When I visited Chicago a few years ago, I was immensely disappointed to learn that the site of the St Valentines Day massacre is now, literally, a parking lot for an old folks home. Today, the only surviving piece of the most famous mob hit in America is a section of brick wall in the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, and it wasn’t until I visited the Museum that I finally learned the whole story of why there is no museum at the site in Chicago.
In January 1929, Chicago was at war. The North Side Gang, run by Bugs Moran, was in a dispute with Al Capone’s South Side Gang over turf and money. Each side carried out hits on the other. The bodies piled up.
Then in February, Capone decided to end the conflict in one brutal stroke, by simply wiping out Moran and all his lieutenants. The task was assigned to a street gang called “The Circus” from St Louis, which included Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, Fred “Killer” Burke, and a few others. McGurn planned it all out. Through an associate, he set up a sale of smuggled whiskey from Canada (this was in the midst of Prohibition) to the North Siders. The deal would be closed during a meeting with Moran and his top henchmen at the SMC Cartage Company at 2122 Clark St in Chicago, a front business used as the North Side Gang’s headquarters. The meeting would take place on Valentines Day.
But as the Moran gang waited, it was not fellow bootleggers who entered the building, but four policemen–two of them in uniform. As it happened, Bugs Moran was running late for the meeting and saw the police, and turned and walked away. It saved his life. Thinking it was just another routine police shakedown, the seven Moran gangsters inside the building lined up against a brick wall with their hands in the air. But these were not actual cops–they were Capone gunmen in stolen uniforms. In an instant, they produced Thompson submachine guns and mowed down all seven of Moran’s gangsters. Blood and bullet fragments splattered the brick wall. No one was ever convicted in the “St Valentines Day Massacre”.
And thus began the saga of the most famous brick wall in history.
After the shooting, the SMC Cartage Company, which was rented in the name of one of Moran’s underlings, was boarded up by the police and sat empty for a year. Then in 1930, the owner of the building, Frank Brusky, moved his trucking company into the empty building. During a construction project to expand the second floor for storage, Brusky found a secret room, entered through a trapdoor in the first-floor ceiling, that had been used as a bootleg alcohol still by the Moran Gang.
In 1935, the Red Ball Moving Company bought the building and moved in. They would stay for just a year before selling it to the Anacaconda Van Line, another moving company.
When Charles and Alma Werner bought the building at 2122 Clark St in 1949, they were completely unaware of its bloody history. But when their antique furniture business opened up, they found themselves faced with a steady stream of tourists who wanted to see the brick wall where Moran’s men had met their deaths. Annoyed at the disturbance, the Werners tried to plaster and paint over the wall to stop people from coming to see it, but the parade of visitors continued. Alma Werner told the newspapers that she wished they had never bought the building.
In 1967, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, made an effort to de-emphasize Chicago’s gangster past. One of the sites he targeted was the Congress Hotel, which had formerly been Capone’s inner-city headquarters. It fell to the wrecking ball. Another site was the SMC Cartage building and the St Valentines Day Massacre. The city’s Housing Authority purchased the building from the Werners and made plans to tear it down and build a nursing home for the elderly. As word got out that the famous building would be demolished, collectors and afficionados began showing up, picking bricks out of the wall as souvenirs. Specifically, about 8 or 9 of the bricks still had bullet pockmarks from the shooting, and most of these disappeared.
Meanwhile, a Canadian businessman and movie promoter named George Patey was driving to work when he happened to hear on his car radio that the famous building in Chicago was scheduled to be torn down. After some phone calls, he arranged a meeting with the Werners and purchased the entire remaining massacre wall, consisting of 417 bricks and measuring about 7 by 10 feet. As he removed the wall, he marked each brick with a coded grid so that he could re-assemble it later. He imported the disassembled bricks back to Vancouver, declaring them to Canadian Customs as mere “construction materials”.
(There are at least two other collections of bricks, taken either from the building or from the debris from the demolition afterwards, that are known to exist in private hands. But it is well-established that Patey got the largest section of the wall at which the shots were actually fired, and the others are possibly from adjacent walls.)
At first, Patey re-assembled the bricks and made the massacre wall the centerpiece of a traveling “crime museum” exhibit that toured shopping centers and museums in Canada. In 1971, Patey opened a “Roaring 20’s” themed nightclub called the “Banjo Palace”, where he assembled the bricks as part of a wall in the men’s restroom. The massacre wall was covered in plexiglas bearing several “bulls-eyes” for the male patrons to aim at. At some point–no one is now sure when–some of the bricks were marked with red paint, presumably to simulate blood, and black circles were painted around holes in the wall. These were not from bullets, but were probably made for hanging up shelves and pipes. In addition, there were some bricks already missing–taken by souvenir hunters–before Patey had even taken down the original wall, and when he re-assembled it he did not account for them, so it is likely that the bricks today are not in their actual positions.
The Banjo Palace nightclub went bankrupt and closed down in 1976, and the bricks were once again disassembled and stored in crates. They sat for the next 21 years.
Finally, in 1997, Patey decided to cash out, and placed the entire disassembled wall up for sale, hoping to make enough to retire in Europe. Unfortunately for him, nobody met his asking price, so he set up a website and began selling the bricks individually for $800 each (keeping just one bullet-pocked brick for himself). Over the next 15 years he managed to sell about 70 of them. When he died in December 2004, there were still 340 or so bricks left. These were inherited by his niece in Las Vegas. She at first tried unsuccessfully to sell the entire wall, then sold a few of the individual bricks. A short time later, the Mob Museum, a local tourist attraction, bought all of the remaining 331 bricks from her for $300,000 and reassembled them as an exhibit. They have been in the museum ever since.