Take the Gun, Leave the Chrysanthemums

Take the Gun, Leave the Chrysanthemums

It’s almost impossible to tell any story about Prohibition in Chicago without mentioning Al Capone.  The story of Dean O’Banion is no different, although colorful.

The O’Banion family first moved to Chicago’s “Little Hell” neighborhood when Dean was only nine years old. Young O’Banion quickly joined the youth branch of Little Hell’s gang, the “Market Streeters,” and began his life of crime by shoplifting, mugging, and of course, selling the Chicago Tribune.  The gang provided O’Banion with a lucrative social circle, introducing him to his best friend, George “Bugs” Moran.

O’Banion’s life of crime was relatively free of convictions.  He was convicted for stealing stamps and later for assault with a weapon.  He spent minimal time inside and was never convicted again.  Instead, after his release, O’Banion bought fifty percent of the Schofields Flower Shop and developed an interest in flower arrangement.  O’Banion’s rap sheet would make for a relatively quiet and short biography, but for the Prohibition Era only just beginning when he was released for the final time.

It was O’Banion that engineered the first known liquor hijacking in Chicago.  A truck transporting whiskey had the misfortune of stopping at a stop sign.  All Chicagoans know that stopping at a stop sign is suspicious, and O’Banion may have interpreted this as his sign.  O’Banion pushed the driver out of the truck at gun point, stole the truck, and sold the liquid gold twenty minutes later, presumably for a Chicago-sized markup.

Entrepreneurial O’Banion quickly turned his first major heist into a partnership with Johnny Torrio and Torrio’s right hand man (enter Al Capone).  Torrio and Capone made O’Banion an offer he couldn’t refuse and he didn’t.  Together, the three ran the City of Chicago far more effectively than either the City Council or the Chicago Police Department of the 1920’s.

Of course, you can’t hold the peace for long in a business arrangement made up of notorious, wealthy, gangsters.  Chicago during Prohibition was the quintessential “choose your own adventure” book waiting to be written.  When O’Banion learned that the police were planning to raid a brewery run by both Torrio and O’Banion, O’Banion had two options.  If you think O’Banion warned Torrio and together they thwarted the raid and lived happily ever after you may stay alive in relative comfort, but you’d be wrong.  O’Banion chose option number two and sold his share to Torrio for $500,000 and said nothing of the raid.  If you chose this option, you made some cash, but gave yourself only about five more months of your young life.

On November 10, 1924, O’Banion’s bodyguard called in sick at the flower shop because of a hangover.  Does anyone really believe this?  A hangover in the 1920’s is believable, but on that very day it seems a little less likely.  Early on the morning of November 10, 1924, gunmen controlled by both Capone and Torrio showed up at the flower shop and assassinated O’Banion over his prize chrysanthemums.

O’Banion’s story didn’t die with him.  The Chicago Daily Tribune’s headline the day following his death blared, “Police Expect More Gang Killings.  Dean O’Banion, Gang Leader, Shot and Killed[1].”  The Tribune was right, of course.  While it was the end for our friend O’Banion, it was only the beginning of a gang war that would last five years.  The war ended on February 14, 1929.  Valentine’s Day.  A major flower giving holiday, ironically.

Written by Amy Williams

[1] Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1924

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