When Roger Touhy returned to the Valley he invested most of his small fortune into a used car dealership not far from the tiny house in the Valley where he was born.
“My automobile business,” Touhy said, “was bringing me in from $50,000 to $60,000 a year. But the big money was in alcoholic beverages. Everybody in the racket was getting rich. How could the bootleggers miss, with a short ounce of gagging moonshine selling for $1.25, or an eight-ounce glass of nauseating beer going for 75 cents?”
The Touhy brothers, Johnny, Eddie, Tommy and Joe had already gotten involved in the booming boot¬leg business via Terrible Tommy O’Connor. They worked mostly as hired enforcers, but they occasion¬ally hijacked a syndicate beer truck. It was almost natural that Roger join them and eventually he entered the bootlegging business. They entered the business through the back door, leasing a small fleet of trucks with drivers, from syndicate boss Johnny Torrio’s enormous bootlegging operation. Using the money they earned from those leases, Roger and his brothers bought a franchise from Torrio for the beer delivery routes to rural northwestern Cook County, the area where Roger grew up.
The beer delivery business could be lucrative as long as expenses were kept to a minimum, so the notoriously tight-fisted brothers opted not to pay for police protection. As a result, Chicago and Cook County police, probably working in a 50/50 split with Johnny Torrio, or at the least working under his orders, made a practice of stopping and impounding the brothers’ trucks, probably kicking back half the fines collected to Torrio.
When the expenses started to mount it occurred to Tommy Touhy that the police would never suspect a commercial vehicle of delivering booze. They decided to test the theory. The boys bought two used Esso Gasoline trucks—Esso being the forerunner to Exxon—and they made several successful ship¬ments that way. It was a practice they continued to use even though most of the drivers the Touhys employed were off-duty cops. Virtually every truck the Touhys owned was disguised as a meat delivery truck. After that, their trucks were never stopped and the brothers shipped all their beer in commer¬cial vehicles, either marked as gasoline, meat or coal delivery trucks.
Ambitious and flush with cash from the beer routes, the brothers entered a bootlegging partner-ship with two north side Chicago hoods, Willie Heeney and Rocco DeGrazio, both of whom were amateur narcotics dealers who would eventually reach top spots in the syndicate under Frank Nitti and Tony Accardo. The Touhys and their new part-ners pumped out rot-gut beer from a rented garage and made enough money to open a short-lived night¬club a few doors down from their brewery. Using their profits from the brewery and speakeasy, Roger and Tommy opened a string of handbooks, and then used the cash from that to buy Heeney and DeGrazio out of the business.
Now the prosperous owner of a beer delivery ser-vice, a small brewery, several handbooks and a car dealership, Roger asked Clara Morgan for her hand in marriage. She accepted and the couple married in a simple church ceremony in Chicago on April 22, 1922.
For the next three years, the brothers worked to develop their various enterprises, building up their suburban beer routes and expanding into labor extortion and gambling, but like most other Irish hoods, resisting the easy money of prostitution. Then, in late 1925, as Johnny Torrio was just begin-ning to expand his criminal empire, the brothers leaped out of the small time by entering a partner-ship with Matt Kolb, a five-foot three-inch, 280 pound former ward politician, syndicate bagman and pay-off expert, who ran a $3,000,000 rot-gut whisky and needle beer brewery not far from Roger’s car dealership.
Earlier in the year A1 Capone, who was then still Johnny Torrio’s chief of staff, told Kolb that he was out of business unless he paid 50 percent of his gross to Rocco DeGrazio, Roger’s former business partner and Capone’s new business agent on the north side. Although Kolb acted as bagman for Johnny Torrio, he despised Capone. Rather than work for him, Kolb called Roger and Tommy Touhy and by mid-year their partnership was in place. It was a simple arrangement: Kolb was the money man, Roger was business manager and Tommy was the muscle.
It was Kolb who encouraged Touhy to move his operation out to the suburbs, largely because his brothers were already operating in the area and because Kolb understood that peace would never reign in Chicago as long as prohibition was in force. But Kolb also held considerable clout with the new County Sheriff, Charles Graydon, who had owned an ice packing business several years before.
The brothers knew Kolb was right: peace would never reign in Chicago’s underworld with so many differ-ent—and violent—street gangs vying for a limited amount of business. But that wasn’t the case out in the rural northern portion of the county. In fact, when the brothers first started peddling the syndi-cate’s beer they were stunned at the amount of busi-ness, both existing and potential, that was out there. Better yet, there was barely any competition for the market and there were scores of people willing to operate speakeasies if Kolb, who was worth a million in cash, put up the money to open them.
By 1926, the Touhy brothers and Matt Kolb were operational in suburban Des Plains, a small but prosperous community where they started a cooper shop, brewery and wort plant. They expanded that to ten fermenting plants, working round the clock, each plant being a small brewery in itself with its own refrigeration system and ice-making machine with a bottling plant. The investment paid off. By the end of the year, the partners were selling 1,000 barrels of beer a week at $55 a barrel with a pro-duction cost of $4.50 a barrel.
They sold their beer to 200 roadhouses outside of Chicago, mostly in far western Cook and Will County, north to the Wisconsin Lake region. Richer then ever, they hired more muscle men and with Tommy Touhy leading the assault, the brothers punched, shot and sold their way into a considerable portion of the upper northwest region of the city, “Our business”
Roger said, “was scattered over a lot of mileage. A barrel here and a barrel there. Nobody realized that Matt and I were grossing about $1,000,000 a year from beer alone....I didn’t become a giant in the rack¬et, but you might say I was one of the biggest midgets who ever scoffed at the Volstead law.”
Since making wort—the main ingredient for beer as well as bread—was legal, Roger and Kolb claimed their entire operation was a bakery since “I was pro-ducing enough wort for all the bread baked in a dozen states. It was a big enterprise and I paid fif¬teen cents tax on every gallon I made.”
To counter Chicago’s off-beer season—the winter months—they set up a slot machine business, plac-ing 225 machines in gas stations, dance halls and chicken dinner stands. 'The only way to make money faster” he said, “is to have a license to coun-terfeit bills.”
They kept the local politicians happy, aside from bribing them outright, by doling out 18,000 free bot¬tles of beer every week through one of Kolb’s under¬lings, Joe Goebel of Morton Grove. The County President, Anton Cermak not only took the beer which he resold or gave away to the party faithful, but had Touhy print his name and picture on the front label.
To keep the cost of police protection low, always a priority with the Touhys, they hired off-duty Cook County highway patrolmen. “Our local law,” Roger wrote, “was mostly Cook County Highway Patrol. I figured out a way to keep the roads open for us, with top priority for our beer trucks. Whenever we had a job open as a truck driver or what not, I hired a cop right away from the highway patrol to fill it...we paid no man less than $100 a week, which was more than triple what the patrol guys got for longer hours.”
In as far as the Touhy gang went, at least before 1927, there really wasn’t any gang, not in the tradi-tional sense. Rather, the entire operation was run more along the lines of any other prospering subur- ban-based business. Jim Wagner, Touhy’s bookkeep¬er, told the FBI that the Touhy gang had an average of twenty to twenty-five members before the war with Capone, that the gang had no official head¬quarters only an after work hangout, an old gas sta¬tion “in back of Mrs. Kolze’s white house in Shiller Park.”
Another hangout was Wilson’s Ford dealership in Des Plains run by Henry Ture Wilson, who, according to the FBI, not only sold most of the Touhy gang discounted Fords, but also dealt in stolen cars. Wilson’s stockroom manager, Otto Rexes, ran a handbook for Roger out of the place as well. Roger also purchased most of his beer delivery trucks here under his garage’s name, the Davis Cartage Company. On most Saturday nights gang members could be found at the Dietz Stables, a dance hall in Ivanhoe in Lake County.
After the war with Capone started, the gang leaped in size to about fifty men who worked for Touhy on a regular basis, according to Jim Wagner, one of the first men to work with Touhy when he moved out to Des Plains.
George Wilke, who was also known as George Fogarty, had been one of Touhy’s minor partners in the beer business for three years but left it, ‘because living in the country gave me enough sinus troubles to have to move to Florida.”
Walter Murray, forty-two, was a truck driver and laborer in the organization. Murray wore false upper teeth, yet all of the lower teeth were missing except for the two front ones. Like most of the men who worked for Touhy, Murray was from the Valley and had a wife and four children and no criminal record.
Jimmy Clarence Wagner, forty, worked as Touhy’s bookkeeper, although he and his brother John ran a small painting business out of Elmwood Park. Married in 1918 and with a ten-year-old son, James Jr., the family lived in Chicago until 1926 before finally moving out to Des Plains. Wagner had enlisted in the army during the first war and served as a sergeant in the artillery corps. After his dis-charge from the service he worked for Edison Kees as a flooring salesman until 1920 when he became involved with the city employees’ annuity fund as a clerk for three years. He then went to work for his brother-in-law Leonard Thompson who knew Matt Kolb. Kolb introduced him to Touhy, who in 1930 hired him as a truck driver at $50.00 a week. Soon he was promoted to collector. He never used “mus-cle,” never carried a gun and always had friendly dealings with his customers.
Willie Ford was a collector who lived in Des Plains for four years, leaving in 1929 and then returning after the shooting war with the DeGrazios had started. His brother, Jerry Ford, was a truck driver living on 4th Street in Des Plains. Willie Ford later became Touhy’s chief enforcer and strong-arm man. Ford’s roommate was Arthur Reese, a gang regular and enforcer. Other enforcers included Jim Ryan who was, at least on paper, the foreman in charge of the drivers and lived on Grand Avenue in River Forrest. His brother, Clifford Ryan, lived across the street from the Des Plains elementary school. Working under Ryan were enforcers John (Shaner) Crawford and Joseph (Sonny) Kerwin.
John “Red” Ryan, one of Paddy the Bear’s sons, had worked for the Shelton gang for a while and was a member of the gang along with Martin O’Leary and Old Harv Baily who were associated with the Touhy gang on a regular basis. Roy Marshalk said Wagner “was not a collector or a driver. He always rode with Touhy everywhere.” Like everyone else, Ford was reluctant to discuss the dangerous Marshalk who was actually, after Tommy Touhy, the gang’s chief of staff and high executioner.
Most of the bodyguards were former Cook County Highway patrolmen like Buck Henrichsen who also worked as a laborer and was known as a “muscle man.” Henrichsen brought in his younger brother called “Buck Jr.” and a second highway patrolman, Mike Miller, who acted as Tommy Touhy’s personal bodyguard. Other bodyguards included August John La Mar and Louis Finko, two very dangerous men, as well as Roger’s childhood friend Willie Sharkey and for a brief period, Gus Schafer who in 1930 was new to the area.
In 1933, Touhy’s bodyguard Willie Sharkey said, ‘We always carried guns on beer runs to protect our-selves and friends from the syndicate, after 1930 we seldom left the north side and the vicinity of Des Plains and very seldom went into Chicago or else we would have been placed on the spot. But we left town right after any of the newspapers pinned us with a crime. Tommy (Touhy) took care of that.”
Although they may not have had a headquarters, the Touhy gang did have their own priest, Father Joseph Weber, who Roger had met back in 1923 when Weber was an Indiana State Prison chaplain while Tommy Touhy was serving time for his role in an Indianapolis department store burglary. Roger and his brother Eddie asked Weber to use his influ-ence to get a parole hearing for Tommy. Weber
agreed, and by the end of the year Tommy was paroled and the Touhys were indebted to a priest who ran one of the poorest parishes in Indianapolis. Later, after the brothers were established in the bootlegging business, they donated 10 percent of their business profits to Weber’s parish. ‘1 was,” said Roger, “God’s bagman.”
The brothers benefitted the priest in other ways. Weber had always been politically active in Indianapolis and argued vehemently for the city’s growing black population. Weber claimed that the Klu Klux Klan, which had its regional headquarters in Indianapolis, included some of the city’s and state’s leading families and politicians. As a result, Weber said, the black citizens of Indianapolis were denied even the most basic of city services.
One day as a passing part of a conversation, Weber mentioned to Tommy Touhy that if he had the Klan’s secret membership files, he could confirm his suspicions and break their power. A few days later, on April 1, 1923, a moonlit Easter Sunday, a burglar broke into the Klan’s headquarters and stole the organization’s state membership list, some 12,208 names, which included some of the most powerful and well respected people in the Midwest. The next day, parts of the list were published in the Catholic newspaper Tolerance under the headlines “Who’s Who in Indianapolis.”
“The Klan offered me $25,000 for the records, which I turned down,” Roger wrote.
Weber didn’t always stay above the fray himself. John Sambo was a small time beer hall operator who managed Sambo’s Place, a Capone saloon next to the Big Oaks Golf Course on the extreme north-west edge of Chicago. The problem was that the place bordered on Roger Touhy’s territory. Tommy
Touhy paid Sambo a visit and he changed to Touhy’s brand.
Sambo reported to the FBI that one sunny after-noon, Roger Touhy and several of his men, including Father Weber, entered the saloon at mid-day and drank until the sun went down. That night a young Negro boy came into the bar room to shine shoes and the drunken Touhys pulled out their weapons and fired shots at the boy’s feet to make him dance.
Several months later, Sambo fell out of favor with the Touhys when he stopped selling their beer and switched to Capone’s brand. An FBI report on Sambo states, “[On] one occasion Roger Touhy, George Wilke and Leroy Marshalk came into his place of business and took him down to the base-ment, stating that they had information that he was selling other beer. Sambo stated at that time that he believed that Touhy would have killed him, but that Marshalk, whom Sambo had known for some time, stopped him.”
To the newspapers, the public, the police and the politicians, Roger’s Des Plains operation looked exactly the way he and Kolb wanted it to look; like a hick, two-bit operation that grossed a few hundred thousand dollars a year. “And Touhy, ” Ray Brennan said, “was careful to foster that illusion. He lived well, but not lavishly in Des Plaines as it was a quiet town where he was considered a leading citizen. He was a contributor to charities and a member of fraternal organizations and golf clubs. Touhy and Kolb had a million-dollar-a-year business going plus a neat income from slot machines and a few road hous¬es but they were wary enough not to brag about it. They were smart enough to pay income taxes on it.”
Roger, who was now the father of two boys, made his final move to the suburbs in the spring of 1926
and purchased a large, comfortable home, just north of the center of Des Plains. His neighbors considered the bootlegger and his family respectable, hard¬working people. “Nice,” recalled one neighbor. “Not what you would think for a bootlegger. They were quiet people...refined.”
'There was no stigma to selling beer.” Touhy wrote. “I bought a place that some of the newspapers later called a ‘mansion’ or a ‘gang fortress.’ It was a six-room bungalow and later I put a sixty-foot swim-ming pool in the back. The only gang I ever had around there was a guard with a shotgun after the Capone mob tried to kidnap my kids....I lived quiet¬ly with my family during those big money years. I put a workshop, office and bar in my basement. There was a playhouse for the kids in my backyard. My wife got along well with our neighbors.”
Even when Tommy and Roger were being hound¬ed by the police during the John Factor kidnapping, their neighbors supported them. Des Plains histori¬an Mark Henkes wrote, “Touhy gave his money freely to people and families in a pinch. He left bas¬kets of food on the doorsteps of homes with a $20 bill attached to the basket handle.
The recipients some¬times never knew where the food came from. He paid medical bills for some families. He made good money selling beer and he gave some of it away.” Even though Roger did his best to fit in, there were occasional setbacks like the incident when the Chicago Tribune and other groups were planning a historical pageant for Des Plains in which citizens would dress as early settlers and travel down the Des Plains river in wooden canoes. Meanwhile, Touhy wanted to get rid of some mash, the fermen¬tation of beer, by pumping it into the river. He hired a crew to dig a trench and lay a sewer line from his plant to the river.
He poured hundreds, perhaps thousands of gal-lons of the mash into the river. The problem was that Des Plains was going through a dry season and the river was low and barely moving. The stench from the mash was unbearable. Father Patrick O’Connor, head of St. Mary’s Training School in Des Plains and a member of the parade committee, got a whiff of the foul smell in the river and immediately knew what happened. O’Connor knew Roger and called him about the problem he had created. ‘What in the hell were you thinking, Rog? Half of Chicago will be here in a day and you turn the river into a flood of bootleg booze! Do something before the pageant starts.”
Roger apologized and hired more then twenty boys from Maine High School in Des Plains to dump thousands of gallons of perfume into the river, “and the pageant was a sweet-smelling success.”
So, while the public, the press and the police may have been fooled by Roger’s small time image, A1 Capone knew exactly how much money Touhy and Kolb were earning out on the dusty back roads of Cook County. He wanted a piece of it, a large piece of it. As he always did, Capone first tried to talk his way into a partnership explaining the benefits of working within his operation. They met a total of six times that year, in Florida, during the winter months on fishing trips, and Capone offered to let Roger use his yacht.
Touhy said, “He offered to let me use his yacht or stay in his big house, surrounded by a wall about as thick as Statesville’s (prison) on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay between Miami and Miami Beach. I didn’t accept. ”
Roger wrote that he had two business deals with Capone in 1927 because Capone had trouble getting beer for his joints. Capone called Touhy and asked him to sell him 500 barrels and since Touhy had a surplus he agreed and told Capone to send 500 empties to the cooperage. He would send 500 barrels back for the price of $37.50 per barrel, a discount because of the large order.
Capone called back and asked for another 300 barrels. Touhy agreed and told Capone when he expected to be paid. The day before the money was due, Capone called and said that 50 of the barrels were leakers and that he wouldn’t pay.
‘I’ll pay you for seven hundred and fifty, ok?” ‘You owe me for eight hundred and I expect to be paid for eight hundred.”
“Well the boys told me there were some leakers, but I’ll check on it.”
Capone paid the $30,000 in cash and called a week later and asked for more. Touhy refused, say-ing his regular customers were taking all of his out-put. Knowing that it may have been Capone testing his ability to draw him in or to see what he could produce by taking him to be his biggest customer, ‘What was the use of needling him by saying I did¬n’t do business with weasels.”
In late 1927, Capone told Willie Heeney, Roger’s former business partner, to go out to Des Plains to see Roger and encourage him to come around to Capone’s way of thinking. By now, Heeney was working full time in the outfit’s enormous prostitu-tion racket where he would stay until the depression set in and he switched over to labor racketeering and narcotics. He soon became his own best cus-tomer and became hooked on heroin.
Roger agreed to meet Heeney at the Arch, one of his road houses in Schiller Park, managed by his brother Eddie. Arriving with Heeney at the meeting was Frankie Rio, Capone’s favorite bodyguard and enforcer whose presence was no doubt meant to impress Touhy. Heeney was the spokesman, telling them that Capone wanted to open the county for brothels, taxi dance halls and punch board rackets. He was willing to split the proceeds evenly with Kolb and Touhy to which Rio added, “A1 says this is virgin territory for whorehouses.”
Roger told Henney that he didn’t want or need Capone as a partner, and that although the locals might tolerate speakeasies and gambling dens, whorehouses and taxi dance halls were something else. However, there was at least one brothel in operation in Des Plains at 304 Center Street, apart-ment 38, above Matt Kolb’s brother’s laundry store/handbook operation. There were at least three women working on the property and photos of the nude women were later taken from Willie Sharkey when he was arrested in Wisconsin. The FBI later noted that “there were many noisy parties in this apartment and numerous men visited them.” A neighbor noted that “six men at a time would enter or leave the apartment together. The next group would enter the apartment only after the first group had left.”
FBI agents later tracked down two of the women and described them in their reports as “nice looking women” and “very attractive women. ”
Among those identified as regulars to the apart-ment were “Chicken” McFadden, Basil Banghart and George Wilke. Willie Sharkey, Touhy’s enforcer, rented an apartment in the building under the name T.J. Burns and used the Park Ridge Chief of Police as his reference.
Next, Capone sent Jimmy Fawcett and Murray “the Camel” Humpreys out to Des Plains to talk to Roger. The probable reason for sending Fawcett and Humpreys to see Touhy was, in all likelihood, to try one last time to get him to fall into line before the real shooting started. Sending Fawcett, an old hand Capone gunman, was a smart move. Touhy had known Fawcett for years, the two of them living along the edges of Chicago unionism for several years. Humpreys may have been new to Touhy. The Camel, Touhy said, did all the talking. Humpreys got things off to a bad start. He said Touhy was “putting [his] nose where it don’t belong and that means trouble.”
‘Mr. Capone” the Camel hissed, ‘is upset at the Touhys and that isn’t good.” Capone wanted Touhy to stop offering protection to the Teamster Union bosses.
Afterward Roger went to Cicero with him and Fawcett and talked over the problems with Frank Nitti. There are several versions of what happened next, but the end result of each version is the same.
When the Camel was done with his threats, Touhy put a pistol into his mouth and told him never to show his face in Des Plains again. Humpreys offered to buy back his life with his new car but Touhy let them go. After the pair had left, Fawcett returned and offered “to kill Humpreys on the way back into Chicago and for an extra few grand, Rog, I’ll knock off that son of a bitch Nitti too.”
Years later, Touhy told the story, or at least a cleaned up version of it, in his memoir. When the book hit the streets, an infuriated and humiliated Murray Humpreys denied that it ever happened.
Capone tried a different tactic; he would push Touhy to see how far he could get before a shooting war broke out. Starting in the early summer of 1927, he tried to work his way into Touhy’s territo¬ry by opening several whorehouses just inside Des Plains. That same day, Roger and Tommy Touhy, backed by several truckloads of their men and a squad of Cook County police, raided the bordellos, broke them up and chased the women back to Chicago.
All the while, Capone kept sending his beer salesmen into Touhy’s territory where they achieved a fair amount of success by drastically undercutting Touhy’s prices, but the ever shrewd Kolb recognized Capone’s ploy and refused to be prodded into a price war that they couldn’t win. Instead, the Touhys responded by sending a simple message to any saloon keeper who sold Capone’s beer inside their territory. If the bar owner sold Capone’s brew, they would wreck the place. If he continued, they would burn his place to the ground. That was the way Joe Touhy, Roger’s older brother, died, in June of 1929. Eyewitnesses said that Joe and his crew were breaking up a speakeasy that the Capones had opened in Schiller Park. When a wait¬er reached for something under the bar, Joe Touhy’s own man, a hood named Paul Pagen, fired off a warning burst from his machine gun, accidentally killing Touhy.
Johnny Touhy, the third eldest brother, didn’t call it an accident. He killed Pagen in revenge for Joe’s murder and was sentenced to prison for ten years to life. However he was released in four years, his brothers having purchased his freedom with bribes. “And that’s what money,” wrote the Chicago Tribune of John’s release, “well spent in Chicago will do. ”
A few months after his parole was granted, Johnny was arrested again for attempted murder of a Capone goon. He was sent back to Stateville Prison where he died of consumption in a barren hospital room.
The remaining brothers, Roger, Tommy and Eddie, declared war on Capone after Joe was killed and Johnny was jailed. From 1928 until 1930, the dusty back roads of northern Cook County ran red with gangster blood from an otherwise quiet gang war that went largely unnoticed until 1931, when all hell broke loose.