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