened to be at work with him that morning, tied to the axle of the truck.
Huddled around a percolating coffee pot on an electric hot plate, shivering in their overcoats and hats, were another half-dozen assorted characters, including Frank and Pete Gusenberg, who were, per Moran's orders, awaiting a truck-full of hijacked whiskey from Detroit. Moran himself was late for the I 0:30 a.m. rendezvous. It was a I ittle after the appointed time when he finally ventured out into the 15 below zero cold with Ted Newberry, a gambling concessionaire, headed towards the garage. The Gusenbergs were antsy, anxious to get started on their own part of the scheme, driving two empty trucks back to Detroit to meet a haul of smuggled Canadian whiskey. Their companions, however, were carefree, having been summoned by Moran merely to help unload the trucks when they arrived. Among the harder hearts-Moran's brother-in• law, James Clark; financial whiz, Adam Heyer; and newcomer Al Weinshank-was Reinhardt Schwimmer, a wanna-be of sorts and a young optometrist who had glommed onto Moran after befriending the gangleader at their mutual home, the Parkway Hotel. After that meeting, Schwimmer frequented the North Side warehouse hangout for the thrill of illicit companionship.
None of the group suspected that a police car had pulled up outside the building or knew that Moran, spotting the car upon his approach, had hightailed it back to the Parkway. While Moran's men whiled away the time under the light of a single naked bulb, four men emerged from the car outside, two in police uniforms and two in civilian clothes. The landlady of a neighboring rooming house watched as the men entered the building, then gasped at the clattering explosion of sound that followed a few moments later.
Soon after, four figures emerged, two marched at gunpoint by the two policemen, amid the clamor of a barking dog. After the car pulled away from the curb and headed down Clark Street, neighbors concerned over of the still-howling dog, sent a man in to check on the animal. He remained inside only a few moments before reappearing to report on the scene inside.
Moran's men had been lined up against the rear wall of the garage and sprayed by machine guns in careful swoops of fire which targeted first their heads, then their chests, and finally their stomachs. Despite the shower of death, May and Clark had lived, but with their faces nearly blown off by close-range shotgun blasts. Remarkably, Frank Gusenberg had also survived. When Detective Sweeney arrived at the massacre scene, he recognized the face of his boyhood friend on the body of the bullet-riddled Gusenberg. With 14 bullets in his body, Frank had crawled 20 feet from the blood-soaked rear wall, from where he was taken to Alexian Brothers Hospital. There, upon Gusenberg's revival, Sweeney would repeat the question he'd first posed in the garage: "Frank, in God's name what happened? Who shot you?" only to receive Gusenberg's famously hard-boiled response, "Nobody shot me." Still urged by Sweeney to reveal the killers, Gusenberg instead spat out his last words: "I ain't no copper."
But while the law was temporarily baffled as to the source of such brutality, Bugs Moran immediately named its orchestrator. Upon hearing the news of the gruesome deed, he flatly proclaimed, "Only Capone kills like that."
In fact, Al Capone was at that moment in Florida, playing host at a lavish Miami resort. When questioned by one of his guests about his involvement in the Chicago tragedy, Capone curiously but firmly responded that "the only man who kills like that is Bugs Moran." Of the two testimonies, Moran's was right on. Capone had been the brains behind the bloodbath. While some later stories differed on the names of the gunmen, the core team was comprised of Capone's standard slate of executioners, likely led by "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, a who got his name from being a great boxer, not gunner, but was good at the latter, too.
In 1945, the front of the S-M-C garage was turned into an antique shop by a couple oblivious to the property's infamy. Unfortunately, their doorway was visited more often by crime buffs than by antiquers, the former of which came to the garage in droves from all over the world and eventually forced the disgusted couple to abandon their venture. Later, in the late 1960s, the building was demolished and the 417 remmaing rear wall bricks (which had not been stolen by souvenir hunters) hauled away by George Patey, a Canadian businessman who first built them into a wall of his nightclub. Today the wall stands in the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, though many of the so-called "Chicago bricks" are still circulating. According to rumors, however, anyone who purchased one of the S-M-C bricks was besieged by bad luck, in the form of illness, financial or family ruin, or any of a variety of other maladies. The very structure seemed to have been infused with the powerful negativity of that Valentine's Day.
As did the site.
Five trees dot the otherwise nondescript space, the middle one marking the spot where the rear wall once stood. To this day, an occasional stroller along Clark Street will report hearing violent screams ringing off the fenced-off lot once occupied by the garage that is now part of a nursing home's side lawn and parking lot.
Moreover, those walking dogs are often puzzled by their pets' curious reaction to this stretch of sidewalk, as their animals either growl or bark furiously at the apparent nothingness or whimper as they crouch away from the iron fence.
Perhaps dogs, known to be more psychically sensitive than most of their masters, are reacting to something unknown to their human companions, a massive surge of energy produced and sustained at the site by the impact of the massacre; a vision of Highball, forever snapping his leash in the aftermath of the bloodbath; or the ringing in their painfully acute ears of the rat-a-tat of Capone's heartless love song, hand-delivered long ago to an unwilling gathering of wallflowers.
"Alibi" and "1929" are available from Ghost Ship Scentporium in 50 ml flint glass bottles or as part of our Public Enemies sampler or build-a-box.
Be sure to follow me, @ursulabielski on Instagram for a live feed from the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on Sunday, February 14th at 4pm CST.