Ask just about any Chicagoan about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — the brutal slaying of seven men, most of them gangsters including the notorious brothers Frank and Peter Gusenberg, on Feb. 14, 1929, in a Lakeview garage — and they’ll likely tell you that the man responsible for their deaths was Al Capone.
But was he?
Writer Jonathan Eig doesn’t think so. His book, “Get Capone,”
lays out a theory that the massacre was a revenge killing for the death of a police officer’s son.
Here, Eig explains his theory, how he uncovered it and why Capone couldn’t be responsible for one of the city’s most famous crimes:
When you first started researching your book, what was your view of the massacre? Did you believe Capone was involved or were you already skeptical?
I came into it assuming that Capone was responsible or at least that his men were responsible and that it was somehow tied into the Chicago gang wars. I just assumed that that was the case, and to be honest, I really looked forward to writing that when I got to it.
There are certain things when you start writing a book you look forward to — these pivotal moments — and I assumed that the Valentine’s Day Massacre would be the climax, the turning point moment, of Capone’s life. And it was the turning point of his life in some ways, but it was a bit of an anti-climax when I got to it and discovered that he wasn’t involved or at least didn’t seem to be involved.
Explain your theory.
There was a news story about a new clue in the Valentine’s Day Massacre that emerged a few years later in 1935, and when the news story appeared, a guy named Frank Farrell wrote a letter to the FBI, saying, “Hey I know what happened there.”
And in this letter, he laid out this theory that I believe is the most compelling theory to explain the Valentine’s Day Massacre. It’s still just a theory, but there’s no reason why this guy writes a letter to the FBI other than to share information. He had no incentive to do this. He’s not trying to get anybody arrested. He’s not trying to earn any favors as far as we can tell.
Farrell says he was working as an investigator in Illinois at the time, and he got information about what really happened at the Valentine’s Day Massacre. He says this guy named Billy Davern Jr. got into a fight in a bar with the Gusenberg boys, and he got shot in the stomach, dumped on the street and taken to the hospital where he survived for a couple of weeks. While he was in the hospital, he told his cousin that the Gusenberg boys did this.
His cousin was a guy named William “Three-Fingered” White, who was a notorious criminal. What Farrell says is that White went after the Gusenberg boys. That’s the simple version of the story.
Now the guy that was shot in the stomach, Billy Davern, was a firefighter and the son of a cop. So what this letter says is that the police covered it up because this was a revenge killing for the death of a cop’s kid, and the cops might have even helped White commit this crime. They may have loaned him a police car. They may have loaned him some police uniforms because the people who went into the garage and killed these guys on Valentine’s Day, some of them were dressed as cops. One eyewitness said that the driver of this car, she noticed, had missing fingers on his right hand. Is it possible that that’s William “Three Finger” White? Could be. At the time, it was somewhat more common to have missing fingers because people worked in factories, but even so, it’s a pretty strong coincidence that she sees one of the perps and mentions that he was missing some fingers on his hand.
It’s not a perfect theory. White was supposed to be in jail at the time of the massacre, but this letter actually addresses that point and says he was able to bribe his way out of jail. That’s certainly believable given the state of law enforcement at the time. Bribes were common, and jails were often revolving doors.
The theory goes that White gets a pass from jail, dresses up as a cop, calls the Gusenberg boys and says, “Hey, I got a job. I’m coming over.” That’s why they’re not expecting any trouble because they think they’re going to get in on this job with White. They’re going to dress as cops, and they’re going to go rob some people. They see the cops come in. They don’t worry about it, they don’t draw their guns, and then, White lines them up against the wall and shoots them dead.
One of the Gusenberg brothers survived a little while. When the real police got there and found these bodies in the garage, Frank G was still alive on the floor gushing blood. When the real cops found them, he said to them, “Cops did it.”
How did you put this theory together?
I found this letter in the FBI archives. As far as I can tell, it had not been seen before by other writers or researchers.
Of course, I assumed that the letter was probably malarky, and I began checking to see if any of the facts in the letter lined up. Was there someone named Billy Davern in Chicago? Was he a firefighter? Was he shot? All of that came back yes. I was able to find newspaper accounts of the shooting. Did he have a cousin named William White? Yes. Was Billy Davern’s father a police officer? Yes.
So a lot of the facts in this letter checked out. Suddenly, I know I’m at least not dealing with a crank. He could be wrong. He could be dead wrong. But he knew a lot of factual information.
I tried to find the ancestors of Farrell to learn more about him, and I could not.
In the early days of the investigation, Capone wasn’t much of a suspect. What changed that?
It was an important moment for Capone because the federal government got involved in trying to crack down on all this crime, in part because the Valentine’s Day Massacre was so horrifying. It was national news. The pictures were all over the newspapers. As a result of this, Herbert Hoover, the newly elected president, really decided to go after Capone. It played a big part in why the feds worked so hard to put him away. Of course, they couldn’t prove that he had anything to do with the Valentine’s Day Massacre, so they put him away on income tax charges.
Then later when people start making TV shows and movies about Capone, the Valentine’s Day Massacre becomes a key part of those TV shows and movies, and Capone is the perp. He’s the guy ordering the hit.
What’s wrong with the theory that Capone was connected to the massacre?
First of all, Capone himself was not there. He had an airtight alibi. He was in Florida being interviewed by lawyers. He certainly was not the trigger man, and he certainly was not in Chicago when it happened.
There’s also not much reason to believe that Capone would have wanted this to happen. He was not engaged in an active battle with [North Side gang leader Bugs] Moran or with any of the men in the garage. He had the feds breathing down his neck, mostly around his taxes. He was trying to keep his head down basically. There’s very little reason or motive to imagine why he would kill these men in the garage even if he wanted to get Moran, Moran wasn’t there. So why would he order the killing of these other people? If he wanted to get Moran, he knew how to kill Moran. He knew where to go to kill Moran.
There’s nothing in the facts of the crime that would tie it to Capone or even suggest that he had a reason to want any of these men dead. If you want to make an argument that Capone ordered this hit, you’ve got a long bridge to cross before you can even start connecting it to Capone.
Then you have to ask yourself: What are some of the other potential motives? There were plenty of them in Chicago. The men in the garage were gangsters, most of them. The Gusenberg boys were always getting into trouble. There were plenty of people who might have wanted the Gusenberg boys dead and who might have been willing to kill a whole bunch of people at the same time to get the Gusenbergs. They had lots of enemies.
I think any cop can tell you usually the most obvious suspect is the best suspect — the person who’s closest and the person who’s angriest is most likely to have been the perp. So these theories that it might have been another gang or that it might have been cops who had been in a feud with the Gusenbergs all have more validity than saying it must’ve been Capone just because Capone was the biggest name in town.
What do you think? Check out Eig’s book “Get Capone” and decide for yourself. Got a favorite theory on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? Send it to me here: email@example.com.
One of the Hollywood movies that connected Capone to the massacre is available for free on YouTube (for now). Watch it here.