Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Frank McErlane - Chicago’s “Murder Machine”
By Allan May
According to the Illinois Crime Survey, Frank McErlane was “the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago.” Alleged to have murdered at least nine men, a woman and two dogs, McErlane was credited with introducing the Thompson sub-machinegun to Chicago’s bloody bootleg wars. In the end, it wouldn’t be a bullet that brought about the demise of this vicious killer, but rather a fatal case of pneumonia.
What little is known of McErlane’s background comes from his rap sheet; the first entry appearing in 1911. In June 1913, he was sent to Pontiac Prison after he was convicted of being part of an automobile theft ring. Paroled in March 1916, eight months later he would be arrested for accessory to murder in the death of an Oak Park police officer. He served just one year in Joliet for this. Several newspaper articles refer to McErlane taking part in an escape from the county jail in 1918. Other than calling it “sensational,” no details are given except that McErlane spent another two years in Joliet for it.
Robert J. Schoenberg, author of Mr. Capone, gives us this description of the killer:
“Frank McErlane, despite his habitual glower, looked to one reporter like a ‘butter and egg man,’ a portly five-foot-eight and 190 pounds, with blue eyes, a rosary ever-present in his pocket. But his face habitually glowed a choleric red, and when drunk (also habitual) his eyes would glaze over, at which sign his closest friends edged for the door.”
The relative calm during the early years of Prohibition in Chicago would be shattered by the “great Beer War” of 1923. Crafty Johnny Torrio had helped divide Chicago and surrounding towns into different territories. The Torrio-Capone mob had control of almost the entire South and South-West areas of the city, which extended down to Calumet City and Burnham, near the Indiana border, and west over to Stickney and Cicero. Within this area, control was distributed to eight independent gangs, which operated in a loose confederation with one-another. The speakeasies controlled by these gangs were supplied with beer from Torrio’s breweries.
In addition to these eight satellites working with Torrio-Capone, there was another territory operated by Joe “Polack” Saltis and Frank McErlane. The Saltis - McErlane territory was the farthest south that a gang operated within that was not being supplied by Torrio. Saltis supplied his speakeasies from his own breweries.
Left out of this division of territories were four brothers who were dubbed the South Side O’Donnells – Edward (known as Spike), Steven, Tommy and Walter – as to distinguish them from the West Side O’Donnells – Klondike and Myles. The two families were not related. The strength of the South Side bunch came from their leader, Spike, who up until 1923 was serving time for a bank robbery. When released, Spike returned to Chicago and began to muscle in on the tremendous profits being made in bootlegging.
O’Donnell’s first move was to supply a better product at a lower price than Torrio’s beer. Wanting to maintain peace, Torrio dropped the price of his beer to a level Spike couldn’t match. So O’Donnell gathered his brothers and strong-arm associates and began to threaten the saloon owners on the South Side into purchasing his beer at the higher price. (A good visual to this practice is portrayed by George Siegel in the opening minutes of the movie the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.) The O’Donnell’s first forays were into the speakeasies controlled by Saltis-McErlane and those of the Ralph Sheldon gang, whose territories abutted each other. Although the members of these two neighboring gangs despised each other, they were soon united in a common cause to repel the efforts of the South Side brothers.
On September 7, 1923, the Beer War began. Early that evening Steven, Tommy, and Walter O’Donnell, along with gang toughs George Bucher, George Meeghan, and Jerry O’Connor, invaded the saloon of Jacob Geis, a Saltis-McErlane customer. A few days before, Geis had refused to purchase beer from a representative of the South Side bunch. On this rainy Friday night, the hoods returned to the saloon. In front of six customers they argued with Geis about whom he was going to make his future beer purchases from. Geis would not give in and gang members pulled him over the bar by his head and beat him unmercifully with a blackjack, or revolvers depending on the story, or perhaps both. Whatever they beat Geis with they fractured his skull injuring him to the extent that when he arrived at German Deaconess Hospital, doctors were quite sure he would die. However, the tough saloonkeeper pulled through. Also beaten and hospitalized that night was bartender Nicholas Gorysko who attempted to intercede in the attack.
After this the O’Donnell gang made an estimated five more “saloon calls” before arriving at Joseph Klepka’s saloon at Fifty-third and South Lincoln Street. This was a regular hangout for the gang and they were met there by Spike for beers and sandwiches. At about 11:00 p.m., Ralph Sheldon, Daniel McFall and two other hoods walked into Klepkas’ with guns drawn and confronted the group. One of the O’Donnell’s reportedly pleaded, “Now give us a square deal. Come outside and fight it out.”
McFall, reported to be a deputy sheriff and at other times a bailiff, was armed with a .38 and called out, “Stick up you hands or I’ll blow you to hell.” He then sent a warning shot screaming over Walter’s head, which caused the gang to scatter for the exits at the side and rear. All but Jerry O’Connor escaped. O’Connor, out on parole after having been sentenced to life in Joliet prison, was stopped by McFall who then ordered him out of the saloon.
Standing outside of Klepka’s was Frank McErlane. Wearing a long gray raincoat under which he allegedly carried a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun, the puffy faced killer waited for O’Connor to step out. Although the newspapers reported that O’Connor was shot through the heart with a rifle, Capone biographers and historians claim that McErlane pointed his shotgun at the defenseless man’s face and blew away half of his head. After the shooting, O’Connor was dragged to the home of a doctor and deposited on his front steps.
This murderous warning to Spike and his gang to stop their muscling efforts went unheeded. On September 17, the tag team of McErlane and McFall struck again. This time the targets were the two Georges – Bucher and Meeghan – as the two men headed home for supper in a Ford roadster. While stopped near Laflin and Garfield Blvd. a green touring car driven by Thomas Hoban, and containing McErlane and McFall, pulled alongside. Suddenly guns were extended from the touring car and they blazed away killing Bucher and Meeghan instantly. The first physician on the scene was Dr. Charles Gartin, who resided on Garfield Blvd. and was the Meeghan’s family doctor. Ironically, ten days earlier, it was his doorstep that the dead or dying O’Connor had been left at, most likely left there by Meeghan.
Two days after the murders an assistant state’s attorney was questioning George Bucher’s older brother Joseph. The brother claimed he was the actual target of the killers because he had, “daily for the last three months driven a covered wagon containing twenty barrels of beer for Walter O’Donnell.” In a confession which clearly showed the vernacular of the times Bucher stated:
“Every bozo in this town wants to guzzle a glass of real beer without hearing the angels sing, but it’s the poor gink who runs the stuff that gets the bullet through his noodle. Me? I’m through. I wouldn’t peddle orange pop at a Sunday school picnic.”
This sudden rash of killings caused a momentary crackdown by the police as well as a newspaper outburst. The police response caused a lull in the killings until December 1, 1923. Around 1:30 a.m. two O’Donnell beer trucks were on their way from a Joliet brewery to Chicago. As the trucks rolled past the village of Lemont, two automobiles pulled alongside and forced the trucks off the road. McErlane and William Channell, who was once convicted of killing a woman and was now out on parole, ordered the occupants of one of the trucks, William “Shorty” Egan and Thomas “Morrie” Keane out and onto the road. The two men were then bound and tossed into the back seat of the car and McErlane and Channell drove off. From this incident we get an eyewitness account of the first victim ever taken for a one-way ride who lived to tell about it. In Capone by John Kobler, we hear the gut-wrenching, cold-blooded tale from survivor “Shorty” Egan:
“Pretty soon the driver asks the guy with the shotgun, ‘Where you gonna get rid of these guys?’ The fat fellow laughs and says, ‘I’ll take care of that in a minute.’ He was monkeying with his shotgun all the time. Pretty soon he turns around and points the gun at Keane. He didn’t say a word but just let go straight at him. Keane got it square on the left side. It kind of turned him over and the fat guy give him the second barrel in the other side. The guy loads up his gun and gives it to Keane again. Then he turns to me and says, ‘I guess you might as well get yours too.’ With that he shoots me in the side. It hurt like hell so when I seen him loading up again, I twist around so it won’t hurt me in the same place. This time he got me in the leg. Then he gimme the other barrel right on the puss. I slide off the seat. But I guess the fat guy wasn’t sure we was through. He let Morrie have it twice more and then let me have it again in the other side. The fat guy scrambled into the rear seat and grabbed Keane. He opens the door and kicks Morrie out onto the road. We was doing 50 from the sound. I figure I’m next so when he drags me over to the door I set myself to jump. He shoves and I light in the ditch by the road. I hit the ground on my shoulders and I thought I would never stop rolling. I lost consciousness. When my senses came back, I was lying in a pool of water and ice had formed around me. The sky was red and it was breaking day. I staggered along the road until I saw a light in a farmhouse…”
At the hospital Egan would identify Channell through a mug shot. Later a garage attendant identified both Channell and McErlane after the shot up murder vehicle was worked on. Schoenberg writes that, “The state’s attorney arrested McErlane, held him for a while in the Hotel Sherman, then released him. Finally indicted, he walked when State’s Attorney Crowe entered a nolle prosequi for want of witnesses.” This undoubtedly was the result of Egan and the garage attendant recanting their stories out of fear for their lives.
After continued pressure from State’s Attorney Robert E. Crowe, a grand jury indicted McFall for the murder of O’Connor. Since McFall was carrying a .38 and O’Connor was killed by a shotgun blast, the case was dismissed. McErlane, McFall and Hoban were then indicted for the murders of Meeghan and Bucher. Part of McErlane’s legal work in the case was handled by famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Charges would soon be dropped.
Spike and his brothers backed down, for the moment, and the Beer War of 1923 came to a close. Hostilities between the allied Saltis-McErlane / Ralph Sheldon gang and the South Side O’Donnells, would lay dormant for a year. However, this didn’t mean that the vicious McErlane went into hibernation. With things quiet on the South Side of Chicago, McErlane was next heard from in Los Angeles on November 28, where he was involved in a “hi-jacking” foray. In addition, he was held there for a time for his involvement in a shooting and an assault.
On May 4, 1924 McErlane would commit a senseless brutal crime that would highlight his reputation as a homicidal maniac when drinking. McErlane was in a bar in Crown Point, Indiana drinking heavily with two equally inebriated companions – John O’Reilly and Alex McCabe. When one of the men challenged him to prove his shooting prowess, McErlane pulled out his revolver and took aim at Thaddeus S. Fancher, a local attorney having a drink at the end of the bar. McErlane sent a bullet crashing into the skull of Fancher killing him instantly. O’Reilly and McCabe were quickly apprehended, while McErlane high-tailed it back to Chicago. O’Reilly was convicted for his role in the shooting and was sentenced to life in prison. McCabe was also convicted, but after an appeal he won his release after a key witness was murdered.
By the spring of 1925, Spike had added re-enforcements to his gang and was ready for another round of mayhem. There would now be a three-way battle going on as the fragile peace that existed between Saltis – McErlane and the Sheldon gang suddenly turned into open warfare. Most of the hostilities were carried out by the Saltis – McErlane forces. In July 1925, George “Big Bates” Karl was murdered. The following month William Dickman was killed. In September, an attempt was made to eliminate Spike. Eight days later, on October 4, Sheldon’s headquarters, the Ragen Colts Club House was shot up and one “hanger-on” was killed. This was followed nine days later by the murder of Sheldon associate Ed Lattyak. In each of these incidents McErlane was a prime suspect.
In the attack on Spike back on the night of September 25, 1925, O’Donnell and a Chicago police officer named Reed were carrying on a conversation in front of a drug store at Sixty-third Street and Western Avenue. Suddenly a car containing four men appeared and one of the occupants called out, “Hello, Spike.”
Here again we get conflicting stories between the newspapers and Capone biographers. Historians claim that McErlane blasted away at O’Donnell with a Thompson sub-machinegun making this the first time the deadly weapon was used in Chicago gang warfare. Incredibly, the Chicago Tribune’s front-page story states, “Four shotguns were leveled at him (McErlane). He and Reed fell to the sidewalk and the charges of small shot passed harmlessly over them and into the windows of the drug store. Witnesses said each man in the car fired two cartridges.”
It’s possible the confusion may be with an incident that happened just five months later on February 10, 1926. This time newspaper headlines screamed, “MACHINE GUN GANG SHOOTS 2,” confirming that a machinegun was used to shoot up the saloon of Martin “Buff” Costello, wounding two men inside including John “Mitters” Foley. McErlane reputedly led the attack. After the shooting, Robert J Schoenberg writes, “The effectiveness of this attack made Detective Captain John Stege announce next day that he wanted some of those Thompsons for his own boys.” He then states that Capone was “equally impressed,” and ordered a supply for himself.
As if the open warfare was not enough action for McErlane, he and his brother Vincent pulled a robbery in October at the International Harvester Company, killing a man in the process. Before the month was over there was another attempt to kill Spike (there were ten attempts on Spike’s life, all unsuccessful. He died at the ripe old age of 72 in 1962), and another O’Donnell man, Pasquale Tolizotte, was murdered. Before 1925 came to a close, Joe Saltis was wounded by the O’Donnell gang, and in retaliation “Dynamite Joe” Brooks and Edward Harmening were left lifeless in the back seat of a car.
To be continued next week.
Copyright A. R. May 2000