From The IPSN Archives: September 1992
The Death of the Don: The Legacy of Tony Accardo
by Richard Lindberg
Summing up the late Tony Accardo’s leadership abilities, a veteran Chicago mob figure once confided to Chicago American columnist George Murray that “…Accardo has more brains before breakfast than Al Capone ever had all day.” Possessing a nimble mind and a canny instinct for survival, Accardo boasted of having never spent a night in jail. though he was picked up in Miami Beach in 1929 on vagrancy charges while playing golf with Al Capone and Jack McGurn. But he was released on his own recognizance. Accardo’s closest brush with the slammer came on Feb. 24, 1945, when he was forced to suffer the indignity of appearing in a police lineup at the Chicago Detective Bureau during a murder investigation. But that too, was only a mere formality.
Even during his last years when he was consumed with cancer and his body a thin. frail shell, this elder statesman of the rackets was accorded a respect that was never shown other mob cures of his generation who reaped a r more bitter harvest. In death, Tony Accardo still looms as the most powerful mob figure of this era; the boss of bosses who helped shape policy on a national level.
Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo, a product of the Prohibition era, ruled the rackets in this town for nearly forty years before succumbing to the ravages of old age and cancer on May 17, 1992. He was an early product of the “Circus Gang,” a collection of Northwest Side toughs who congregated at John “Screwy” Moore’s (a.k.a. Claude Maddox) Circus Cafe on North Avenue. Moore was nominally connected to the Torrio-Capone outfit, and he willingly obliged Scarface with a percentage of his gang’s liquor revenue, and the necessary armaments through their gun dealer Peter Von Frantzius.
Accardo, a strapping, flve-nine, 200 pound lad who was the son of an immigrant shoemaker, joined the Circus Gang while he was still in his teens. He was introduced to the mob boys by “Tough” Tony Capezio, a gambling boss and syndicate man, who pulled him off the streets of the Grand and Milwaukee neighborhood, and gave him something more “useful” to do. By the end of the 1920s, Accardo was performing various tasks for the Capone mob while running with another gangster of future importance, his closest friend and confidant, Felice De Lucia, better known as Paul “the Waiter” Ricca.
Mob media writers have always suspected the youthful Accardo of complicity in Chicago’s most sensational gangland killing, the 1929 St. Valentine’s’s Day Massacre. In all probability Accardo acted as one of Capone’s lookouts on Clark Street and may have had a small role in the planning the hit, but it is farfetched speculation to place him in the garage at the time of the actual shootings.
It was after the Massacre, however, when Accardo first began to make a name for himself as Al Capone’s bodyguard and special enforcer. His fearsome reputation for violence and cunning was no doubt nurtured by one of his immediate superiors: “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn. Accardo’s stock and trade was vengeance and he was particularly adept with a baseball bat. In May 1929, Al Capone discovered that he was the target of a murder plot, hatched by Alberto Anselmi and John Scalise, two Sicilian contract killers who had been on the big guy’s permanent retainer for five years. At a lavish dinner party given in their honor someone, maybe it was Accardo, maybe it was Capone no one knows for sure–took a baseball bat to their traitorous heads, and afterward dumped the bodies in a ditch in the south suburbs. Accardo’s respectful mob associates would later pin a nickname on him that he would carry to his grave: “Joe Batters,” or “Joe B.” Go figure.
The “Big Tuna” moniker was strictly a press invention. There are those who believe it was given to him in 1949 by the late Ray Brennan of the Chicago Sun Times who marvelled at the 400-pound tunafish Accardo pulled out of the waters of Wedgeport, Nova Scotia. Others will tell you that Accardo actually landed the “big one” at Bimini during a deep-sea fishing expedition in 1955, and he continued to use the nickname as an alias while serving as a ‘phantom” salesman for the Premium Beer Sales Company between 1956-58. Accardo pulled down a hefty salary of $179.000, even though he was rarely seen around the offices.. When he would telephone company president Dominick Volpe, Accardo would identify himself as the Big Tuna placing a call to the “little Tuna.” Volpe had accompanied Accardo on the Bimini trip, and the fish he landed was a small fry by comparison. Fish stories aside, Tony Accardo had been pegged as one of Chicago’s important gangland figures early on in his career.
In 1931, the Chicago Crime Commission named Accardo to its first published list of “Public Enemies,” at a time when the power structure of the Chicago outfit was being revamped due to Al Capone’s imprisonment for tax evasion in violation of the Federal income tax laws, Accardo expanded Capone’s gambling operations across the city and suburbs siphoning portions of this illegal revenue into various legitimate enterprises including trucking firms, lumber and coal companies, labor unions, and restaurants and hotels.
As the “old guard” slowly faded away Ricca and Accardo broadened their responsibilities. When Frank Nitti committed suicide in 1943, Paul “the Waiter Ricca assumed control of the Outfit, even though he was incarcerated in a federal prison at the time. Accardo functioned as his second in command and always managed to defer final action to Ricca during the entire three-year period the “Waiter” spent in confinement at the Leavenworth Penitentiary. Upon his release, Accardo was handed a rich plum for his abiding loyalty: he was put in complete control of wire operations and betting parlors from northwest Indiana to the northern suburbs of Chicago. Evidence of Accardo’s propensity for violence, and willingness to employ whatever means necessary to effect an outcome was clearly demonstrated on June 24, 1946, when James M. Ragen was cut down in a fusillade of bullets as he drove south on State Street near Pershing Boulevard. Ragen controlled the Nationwide News Service (the name was later changed to Continental Press), a telephone wire that dispensed race track results to participating poolrooms across the U.S. The stormy history of this operation extends back to the horse and buggy era when gambling czar Mont Tennes seized control of the wire from John Payne. After Tennes was “squeezed. by Capone In the 1920s, he sold his interests to publishing mogul Moses Annenberg.
When Annenberg was forced to divest his gambling interests in 1939, because of tax troubles with the government, James Ragen stepped in and took control. But Ragen was intractable with the syndicate, and refused to share his spoils with Accardo, who allegedly ordered his removal. When the bullets failed to kill the aging Ragen, a mob operative slipped into his hospital room in August. In the autopsy that followed, traces of mercury were found in Ragen’s blood system.
Under Accardo’s direction, Continental became the outfit’s cash cow – so much so that Estes Kefauver’s Senate investigating committee called it “the life blood. of the outfit. That same year -1950 – Accardo, acting under Ricca’s orders, shoved aside “Big” Jim Martin who controlled an enormous policy racket in the Twenty-eighth ward. Political protection was provided by Alderman George Kells, and with so much revenue and “clout” at stake, Martin and his silent partner in City Hall were understandably perturbed at Ricca for demanding that they relinquish control. On November 15, Martin suffered serious gun shot wounds. The shooter missed the mark, but Accardo achieved his original purpose. Martin fled to Los Angeles, and Kells drove to Florida never to return. The alderman told reporters at the time that he was doing it because his wife was in “poor health.”
Accardo now personally controlled more than 10,000 gambling dens in Chicago ranging from corner cigar stands, right up to the lavish Loop pool rooms. He also played a role in establishing Havana, Cuba as a new base of operations for organized crime figures following the repeal of Prohibition. The revenue from these operations netted the Outfit millions, but narcotics trafficking was one area Accardo refused to involve himself with. Aunt on the advice of Jake Guzik and men to deal in drugs. Only in recent years has this dictate been challenged by the “Young Turk” faction, and usually with a corresponding loss of life within the ranks of the interlopers.
Accardo, like others before him, had a penchant for the good life. As his wealth, esteem, and political influence escalated in the early 1950s, he purchased a lavish mansion at 915 Franklin Street in River Forest for the sum of $150,000, this time ignoring the advice and counsel of Humphreys who told him that “the smart money don’t go to the suburbs.”
“You and your family will stick out like a sore thumb and the Feds will always know exactly where you are.” Nevertheless, Accardo stocked his mansion with the most expensive furniture, and a black onyx bathtub that served as his unofficial command post. Later, Accardo added a twenty-room mansion in Miami to his holdings.
Accardo’s opulent lifestyle, and a celebrated European vacation he took with his wife Clarice, and a well-known Chicago police lieutenant in 1959, attracted national media attention which compelled the government to sit up and take notice. A year later he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to six years on charges of income tax evasion. However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned U.S. Attorney Richard B. Ogilvie’s successful prosecution of Accardo due to what they called “prejudicial newspaper coverage.” In a second trial convened in 1962, the Chicago mob boss was acquitted.
Tony Accardo bragged that he never spent a night in jail, even though he was indicted no less than four times between 1948 and 1982. Each time the government failed in its mission to put him behind bars. In the celebrated 1982 labor-racketeering trial in Miami, Fla., Accardo and fourteen co-defendants were charged with conspiring to share in $2 million in kickbacks involving the placement of insurance business from the mob-controlled 550,000 member Laborer’s International Union into the hands of a convicted swindler named Joseph Hauser of Beverly Hills, Cal. In stirring courtroom testimony, Hauser labeled Accardo as “the number one” power behind the union. He detailed the methods used by the Chicago mob leader to force the removal of secretary treasurer Terrance O’Sullivan in favor of his own man
Angelo Fosco, who ultimately succeeded his father Peter Fosco as union president.
But Accardo’s two crack defense attorneys, Carl M. Walsh and Eddie Kay, poked holes through Hauser’s testimony and revealed that the government had paid him $105,000 as a protected witness. The Miami jury freed Accardo but sent six of his associates to jail including Al Pilotto, president of Local 5, and James Caporale, an official in the Chicago-based council. While all this was going on, Accardo quietly orchestrated the appointment of his son-in-law Ernest Kumerow as president of the County and Municipal Union Local 1001. Kumerow, a former star baseball player at the University of Illinois took charge took of a Local that represented some 3,000 city street and sanitation workers. The old man’s clout in organized labor was extensive and far reaching.
The unfavorable publicity surrounding Accardo, coupled with his continuing l.R.S. woes, compelled the nervous Ricca to make a change in the upper echelon of the outfit. In 1957 or so, Paul Ricca decided that Accardo should shun the limelight for a while, in favor of Sam “Momo” Giancana, an ambitious, but maniacal killer whose modest bungalow in Oak Park was a far cry from the palatial estate the Big Tuna resided in. Giancana was at first considered to be a “low- profile” type, but Ricca had erred badly in this regard. Giancana took up with Phyllis McGuire of the singing McGuire Sisters act, and soon found himself more enchanted with Frank Sinatra and his Hollywood pals than attending to his business in the manner Ricca would have preferred.
Paul Ricca succeeded in diverting the attention away from Accardo, but the publicity surrounding Giancana’s own ostentatious life style forced another change in 1966, the year after Momo went into a self-imposed exile following a year-long stretch in prison after he refused to testify before a federal grand jury. Accardo resumed control, with Joey Aiuppa serving as his second in command. This time, Accardo seemed more than willing to avoid the mistakes of the past. He sold his home in River Forest in 1963, in favor of a more “modest” 18 room ranch house at 1407 N. Ashland Avenue. It was there in January 1977, when a gang of burglars foolishly broke into the home in search of cash and jewels. They were stalked, hounded, and ultimately tracked down by syndicate hit men who slashed the throats of the six burglars. One was castrated, and another disemboweled.
Bernard Ryan, the first of the burglary suspects was found shot to death on Jan. 20, 1978 in Stone Park. Steven Garcia, 29, was pulled out of the trunk of a car parked in the garage at O’Hare Airport on February 2. Vincent Moretti and Donald Swanson, two veteran second story men, were stabbed to death on February 4 in an abandoned car in Stickney Township. John Mandell, who was considered somewhat of an electronics expert suffered a similar fate. Police located his remains in an auto trunk on the South Side on February 20.
The sixth man suspected of complicity in the burglary, 43-year-old John McDonald, was shot to death in a North Side alley in April 1978. In the weeks that followed, a number of burglars and sneak thieves prudently decided to skip town though they were not involved in the River Forest heist. No-one was taking any chances with the old man on this one, especially after Accardo’s 75-year-old houseman Michael Volpe disappeared. just five days after testifying before a grand fury. Accardo had sent an important message to all those who would question his leadership abilities or willingness to dispense justice as he had years earlier. Since 1979 and up to the time of his death, Tony Accardo alternated his residence between his Indian Wells condominium located twenty miles outside of Palm Springs. Cal., and his other home in Barrington Hills. From his location in the warm California desert, Accardo served as the outfit’s “chairman emeritus” while younger men carried out his directives back in Chicago.
In the last years of his life, Accardo was beset with various legal and personal problems. In February 1983 his 40-year-old nephew John Simonelli was indicted by a DuPage County grand jury on auto theft charges.
A few months later, the Big Tuna was dragged before a Senate Subcommittee investigating labor racketeering within the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU), led by Richie Daley’s pal Edward Hanley. Accardo was an uncooperative witness even though he was under an immunity grant from the government. His refusal to answer sensitive questions or provide clarification to the committee members resulted in a contempt of Congress citation which was handed down in February 1984. Ill health prevented him from further testimony, as the committee concluded its hearings with this finding “the committee finds that the mobster dominated locals of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union in the Chicago Area served only the purpose of giving a cloak of legitimacy to what was nothing more than a pure extortion racket.” Accardo emerged from his Senate ordeal unscathed. as you might expect. But before another year had passed, Tony’s niece Sheila Simonelli was busted for allegedly trying to sell $23.5 million in stolen securities. The woman’s mother Marie Simonelli, is Accardo’s sister.
Then in August 1991, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that Accardo could not deduct $60.000 in back taxes and penalties, stemming from his courtroom victory in Miami nine years earlier. While the sum of money was trifling compared to the vast fortune Accardo had amassed over the years, it was indicative of the heat the government had been putting on the ailing gang leader. Accardo’s death closes out a significant chapter in Chicago organized crime history. For all practical purposes he was the last link to Al Capone and the fabled Prohibition era which has faded into the abyss of history. Tony was without question the most powerful mob figure of his time, and his passing raises new concerns about the renewal of a gang war in Chicago, as other less circumspect figures seek to reap the harvest of what Anthony Accardo had sewn years ago.