St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Lessons in Love & Violence

The Valentine’s Day Massacre was a grizzly event on a day more renowned for risibly lame humour – just don’t go mocking the togs though…

Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, Cook County Coroner, and six unidentified men standing in Chicago, 1929. The men are part of a coroners jury in the case of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. (Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Valentine’s Day has served as a dress rehearsal for April Fool’s Day six weeks later ever since some third century Roman theologist decreed that the patron saint of beekeepers, plague and epilepsy should broaden his holy remit and take on love and romance too. This set the tone for a modern era in which rubber spiders and empty ring boxes are in short supply come February 12th, and Middle Eastern restaurants have to stock up on aubergine and lamb, just to facilitate what is surely the most preposterously lame dad-joke in history.

And talking of “Valentine’s Day Moussaka”, and its place in the canon of ritualistic annual tomfoolery, witnessing four dashing men erroneously dressed as police officers in Chicago city centre on February 14th1929, one would have been forgiven for assuming they were off to wield their weaponry, so to speak, at a ladies-only Valentine’s Day singles fest. So it must have seemed like a prank far more macabre than tradition dictates when this quartet of faux-cops entered the Lincoln Park garage in which George “Bugs” Moran hid the kind of firewater that you could run a lawnmower with, lined up five gang members and two friends (an optometrist and a mechanic) against a wall, took their machine guns from under their overcoats and let rip. More than 160 machine gun casings peppered the scene in the aftermath.

Bugs and his cronies’ crime? Al Capone was in Florida at the time, and later claimed he had nothing to do with it. The incident certainly had nothing to do with the subsequent jail sentences that terminated Capone’s reign as Chicago organised crime’s head honcho: but given Capone and Moran’s ongoing beefs over control of the city’s lucrative bootlegging trade it’s widely assumed that the fingerprints of the most notorious American gangster in history were, in a figurative sense, all over the scene.

The massacre prompted the public to take a break from lamenting the absence of rubber spiders and Middle-Eastern restaurants in late 1920s Chicago, and instead absorb, in horror, the gruesome photos of the massacre which appeared in newsprint. Laws against machine guns and short-barrelled shotguns were introduced by Roosevelt five years later; today, the incident still enjoys near mythic status – after all, revenge-based extermination is not just perfectly acceptable but there to be mythologised, as long as it happened in the past and all protagonists involved were pathologically genocidal but loved their dear ole’ nans.

Published

February 2020

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