The Guns of Zangara

"Touhy had the syndicate on the ropes and they were ready to throw in the sponge but then they killed Anton Cermak."-Saul Alinsky

   Anton Cermak had an animal's instinct for survival, and after the failed attempt on Frank Nitti's life, he knew his own days were numbered. In fact, a few weeks after the botched murder attempt, Louis "Short Pants" Campagna, Capone's former bodyguard who had risen to syndicate chief, had personally planned Cermak's murder, almost succeeding in gunning him down in an early morning ambush inside the Loop.
   Cermak tried to postpone the inevitable by beefing up his bodyguard detail from two to five men and augmenting them with private security forces. He also took the added precaution of moving from the accessible Congress Hotel to the more secluded Morrison, where he paid for a private elevator that went nonstop to his penthouse suite.
   It didn't matter how careful he was. They were going to kill him. They had to kill him. They planned to kill Touhy, too but that could wait because they knew that wouldn't end the war. Cermak would just replace him with another ambitious hood. Murdering Cermak was the key. Kill the head and the body dies.
   While it was true that there was a huge risk in killing the mayor of the second largest city in the United States, it was the key to their survival and maybe, just maybe, they would get away with it. A Chicago mayor had been gunned down in the past. Chicago's mayor Henry Harrison was killed in October, 1893. The shooter was one Eugene Pendergast, who claimed that the mayor had reneged on a political appointment.
   The syndicate knew the shooter they found would have to be a "nutcase" as they put it, but they could find a patsy to take the fall. That was the easy part. It was all a matter of timing and opportunity, both of which came together when Anton Cermak announced that he would greet President-elect Roosevelt in a public park in Florida.
   Finding the patsy to take the blame for the murder fell to Paul the Waiter Ricca. Ricca earned his nickname while working in a restaurant owned by his mentor "Diamond Joe" Esposito, a colorful underworld character whose deep political contacts enabled him to finagle a federal license to import sugar from Cuba into the states. Sugar, and lots of it, was the primary ingredient needed to make bootleg whisky.
   Esposito was a major player in the underworld. With the money he made by importing sugar, Esposito was able to expand his criminal holdings into the control of several vital teamster unions which he flatly refused to share with Capone. So they killed him. He was shot on the street while his wife and two small children watched.
   As a reward for setting up his boss for the kill, Capone allowed Ricca to take over most of Esposito's operations including the legal and profitable sugar importing business which Ricca handed over to a young hood named Dave Yaras from Chicago's west side. Ricca invested in Yaras' move to Florida and in exchange got a handsome cut of all of Yaras' illegal ventures, including a piece of his narcotics smuggling ring based out of Havana. Within a year after his arrival, Yaras' rackets in south Florida and Cuba were second only to Meyer Lansky's in size and profitability.
   According to mob boss Sam Giancana, it was Yaras who decided that Cermak's killer would be Giuseppe Zangara, a thirty-two-year-old bricklayer who preferred to be known by his Americanized name of Joey Zangara.
   Giuseppe Zangara was a mean, near-illiterate, sullen little hood from Southern Italy. He arrived in America in 1923 and took up residence with an uncle in Paterson, New Jersey.
   In September of 1929, Zangara and a syndicate hood, Tony Adgostino, were arrested for violating the prohibition law by running a 1,000-gallon still in Mount Vail, New Jersey. At the station house, Zangara claimed his name was Luigi DiBernardo and pleaded guilty, telling the police he owned the still, thus allowing the higher-ranking Adgostino to walk away from prosecution. For his troubles, Zangara was sentenced to one year and a day at Atlanta Federal Prison. During sentencing, United States Attorney Philip Forman, later a federal judge, asked 'Your real name is Zangara, isn't it?" leaving the implication that Zangara was no stranger to the courtroom. Off the record, the bootlegger admitted that he was Giuseppe Zangara but that he would enter prison under the assumed name of Luigi DiBernardo. Several years later, when the United States Secret Service investigated the Cermak shooting, agents compared photographs of DiBernardo the bootlegger with Zangara the assassin and determined that they matched. Remarkably, the agent never followed up the lead.
   Paroled from prison in 1931, Zangara moved to south Florida where he kept to himself. One of his few known contacts was his roommate, an Italian immigrant named Joseph Patane who worked at Valentino's restaurant in Miami, a mob hangout. Patane was introduced to Zangara by their landlady, Constantina Vatrone, a Sicilian immigrant whose husband Petro Vatrone had been active in the mob in Florida until he was stabbed to death in 1924, in what she later told the Secret Service was "an underworld incident. "
   Zangara spent most of his time gambling and losing heavily. In need of cash, he took a position as a mule, or courier, in Dave Yaras' heroin smuggling operation, working out of a narcotics processing plant in south Florida. Zangara's job was to transport the drugs up to New York where he turned them over to distribution specialists like Ben "Bugsy" Siegel in Brooklyn, Abner "Longy" Zwillman in New Jersey and others who would pay for the delivery. In turn, Zangara was supposed to hand the cash over to Yaras.
   But, according to several published reports, while Zangara was on one of his runs he made off with the mob's money and lost it at the track. Yaras decided to kill him. Then news came from Chicago City Hall that his Honor, Anton J. Cermak, would make an appearance in Miami's Bayfront Park to greet President-elect Roosevelt.
   Anton Cermak would make a public appearance in a crowded, open area. It was a godsend for the mob. Ricca sent word down to Yaras that they were going to kill Cermak at the park and that Yaras was to line somebody up to take the fall for the murder. It was too big a hit to not leave a gunman to take the blame. The shotgun killing of Cook County's Assistant States Attorney Billy McSwiggin a few years before had taught them a valuable lesson: always leave a fall guy.
   Yaras called Zangara into his office, and gave him his two dismal choices. The mob could kill him, or Zangara could take his chances and shoot Cermak for them. Maybe the cops would kill him, or maybe the crowd would rip him to pieces, or maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe he'd get caught after he killed Cermak. He could claim he was insane and if the judge and jury bought it, at the most he might get ten maybe fifteen years in an insane asylum and then he could walk, all debts forgiven. Yaras knew what he was talking about. Florida, second only to Texas, had the most lenient laws on the books in dealing with mentally ill criminals.
   Zangara chose to kill Cermak and take his chances with an insanity plea or the possibility that he could slip into the crowd and disappear.
   As implausible as it might seem, Zangara may have actually believed that he was going to get away with it. After the shooting, when Secret Service agents searched Zangara's room, they found his neatly packed travel bag sitting in the middle of his bed. Inside were his clothes, a book, The Wehman Brothers' Easy Method for Learning Spanish
Quickly, several newspaper clippings about Roosevelt's trip to Florida and another on the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
   Despite Zangara's fantasies of escape, the mob had no intentions of letting him slip away and disappear. They needed a patsy to take the fall. They had already started painting a picture of Zangara, the conservative registered Republican, as Zangara, a radical communist who wanted to overthrow the American government. But better than a patsy, they wanted a dead patsy. According to Roger Touhy, the second after Zangara shot Cermak, a mob assassin would shoot Zangara and disappear into the crowd, leaving the Miami police, Secret Service or Cermak's private guards with the credit for killing the Mayor's murderer. The gunman was also there to make sure that Zangara followed through on his assignment. As Chicago newsman Jack Lait wrote, 'had Cermak escaped Zangara's bullets, another trigger man would have gotten him."
   The two back-up gunmen were Three Fingers Jack White and A1 Capone's former bodyguard Frankie Rio, both of whom were picked up at the Chicago train station two days before Anton Cermak was shot. But the police had no reason to hold the two smirking hoods who explained that they were on their way to Florida for a short vacation. 'You mugs slay me,"White said. "First you ride me to get out of town and then when I try to leave, you want me to stay."
   The next day, down in Florida, Giuseppe Zangara went to the Davis pawn shop in downtown Miami and spent eight dollars on a .32 calibre revolver and ten bullets. While still in the shop, Zangara placed five bullets in the chamber and kept five in his pocket and then began stalking Anton Cermak. Zangara
walked to the Bostick Hotel because he had read in the papers that the hotel's owners, Horace and May Bostick, were close friends of Cermak and expected him to drop by that evening before he went to Bayfront Park. Zangara went to the hotel, which was actually more of a rooming house than anything else. He paid his dollar for the night and asked to see all of the exits and entrances. Then he went to his room where he proceeded to sit on the edge of the bed, with the door open, and stare down the hallway toward the front door of the hotel, waiting for Anton Cermak to arrive so he could kill him.
   At 5:30, after six hours of waiting, Zangara probably realized that Cermak wasn't coming and left the hotel by a back door. He quickly walked several blocks to a cigar manufacturing plant owned by Andrea Valenti, a Sicilian immigrant. Zangara, Valenti and two other men, Steve Valenti and Lorenzo Grandi, left the factory at about 7:30 and made their way to Bayfront Park. But they miscalculated how many people would turn out for the event. By the time they arrived at the park, at about eight o'clock, 10,000 spectators filled it to standing room only. Slowly, and sweating profusely, Zangara and the others obnoxiously pushed and shoved through the crowd trying desperately to make their way to the bandstand.
   At about that same time, Anton Cermak was preparing to leave his hotel room for the park. He was dismally sick with peritonitis causing him to double over in pain. A lesser man would have canceled the night's engagement but Tony Cermak had always been extraordinary. As he prepared to put on his light blue and white jacket, a bodyguard handed him a bulky black bullet-proof vest but Cermak didn't want it. It was too humid and he was weak. It was a mistake that would cost him his life.
   Cermak arrived at the park about a half-hour before Franklin Roosevelt's car pulled up to the bandstand. At about the same time, Zangara pushed and shoved his way up to the second row of chairs.
   F.D.R. placed himself on the car's rear seat. He took a small black microphone and made a short speech as a flood light beamed down on him in his white suit. He was the perfect target, but Zangara, less than thirty-five feet away, never fired.
   When Roosevelt's speech ended, he turned and looked up at the stage and saw Cermak sitting in the front row and waved 'Tony! Come on down here. "
   Smiling broadly, Cermak rose from his chair and walked toward F.D.R., his bodyguards stepping up to join him, but Cermak told them to stay where they were. It was unseemly, he said, for the Mayor of Chicago to be photographed with more bodyguards than the President-elect.
   The two men shook hands and chatted for less than three minutes, then Cermak stepped away from the car and turned to his right and then, for some unknown reason, walked a dozen steps away from the stage and toward the place where Zangara was waiting.
   At that moment, Zangara leaped out of the crowd and sprang onto an open seat, drew his revolver from his trouser pocket, fired five rounds directly at Cermak. One bullet hit Cermak in the right armpit and pushed its way to just above his heart and then drove itself into his right lung, causing the mayor to grab his chest with both arms and slowly sink to his knees.
   Several other bystanders were struck by bullets, yet Zangara maintained, repeatedly, that he never got off more than three rounds from his five-round pistol. Remarkably, police recovered seven bullets from the scene.
   Just minutes after the shooting, United States Representative-elect Mark Wilcox and Chicagoan Robert Gore, told a radio newsman they were standing a few feet from Zangara. Gore said, "He was shooting at Cermak. There is no doubt about that. The killer waited until Mr. Roosevelt sat and then fired. "
   Based on Gore and Wilcox's statement, reports that Cermak had been shot by Chicago gangsters went out over the wires at once. But after the first day, there was no other mention of gangsters being involved in the shooting. Later, when Roosevelt waited in the halls of the Jackson Memorial Hospital where Cermak was being treated, he pointed out that not one of the six persons hit by bullets were near him when they were shot. In fact they were at least thirty feet away and only two or three feet away from Cermak and, added Roosevelt, Zangara had not fired off a single shot at him while he had a full eight minute window during his speech. Roosevelt concluded that Zangara was "a Chicago gangster" sent to kill Cermak.
   In 1959, at his last parole hearing, Roger Touhy said that when Zangara started shooting, Jack White and Frankie Rio, both wearing Cook County Deputy Sheriff's badges, waited until Cermak fell to his knees and then stepped out from the crowd and fired a .45 caliber pistol at Zangara but the shot missed and nicked several bystanders instead. Before they could get off a second shot, the crowd had leaped onto Zangara, in effect saving his life.
   From his hospital bed Anton Cermak insisted that he was Zangara's target. When his secretary arrived from Chicago, Cermak said to him, "So you're alive! I figured maybe they'd shot up the office too."
   Cermak was in relatively good condition on the first few nights in the hospital and issued his own news bulletins on his condition. By the third day, however, colitis complicated Cermak's wounds and caused him great pain. At one point Cermak's intestinal trouble made his temperature rise to 101.6. On February 27, Cermak contracted pneumonia and died. Giuseppe Zangara went on trial for murder.
   Zangara's three lawyers appointed by the state didn't speak Italian, had never tried a criminal case and none of them had ever argued before a jury. It was their recommendation that Zangara plead guilty. When he did, the court sentenced him to death less than two months after he fired the fatal shots that killed Anton Cermak.
   His last few days were dismal. The only people to visit him in jail were the prison chaplains, whom he cursed and threw out regularly. Just before he was walked out to the death chamber, the prison warden asked Zangara if he was part of an organized group that plotted to kill Cermak "No. I have no friends. It was my own idea. "
   Then the little murderer strutted down the hall and sat himself in the electric chair, but he was so short his feet didn't touch the ground. Just before the guards placed a hood over his head Zangara turned to the warden, smirked and yelled "Viva Italia! Viva comorra!"
   The word comorra was one of many Italian terms for the Mafia. Then he leaned back and waited. The room was filled with an uncomfortable silence as 2,300 volts snuffed out Zangara's strange life.
   Ed Kelly, Chicago's next mayor, was the kind of city official that Frank Nitti could live with. When reporters were looking to tell Kelly that he was Chicago's new mayor, they found him gambling at a mob owned race track in Havana. When asked if he thought that the syndicate had anything to do with Cermak's killing, Kelly replied "Boys, from now on, there is no such thing as organized crime in the city of Chicago."