Friday, July 15, 2016

Review: Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious "Enforcer"

Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious "Enforcer" by Ronald D. Humble
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I generally know enough to avoid second-rate mob books. If you’ve ever been to my home and seen the floor-to-ceiling collection I have of books on Chicago and Jewish organized crime, you’d know I know the material pretty well, well enough to know what not to read at least.

Humble’s book threw me, though. He makes two big claims and a couple of smaller ones that, if he had evidence for, would really be game-changers.

For starters, he goes for the paradigm-shifting assertion that Frank Nitti was the key man in the Chicago Outfit. The “paradigm,” even after all these years, is that Al Capone led the show in the important years. By the early 1960s, when Bobby Kennedy’s crusade against the mob brought the whole business fully mainstream, there were already claims that the credit (blame?) should have gone to Johnny Torrio. A few years later, when it became clear that the Outfit was still humming along, some people put forward the idea that Tony Accardo was a mover and shaker earlier than the public record suggested. A few years after that, there was a movement for Paul Ricca, with claims that he’d have been “the genuine godfather” (as Bill Roemer called Accardo) but for the accident of getting arrested when he did.

So, Humble goes here for the one remaining big shot no one has really put forward for such honor (dishonor). (To be far, Mars Egheghian has looked hard at Nitti, but he’s made a more thoughtful and less dramatic claim for Nitti’s importance. He isn’t trying to claim that Nitti really overshadowed Capone; he’s trying to tell the history of a key figure who’s generally been overshadowed.)

And the evidence is thin. There are dozens of pages of references, which is good, but few of those references are full or even to substantial sources. There’s a lot of cherry-picking here: a selection of evidence that affirms Nitti’s far-sighted criminal planning, and then a range of unsubstantiated claims. Nitti was the guy behind the Hymie Weiss. Nitti was the real brains behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Nitti was the one who saw how to lead the mob out of its Prohibition dependence on illegal booze.

Each of those elements is questionable. Dozens of better-informed historians have tried to solve the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and few have ever put Nitti at the heart of it. But even so, that pillar of evidence would be what deserves attention, not the conclusion Humble tries to draw from it.

Humble’s second big claim is, taking the widely discussed but generally dismissed claim that Giuseppe Zangara deliberately shot Anton Cermak when he seemed to be aiming at FDR, he asserts that future Outfit triggerman Davey Yaras was the brains behind the assassination.

I’m not sure where to start with all that. I’ve been working on a book project involving Yaras (who, weirdly, is buried 20 yards from my grandmother) for several years, so I know what’s out there on him. How Humble can claim that a 21 year old kid, who was, apparently, still working as a boxer, could have been involved in a vast and successful conspiracy, is beyond me. And how, given the thin-ness of that claim, he could then go on to quibble with the Warren Commission’s findings and insist that Yaras was central to the JFK assassination is simply mind-boggling.

It’s conspiracy-theory work of the kind that gives this whole genre a bad name.

Early on, when I suspected problems, I started noting some of the factual errors here. For the sake of posterity, here are some of them:

+ New York’s Paul Kelly, of Five Points Gang fame, was not Irish but rather very much Italian.

+ Tony Accardo was not locked up in the Cook County Prison, as Humble tells on page 11. Rather, as Humble tells us on page 50, Accardo famously never spent a night in jail.

+ North Side gang leaders Bugs Moran (French-Canadian) and Teddy Newberry (Jewish) were not Irish.

+ There is no evidence that policeman Harry Miller (yeah, one of my relatives) was linked to narcotics trafficking. To be sure, I followed Humble’s one reference on the subject to George Murray’s old book. Murray says nothing about narcotics, and Humble gives no other source.

So, yeah, skip this one. With any luck, I’ll have one of my own out in the next four or five years. Without that luck, you can still find a great many much better takes on Chicago and Prohibition. It’s a long list.

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