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John "Papa Johnny" Torrio, also known as "The Fox" (February 1882 – April 16, 1957) was an Italian-American mobster who helped build the criminal empire known as the Chicago Outfit in the 1920s that would later be inherited by his protege, Al Capone. He also put forth the idea of the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and later became an unofficial advisor to the Genovese crime family.

Early life

Born Giovanni Torrio in the village of Irsinamarker, near Matera, Italymarker. He saved enough money to open a billiards parlor for the group, out of which grew illegal activities such as gambling and loan sharking. Torrio's shrewd business acumen caught the eye of Paolo Vaccarelli , the leader of the famous Five Points Gang. Jimmy "The Shiv" DeStefano and Al Capone were working at Kelly's club. They admired Torrio's quick mind and looked to him as their mentor. Torrio greatly admired Kelly, who knew much about organized crime culture; Kelly convinced the younger man to dress conservatively, stop swearing, and set up a front as a legitimate entrepreneur. The lessons Torrio learned from Kelly stayed with him throughout his career; Torrio eventually earned the moniker of "The Fox" due to his cunning and diplomatic ways.

Torrio's gang ran legitimate businesses, but its main concern was the numbers game, supplemented by incomes from bookmaking, loan sharking, hijacking, prostitution, and opium trafficking. Capone and DeStefano were members of the Juniors and soon graduated up to the Five Points Gang itself. Torrio eventually hired Al Capone and his buddy Jimmy The Shiv DeStefano to bartend at the Harvard Inn, a bar in the Coney Islandmarker section of Brooklyn owned by Torrio's business associate, Francesco Ioele (a.k.a. Frankie Yale).

The Colosimo Killing

In 1918, Yale contacted Torrio and requested that he should take Al Capone and Jimmy The Shiv Destefano to Chicago; They were both in trouble and facing prison time. Capone needed to escape a murder investigation in New York and also needed to tidy up his image. Jimmy The Shiv DeStefano Capone's childhood friend did not accept the offer to go to Chicago, in 1919 he was sentenced to Sing Sing. He requested to go to barber school, he had a worked with Capone's father in his barber shop and felt this would be a good trade for him to learn. On a later Sing Sing sentence he was assigned as the barber in the death house and gave 46 men and one woman thier last hair cut before they were executed.Capone accepted Torrio's offer and went to Chicago. Capone became a bouncer at one of Torrio's Chicago brothels and soon became manager of The Four Deuces. Two years later, Prohibition came into effect, making all manufacture, purchase, or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. Torrio immediately realized the immense profits bootlegging could bring and urged Colosimo to enter the business. Colosimo refused; he was happy being just a pimp. In addition, Colosimo felt that expansion into other rackets would only draw more attention from the police and rival gangs. During this same period, Colosimo divorced Victoria, Torrio's aunt, and married Dale Winter, a pretty young actress and singer. Winter convinced Colosimo to settle down, dress more conservatively, and stay out of the news.

At this point, Torrio realized that Colosimo was a serious impediment to the mob's potential fortunes. With the approval of Colosimo's allies, the Genna brothers and Aiello, Torrio invited Yale to come to Chicago and kill Colosimo. The murder took place on May 11, 1920, in the main foyer of Colosimo's Cafe. No one was ever prosecuted. Torrio took over the deceased Colosimo's vast criminal kingdom and started to venture into bootlegging.

Rivalry with North Side Gang

As the 1920s progressed, Torrio and Capone presided over the expansion of the Chicago Outfit as it raked in millions from gambling, prostitution, and now bootlegging. The Outfit soon came to control the Loopmarker (Chicago's downtown area), as well as much of the South Side. However, it was also intent on seizing the profitable Gold Coast territory, which drew the ire of the powerful North Side Gang led by Dion O'Banion.

The Outfit and the North Side Gang began a fragile alliance, but tension between O'Banion and the Gennas (who were Outfit allies) over territorial rights mounted. The Gennas wanted to kill O'Banion, but Torrio, not wanting all-out gang warfare, resisted the move. Finally, tensions boiled over when O'Banion cheated Torrio out of $500,000 in a brewery acquisition deal and caused Torrio's arrest. Out of patience, Torrio finally ordered O'Banion killed. On November 10, 1924, O'Banion was murdered in his North Side flower shop by Yale, John Scalise, and Albert Anselmi. O'Banion's murder sparked a bloody, brutal gangland war between the North Side Gang and the Outfit that eventually chased Torrio out of Chicago.

Assassination Attempt

North Siders Earl "Hymie" Weiss, Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci, and George "Bugs" Moran were determined to avenge O'Banion's murder and almost succeeded on January 24, 1925. Torrio was returning to his apartment at 7106 South Clyde Avenue from a shopping trip with Anna. A hail of gunfire from Weiss and Moran greeted Torrio's car, shattering its glass. Torrio was struck in the jaw, lungs, groin, legs,and abdomen. Moran attempted to deliver the coup de grâce into Torrio's skull, but ran out of ammunition. Drucci signalled that it was time to go, and the three North Siders left the scene. The severely-wounded Torrio managed to survive.

The gang war between the North Side Gang and the Chicago Outfit continued for several more years. The Northsiders, along with Capone, decimated the Genna family and sent the rest of the surviving brothers fleeing. The Northsiders also continued a brutal turf war with Capone - a war that cost both sides friends and buildings and left Capone constantly looking over his shoulder. This war would continue until the St. Valentine's Day Massacremarker, Capone's final attempt to be rid of Moran. The massacre failed and Moran survived. It also turned the government's full attention to Capone and eventually led to his being sent away to prison for tax evasion.


Torrio, having undergone emergency surgery, recovered slowly from the assassination attempt. Capone had men guarding Torrio around the clock to make sure his beloved mentor was safe. Throughout this entire ordeal, Torrio, observing the gangland principle of "omertà" (total silence) never mentioned the names of his assailants. After his release from the hospital, Torrio served a year in jail for Prohibition violations. Throughout his reign as boss of the Chicago mob, Torrio had witnessed the massive increase in violence within organized crime. The near-death experience frightened him badly, and combined with his prison sentence and the increasing difficulty in his work, it persuaded Torrio to retire while he was still alive.Torrio moved away to Italy with his wife and mother, where he no longer dealt directly in mob business. He gave total control of the Outfit to Capone. Saying as he left "It's all yours Al. Me? I'm quittin'. It's Europe for me."

Later years

In the 1930s, Torrio returned to the U.S. to testify in Capone's trial. At that time, he suggested to top New York City-based crime lords such as Lucky Luciano that they create one huge crime syndicate encompassing all the smaller gangs that were constantly at each other's throats. He presented this idea in New York to Luciano, as well as Lepke Buchalter, Longy Zwillman, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky at a four star Park Avenue hotel. (This conference and its attendants were later disclosed by Abe Reles.) His idea was well-received and he was given great respect, as he was considered an "elder statesman" in the world of organized crime. Once Luciano implemented the concept, the National Crime Syndicate was born.

In 1957, he had a heart attack while sitting in a barber's chair waiting for a haircut. Johnny Torrio died several hours later in an oxygen tent at the hospital. The media did not find out about his death until three weeks after his burial.

Further reading

  • McPhaul, Jack. Johnny Torrio: First of the Gang Lords. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1970.
  • Russo, Gus. The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld In the Shaping of Modern America. ISBN 1582342792

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