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'Road' well traveled by Irish gangsters

July 12, 2002

BY MIKE THOMAS STAFF REPORTER

'Road to Perdition," filmed largely in the Chicago area and opening today, is atypical in more ways than one. Not only does it mark Tom Hanks' debut as a big-screen bad guy, but two of its main characters--both bona fide mobsters--are Irish.

In a Tony Soprano-fixated society conditioned to equate the word "mobster" with wiseguys whose last names end in vowels, Hanks and co-star Paul Newman put a lesser-known face on organized crime.

Historically speaking, the Irish beat the Italians to the punch when it came to Chicago's nefarious underworld activity. Al Capone, our town's most infamous and mythologized thug, was actually a late bloomer. From post-Civil War years through early Prohibition, enterprising chaps with names like McDonald, O'Banion and O'Leary had the town under wraps and under thumbs. Despite occasional turf wars, the Irish way was perceived as a bit more subtle.

Formed largely to further political agendas, various Irish syndicates, some of which began as neighborhood gangs during childhood, sprouted up in the Chicago area. They become known informally (and, some would argue, inaccurately) as the Irish Mob.

But these scattered groups weren't really a mob at all--not in the centralized sense, anyway. Each had leaders who commanded minions within clearly defined boundaries.

For decades Irish underworld figures crookedly steered politics with ever-increasing clout. Aldermen allowed brothel owners, gambling outfits and bootleggers to stay in business in return for payoffs and guaranteed re-election.

In the mid-1920s, Capone's cartel began muscling them out, with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in 1929, the final blow for Irish dominance of the criminal element.

"I think it was basically [about] self-preservation and, in a perverse kind of way, trying to live the American dream, get a piece of the action," Chicago author and crime historian Richard Lindberg says of the Irish underworld's roots. "That's what Chicago's always been about."

Mike McDonald

After the Civil War, Michael Cassius McDonald emerged as the town's first political puppetmaster. The owner of a prominent gambling joint called the Store, at Clark and Monroe, he gathered his shady cohorts there in the early 1870s and formed a political body to elect Mayor Harvey Colvin. Colvin went on to do McDonald's bidding, as did Carter Harrison, chosen by the same group in 1879. Having profited handsomely from his ventures, McDonald died a rich man in 1907.

Big Jim O'Leary

Remember Mrs. O'Leary's famous cow, the one that supposedly kicked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? It belonged to none other than Big Jim's mom, Catherine. Or so the story goes. Big Jim lorded over the South Side gambling scene for more than 10 years. He also ran a gambling boat, the first of its kind, on Lake Michigan.

Jacob 'Mont' Tennes

A first-generation German American in an Irish-dominated scene, Tennes made a fortune when he cornered the local market on wire service technology that sped horse racing results to bookies. His reach also extended to poker, craps and roulette. Give him a healthy chunk of the take and he'd keep the cops off your back. In 1910, he formed the General News Bureau, which, through the use of considerable force, became the chief source of racing stats in the country. He retired from crime in the late 1920s and got into real estate.

Dion O'Banion

One of the most famous Irish kingpins of the Prohibition Era, O'Banion was a former pickpocket who became a gambling and bootlegging czar on the North Side in what is now the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. A choirboy at Holy Name Cathedral on North State, O'Banion led a group of thieves, con men and safecrackers called the North Siders, who were known to rob liquor shipments and sell the purloined booze to speakeasies. O'Banion was eventually offed by two shooters and a setup man inside his flower shop, a legitimate front, on North State across from the cathedral where he once sang.

Roger Touhy

Touhy, the blustery son of a cop, controlled gambling and liquor in Chicago's northwest suburbs. His take on slot machines alone is said to have been in excess of four grand a week. Capone long attempted to gain control of his territory, but Touhy, knowing what a gold mine he commanded, steadfastly refused to budge. At one point, he was framed by Capone's minions and sent to prison. Not long after, he and other inmates managed (by bribing guards) to escape, but they were captured and re-deposited in the clink. In November 1959, Touhy was set free. A month later, on Dec. 16, he was shotgunned to death outside his sister's West Side home.

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