Thursday, 14 February 2013

Happy Valentine's Day


Flowers, fantasy and fidelity. Seared in blood. St Valentine, just another executed Christian martyr, beatified into sainthood. Roman soldiers in uniform, Chicago Cops in their blue. Most Roman soldiers were mercenaries from parts of the Empire. The two Cops who lined up seven members of the Northside gang under the leadership of George 'Bugs' Moran, were actually gangsters in disguise. It's never been proven who gunned down these seven men spreadeagled against the wall, but it's thought to be a consequence of a bootlegging turf rivalry with the Southside gang under Al Capone.

Capone actually operated his organisation "The Outfit" from Cicero, a town nine miles outside of Chicago and under a different and easily bribed legal jurisdiction. Prohibition fuelled the hired muscle of the politicians turning the tables on their former masters, as they employed the politicians on their payroll, because of the money flowing through the illegal alcohol trade. It was the genie that could never be restoppered, as Organised Crime fostered the development of Las Vegas as the gambling capital of the world; of gangster Lucky Luciano working with the US government and military during the Second World War campaign to invade Sicily; and even the endemic corruption of the playboys' paradise that was President Batista's Cuba, which helped inspire Castro's revolution to overthrow it.

Sometimes unsold flowers in shops are sent to hospitals. Capone came to head The Outfit by protecting Crime Boss Johnny Torrio as he lay wounded in hospital after an assassination attempt by then Northside gang leader Dean O'Banion. Capone ringed the hospital's entrance with armed goons. A grateful Torrio turned his gang over to Capone and got out of organised crime. We mark death with flowers, so the message of flowers for a sick person is somewhat ambiguous. Flowers might signify life, vigour and health, but cut stems soon die soon enough. Severed from their vinculum of life. The one victim of the St Valentine's Day Massacre who didn't die on the spot was Frank Gusenberg. Lying in a hospital bed and being quizzed by the Cops, he answered the question of 'who', with "Nobody shot me" despite the evidence of 14 bullet wounds in his body. That ridiculous denial under the gangster code. He died within three hours for all the good his vow of silence did him.

Dean O'Banion ran his criminal enterprise out of a flower shop. Flowers were very important to the gangsters, be it the lavish wreaths they sent to funerals of both rivals and comrades, or the buttonholes these dandified killers wore in their sharp suits. For every Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, or Samuel "Nails" Morton, there was a Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd or a George "Baby Face" Nelson. Not quite Oscar Wilde's posies and lilies, but none too far removed. O'Banion was an expert flower arranger and was shot while arranging some chrysanthemums. Moran took over from O'Banion.

And with their sharp clothes, highly impractical for hefting illegal alcohol from trucks that had crossed the border from Canada, or their own illegal stills and factories, these hardened men were living a fantasy. Two of the killers in the St Valentine's Day massacre were dressed up in the fancy dress of their other enemy, the Cop. It's not conclusively proven that Thompson "Tommy" sub-machine guns were ever secreted in violin cases or not, but the convergence of clinical hard gun metal with the plush lining to house a musical instrument is part of the fantastical mythology. The only thing not fantastical about the mental life of these men, was when they had a gun in their hand spraying machine engineered death from the barrel. O'Banion refused the offer of stakes in brothels, because he abhorred prostitution. Capone's years in prison were blighted by syphilitic infection which had reached his brain.

Capone was jailed for tax evasion. The St Valentine's Day Massacre didn't kill his rival Moran, but their murderous feud had its wings clipped by the Great Depression which bit into their profits and then the repeal of Prohibition's Volstead Act. Economics was the ultimate arbiter, though of course organised crime continues to this day. And still on economics and the free market, when the garage that had hosted the massacre was finally to come down, the bloodstained bricks of the 'Murder Wall" that the men had been lined up against, were bought by a collector and entrepreneur. After a few different incarnations on display, they are now housed in the Las Vegas Mob Museum, which opened on this day last year. Less the few bought by ghoulish collectors.

So within these tangles of an alternate, male version of St Valentine's Day, we have similar if muddied emblems of the day. We have flowers. We have sexual disease (Valentine's Day - VD). We have fantasy self-images and a warped romantic mythology. Are they any less relevant than Hallmark cards, gnomic poetry from anonymous admirers and confectionary in heart shaped boxes? Happy VD!

1 comment:

Hawksword said...

I wanted to tick the "cynical" box - but you don't have one. So I'll settle for interesting. On the whole I'd prefer a card filled with bad poetry from an anonymous admirer than a bullet... ;-)