He was born in Chicago on September 2nd, 1891 to Mathias, born in Germany, and Josephine Corbett of Illinois. He was one of eight children, the eldest. There were six boys and two girls. When he was 18 he was working as an apprentice plumber. At 20, as a carpenter. By the time he was 25, in 1916, he was claiming to be a driver of a delivery wagon for West Side Ice, based at Hoyne Avenue and Rice Street in Wicker Park. He lived at 818 North Francisco Avenue, on the west side of town. By then, he was married. His wife was Alma, and they had the first of two daughters-Pearl and Marie. How he went from being a truck driver to a multimillionaire booze and gambling baron in fifteen years has never been determined with any certainty.*
Some of it may be explained by the fact that Charles B. Graydon, the owner of West Side Ice, became Cook County Sheriff between 1926 and 1928. He allegedly hired Matt as a member of the highway patrol, which had been formed in April 1922, and Matt traveled the county telling everyone how close he and the sheriff were and using his influence to help tavern owners circumvent the laws on drinking and gambling. Using this as a way to develop his illegal businesses, establish contacts and create future customer bases, as well as dispensing privileges and collecting tributes.
In August 1930 Jack Zoota, also known as Zuta, an immigrant from Poland, believed to have organized the killing of crooked Chicago Tribune newspaper reporter Jake Lingle, who had been likely, informing to the chief of police and Capone, against the Moran mob, was shot dead in a roadhouse, The Lake View Resort, in Delafield, Wisconsin. Zuta was a political fixer and an accountant, the bookkeeper and “thinker” of a North Side gang headed by George Moran and Joe and Dominic Aiello.
Special investigator, Pat Roache of the state's attorney office, dug around and found numerous safe deposit boxes that contained detailed information of mob business, including payments of $100,000 amounts to one "MK" which the police believed to be Matt Kolb, and lists of aldermen, a judge, a state senator, a police chief, a lawyer and numerous high-ranking city officials who they believed were the recipients of this money.
There was little doubt that this was protection money. The police at this time had targeted Kolb as "a satchel man for unnamed grafts." This transferring of money had gone on for years which indicated that Kolb was running more than one business in what must have been a pretty frenetic kind of life. There was obviously a lot of palms to grease
At the time of his death, Matt Kolb lived in Morton Grove where he ran a roadhouse called The Club Morton, at the corner of Dempster Street and Lincoln Avenue. It had operated under a number of different owners and names: The Russian Village, The Golden Grove (or Gate) then The Bridge Inn and finally The Club Morton. Morton Grove was only fifteen miles by road from the heart of Chicago.
There are conflicting accounts on the club's location, but The Chicago Tribune in an article in 1931 at the time of Kolb's death, showed it on a map, at this location which, today, is a large, empty field. The Club Morton was one of many roadhouses that hugged Dempster and the surrounding streets making Morton Grove a wide-open attraction for Chicagoans anxious to wet their whistles and kick up their heels after work.
Matt and Alma had divorced by then. He was recently remarried to Florence, and had bought her a brand new multistory home at 8819 Marmora Avenue, just a two-minute drive from the roadhouse. Unlike The Morton, this house still stands, eighty-five years later.
Morton Grove was the epicenter of what came to be called "Rural Bohemia," an area to the north-west of Chicago city limits up into Lake County. A territory of country roadhouses, up to 500 of them, dotted across the land, attracting gamblers and drinkers, party-goers and criminals eager to squeeze every dollar out of every opportunity. Clubs like The Dells, Ferris Inn, The Studio, Club Del Rio, Murphy's, The Bungalow, Villa Venice, The Purple Crackle, The Garden of Allah, The Triangle Café, The Lincoln Tavern, Glenview, Club Rendezvous and hundreds more.
Kolb had worked out of Morton Grove some years prior to his murder. In 1920, he was operating his business out of The Como Inn on the south-east corner of Dempster and Ferris Avenue, only two blocks east of The Club Morton. His business was illegal booze and gaming machines. People just wanted to have fun, and drinking and gambling seemed to fit the bill, even though they were both against the law. This was only four years since he was manhandling ice off his truck so he had come a long way in a relatively short time.
Bootlegging, as the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol came to be referred to in America, was in fact never a by-product of Prohibition as many writers have claimed. It began before the Volstead Act and continued long after it was appealed, as a means of bypassing taxation duties on alcohol. The profit on booze was astronomic. In one year only, during the period of prohibition in Chicago, it was estimated that bootlegging revenue generated $4 billion US dollars.
During prohibition, the 2.7 million people of Chicago had a huge selection of drinking venues to choose from. By 1900, there were 6763 registered saloons in Cook County. In the stock yards district alone, the vilest slum in Chicago, known as Packingtown, or Back of the Yards, there were 500 in just a few blocks. The numbers, city and county-wide, would have increased considerably by 1920 as Chicago had added one million to its population in those twenty years, an increase of 60%! In 1906, it was estimated every man, woman and child in Cook County drank on average each year, seventy gallons of alcohol, nearly four times the average United States consumption.
There were around 20,000 "spots" offering booze and entertainment during Prohibition, across the city and suburbs, each being supplied and serviced by a particular syndicate that catered for the needs of a specific area, through at least 15 illegal breweries.
There were many gangs, and crime historians are continually renewing and redefining who and what they were, but broadly, it looked like this:
Klondike O'Donnell worked Cicero and the West Side. Spike O'Donnell (no relative) and Polak Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane (immortal if for no other reason than allegedly introducing the Thompson sub-machine gun to Chicago's underworld,) covered the West and South Sides. Bugs Moran covered part of the Far North Side. Matt Kolb and his group the North West along with Matt Hoffman in Wilmette and Ray Pregenzer, based in Fox Lake. Hymie Weiss the North Side, and the Genna brothers, Little Italy and Melrose Park. There was Claude Maddox and his Circus Gang, and Ralph Sheldon and his mob on the South West Side. Al Capone and his mob of thirty-three (known) hoodlums allegedly controlled hundreds of speakeasies (a term that meant speak softly when ordering) scattered all over the area, and controlled Chicago Heights, a major illegal beer-producing area, 30 miles to the south of the city, and according to law enforcement agencies, the most lawless town in Cook County.
Federal authorities estimated Capone pulled in $75 million a year net profit and the rest of the gangs shared another $40 to $50 million or so. Al was a multi-millionaire by the time he was thirty. He had gone from dirt-poor in Brooklyn to the immigrant apogee of wealth, fulfilling the great American Dream.
Kolb, the little fat man knew that in the short term, because of prohibition, which in fact came to last 13 years, the demand for booze, would always exceed supply, and that with the right controls in place, manufacturing and distribution would evolve providing he could control the police and the politicians, and all that needed was good networking and plenty of pay-off cash to grease the palms of venal law officers, (Chief of Police Charles Fitzmorris complained that 60% of his force were in the bootleg business), along with judges and state attorneys who controlled the laws governing alcohol and gaming statutes in Cook County.
That, and the ability to stay well clear of the other fat man in Chicago. The one with the badly scarred face and temperament to match: Alphonsus Capone.
Capone would come to play a significant role in the life and death of Matt Kolb and another player who was already waiting in the wings to add his influence to events that would shape the life and times of the little fat man.
His name was Roger Touhy.
Matt Kolb was an inveterate gambler in his early manhood years, wheeling and dealing as a ward heeler on Chicago's North Side. A heeler (a term in use since at least 1888) was an urban political fixer working for a party within a ward, the smallest electoral subdivision in a major city. There were thirty-five in Chicago and Cook County in 1920, according to the Census. His job was chasing votes, organizing campaigns, sign-age, advertising, working as an advocate for the constituents. The background stuff that supports a candidate's campaign for election. He earned a reputation as a man who could sort out police problems for gamblers, vice operators and illegal liquor distributors.
He also, by 1922, ran a saloon at the corner of Augusta Boulevard and California Avenue in the Humboldt Park district, a few miles west of downtown Chicago. He worked between there and Morton Grove as his business demanded.
Sometime in the early 1920s, he went into partnership with Al Winge, an ex-Cook County police lieutenant and Martin Guilfoyle, a big-time gambler who ran a gaming room behind his cigar store at 2220 South Wabash Avenue.
Al Capone when he arrived in Chicago around 1919 would live next door at 2222, commonly known in the area as "The Four Deuces." He had come to Chicago from New York to help Johnny Torrio who had in turn come to Chicago from New York, to help his cousin's husband, Giacomo Colosimo, in a problem he was having with The Black Hand, the Italian extortion ring, who were blackmailing him and his brothel empire. Michael Cassius McDonald is credited with starting organized crime in Chicago. That may well be so. But it was "Big Jim Colosimo" who made it a Chicago "business." He had built an empire based on vice but was involved in gambling and labor racketeering as well.
Guilfoyle and his partners ran their beer business from an office in a building on the corner of Kedzie and Chicago Avenues. The expression "Check your guns at the door," appears to have originated when visitors to Guilfoyle's bar were expected to do just that, before proceeding down the street to his office. There was a very good reason for this.
From 1922 to 1926, 215 gangsters killed each other in Cook County fighting for control of the beer wars. The police killed another 160.
By 1926, the three partners were allegedly pulling in $3 million a year, and then for some reason, Winge and Guilfoyle decided to shift their allegiance over to the Capone camp.
About 2 miles north of Matt's saloon, was a car sale yard run by Roger Touhy, at 4311 North Avenue. Touhy was younger than Kolb, but the two men got to know each other, and one day, Roger sold Matt a car. It was the start of a friendship that would take one to his death and the other into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
A few months after the car sale, Kolb offered Roger a partnership in his business for $10,000, and Touhy accepted. According to Roger, they joined forces sometime in 1927. They would work together until a fateful day in 1931. Touhy claimed later, in court testimony that their operational area ran north from North Avenue to the county line and from Harlem Avenue, east and west outside the city limits.
Roger Touhy was the youngest son of a family of 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 the car dealership in Chicago for a number of years but decided to go into bootlegging, and then to link in with Kolb, when the opportunity arose, to make more money. The dealership brought him in about $60,000 a year in income. His new business with the little fat man would generate him about $1 million a year!
Touhy had started out selling beer to roadhouses and saloons in the small towns and villages north and north-west of Chicago. He was said to have gained public support, or at least people turned a blind eye to his activities, by him 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.
The partnership between Kolb and Touhy was a success and apparently, highly rewarding. He claimed in his biography, The Stolen Years, they sold 1,000 barrels of beer a week, at $55 a barrel, to over 200 road houses, nightclubs and saloons north of Chicago City. They were grossing between $1 and $2 million dollars a year or more, from the beer business alone, before tax, which, of course, no honest bootlegger would ever pay. Then there was the take from the gambling machines installed in the same places that bought their beer. Each machine could generate them $100 a day, sometimes, double that. This was at a time when the average wage was $17 a week, a Ford Model T cost $360 and a two -story family home could be purchased for $20,000.
John Drury of the Chicago Daily News, in 1931, wrote:
"Northwest of Chicago, and directly west of the millionaire colonies along the North Shore are located the pleasure palaces of the wide open spaces. These are lavish dine-and-dance establishments, serving first-class foods and providing elaborate revues and music and space for dancing. In such places, Chicagoans and North Shoreites enjoy themselves during the summer nights, feeling a sense of relief among the cool trees after a hot, feverish day in the city. If you are interested and own a motor car, and if you don't mind getting caught in traffic jams on the way out or on the way in, then the following places are worth your time and attention."
In this period, Touhy refers to Kolb as "old man Matt," although he was, in fact, only twelve years his senior, and that his partner was anything but a tough guy. "He would have run away from a ten-year-old kid with a flyswatter," he once jokingly remarked. Touhy talked a lot about "little Matt," although he himself was just two inches or so taller than his friend. Matt did, however, make no excuses for the fact that he loved being a gangster. He bathed in the limelight and the attention being a gangster brought to him. He went out one day in 1930 and bought himself a $20,000 Dusenberg auto-mobile. A big, powerful, gaudy car fit for a mobster.
Maybe it made the little guy feel important. The whole world could see how successful he had become.
Being kidnapped probably brought him down to earth with a bang. The only reference we have to this is from Touhy. He states that Matt Kolb was snatched by Capone's men and only released when Touhy paid up a $50,000 ransom. This occurred in 1927, and Kolb was held prisoner in The New Southern Hotel on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 13th Street. In the spring of 1931, Capone had another go, and this time, under threat, Matt paid $25,000 for not being kidnapped. Earlier in the same year, during May, Capone's men had raided many of Kolb's and Touhy's spots, trashing the gaming machines and throwing out the liquor supplies in 41 road houses, warning the operators to use Al's services in the future, or else! It was all coming to a head.
Matt Kolb died in the wee hours of Sunday, October 18th, 1931.
Working the Club Morton that morning were two waiters, Jack Smalloy and Frank Francis. This early in the day, the restaurant was still busy. Matt's thirty-three-year-old sister, Clara Fergus of Elmwood Park, was one of the diners. Maybe she was there with her husband, Joseph, an Irish born immigrant. Newspaper reports don't mention him in their reports however. Arthur Kroeger, a kitchen hand was helping the chef, Emanuel Gonzales. Robert Lutz was working the bar and Paul Bolenski, the yard man was working in the back of the building. William Mardorf the manager, was supervising the front door. Bolenski noticed a car pull up at the rear of the building and two men exit and walk into the inn. Matt was standing by the bar talking to Lutz as the two men came into the building. One was tall, about six feet, the other of average height, five seven or eight.
According to the statement made by Lutz to the police, the two men seemed to know Matt, and their greetings were friendly. As the taller man shook hand with Matt the two men leaned into each other and Lutz heard laughter. At that point, the shorter man pulled out a pistol and shot Kolb in the head six times. His body tumbled to the floor, and the two men turned to leave, The shooter paused, was heard to say, "I better make sure," walked back, leaned over the inert body and fired a seventh time into Matt's head. An unnecessary coup de grâce. The little fat man was long gone. It was 1:45 am.
On hearing the shooting, sister Clara rushed out of the dining room but could do nothing to help her brother who lay in a widening pool of blood.
The Cook County Highway Patrol maintained a substation just 3 miles away, at 8970 North Milwaukee Avenue, in Niles, and they received their first call about the shooting at 1:50 am. Lieutenant James Meyerling was the responding officer, but Kolb was beyond help.
Meyerling had an interesting relationship with Touhy and Kolb. Meyerling's brother, William, a decorated World War One hero, was elected Cook County Sheriff in 1930, allegedly due to the political pressures that Matt Kolb and Touhy brought to bear. It was also believed that James Meyerling had worked hand-in-glove with Kolb when he had been part of the department, helping taverns and roadhouses avoid the gaming laws. "It was entirely up to the Sheriff whether the slot machines would run or not," Touhy was once reported saying.
In the Club Morton no one knew anything.
Except Mardorf. He saw the killing but did not recognize either man. Lutz the bartender, who reports claim was the closest to the three men, claimed he did not see the shooting. There was obviously some very selective recollecting going on in the roadhouse that morning. Two weeks earlier, Matt had called the Highway Patrol saying that four men in a car were acting suspiciously outside the roadhouse, but when the police arrived, they had gone. There was no room at the inn as far as police co-operation was concerned. The staff were obviously bothered more by their anxiety over their personal safety than their urge to be helpful witnesses.
Investigating the killing, detectives were mystified, not because it was difficult to find a theory for the murder, but, on the contrary, because so many different theories seemed so plausible:
Matt was killed because he had refused to contribute to the defense fund needed to support Capone in his legal battle against the federal authorities who had charged him with tax evasion. Because he had refused to pull out and stop supplying booze in Cook County. For not testifying as a character witness in the Capone trial which had started on October 5th in the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago. For trying to move in on Capone's gambling clubs once Al was distracted by his legal problems.
And the list of potential killers was endless: James Belcastro, Paul Ricca, George "Red" Barker, George "Bugs" Moran, Frankie Rio, Claude Maddox, Rocco De Grasse, Joe "Gold Tooth" Montana, Dominic Bello, Dominic Brancanto and Albert Anselmi. He was in the list by default, having been himself murdered by Al Capone in 1929. He and his partner John Scalise, two of Al's most preferred killers, until they turned traitor and tried to overthrow the boss, had perfected the "hand-shake" hit, or as it became know, the "When friends kill" technique. It had obviously been adopted by the two gunmen when they had come calling on Matt Kolb.
Roger Touhy was certain one of the perpetrators was Paul Ricca. Originally Felice DeLucia, he was born in Naples and had already murdered two men by the time he fled Italy and arrived in New York in 1920 at the age of twenty-three. He moved to Chicago and became good friends with Capone to the extent that Al was his best man when he married in 1929.
Whoever those two men were, one thing was certain. They were sent by Al Capone or his subordinates. Busy as he was with his own problems, he never overlooked the big picture.
Al was found guilty on his tax case in the federal courthouse, Chicago, at about 11:00 pm on the evening of the day before Matt Kolb was murdered. The judge would send him to prison for eleven years, the longest term ever handed down for tax evasion.
In his book, Touhy says, "All I could do was give Matt a decent burial."
The wake and service were held at E.C. Hammann Funeral Home, 1023 North California Avenue, just a few yards from the corner where Kolb had run his bar. He was buried in the cemetery of Saint Joseph Catholic Church on Belmont Avenue in River Grove, laid to rest in section U of block 2. It's a flat, grassy area, dotted with trees, looking out over the Des Plains Trail, bordering the river. Baby Face Nelson and his wife, Helen Gillis, are buried somewhere in the cemetery. As is Robert L. May, the creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Somewhere between a bank robber come murderer, and a Jewish copywriter for Montgomery Ward, Mathias Kolb lies forever, his name almost forgotten, rarely mentioned in the stories of Chicago, just a minor footnote in a period of American history when the culture of lawlessness was seen as the norm rather than the aberration it was.
Al Capone sent a huge, horseshoe wreath that had cost $100 ($1500 in to-days money).
Roger threw it into the trash container behind the funeral home.