In 1915 Roger Touhy graduated from the eighth grade as class valedictorian and, as did many boys his age at that time, went job hunting and tried to land a position as an international wireless radio operator. However, his youth (he was only thirteen) kept him out of that line. Instead, he worked as an office boy and stock room clerk. He later took another position as a cookie taster in a biscuit bakery.
He was a determined adolescent and in 1915, the year his father retired from the Chicago police force, Roger lied about his age and managed to land a position with Western Union for twelve dollars a week. Of his age Touhy said, "...it was easy to get by. My hair was gray at the sides of my head (maybe I worried as an infant) before I got out of knee pants and every day I would have a five o'clock shadow by lunch time." He became the manager of a little residential section branch office and considered himself "a real big dealer."
Western Union taught Touhy the Morse code which was easy enough since he already had experience. He was moved to a main office in midtown as an operator where he ran a book-making operation on the side. He even took the occasional bet from his father, of whom he said, "...[h]e liked to play the horses. He would bet fifty cents or one or two bucks on a race when he had the cash to spare. And now I was in a position to be his personal tout. The stable owners, trainers and jockey would send messages on the chances of their horses over the wires. I tipped off my father."
Touhy continues, "A really important thing happened to me-back then in 1915-was that a darkhaired Irish girl went to work for Western Union in the company branch office in Chicago's finest hotel- the Blackstone. She was fresh out of telegraph school. From the main office I sent the Blackstone's messages to her and received the ones she transmitted back. She sent better than she copied, but she wasn't good at either. I tried to help her."
Her name was Clara Morgan. She was just sixteen and six years later Touhy would marry her. Clara worked the four-to-midnight shift, and since Touhy worked the day shift he would drop by to see her and eventually to walk her home. They were normally accompanied by one of Clara's co-workers, Emily Ivins who years later would be an instrumental witness to Touhy's innocence on kidnapping charges.
Sometime in 1916, Touhy became involved with the Commercial Telegraphers Union (C.T.U.) of America which was trying to organize the Western Union and Postal Telegraph Company. According to Touhy, during one of his breaks, he walked into the men's smoking lounge and read one of the union pamphlets that had been scattered across the room by organizers. Someone reported him to the management who called him in for interrogation. They asked Touhy if he was a union member, if he was acquainted with any union members and would he be willing to provide their names. Touhy said he wasn't a member, he didn't know any members and if he did he wouldn't give out their names. "So," one of the managers asked, "you intend to take a union card?"
Touhy replied "maybe" and was fired on the spot.
I should have lied to that superintendent," he wrote. "Honesty was my downfall."
That evening an organizer for the C.T.U. came to Touhy's house and told him that he was already blacklisted within the telegraph industry. Touhy didn't believe him and applied for work with the Associated Press which needed telegraph operators. They refused to take his application. He describes the incident saying, "I could have been a bearded Bolshevik with a bomb under my coat."
So he became a union organizer, probably the only job he could find in the only business he knew anything about.
One of the first things Touhy did was to forge the names of ten Western Union employee-informants on union application membership cards and give them to one of the secretaries in the union's office who Touhy suspected of being a plant.
Among the names he provided to her was the Western Union employee who had turned him in to management for reading union literature. The next day all of the people named on the fake application cards were fired and the secretary was terminated.
It was at this point that Touhy would meet some of the legends of labor organizing.
'Their faces" Roger wrote, "were scar tissued from fighting hired strike breakers on picket lines. Their skulls were creased from bumping their heads on the tops of police paddy wagons. Their knuckles sometimes were driven halfway up to their wrists from past impacts."
One of the legends he met was Con Shea who was "an erudite character who delighted in using fancy words."
One evening over a beer he taught the young Touhy that "a divided septum is an occupational hazard of the profession of union organizing." Touhy said, "I nodded wisely not wanting to appear dumb. I learned later that he was talking about a busted nose."
Shea should have known about broken noses. He, along with "Big Frenchy" Mader, "Big Tim" Murphy and "Dapper" Dan McCarthy (a professional gunner later employed by Johnny Torrio) all but created the great Chicago Building Trades War of 1922. During the war-and it was a war by all definitions-Shea and the others worked both sides of the fence, for labor and for management, bombing both sides equally. The war ended when Big Frenchy Mader walked into the union hall with a machine gun and declared himself President and owner of the Building Trades Council. At that point there were so few people left that no one opposed him. Six years later, Shea's co-terrorist, Big Tim Murphy was gunned down during the violent Republican pineapple primary of 1928, so-called because of the throwing of bombs. By 1929, Shea, who had been a bomber for the Teamsters since he was sixteen, was now an old man taking any job he could find.Roger soon tired of organizing; the hours were long, the pay was low and often the work was brutal and dangerous. Except for a still-blossoming romance with Clara Morgan, Roger had nothing to hold him in Chicago, and, like thousands of young men before him, he headed out west to make his fortun
Does MPHS have photographs: Newspaper photos
Address in Mount Prospect: River Road in Des Plaines
Birth Date: 1898
Death Date: December 16, 1959
Spouse: Clara Touhy
Children: Roger Jr., Thomas
Interesting information on life, career, accomplishments
Roger Touhy was reputed to be boss of the organized crime syndicate in the Chicago area during prohibition. Although most of the information on him is sensationalistic and it is hard to tell how much is real and what is myth. Supposedly, Al Capone ran the underworld in most of Chicago and much of the southern suburbs while the northwestern suburbs were reportedly under the control of Touhy the Terrible. Toughy was the youngest son of a family with eight children. His father was a police officer and his mother died when Touhy was ten years old when there was an explosion in the family’s kitchen. He operated a car dealership in Chicago for a number of years, but decided to go into bootlegging to make more money. He reportedly bought into a distribution business with a man named Matt Kolb, who was later gunned down in a Morton Grove speakeasy. Touhy started out selling beer to road houses and saloons in the small towns north and northwest of Chicago. Supposedly, he brought in over $1million in beer sales in the 1920s. He was said to have gained public support, or at least a blind eye, by donating generously to different organizations, schools and social clubs. He lived in Oak Park, but after his first child was born he moved onto a farm in Des Plaines near the Maryville Academy. According to legend, he later extended his bootlegging to this farm but could not conceal the waste products or the smell of his operations. To take care of this problem, he invited his neighbors to go on a three week trip to Europe. While they were away, he had an engineering company come in and construct an underground drainage system that would carry all the waste from his land, under their property and empty it into a creek that led into the Des Plaines River. He was eventually arrested and out into prison. He was convicted of kidnapping a man named John (Jake the Barber) Factor, who was a friend of Al Capone and was wanted in England on fraud charges. Touhy denied the charges and claimed that he was framed by Al Capone’s gang. In 1942, after being in prison for nine years, he broke out, although he was recaptured shortly. He was eventually released on parole after serving almost 26 years in the Stateville Penitentiary. Twenty two days after he was released he was gunned down while standing on his sister’s front porch. While much of the story about Touhy may be mostly sensationalism, there are reasons to believe that there was sale of alcohol in the northwest suburbs. Many of the towns had strong immigrant populations and much of prohibition was a thinly veiled anti-immigrant policy, which was strongly resented by older, established immigrant communities who had little or no interest in abiding by it. Areas like Mount Prospect were also still largely agricultural with little law enforcement and what there was, was usually local.
Opting for an early out with the Navy Reserve, Roger was back in Chicago by 1919, living with his father in suburban Franklin Park and dating Clara Morgan, having kept in touch with her through long letters from Colorado and later from Boston. There was talk of marriage, but Roger set off for the west again, landing in Drummund, Oklahoma where the oil business was in full boom and fortunes were being made overnight.
"I didn't know any more about the oil business then a mink knows about sex hygiene, but I could learn....The Sinclair Oil people, in a moment of laxity hired me as a scout. The experience I had in that line was confined to watching silent western movies in which army scouts killed Indians,"says Tuohy.
Actually the position he filled was as a driver to the world famous geologist Dick Raymond who had been brought in to determine which wildcat wells were producing the most oil and from that, decide which land was worth leasing. "There was nothing," he wrote "against my buying leases that Raymond recommended."
Learning everything he could about the oil business from Raymond, Roger took $1,000 out of his savings and purchased a 150-acre site that Drummond recommended. Within a month, he resold the lease for a 200 percent profit. He repeated the process twenty times in one year. Of that time Touhy said, "[I] never lost on any of them...the money was good, but I was a guy who liked the city. And my mind was on the girl at the telegraph key in the Blackstone Hotel."
He returned to Chicago with $25,000, a respectable fortune in 1920, "and,"he liked to point out, "it had taken me less than a year to earn it."