'Little Johnny' Torrio, sometimes called 'The Brain', was born
in Italy in 1882. He came to New York with his family at the age of two
and was raised in the ghettoes of the Lower East Side. As a teenager, Johnny
became an important member of the Five Points Gang, one of the cities largest
and most powerful gangs. He was also the head of an affiliated gang, The
James Street Gang. He was known by his peers as Terrible Johnny and lived
up to his nickname on various occasions when rival gangs clashed with his
own. He was looked upon as cold, cruel and calculated. He was short, but
tuff, the 'Little Johnny', but his natural flair as a bruiser managed
to net him the job as a bouncer at one of the toughest bars in Manhattan
at that time, Nigger Mike's on Pell Street.
In 1912, Torrio moved his attention to the bars and brothels in
the dockyard areas of Brooklyn. Every now and then, he would offer employment
to his fellow James Street Gang members. One of them being Alphonse
Capone. Johnny also explored hijacking, extortion and other illegal
activities. Each of his exploits fed his dream of organizing crime into
a big business.
As early as 1909, Torrio was traveling to and from Chicago to do
business for his uncle Big Jim Colosimo. Colosimo had some trouble with
extortionists trying to take a vested interest in his profits. Torrio was
asked to persuade them to go away. Several bloody corpses later, the word
on the street was to leave Big Jim's whoring business alone.
In 1915 Colosimo
gave Torrio a full time job running some of Chicago's seediest prostitution
dens. Torrio renovated the cheap sleazy places and dressed his prostitutes
as sweet little virgins and enticed much more business than before. The
sleaze pits became a booming business. Torrio eventually ran all of Colosimo's
businesses while Big Jim took a back seat and lived the high life on the
profits Torrio's hard work produced.
With the vast potential that Prohibition introduced, Torrio tried
to convince Colosimo to use his prostitution empire to grab as many of
the new bootlegging rackets as possible. However, Colosimo was not interested,
he was already incredibly wealthy and saw no reason to expand. Torrio enlisted
the help of Al Capone and others to take over Colosimo's empire. A plot
developed to assassinate Colosimo. With Big Jim out of the way, Torrio
set about moving into the booze rackets that the 18th Amendment promised.
Torrio set about uniting the numerous gangs in Chicago. His plan
was to have each gang control a certain area with no interference from
neighboring gangs. Each gang would pay a percentage of profits to Torrio
for the sole rights to their own turf. So all the gangs were called together
and Torrio told them of the plan. The alternative to agreement was gang
warfare and Torrio was in a commanding position to win any war. Most of
the gangs agreed to Torrio's plan, the alternative was none too rosy.
However, there were some who agreed initially and then did whatever the
hell they wanted anyway.
One of these gangs was the North Siders led by Dion
O'Banion. The war between the rival gangs lit up Chicago.
Torrio sent for Frank Yale and he came from New York with Albert
Anselmi and John Scalise. The three of them shot O'Banion in his flower
shop. But O'Banion was only the tip of the iceberg. The gang was taken
over by Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran, a plot was hatched to revenge the murder
of O'Banion. Weiss and his boys ambushed Torrio twice and on both occasions
he lucked out. On the first attempt, Torrio walked away from the scene
with just two bullet holes in his gray Fedora hat. His chauffeur and dog
were not so lucky, both were killed. The second attempt had a better result
for Weiss and his gang. Torrio was ambushed outside his apartment block
on January 24th, 1925. He was hit by shotgun blasts and four slugs. He
was wounded in the stomach, arm and chest. Fighting with death for a week
and a half, Torrio was guarded day and night by 30 body guards at the hospital.
It was after this close encounter with death that John Torrio passed
the organization over to Al Capone. Torrio was 43 years old, a millionaire
several times over, and he moved back to Brooklyn where he retired. In
April, 1957, John Torrio suffered a fatal heart attack at his barbers in
Brooklyn. He was 75 years old.
Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.