Monday, July 29, 2019

Al Capone’s Ghost

Al Capone’s Ghost

“Where are you from?”
“Oh, the gangster city where Al Capone lived.”

Photographs and text copyright © 2019 by Thomas McNulty

That snippet of conversation has occurred in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Deadwood, Nashville and so many other places in my travels. Al Capone did indeed live in Chicago, and he did leave an indelible mark on Chicago history. Chicago cannot escape Al Capone, or John Dillinger or Baby Face Nelson or Dean O’Banion or Bugs Moran. Here there be gangsters.

Chicago’s rich history has a texture unlike so many others, often punctuated by intense acts of violence, from the Fort Dearborn Massacre to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and multiple stunning incidents in between. Chicago is the embodiment of corruption.
Recommended Reading
My grandfather, Andrew McNulty, encountered Capone once when he worked as conductor on the streetcars for the Chicago Transit Authority. This was in the late 20s or early 30s and prior to Capone’s imprisonment for tax evasion in 1932. My grandfather, or Mac as his family and friends called him, had no time for Capone or the men that surrounded him. Mac told me, “They were all goons and thugs, punks that thought they were tough.” Mac’s distaste for Capone and his henchmen was extended a few years later with some brief encounters with John Dillinger and his roughneck coterie. “Dillinger was full of himself.” Mac told me. He described how common, if not ordinary, riding a streetcar was in those days, even for people with money, because when the weather was good the goons could show-off, make contact with people, and brag a lot. “The streetcars were for everybody,” he said, “until the buses came, and that changed everything.”

According to my grandfather, Capone’s ride was brief, maybe a block, and they got off, and I have never found a similar published statement that Capone used the streetcars. In fact, during this period Capone stayed out of sight and routinely traveled by automobile with guards. Yet my grandfather was no liar, and he clearly encountered Capone. The circumstances will never be known, and Mac is long gone, but one day all those decades past Al Capone got on a streetcar and rode about a block. Capone paid for everyone that got on with him, and that is consistent with published reports about Capone’s behavior. People greeted Capone warmly. “Hello Al!” or “Thanks Al!” were tossed at Capone like verbal bouquets.

Mac’s solitary encounter with Capone was brief, but his henchmen rode the streetcars all the time, and the goons wanted everyone to know whose payroll they were on. Those “punks that thought they were tough” made a lasting impression on Mac, and he recalled them with distaste decades later. There was one career criminal from this period that did leave a slightly favorable impression on my grandfather. This was Joseph Weil, better known as the Yellow Kid, a notorious con-man who once reportedly swindled Benito Mussolini, and lived to tell the tale. “He was a gentleman,” Mac said, “He was the kind of well-dressed and polite man that would lend you a few bucks and never expect to get it back if you were down on your luck. Everybody liked him.”
Al Capone's Final Resting Place
 Capone had a reputation for being flashy, and down-to-earth, even with Mac, who wanted nothing to do with Chicago’s underworld. By comparison, Dillinger “got what he deserved” when he was gunned down by the FBI on July 22, 1934 outside the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue. Capone was larger-than life; he courted the press, found himself being cheered at baseball games, and cultivated the image of a colorful and well-dressed businessman. Al Capone opened soup kitchens for the needy and made himself into a folk hero. This is a vital fact that demands attention. During the Depression the general feeling was one of distrust toward banking institutions and the government. They had failed the American people. Al Capone not only put people to work, but he fed people. Al Capone’s soup kitchens became the stuff of legend.

Deirdre Bair’s biography, Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, published in 2016, is among the better books devoted to Capone’s amazing life. Bair’s biography is an attempt “to look at his public behavior within the context of his personal life, to see how the two might possibly be interrelated, and how the one might have had influence or bearing on the other.” Bair chose to give little attention to such historic events as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in favor of interpreting Capone’s life, and so her book is not a useful chronology for those seeking details on the Chicago’s turf war. It does, however, delve deeply into Capone’s public behavior, her stated goal all along. She succeeds and I consider this among the top evaluations on Capone.

 Jonathan Eig’s 2010 best-seller, Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, offers a fresh perspective on Capone’s involvement in Chicago’s gangland, including a new theory that purports the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was an insider job orchestrated by the police, and not Capone. Eig’s theory is compelling, if unprovable. I believe Eig’s contention that Capone had nothing to do with the massacre. Read his book.

When Capone died in 1947, his mind ravaged by neurosyphilis, his body was transported to Chicago and interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery. In 1950 his body and those of his father and brother were moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery in suburban Hillside. His gravesite is a popular destination for history buffs. Mount Carmel Cemetery is also home to the remains of Dean O’Banion, yet another Chicago gangster, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (aka Vincent DeMora), Frank Nitti, Earl Weiss, and others. It is also the resting place of Julia Buccola Petta, better known as “The Italian Bride” who died at age 29 in 1921. Her body was exhumed six years after her death, and photographed by her mother revealing a lack of decomposition. Her mother had the photo affixed to her grave. Tales of ghostly wanderings have occurred routinely by locals who claim to have seen her spirit. In Chicago, the dead don’t stay in one place long.
Julia Buccola Petta's grave with close-up of exhumation photo
In the decades since Capone’s death the corruption and exploitation of vice remain as strong as ever in the Windy City. The goons, thugs and punks are still around, although these days we call them politicians. For Illinoisans holding onto a sliver of hope, you should be heartened by the fact that Illinois has sent more governors to prison than any state in the union.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Horror! Author Mystery Solved!

Back in October 2012 I posted about Horror!, the acclaimed book about Horror films and authors. The author’s real identity has long been a point of speculation. Thanks to Glenn Hildebrand the “mystery” of Drake Douglas, author of the cult classic, Horror! has been verified. Drake Douglas was a pseudonym for Werner Zimmerman who also wrote under the name Douglas Drake. He graduated from High School in January 1945 and his yearbook lists he was awarded the “Clifton Leader Press award in Journalism.” He also wrote Strangers and Lovers as Douglas Drake. Horror!, it's sequel Horrors! and Strangers and Lovers are his only known books. He passed away on June 27, 2004 and his memorial card/obit used the name Drake Douglas.

Here are some memories direct from Glenn:

“He grew up and lived in Clifton NJ and was a Navy vet at the end of WWII and right after the war.  Was on the Missouri in Tokyo for the signing and during the Truman cruise to South America in 1946.  If you are still interested in more detail on Drake let me know – he was my uncle and I spent many days sitting on the floor in his room looking through all his books (his bedroom had three walls floor to ceiling bookshelves) while he typed on his typewriter.”

“I was born in 1949 and by the time I can remember him he was working for some type of accounting firm in NYC and living with my grandparents in Clifton NJ.  He would commute each day to the city and come home late at night, type for a while and go to bed, just to get up and do it again the next day.  All weekend he would type.  He always had classical music playing when he was typing.  Never wanted a word processor when they began to come out.  To this day whenever I hear a typewriter clacking I think of him.”
Drake Douglas AKA Werner Zimmerman
“He developed Alzheimer’s and was in a support facility for the last few years.  It was very frustrating for him as the disease progressed because his whole life was words and he started having difficulty even holding a discussion.  He would get so frustrated when he couldn’t think of the word he wanted.  He had a vast VCR library of old horror movies with Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and the gang, and watched them all the time but eventually he couldn’t even operate the TV and VCR, even though we tried to put color tape on the necessary buttons to push.”

 Horror! remains a highly-sought after collector’s item. Originally published in 1966, my paperback copy of Horror! By Drake Douglas is now dog-eared and battered. The back cover blurb for Horror! stated: The awful truth about the monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies phantoms, mummies, and ghouls of literature – and how they went Hollywood, the book is an affectionate and literate account of monsters with emphasis on Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolf folklore, and the writers that helped popularize them. Written in the strong, imagistic style of the pulps, Horror! is a beguiling and fascinating introduction to the world of monsters and other creatures of the night. I have always loved the unique style of the writing and the obvious love the author has for films and literature.

Many thanks to Glenn Hildebrand for verifying the author’s identity and providing the images reproduced here.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Last Stage to Hell Junction by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Last Stage to Hell Junction offers up the scent of sagebrush, the boom of gunfire and the acrid smell of gunsmoke. There are galloping horses and nasty villains, and it’s all incredibly entertaining! This the fourth Caleb York Western Max Collins has published. Based upon characters created by the late, great Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins is the creative powerhouse behind this excellent series. There are a lot of Westerns out there right now, and this is one you can depend on for having all of the ingredients that Western fans love. There are shoot-outs and chases and robberies and even a dash of saucy romance! Caleb York has become an iconic hero; tough and smart and more than a bit stubborn. He won’t quit, and when he has to go after some hostages being held in Hell Junction, his .44 Colt will naturally get some action. With Last Stage to Hell Junction the West is wild again, and that means readers are in for some epic fun. The previous books in this series are The Legend of Caleb York, The Big Showdown and The Bloody Spur. I recommend that you read them all, and you won’t be disappointed. It does help to read the series in order, but that’s not vital. They can easily be read as stand-alone novels. The difference between this book and the other big name writers publishing Westerns these days is that Collins is having fun, and it shows. Max Collins has produced four exciting, fresh stories, all while paying homage to Spillane. It works, and dang it, I’ve long admired Collin’s blazing talent, so if you’re aiming to hunker down with another fast and exciting book, Last Stage to Hell Junction should be first on your list. Now saddle up! It’s time to ride the high country again with Caleb York!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Fishing Tips

Text and photographs copyright © by Thomas McNulty

I am a bass fisherman, and not a fly fisherman. I use an Ugly Stik rod with a Shakespeare reel. My attempts at learning fly fishing years ago resulted in an admiration for fly fishing, but I never became adept at the sport. All the same, I’ve learned a few things about fishing, not the least of which being the fact that all fishermen are experts on their own style, and they think they know everything. Some of them do.

The first point of advice I offer is simple enough - avoid fishing in a kayak. This is especially sound advice for people in a certain age group with back problems. You can catch fish in a kayak certainly, but your back muscles may complain with messages of burning pain ripping at your flesh. This quite naturally will require an oasis of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola, which in turn can be dangerous when you’re poised to hook a walleye while standing on a half-submerged slippery pier. Be careful, lads; that’s the best I can offer.
Last month I was fishing in my usual haunt when I realized that sometimes the fish possessed an uncanny intelligence that rendered my college educated mind to mush. They were not where they should have been, and they did not bite when they should have. Fish bite when they’re hungry, and they bite when you aggravate them. I did my best to aggravate them, including unleashing a stream of profanity at the sight of their silver-green gills fluttering away. That didn’t work at first, but at the end of two weeks I did catch more fish than I had the previous summer.

Once, when my brother-in-law and I glided into a sunlit bay at about two o’clock in the afternoon, a black bear bolted away from the shoreline, crashing noisily through the underbrush. My brother-in-law had a good look at him, while all I saw were the branches and leafage bending back like rubber bands as the bear abandoned the shore. The bear’s presence was a sober reminder that the Northwoods are home to an animal kingdom that also covet the fat bass or chunky northern pike.
That night, a raccoon visited the cabin porch and helped himself to the birdseed left out for the yellow finches who often darted through the morning air while I drank my coffee and planned the day’s fishing. Man does not hold dominion over the great forest country of Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan.

I toyed with several types of bait, including some top water rigs and poppers; they work well enough now and again. I was successful with a white, rubber shad, and I had some luck with a Yum worm and a rubber minnow. By far the best bait three years running has been the Magnum Bass Stopper 3-hook weedless purple worm. It’s made in Haiti and it works like a charm. Relying on the same bait over and over is seldom recommended, but I used it because it works. There are off-brand imitators made in China, but the hooks are too small and a fat bass can easily shake free, as I learned swiftly.
The best advice anyone ever gave me about fishing was be prepared to try anything. Or, as my friend Steve has pointed out, “You don’t keep one arrow in the quiver and expect to land two deer.” I keep multiple types of lures handy, and extra fishing poles. Many anglers accessorize their boats with a cooler of beer. That strikes me as reasonable, but don’t stand up in the boat.

Lakes have their own health cycle, and some lakes may offer good fishing, but public waterways are a hindrance. There are ample small and medium lakes, however, with limited public traffic because of their remote location. Many small and medium lakes near population centers benefit from a voluntary “Fish Committee” which we have on Wahwahtaysee, and we stock the lake every few years and have the water tested. Helping keep a lake healthy is vital for a flourishing eco-system.
Solitude is conducive to good fishing. Find yourself a lake lacking in two-legged meanies and sun-tanned businessmen, but by all means keep your testosterone senses tuned to the arrival of mermaids. Anything can happen in the northwoods; although such daydreams may be the result of cabin fever and alcohol. Still, this grand rolling landscape of woodlands, rivers and lakes is startlingly beautiful, and if you find yourself one day in a boat with a fishing pole in hand, embrace the dreams of a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle and stay on course. The fish are waiting to bite in the next sunlit bay.
NOTE: Wahwahtaysee is the previous Ojibwe name of our lake and translates as Firefly. It is not currently in use officially, but it’s the name many of us residents use.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Elixir by Robert Nathan

As I’ve mentioned before, Robert Nathan was once a pre-eminent author with Alfred A. Knopf publishers but now most of his books are out of print. Fortunately, the Nathan estate is in the process of making the Nathan library available as eBooks, so if you haven’t read Nathan start there. Try Portrait of Jennie, which I discussed previously. Robert Nathan’s books are an acquired taste, but be warned, once you connect with him you’ll find his prose habit forming. Robert Nathan was an incredible prose stylist. His paragraphs are like works of art themselves. The Elixir is one of his last novels, published in 1971. The Elixir is wonderful for the literary connoisseur, but perhaps ponderous for those less educated. The historical and literary references are constant throughout. The story involves Robert Irwin an American professor on vacation in England who meets a guitar-playing hippie girl at Stonehenge and begins an affair with her. The Elixir is a fantasy, of course, and Nathan’s theme is love. The title is taken from Bernard of Treves, offered as an epigram on the front piece, referencing “Amyranth” a potent elixir that induces a man to see the world spread out before him like a tapestry, both past and present. The narrator’s journey is an exploration of his life as an historian, and he encounters many characters from the past, including Merlin. His guitar-playing lover Anne is really Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, and characters come and go at a rapid pace. Nathan states his intent early, on page 45: “Man has legends and dreams, and they weave one into another, and he is part of them, and they are part of him.” The plot changes dramatically with a plane high-jacking, and here Nathan makes reference to global political events relevant at the time of publication, but then eases us back into England after a brief visit to the Middle East. This section of the book was disconcerting but inclusive and necessary for the narrator Irwin’s understanding of the regional conquering and historical connections. Irwin’s love for Nimue is central to the plot, and naturally their affair must end, because she does belong to the past. Nathan offers us a succinct interpretation of beauty in this passage from page 129: “A woman’s beauty lies less in the arrangement of her features than in the gentleness and vivacity of her air, the mixture of mirth and shyness, the wonder that looks out of her eyes, the modesty and pride to be seen in the curve of her neck and the thrust of her bosom. In short, in that mystery which touches the heart as well as the loins, and causes young men to write rondels and madrigals.” The book is actually quite humorous and less sentimental, although still capable of striking the occasional emotional chord.