When Harry Met Tommy (O’Connor)
A Fond Farewell to the Great Persuader
It sounds like a line straight out of the first scenes in Citizen Kane: "How many of his contemporaries would still be alive?" muses Jim Grogan, chief counsel for the state's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. In this instance, Grogan is alluding to Harry J. Busch, doyen of the city's legal community, who died October 12 after a Methuselah-like career that began at the outset of prohibition. Depending on who's doing the arithmetic, he was either 97 or 101; his family opts for the former age, while Illinois Supreme Court records indicate the latter.
During his nearly 70 years as a lawyer, Busch, a lifelong Chicagoan, represented nearly every type of client. Politicians: Mayor Richard J. Daley. Gangsters: John "Jackie the Lackey" Cerone. Cops: the Chicago Police Department's "Red Squad," investigated by the state's attorney for secretly spying on citizens in the early 70s. And his own brethren: countless lawyers brought up on professional misconduct charges. "The only thing he wouldn't do was represent somebody accused of dealing in dope," notes Illinois appellate court judge Warren D. Wolfson, Busch's friend and protege. "He just couldn't bring himself to do it."
Impeccably dressed and relentlessly courteous, Busch simply loved to practice law. "Although he was an ordinary-looking guy physically, he had a wonderful voice, and he had a very fluid way of moving his body and hands," explains Wolfson, who before he joined the bench in 1975 sometimes served as cocounsel with Busch. "You just kind of watched him. He was like a great conductor, like a Toscanini in the courtroom. He had a way of moving and sounding that commanded attention. He wasn't a screamer and shouter, he wasn't melodramatic, but people listened to what he had to say, and within a very short time he was in control of the courtroom.
"He also had a great insight into human motivations and desires, and he knew how to reach for them. He was a master of picking a jury: by the time he was finished, the jurors were his friends."
Born December 14, 1898 (or was it 1902?), Busch grew up on the city's west side. A 1922 graduate of Chicago-Kent College of Law, he launched his career later that year as a Cook County assistant state's attorney, then crossed over to become a top criminal defense lawyer, building a reputation as one of the city's quintet of "B-boys," as Busch's Sun-Times obit called them--successful defense attorneys whose surnames began with the letter B.
"I remember as a young lawyer, before I knew him," recalls Wolfson, "I was sitting in a court, and it was kind of noisy and disorganized, and suddenly there was a hush, and everything was very quiet when this man walked in. And I said to the person next to me, 'What's going on?' And the guy says, almost with awe, 'That's Harry Busch.'"
Busch represented "hundreds and hundreds" of clients, adds Wolfson, his final big-ticket case occurring in 1985, when he took up the sentence-reduction cause of mobster Joseph Lombardo. In December 1982, Lombardo, ex-Teamsters boss Roy Williams, and three other men were found guilty of conspiring to bribe then U.S. senator Howard Cannon of Nevada in an effort to manipulate legislation affecting deregulation of the trucking industry. Lombardo got 15 years. Busch's subsequent arguments failed to persuade a judge that Lombardo deserved a break.
His enthusiasm, apparently, never waned. "When I joined the ARDC in 1979, he was old then," says Grogan, "but it appeared that all pistons were firing." Grogan's organization, which fields grievances from the public against state lawyers, ran up against Busch in court even as late as 1988, when he would have been either 85 or 89. "And he was registered for the year 2000," points out Grogan, "meaning that if he'd walked in here on October 1, he could have practiced if he'd wanted."
Yet despite his longevity, despite his prominence, despite his marquee clients, Busch is probably best remembered for a freaky, fleeting encounter with legendary outlaw Tommy O'Connor that occurred 79 years ago. In truth it was little more than an egregious case of wrong place, wrong time. But during the intervening decades it has attained near-mythic status, inextricably entwining the pair in the public mind even though they never set eyes on one another again.
Late on the morning of Sunday, December 11, 1921, Busch, still in law school, puttered through the city not far from the Cook County Jail, located back then on West Hubbard. Seemingly out of nowhere, a man hopped onto his car's running board. "I was driving north from the corner of Clark and Illinois," Busch recounted in a 1993 interview with the Sun-Times. "Suddenly the isinglass is ripped open, and in comes Tommy with his cannon. He said, 'Drive like hell, you SOB, or I'll blow your brains out! I'm Tommy O'Connor!' I drove!" O'Connor "proceeded to give me directions," Busch continued, until he seized an opportunity to shake the fugitive: "I had a chance to jam into a factory wall, and I did. The last I saw of him, he was running toward an alley east of where I was."
Although present-day accounts invariably refer to him as "Terrible" Tommy O'Connor, he was known as "Lucky" Tommy O'Connor back in the 1920s, when his sensational exploits screamed from the pages of the city's numerous newspapers. He embodied both nicknames: "Terrible" because he likely killed four people, "Lucky" because he did virtually no time for his crimes. By age 30 the Irish-born thug had established a reputation as a fearless gangster who'd already beaten two murder raps and was the leading suspect in a third killing. When five Chicago policemen, including Sergeant Patrick (Paddy) O'Neill, sought to arrest O'Connor in February 1921, gunfire ensued, and O'Neill was mortally wounded. Convicted of murder, O'Connor was sentenced to die by hanging in the Cook County Jail.
But at around 9:30 AM on December 11--between three and five days before his scheduled execution, according to various sources--O'Connor, brandishing a pistol rumored to have been smuggled into the jail inside a sandwich, led a bold five-man breakout. First the prisoners overpowered and tied up several guards, and then three of them, including O'Connor, hightailed it to freedom. Moments later he was in Harry Busch's car, loudly introducing himself.
Hundreds of cops armed with rifles immediately flooded the streets. A $3,000 reward, big money for the time, was offered. And yet O'Connor was never apprehended. While sightings abounded here, there, and everywhere--one yarn placed him back in Ireland, where he supposedly died in the Black and Tan nationalist uprising of the early 1920s--no one officially saw Tommy O'Connor again. He leapt from Busch's running board straight into the popular mythos, helped along immensely by Ben Hecht, who contributed to O'Connor's notoriety by depicting the prison escape in a Chicago Daily News column, in an original story for the silent 1927 film Underworld, and most famously in the 1928 stage play The Front Page.
Over the years O'Connor remained very much a wanted man. In fact the gallows intended for him--though packed away in the bowels of the Criminal Courts Building after the introduction of the electric chair in 1929--were not dismantled until 1977, when a judge finally ordered the rotting wooden structure destroyed. (Instead it was purchased privately; these days the disintegrating platform is on display at Donley's Wild West Town in Union, Illinois.)
Busch's brief dustup with O'Connor would dog the attorney even after his death, as attested by obits in the Tribune and Sun-Times, which, while acknowledging his distinguished and lengthy legal career, made it abundantly clear that he will forever be known as the last man to see Terrible Tommy O'Connor--that this ancient accidental encounter, much to Busch's chagrin, had somehow come to define his life. The Tribune went so far as to recall his reaction when, in 1996, on the 75th anniversary of O'Connor's escape, one of its reporters asked Busch about his 1921 tete-a-tete with the gun-toting cop killer. "My God," the ninety-something Busch bellowed. "Will that piece of history never die?" Well, no. At least not before he did.
CHICAGO, Oct. 30 -- It could be the perfect Halloween treat -- or trick -- for that person who already has everything else: a gallows.
About to be auctioned is the gallows that was built to hang anarchist labor organizers convicted in the Haymarket Affair in the late 19th century. It continued to be used for decades to hang some of Chicago's most infamous criminals.
Since 1977 the gallows has stood in a Wild West theme park run by two history-buff brothers in small-town Union, Ill. Before that it had languished, disassembled, in the basement of Cook County Jail in Chicago.
The gallows would have been destroyed after Cook County discontinued hanging in 1927 if it were not for a fugitive named "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor, who escaped from death row in 1921, four days before his scheduled execution for killing a Chicago policeman. The gallows was preserved so O'Connor's sentence, which specified that he be hanged, could be carried out should he ever resurface. Theories held that O'Connor returned to his native Ireland to fight the British, fled to Mexico or became a Trappist monk. His tale is the basis of the films "The Front Page," "His Girl Friday" and "Switching Channels."
There were at least 40 hangings on the gallows, done in the hallway between cellblocks at the jail so other prisoners could watch. Famous executions included those of Patrick Prendergast, a journalist hanged in 1894 for assassinating Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, and Johann Otto Hoch, a serial killer who used aliases to marry and then murder at least 50 women. He was hanged in 1906.
"It must have been pretty solemn, standing there in a dingy cellblock with the other prisoners watching," said Mike Donley, 54, proprietor of Donley's Wild West Town, where the gallows sits next to a faux frontier village. "It's pretty spooky to imagine."
The gallows was replaced by the electric chair in 1927. In 1977 a judge ordered the gallows sold. Mike Donley and brother Randy Donley placed the sole bid after seeing a newspaper ad for the gallows auction. They trucked the apparatus to the small museum they had started to showcase their father's collection of antique phonographs. In 1986 the museum made international headlines when it exhibited what may have been Adolf Hitler's photo album, purchased from a World War II veteran.
Mike Donley said he has had inquiries from both private collectors and museums about the gallows.
Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago History Museum, said the museum is interested in adding the structure to a permanent exhibit on the Haymarket Affair, which takes its name from a May 4, 1886, labor rally in Haymarket Square at which a bomb was thrown, resulting in the deaths of eight police officers. The eight men accused of the bombing were widely considered to have been convicted for their oppositional political views. Four were hanged.
"This was a momentous event in not just Chicago history but national labor history," Mahoney said. "It's still a contested issue."
James Acker, professor and co-founder of the National Death Penalty Archive at the State University of New York at Albany, said most Americans do not know that hanging is still legal in Washington state and New Hampshire, as an alternative to lethal injection, and was only recently outlawed in Delaware. It is still a major form of execution in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Japan.
"Most people associate it with the Wild West," he said. "It resonates with the 19th century and cowboys, and there's also the very negative association with extrajudicial lynchings in the South."
Acker said he hopes whoever ends up buying the gallows displays it appropriately.
"This could be a legitimate mechanism for preserving a bit of this country's history with the death penalty, so future generations will be able to look back on these practices and make whatever judgments they will," he said. "But there's also the risk something like this could be cheapened, vulgarized or marketed for whatever entertainment value it might have."
Jane T. Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said she hopes the gallows auction gets people thinking about the death penalty in general.
"It's interesting that this comes at the same time there is considerable controversy over lethal injection," she said. "The gallows are kind of a jolt from the past, when executions were public. Now we have this idea that they're supposed to be painless, which is also kind of contradictory since they're supposed to have a deterrent effect."
Bidding for the gallows, which begins on Nov. 20 and closes Dec. 6, will start at $5,000. Brian Marren, vice president of acquisitions for Mastro Auctions, said other historic items started at that price have gone for more than $100,000.
Marren said the fact that only the Donleys and the county government owned the gallows increases its value. "It's a one-of-a-kind item," he said.
December 12, 1996
Were he able to try it in the high-tech world of today, it is unlikely that Chicago's most memorable fugitive, "Terrible Tommy" O'Connor, would get very far.
He would have surely earned unwanted attention from TV fugitive shows and groups that pay rewards to tipsters, plaster the pictures of fugitives in public places and offer toll free phone numbers in newspaper ads, billboards, even on milk cartons.
Chicago FBI Agent Jack Daulton believes that is because whatever twists and turns O'Connor may have taken to avoid recapture after his daring escape on the wintry Sunday of Dec. 11, 1921, occurred from afar.
"It seems likely," reasoned Daulton, associate special agent in charge of the FBI office here, "that he wasn't caught perhaps because of a willingness on his part to either go to another part of the country and stay there or leave (the country) altogether."
In O'Connor's case, he had plenty of reason to go far away: vigilante revenge had been threatened by fellow officers of Sgt. Patrick O'Neill, whom he'd fatally wounded. And, if they didn't kill him, the hangman's noose surely would. (It wasn't until 1929 that the electric chair was plugged into Cook County Jail, then located at 54 W. Hubbard St.)
O'Connor was born in 1890 and brought to this country from Ireland by his parents two years later. Having already been charged, then freed, in two other killings before 1921, he was well known to police when five of them were sent to arrest him on a murder warrant in February of that year.
Gunfire broke out and O'Neill fell mortally wounded.
O'Connor was convicted of the officer's murder and sentenced to hang. But only three days before his scheduled execution, he somehow obtained a pistol, tied up his guards and climbed over a 20 foot-high jail wall. He then jumped onto the running board of a passing car, abandoned his ride and dropped from sight.
For the next 56 years, the noose and the gallows remained in wait for the one man who had cheated them. Finally in 1977, with little hope of finding O'Connor alive and with termites eating the gallows in the basement of the Criminal Courts Building, a judge ordered the old timbers destroyed.
But before the order could be carried out, a buyer bought what was left of the platform and turned it over to the Seven Acres Museum in Union, Ill.
Harry J. Busch, the unwilling getaway driver who went on to become a well-known local trial lawyer. remembers his brief meeting with O'Connor with clarity but not necessarily fondness.
"My God," he thundered when asked about it Wednesday. "Will that piece of history never die?"
The beginning of 1962 seemed to be plagued with an abnormal amount of robberies. Crazy Tony Gonzales and one of his partners were arrested that same week. The arrest ended Crazy Tony’s long spree of shootings, assaults, robberies, and general terrorism. Gonzales, who often boasted of his toughness, broke down and whimpered to the arresting police officer, “Please don’t hurt me.” Arrested with Gonzalez, after a Kroger robbery, was Roger Touhy Jr., the 36-year-old son of a murdered prohibition-era gangster.
In the latter part of 1933 and the early part of 1934, the Chicago gang of Roger "The Terrible" Touhy was smashed.
Singly and in groups, the Touhy mobsters were accounted for. James Tribble was murdered on September 8, 1933 in Chicago. William Sharkey committed suicide at St. Paul on December 1, 1933. Touhy himself and two of his henchmen were convicted in state court at Chicago on February 23, 1934, and sentenced to serve 99 years in prison for kidnapping John "Jake the Barber" Factor and holding him for ransom. The FBI had investigated the Factor kidnapping, but had stepped out at the conclusion of the investigation and turned over all evidence to state authorities. The federal courts had no jurisdiction because the kidnappers had not taken their victim across a state line.
Charles C. Connors was murdered at Willow Springs, Illinois, on March 13, 1934. On the same date, Basil "The Owl" Banghart, machine gunner and aviator for the mob, was convicted in state court in Chicago and sentenced to serve 99 years for participating in the Factor kidnapping. Two months later, Banghart was also tried in federal court at Asheville, North Carolina, and sentenced to serve 36 years in prison on a charge of robbing United States mail.
Two remaining members of the Touhy gang, Isaac A. Costner and Ludwig Schmidt, were also convicted on the mail robbery charge.
Thus, by the end of May, 1934, three members of the mob were dead, and 11 were in prison serving long terms.
For half a decade, the northwest section of Cook County, Illinois, had been known as Touhy Territory and the infamous mob had made bizarre history throughout the Midwest and along the Atlantic seaboard under the leadership of Roger Touhy, one of six notorious sons of James Touhy, deceased, a former patrolman in the Chicago Police Department.
Touhy "The Terrible" was quickly forgotten after he was received in Stateville Penitentiary at Joliet in 1934. Banghart started serving his long term in the Illinois State Prison at Menard. After a break from Menard in 1935, however, he was transferred to Joliet, where he renewed acquaintance with Touhy.
For seven years, Touhy and Banghart remained in prison, keeping in touch with their old outside contacts through the fantastic medium of the underworld grapevine, watching for any possible chance of escape.
They took no one into their confidence. Banghart already had four previous escapes on his record, and when he went to Joliet, he boasted that no prison in the world could keep him. He observed the activities of prison guards and assimilated every item of information that might be important in a planned escape. He learned the exact location of all prison facilities; the height of the walls; the position of the prison towers and the distance between them; and the number of guards and the kind of weapons they carried. He even claimed to know that the guards carried rifles sighted in at 100 yards, although they manned towers which were 300 yards apart.
Ultimately, a plan of escape matured, a plan which necessitated assistance both inside and out.
First of all, Touhy and Banghart needed guns; so they took Big Ed Darlak into their confidence. Edward Darlak was a 32-year old lifer, received at Joliet on October 14, 1935, under a 199 year sentence for murder. Darlak sent word to a young brother, Casimir, on the outside. Casimir got two .45 caliber revolvers, together with ammunition, and one night in August, 1942, tossed them into bushes near the prison. The guns were smuggled into the prison by a trusty who had the duty of lowering the prison flag each evening. He carried the guns in, wrapped in the flag.
With this accomplished, Banghart started negotiations for outside assistance. He needed a getaway car and a hide-out. Tentative arrangements were made but the plans were never consummated. The shabby characters willing to provide such services for a fee were not punctual or reliable. Again, it was "The Owl" who overcame the difficulties. He observed that a prison guard who manned tower number three drove his own car to work and left it parked near the tower gate, outside the prison wall. Banghart felt he could shift for a hide-out once he reached that car, because the entire Chicago area was familiar territory.
Touhy, Banghart, and Darlak passed word to four other Joliet long-termers willing to risk a break:
-William Stewart, 43 years old, under two 20-year sentences as a habitual criminal, parole violator and highway robber;
-Eugene Lanthorn, 36 years old, under a sentence of one year to life for assault to commit murder and for two previous escapes from Joliet;
-St. Clair McInerney, 31 years old, under sentence of one year to life for robbery, burglary, and violation of parole; and,
-Martilick Nelson, 40 years old, under sentence of one year to life as a robber, habitual criminal and parole violator.
Shortly before 1:00 p.m., on October 9, 1942, Touhy began the break from Joliet. He assaulted the driver of a prison garbage truck, obtained the truck and drove to the mechanical shop where Lanthorn was working, arriving there simultaneously with Banghart, McInerney, Darlak, Stewart, and Nelson. Working together, the seven convicts overpowered guards on duty in the shop, cut telephone wires, ripped some ladders out of locked racks, piled into the truck and headed for the northwest corner of the prison yard, holding two guards as hostages. Touhy and Banghart were brandishing .45 revolvers. Lanthorn was armed with a "Molotov Cocktail"—a crude incendiary bomb which he had fashioned in the prison shop and which he intended to use to start a panic if necessary. He did not need to use his bomb, however.
When the truck pulled up at the foot of tower number three, one of the convicts fired at the guard in the tower, bringing him under control. Others threw ladders up against the wall. Touhy led five of the men up into the tower where they disarmed the guard and seized the keys to the tower gate and the keys to the guard's car. Banghart stayed below to cover them and the guards who had been brought from the shop as hostages. Nelson went down the outside wall by rope, opened the tower door with the guard's keys, and the gang ran out. They fled in the guard's automobile taking the cinder road that would bring them out on the highway to Chicago. The convicts were well armed. From tower number three, they had taken two high-powered rifles and a .45 caliber handgun.
At eight o'clock that evening, the getaway car, traveling at furious speed, broke through a police blockade at Elmhurst. At 11:00 p.m., the car was abandoned at Villa Park, in the middle of town where it could not be missed; the gang's way of notifying the FBI that they had not taken a stolen car across a state line.
From Villa Park, they fled into the Cook County Forest Reserve on foot and hid out in a shack for four days. Banghart foraged for food at night. On the evening of October 13, he returned to the shack with a stolen automobile and moved the gang to a 13th street apartment on the West Side.
Posing as long-distance truck-drivers, they all lived in his apartment for almost two months. Banghart was trying to hold them together long enough to plan and execute some big-time hold-ups which would bring in the fabulous sums of money needed in their schemes. They wanted to buy a farm near Chicago for a hide-out; they wanted legitimately purchased automobiles to obviate the danger of traveling in "hot" cars; and they wanted plastic surgery work done to change their appearances and destroy their fingerprints. Touhy was said to have the contacts for the plastic surgery, but the cost was $100,000.
Holding such a collection of desperate men together and keeping them in safe hiding was no easy job. Banghart ruled them with an iron hand. He allowed no drinking, except for an occasional bottle brought into the apartment, and permitted no promiscuous associations with outsiders. Every day when a man went out for food and supplies, Banghart, armed with a sawed-off shotgun wrapped in a newspaper, followed to convoy. The convicts changed clothes with each other frequently, made every effort to disguise themselves and, when on the streets, always walked facing oncoming traffic so that police or FBI cars could not slip up on them from behind.
About December, 1, 1942, the gang, feeling that neighbors had begun to notice them, moved to a nearby apartment, but bedbugs drove them out in two days. Their next residence was in the Doversun Apartments on Sunnyside Avenue.
They had been at Doversun only a few days when the first serious rift occurred; Stewart and Nelson went out alone one night and returned to the apartment drunk. Banghart disarmed them and pistol whipped them both, beating them until they were unconscious. Leaving the two battered and apparently dying, the other five convicts immediately abandoned the apartment and lived for a few days in a garage where they had their stolen car hidden. Banghart, Darlak, Touhy, McInerney, and Lanthorn ultimately moved into the Norwood Apartments at 1256 Leland Avenue. Stewart and Nelson somehow recovered, got out of the Doversun Apartments before they were discovered, and separated—Nelson to go to Minneapolis and Stewart to seek refuge with a former girlfriend in Chicago.
Although this crowd escaped from Joliet on October 9, 1942, the FBI did not enter the search for them until October 16, 1942. They were state prisoners, and in escaping they violated no federal law. But after a week had passed and they had failed to present themselves for registration under the Selective Service Law they became draft delinquents. The FBI formally filed on them for failure to register and obtained federal warrants of arrest.
Realizing that this gang of desperadoes constituted a grave threat to the public safety, Director J. Edgar Hoover personally took charge of the Touhy investigation at its inception. From his Washington Headquarters he directed a continent-wide man hunt that had no equal since the days of Dillinger.
Agents at FBI Headquarters dug into the old voluminous files on the Factor kidnapping for every fragment of information about Touhy and Banghart's past associates, hide-outs, habits, friends and relatives. Agents were sent into Joliet to review prison records for the names of all relatives, visitors, and correspondents of all seven escapees. They interviewed prison guards and convicts who were known to have associated in any way with any of the seven subjects. Convicts who had formerly associated with them but who had already been discharged from prison were located. Old prison records in other institutions where the subjects had served time were examined. Every known relative, every former friend or character witness, every attorney who was known to have represented the men - every possible contact of all seven subjects was located. Those who were cooperative were interviewed for their assistance, while others were watched night and day. Photographs, descriptions, and brief criminal histories of all the escapees were sent to every law enforcement agency in America, to all leading newspapers and to agencies in Canada and Mexico. Stops were placed along the borders and all patrol stations were given photographs of the convicts.
Every lead, no matter how shadowy, was cautiously and thoroughly run out.
In the initial stages, the investigation was primarily an exhaustive preparation of a nation-wide network of ambushes. Sooner or later a break would come—one of the fugitives would attempt a contact that was covered.
Mere waiting, however, was not enough. To conserve manpower and expenses and to bring these desperadoes into custody at the earliest possible moment, it was necessary to make deductions on which to predicate offensive action.
Director Hoover and his staff deduced that Banghart would try to hold the gang together; that they would hide out in Chicago; and that, by means of pocket picking and petty stick-ups, they would obtain identification papers such as Selective Service cards to avoid an accidental arrest for vagrancy or the like.
Agents carefully reviewed the Chicago police files on unsolved petty stick-up cases in which the victim had lost a wallet containing draft cards and other identification.
The first break came on December 15, 1942, when Nelson attempted to contact a relative in north Minneapolis. Knowing, therefore, that Nelson was in the area and that he was not staying with relatives, agents assumed that he was stopping at some cheap hotel using an alias. A logical alias would be the name of some Chicago citizen who had lost his wallet in a recent stickup.
An FBI agent and an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department checked these possibilities. The next day, December 16, 1942, they found Nelson in a hotel, in bed with a loaded gun under his pillow and his door barricaded with a chair. He was registered under the name of Harold Seeger. Harold Seeger, it should be noted, was a Chicago grocerman who was held up by a masked bandit on December 11, 1942, and robbed of his wallet, identification papers and pocket money.
Nelson would not talk, but the half-healed, grievous wounds on his head were a significant indication that the gang had had trouble. On the same day that Nelson was arrested, agents located Stewart.
Several days before, Stewart had made a telephone call to Milwaukee. The call was traced to a pay station telephone in a drug store on North Broadway in Chicago. Within an hour after this call was made, agents were combing that area of Chicago. Contacts were developed in hotels, barrooms, night spots, rooming houses, and restaurants. Many reliable persons, when shown Stewart's photograph, believed that they had seen the man recently.
Finally on December 16, 1942, agents observed a known acquaintance of Stewart's standing near a bank at the intersection of Oak Park and Harrison Streets. He was carrying a newspaper high under his left arm, rather awkwardly. To the trained observer, he had the air of a man waiting to be met by someone he did not know. The newspaper could very well be the tag by which he was to be recognized.
The agents waited. Their assumption was correct. The man did have a rendezvous but agents did not recognize the individual who came to meet him. They followed the unknown man and found that he lived in a hotel on West Harrison Street. A surveillance at the hotel soon located Stewart. He was known at the hotel as James Shea, this being the name of a man robbed of his wallet and identification papers in Chicago on November 22, 1942. He was also known as "The Deacon," because he dressed in black and wore his clothing like a minister in an effort to disguise himself. When in public, he always carried a Bible, which he frequently opened and read.
Agents did not arrest Stewart immediately. They hoped he would lead them to Touhy and his gang. For four days there were no significant developments.
Then, on December 20, 1942, Stewart had a rendezvous with two men unknown to surveilling agents. The agents surmised that Stewart was not in direct contact with the gang and that these two men were couriers between him and Banghart. Agents quietly took Stewart into custody and followed the two couriers.
The next day, December 21, 1942, agents following one of the couriers recognized Banghart and Darlak whom the courier met in a crowded, downtown area. Agents instinctively realized what was wrapped inside the newspaper that Banghart was carrying. They also realized that it was not time to take Banghart and Darlak. They knew that Banghart, if approached on the street, would start shooting wildly and that the lives of bystanders would be imperiled. They also knew that if they took Banghart and Darlak, the search for the remaining fugitives would become even more difficult. The thing to do was to follow Banghart and Darlak until they led to the hide-out so that all five fugitives could be taken at once without endangering the lives of innocent citizens.
The surveillance on Banghart for the next seven days was most difficult. He carried his shotgun at all times and he knew all of the tricks of shaking off or detecting surveilling officers. The hazardous surveillance, however, paid off. Banghart never realized that he was being followed.
Within five days, agents had learned that the entire gang had been living in apartment number 31 at 1256 Leland Avenue, but that they were splitting into two groups. McInerney and Lanthorn were remaining in apartment number 31; Darlak, Touhy, and Banghart were moving into an apartment at 5116 Kenmore Avenue.
Only one thing remained to be done before arrangements could be made for the arrests. The agents, who had never before seen McInerney and Lanthorn, had to be absolutely certain that these were the right men before attempting the arrest, because they knew there would be gunplay. On Sunday afternoon, December 27, 1942, the two men believed to be McInerney and Lanthorn both left their apartment for a few minutes. While agents were following them on the streets, two other agents slipped into their apartment and obtained some discarded bottles which could be processed for fingerprints. In the Chicago office they developed on these bottles fingerprints identical with those of the two fugitives.
Director Hoover hurried to Chicago to make final plans for the raid. In both apartment houses, unsuspecting neighbors who might be in the line of fire had to be secretly evacuated. Arrangements had to be made with the police department to block off the streets. Every conceivable means of an exit had to be covered, and the agents deployed so that they would not be caught in their own cross fire.
On Monday evening, December 28, 1942, McInerney and Lanthorn again left their apartment and went to visit the other fugitives. Two agents slipped into their room to await their return. other agents filtered into the building to cover all possible means of escape. At 11:20 p.m. the two fugitives returned. They approached the door of their apartment with their guns drawn. After a tense, listening pause before the door, Lanthorn inserted a key and threw the door open.
One of the agents in the room called for their surrender: "We are federal officers. Put your hands up."
Both convicts fired in the direction of the voice. The agents opened fire. Both men lurched from the room, stumbled over the banister and fell dead on the second-floor landing. On the bodies of both men were found large sums of money. In McInerney's pockets were two strange items: (1) the address of an undertaker, and (2) a fragment of verse:
I wish I now were old enough
To give some sound advice
To make each person weigh his thoughts
And turn over twice.
I wish my eyes had seen enough
So I could make him see
The way impressions in this life
Can fool us easily.
I wish my heart had held enough
So it could not impart
The worthiest philosophy To every human heart.
McInerney, 31, was the youngest of this group of convicts.
Director Hoover next took his men to 5116 Kenmore Avenue where they surrounded the building and took up their assigned posts in adjoining apartments. They waited until just before dawn.
At 5:00 a.m., on December 29, 1942, powerful searchlights were turned on to illuminate the apartment building and to play on the windows of the fugitives' first-floor apartment. As the lights went on, one of Director Hoover's assistants began speaking into a microphone connected with a loudspeaker outside the apartment door.
"Touhy, Banghart, Darlak, we are the FBI. Surrender and come out with your hands up. There is no hope of escape. You are surrounded. You have ten minutes to decide. We will then start shooting."
These words were repeated several times, then: "Banghart, you come out first. Come out backwards with your hands in the air. Touhy, you come out next and Darlak, you come last. Come out one at a time. Come out backwards with your hands in the air." The agents could hear excited and muffled voices in the apartment:
"No! They've got us covered on all sides."
"What do you say - let's give up. I know how these guys operate!"
"Listen to that voice. It sure gives me the creeps!"
A few seconds later, Banghart backed out of the apartment, hands held high in the air, talking fast:
"Don't do anything. Don't do anything. Don't worry—I won't do anything!"
He had no chance to do anything. Director Hoover seized him and he was handcuffed.
Next came Touhy, the very ghost of the once feared "Black Roger." His curly, black hair had been peroxided to a reddish-blond and was the texture of straw. Clad in flaming red satin pajamas, he was trembling and silent as he backed out of the apartment holding his hands over his head. He stared morosely at the floor while he was being handcuffed. Darlak, as instructed, backed out last.
Banghart was the first to regain his composure. His owl-like eyes had been darting about, taking in everything that happened. He was the first to speak after all the convicts had been taken into custody.
"You're Mr. Hoover, aren't you? I pegged you from your picture in the paper. It's not everybody that has the honor of having the big Chief get him." Touhy was glum and one of the agents asked him what he was thinking. Banghart chirped a reply: "Well, Boss, he's thinking as Molly said to Fibber the other night—it ain't funny anymore." On the way to the FBI office, Banghart chattered endlessly:
"We picked the wrong time for this break. A fellow has to have a Selective Service card, a Social Security card, and is hindered by too many wartime restrictions."
After wistfully thinking it over, Banghart added:
"If I had broken out two years ago, I could have gotten out of the country, maybe gone to South America and gotten a job flying."
He even grew expansive and paid the FBI a compliment:
"Mr. Hoover," he said, "you've got a good outfit. That sound chilled us. It was coming through the window, through the front door, through the back door—from all over. At first, I thought some of our enemies were out to get us."
In connection with this investigation and the searches incidental to the arrests, FBI agents recovered a total of $13,605.84 which the gang had taken in the robbery of an armored car in north Chicago on December 18, 1942. Also recovered were stolen automobiles, guns, expensive clothing and draft and Social Security cards of persons who had been robbed.
The Selective Service complaints which agents had filed in October were all dismissed. Nelson, Stewart, Darlak, and Touhy were returned to state custody. Banghart was sent to Alcatraz.
All the way through, Banghart had been the undisputed leader of this mob.
He was born in 1900 at Berville, Michigan. He finished high school and had one year at college before he turned definitely to a career of crime.
The record indicates that he stole over one hundred automobiles in and around Detroit before his first arrest and conviction in 1926.
On January 4, 1926, he was arrested in Cincinnati and returned to Detroit to stand trial for car theft. He pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court. The judge placed him on probation for one year.
Two months later in April 1926, he was again arrested, this time in Dayton, Ohio and was charged with a violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.
He was convicted and sentenced to serve two years in the United States Penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia, where he deliberately made the acquaintance of long-termers, making what was the equivalent of a post-graduate study in crime.
Assigned to the window washing detail, Banghart had good opportunity to saw the steel bars enclosing a window. At dusk on January 25, 1927, together with other convicts, he made his escape through the window, jumped twenty feet to the ground and made a headlong dash across an open field. Outrunning the bloodhounds, he plunged through swamps and marshes to freedom.
He made his way to Montana where he cooled off for a period before going back east to organize a business of stealing automobiles. He established a ring of car thieves which operated in and around New Jersey. Some of the stolen cars were driven south; others were sold in the same city where they had been stolen after Banghart had changed the motor and serial number.
In October 1928, he was arrested in Pennsylvania and turned over to a United States Marshal at Pittsburgh for arraignment on a National Motor Vehicle Theft Act charge. While in the custody of the marshal in the federal building at Pittsburgh, Banghart asked permission to go to the lavatory. Walking down the corridor, he suddenly shoved the Marshal off balance and dashed out of the building, pointing in front of him and shouting, "Get the police." Stop that man!" The ruse worked and Banghart made good his escape. Two weeks later, however, he was arrested in Philadelphia. In that two weeks he had dyed his hair, shaved his moustache, and put on glasses.
He was returned to Atlanta and served out his sentence, which expired on February 14, 1930. When he left, however, he did not go free. He was taken into custody on a detainer and removed to Knoxville where he was confined in the Knox County Jail to await prosecution in federal court. He made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from this jail. When he was tried he pleaded guilty and asked for probation, saying that he had never had a chance to go straight. The judge, however, sentenced him to two more years in the penitentiary at Atlanta.
Banghart served this sentence, but in January, 1932, less than two months after his release, he was arrested in Detroit as a robbery suspect. He was released to local authorities at South Bend, Indiana, for prosecution on an armed robbery that had occurred in that city in 1927. On his way to South Bend, Banghart boasted that he had belonged to the Purple Gang in Detroit and that the South Bend Jail could not keep him long. He was right. On March 27, 1932, he blinded a turnkey with pepper, took his jail keys, seized a machine gun, and shot his way out of jail.
It was at this point that he fled to Chicago and became a machine gunner and top leader of the Touhy mob, at that time engaged in an underworld war with the Capone interests.
It was Banghart who planned and led the kidnapping of John Factor by the Touhy mob in 1933. In the final stages of this case he narrowly escaped capture after a running gun battle with police. Accompanied by his paramour and two of the Touhy gangsters, he left Chicago and hid out for a while in Tennessee, ultimately moving to Charlotte, North Carolina.
In November, 1933, Banghart and his two henchmen robbed a United States mail truck at Charlotte, obtaining $120,000. He was next arrested in a fashionable apartment in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 10, 1934.
After standing trial in Chicago for participating in the Factor kidnapping and standing trial at Asheville, North Carolina, for participating in the mail robbery, he was returned to Illinois and incarcerated in the state prison at Menard to serve the 99 years for the sentence which he had drawn for the Factor kidnapping.
On October 2, 1935, he and other inmates at Menard assaulted prison guards and, in a commandeered truck, crashed through the prison gates. Banghart was soon recaptured and, as previously pointed out, was sent to Joliet to complete his sentence.
By Diane Summerville
When gangsters hit a mail truck on the Queen City’s peaceful streets, they had no idea whose territory they had invaded.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened. Only days earlier, a tip came into the police department that something big was about to go down in Charlotte.
As Frank Littlejohn surveyed the scene and listened to eyewitnesses, the chief of detectives knew this was the something big.
The mail truck was heading away from the railroad depot on Third Street when a car darted out of an alley and slammed on brakes in front of it. In swift, sure movements, four men, at least one brandishing a machine gun, jumped out of the car and swarmed the truck.
The gunman shoved the tommy gun into the truck’s cab and disarmed the driver. At the same time, two men walked to the back, cleanly clipped the lock on the rear doors with a pair of wire cutters, forced the mail clerk out of the truck, and grabbed several sacks.
In less than two minutes, the thieves, loot in hand, retreated to their car, and, in a cloud of dust, they — and more than $100,000 in cash and bank notes — were gone.
Littlejohn had no doubt that this crime, well executed and committed in broad daylight on a clear morning, was a mob hit. He was right.
The year was 1933. The day, November 15. In Chicago, Illinois, Al Capone was battling Roger “The Terrible” Touhy for control of illegal beer and liquor sales in that city’s northwest suburbs. Five months earlier, Capone’s agents framed Touhy for the kidnapping of Jake Factor, a known gangster (and brother of the famed makeup artist Max Factor). Touhy was awaiting trial when four of his henchmen headed south to “raise” money for his defense.
Charlotte in the 1930s had few if any connections to organized crime. Cotton fields surrounded it, and textile mills filled it. As in many towns at the height of Prohibition, staunching the flow of bootleg liquor was one of law enforcement’s primary occupations. But Charlotte, already with a population of roughly 80,000, was on its way to becoming a financial center.
“There were multiple skyscrapers and fancy department stores and the new offices of the Federal Reserve, which opened in 1927,” says Dr. Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “Money flowed in and out of Charlotte.”
Touhy’s men probably thought targeting deposits on their way to the Federal Reserve in the so-called sleepy South seemed like an easy mark. They were wrong.
‘Finest detective in America’
What Touhy didn’t know was that he had sent his men to commit a headline crime in a city patrolled by a man who J. Edgar Hoover would describe as “the finest detective in America.” The ruthless gangster soon learned why.
According to It Happened in North Carolina, Scotti Kent’s 2000 book detailing several little-known episodes in the state’s history, Littlejohn came to Charlotte from South Carolina in 1917 to run a shoe store. Sometime in the 1920s, he went to work as an undercover federal agent investigating Ku Klux Klan activities. In 1927, the Charlotte City Council hired him to rid uptown Charlotte of prostitution. That position, originally temporary, was the start of a 30-year career with the Charlotte Police Department.
By the time of the mail truck robbery, Littlejohn had risen through the ranks to become chief of detectives. He was a tall, lanky man. He smoked cigars, and even today, people who knew him talk about his big nose. Some say his ego was bigger.
“He was not very humble,” says Ryan Sumner, the historian who curated “Beneath the Badge,” the exhibit on policing in Mecklenburg County at the Charlotte Museum of History. “He had a reputation for being good, and he knew it.”
He was good.
“He was no fool,” says Johnnie Helms, 79, a retired officer who went to work for the department in the 1950s when Littlejohn was chief of police. “He was thinking next week while I was thinking today.”
Helms remembers Littlejohn as a tough but fair man who knew his city and who had strong ideas of how its police department should be run. He didn’t like to be told what to do; he had more than one clash with the City Council throughout the years and ultimately was fired 15 days before his scheduled retirement for publicly criticizing a council action.
And as a story in the book Charlotte Police Department 1866-1991 shows, he wasn’t one to let convention get in the way of closing a case. Evidence told Littlejohn that a murder in the Myers Park neighborhood was likely the result of a homeowner walking in on a burglar. Experience with Charlotte’s more unsavory characters told him who his likely suspects were.
Rather than interrogating the suspects, Littlejohn called their wives and girlfriends into his office. With the lights down low, he peered into a crystal ball and began chanting a voodoo spell he remembered from childhood. According to Charlotte Police Department, “One of the women began swooning and screamed that the killer was her husband.”
Hot on the trail
When Touhy’s men hit the mail truck, all Littlejohn and his men needed was a single clue to get the investigation rolling. They got it when the car used in the robbery was discovered within hours of the crime just outside the city limits. It was a brand new black Plymouth sedan that was stolen from a home on East Morehead Street two weeks earlier. Maintenance records indicated that since its last service, the car had been driven only nine miles — almost the exact distance between the robbery and where the car was abandoned.
“If it hadn’t any more than nine miles on it, it had to have been hidden somewhere all that time,” Littlejohn explained in a Charlotte Observer article published toward the end of his career. So he put a detective in a car and told him to drive along every route leading to the holdup scene. At the same time, he had postal carriers asking residents on those same routes if anyone had rented a garage. “This was a mail robbery, you see, and the postal inspectors were on it. … We rang every doorbell,” he said.
They found a woman on 10th Street who had rented a room to two men. At first, they didn’t want to take it, she said, because it didn’t come with a garage. She arranged for them to use her neighbor’s. But, she added, every time the two men left the house, they headed west, on foot.
That information, combined with the fact that there were still two robbers unaccounted for, sparked a search for a second hideout.
A tip about an unfamiliar Packard spotted near where the Plymouth was stolen sent Littlejohn to the second location. “I went tearing out,” he said. “I came up to the door and heard my own police calls blaring out.”
Whoever had been in the room left in a hurry. They didn’t bother turning off the radio they had tuned to the police channel. Detectives found a suitcase full of clothes, three steaks in the refrigerator, and, on the table, a newspaper with the story of how Littlejohn found the car used in the robbery. Littlejohn ordered his men to take every item, including the garbage, to headquarters. There, he sorted out 27 bits of torn-up paper that, when pieced together, formed a Chicago rent receipt.
“For 60 hours there, I didn’t have my shoes off,” Littlejohn said. “I left here at 6 p.m. that evening and was in Chicago the next morning.”
The landlady at the rental property gave Littlejohn descriptions that matched eyewitness accounts in Charlotte.
“The landlady said one of the men carried a violin all the time,” Littlejohn said in the 1957 interview. “That was no violin. That was a machine gun case!”
Between the descriptions and fingerprints lifted from beer bottles found in the second hideout, investigators nailed the robbers’ identities. The ringleader was Basil “The Owl” Banghart, a notorious thief in the Chicago area and Touhy’s right-hand man. His suspected partners in the heist were Ludwig “Dutch” Schmidt, Isaac A. Costner, and Charles “Ice” Connors. All four had long histories on the wrong side of the law.
Within two weeks of the robbery, three of the suspects were behind bars; one was dead. Investigators tracked down Banghart in Baltimore. He was arrested and, six months after the holdup, stood trial in federal court in Asheville. He was sentenced to 36 years for his role in the robbery. Costner testified against his cronies but still got 30 years. And Schmidt pulled almost 30 years.
Ice Connors never made it to trial. According to The Charlotte Observer article, he “was found dead in a Chicago suburb, his body riddled with machine gun bullets and trussed with barbed wire, his dead fist clenched around a penny.”
Littlejohn explained in the 1957 article: “That’s the underworld sign for betrayal. Maybe Ice was just dumb, but he put the police on the mob’s trail and that was enough to kill him.”
For his role in solving the crime and helping to put Touhy’s top associates behind bars, Littlejohn received a letter from J. Edgar Hoover in which the legendary FBI director praised him “as the finest detective in America.” The framed letter adorned Littlejohn’s office throughout his career with the Charlotte Police Department, which included 12 years as chief of police.
Say the name Littlejohn to anyone who knew him or is familiar with his history, and you get the same reaction: He was a no-nonsense character, a poster boy for hard-line law enforcement. Helms, who walked an uptown beat in his early days on the force, remembers the chief as a man who spent little time at his desk and who knew everything about his city.
As the voodoo story demonstrates, Littlejohn wasn’t above using questionable measures to solve a crime. Yet, Charlotte Police Department 1866-1991 credits him with setting the police department on a course toward more professional law enforcement. He established Charlotte’s first police academy; before that, new recruits were handed a gun and a badge and put on the streets. He sent commanding officers to the FBI National Academy and the Southern Police Institute. He set up the first youth bureau in the state to address juvenile delinquency, and the police department established its first firing range under his reign.
Littlejohn had high expectations for his officers, Helms says, but he had the respect of his men and of the townspeople.
Persistence and perception
Even with those accomplishments, Charlotte’s “crime of the century” and his role in solving it remained a highlight of Littlejohn’s career. It shows up in most references to the chief.
Littlejohn enjoyed the recognition and recounting the drama, no doubt. But apparently, the way he saw it, putting together the pieces of the puzzle was just a part of the job.
“People have an exaggerated idea of the acumen and brains a case like this takes,” he said in 1957. “Mostly, it’s persistence … persistence and perception, which is different from observation.”