Feature Articles

October 2001

The Murder Of Matt Kolb

By John William Tuohy

     Matt Kolb was a 280 pound, potbellied, five foot three inch pioneer in the bootlegging business, having first entered into it in 1919 when he foresaw the coming prohibition.

     Kolb was a ward heeler on the Northside, a political fixer, and big time gambler since 1902. It was Kolb who hired Leo Shaffer to work under him as his assistant. For many years he had been known as the czar of the northwest section of Cook County, being able to fix police problems for gamblers, vice operators and booze runners.

     But Kolb's power waned when Jake Lingle came around because Lingle took Kolb's spot when Russell became chief of police. After that all mention of "MK" in Jake Zuta's files ended and Lingle's initials appeared.

     By 1920 Kolb was in the bootleg beer business with Al Winge, a former Cook County cop, and Martin Guilfoyle. The Winge-Guilfoyle's were known for their toughness. They controlled the distribution of liqueur and beer production on the northwest side by running it through pipes that ran through the sewers into underground breweries.

     By 1923 Matt Kolb, Al Winge and Martin Guilfoyle had reached an understanding with Johnny Torrio. They would roll over a portion of their beer profits to Torrio, they would buy their beer when they needed to buy it, only from Torrio and they would stop trying to underprice Torrio's rot-gut stuff with their own worse brew that was said to be made in massive vats in tunnels that ran under northern Chicago.

     The same agreement was reached a few months before with the Saltis gang, which in that year included Johnny Hanrahan, Ralph Sheldon, and Willie Channel in its membership.

     Newspapers said that Kolb was "formerly" the head of the northwest side beer syndicate that also operated in the northwest portion of the county.

     Kolb, according to Touhy, had "once been tied up with the Capone mob, but the violence scared him away," which probably means that Kolb stayed on with the Guilfoyle gang until after they merged with the Capone organization in mid 1926.

     Newspaper reporters of the day said that when the Guilfolye mob was taken over by the Capone's that Kolb was supposed to work under Jake Guzak but that the two of them quickly grew to despise each other. So when Charles Graydon became sheriff of Cook County in 1927, Kolb who had worked for Graydon in the ice business, moved out to Northern Cook County and then went through the county claiming a relationship with the sheriff. He became an important figure in gambling and beer dispensing privileges and collecting tribute.

     Later Kolb threw his considerable fortune behind Peter B. Hoffman who had been the Cook County coroner and then became county sheriff. Hoffman appointed Charles Graydon, a syndicate puppet, to be sheriff and in turn, Graydon made Michael Hughes, an exiled member of the Chicago police force, boss over the county highway patrol. Graydon permitted slot machines to flourish in the mostly unincorporated towns in the suburbs.

     As Kolb noted, "You can't operate slot machines and gambling unless you have the word to go from the state's attorneys and the sheriff's office. Otherwise you couldn't possibly keep the slot machines up for a day or two."

     Kolb was assigned by Touhy to the sheriff's office and Chief Hughes assigned Kolb to take care of payments to his uniformed patrol.

     When newspapers began snooping around at the large numbers of saloons and gambling joints in the outer county, Touhy would alert Kolb who would alert Hughes who would alert the highway patrol who would tell the saloons to close down for while.

     After Greydon retired, Sheriff William Meyering, a World War One hero came next and said, "I am no reformer nor do I intend to become one."

     By 1926 Kolb owned a third of the Capone-Guilfoyle's $3,000,000 bootleg beer business, but Kolb's primary business was that of a gambler and loan shark.

     Kolb's beer distribution place on California Avenue was a block from Touhy's garage. According to Touhy, he sold Kolb a car and split the commission with him, "a thing all dealers did then to promote sales."

     "Matt came to me a few months later with a proposition. He had a partner, but they weren't getting along. I could buy out the partner for $10,000. Kolb had a reputation of being a top man in beer running and slot machines in our part of the Cook County. He sort of liked the limelight and I didn't mind his having the notoriety. I enjoyed being a quiet family man...Even when the Chicago syndicate murdered name wasn't mentioned prominently in the papers."

     Touhy claimed that when Kolb came to him with the partnership he was making $50,000 to $60,000 from his car business. "But the real money was in alcoholic beverages. Everybody in the racket was getting rich...I drew $10,000 from the bank, handed it to Kolb and said, 'You've got a new partner.' He was a fat gentle old gent who weighed 220 pounds beer belly and all. Anybody who thought all bootleggers were gangsters with machine guns and gun molls had only to meet Matt. He would run away from a ten-year-old kid with a fly swatter."

     In reality, Kolb was an enormously wealthy and ambitious man with deep political connections, both in the outer county and within the city of Chicago itself. He was a shrewd money hungry gambler who foresaw the end of Capone almost a decade before it happened.

     For ten percent of the gross, Kolb took care of political and police corruption for Touhy, Bugs Moran and Jake Zuta, with Zuta paying Kolb a thousand a week in protection money, most of it earmarked for beat cops.

     But after Kolb became Touhy's partner and the gang's business manager and political power house, Kolb dropped Moran as a client and the Capone's took out Zuta on their own.

     Kolb had been partners with Zuta and was once, briefly, with the old Moran-Aiello gang but after Capone had Zuta killed he sent his boys over to the Northside to tell Matt Kolb that he was "out", in other words Kolb's gambling territory now fell under the ownership of Jake Guzak and Kolb would either pay 50% of his gross to Guzak's agent on the far Northside, none other than Rocco De Grazio, Roger Touhy's old business partner.

     Kolb called Touhy and their partnership was on.

     On October 25, 1931, the unbelievable happened. Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison.

     That same day Matt Kolb was killed at his speakeasy gambling club, the Club Morton on the corner of Dempster and Ferris Road.

     Two well dressed men, one was at least six feet tall, suspected to be George Red Barker, the other man, a few inches shorter, believed to be Paul Ricca, slipped out of their car and walked into the club through the back door. Kolb stood in the hallway, smiling, as the two killers walked up to him.

     The two men stopped in front of the club's gigantic roulette wheel that took up most of the hall. One of the men said, "Hello Matt" as Kolb reached out to shake hands. The taller man grabbed Kolb's hand and arm tightly as the shorter man reached inside of his overcoat, pulled out an automatic and poured the six shots into the little fat man. After the killers started to leave, the taller man said, "I better make sure," and returned and fired one more shot into Kolb's head, the round picking up the dead man's skull and bouncing it off the floor.

     The newspapers speculated that Kolb was killed for refusing to contribute to Capone's defense fund or for refusing to appear as a witness for Capone by testifying that Capone had lost large sums of money to him in gambling debts, thus relieving Capone of a tax burden.

     Others said that Capone tried to muscle in on Kolb's gambling concessions at the Morton Inn but Kolb had refused.

     It was more likely, said the Chicago police, that Ricca ordered the killing because Touhy-Kolb started to move in on Capone's gambling base as soon as Capone went on trial and Kolb was said to have sent in his own enforcers to try and regain some of the beer territory he had lost to Capone over the past several months.

     Word in the underworld was that Kolb was a dead man as far back as the winter of 1931 but the mob waited to kill Kolb until the end of the beer-selling season so as not to affect business and Touhy would be in Florida so retribution would be slow in coming, or maybe by the time Touhy returned to Chicago, sometime in April or May, the whole thing would have just blown over.

     But they were wrong. After Kolb was killed a fierce battle raged in the streets of Chicago and the dirt roads of northwestern Cook County.

     The Morton Grove substation for the Cook County Highway Patrol was only three and a half minutes away from Kolb's club. A call came into Lt. James Meyering at 1:50, the caller said that there had been a problem at the club. A few minutes later another call came in saying the place was being robbed. Lt. Meyering rushed to the road house to find Kolb's body still sprawled out on the floor.

     The waiters, Emanuel Gonzales, Jack Smalloy and Frank Francis, and Kolb's sister, said they hadn't see anything, they just heard the shots. Only William Mardorf would say that he got a full view of the killers but that he had never seen them before.

     The Cook County Highway Patrol told the press that they were "shocked to learn that there was gambling going on in Kolb's place." Lt. Meyering said: "About two weeks before they got him, Kolb called the station and said that four men in a car were circling his place. I went there and I watched but the men were gone. I questioned Kolb. He was nervous but he claimed he didn't know why anyone would try to harm him. He thought they were going to rob him he told me."

     The cops hauled in the usual suspects, James Belcastro, Dominick Brancato and Dominick Bello for questioning in the killing but to this day, there has never been any hint as to the identities of the killers.

     Three days after Matt Kolb was killed, Capone somehow got to a phone in the Cook County jail and called Tommy Touhy and told him that he was sorry to hear that Kolb was dead and that the way he heard the story, the whole thing happened over a drunken brawl. "I'm terribly sorry," Capone told Tommy. "There was a drunken caper and Matt got killed. I couldn't feel worse. I always liked Matt. I'm sending a hundred dollar wreath to the funeral."

     Capone did send the $100 horseshoe floral wreath to Kolb's funeral, which Roger Touhy tossed in the trash behind the funeral home.

     "All I could do," Touhy said, "was to give Matt a decent burial...The Chicago syndicate had erased Matt Kolb and I figured they would be out to eliminate me next."

     Kolb's demise was a major setback for Touhy since Kolb had no problems with taking the limelight, in fact, he adored the attention that being a gangster brought to him.

     Another problem was that with Kolb gone, vast amounts of Touhy's political protection went with him. Kolb knew who got what and how much of it they got. With Kolb dead and his blackmail records disappeared, the price for political protection went through the roof.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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