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Chicago Beer Wars of 1923

Chicago Beer Wars of 1923: In the beginning of 1923, Chicago’s beer routes were divvied into territories. The Torrio mob had control of almost the entire South and South-West areas of the city, which included the towns of Calumet City and Burnham, near the Indiana border, as well as suburban Stickney and Cicero.
   Within the Torrio areas, there were eight independent gangs that operated in a loose confederation under the Torrio flag. To be under the Torrio flag, the gangs agreed to sell only Torrio made beer.     Not part of the make up were the South Side O'Donnell brothers, Edward (known as Spike), Steven, Tommy and Walter (as to be distinguished from the West Side O'Donnells - Klondike and Myles. The two families were not related.)
   The O'Donnell's supplied a better product at a lower price than Torrio's beer rot gut product, forcing Torrio and his allies to drop the price of their beer to a level the O’Donnell’s couldn't match. As a result, Spike O’Donnell, the gang’s leader, and his brothers started to strong arm saloon owners on the South Side into purchasing his beer at the higher price, choosing the territory run by The dangerous Saltis-McErlane and the Ralph Sheldon gang.
   The South Side O'Donnells imported several thugs from New York led by a killer named Harry Hasmiller. Now properly beefed up they began hijacking Torrio's beer trucks and pushing their own booze in Torrio's territory and the territory controlled by the murders Saltis-McErlane mob.
    The O'Donnells brought in George "George the sport" Bucher and George Meeghan as their salesmen for their beer. The sales pitch was dreamed up by Spike O’Donnell himself and was soon in use by every gang in Chicago. The pitch consisted of Meeghan and Bucher walking into a salon and telling the bar owner that from there on in he would be purchasing his beer from the O'Donnell gang. If they refused, they bombed the place and then offered the money to rebuild the joint, in so long as they sold only O'Donnell beer.
    Spike O'Donnell lowered the price of his beer and made deep in roads into Saltis-McErlane territory. By this time, the insane Saltis and McErlane had entered into a permanent working relationship with the growing Torrio organization.
    The Torrio organization, under the Saltis McErlane flag struck back against the upstart O'Donnells.  It was raining in Chicago on September 7 when the O'Donnell brothers, Steve, Walter, and Tommy accompanied by their best gunners Bucher, Meeghan and Jerry O'Connor made a second visit to Jacob Geis speakeasy at
2154 West Fifty First Street
.
    When two of the O'Donnells had shown up at the salon earlier in the week to demand that Geis buy O'Donnell beer, Jacob Geis and his bar tender Nick Gorysko, threw them out on their butts.  This time the O'Donnells arrived in force, in front of at least twenty witnesses dragged the salon keeper across the bar face first and black jacked him, cracking his skull. When Gorysko the bar tender tried to save his boss, they beat him half to death as well.  Now boiling for another fight, the O'Donnells busted up five more salons in their territory that were buying Torrio beer eventually working their way over to one of their own salons, Joe Klepka's place on
South Lincoln Street
where Spike O'Donnell joined up with his gang.
    Following the O'Donnells through the doors was a red faced McErlane carrying a shot gun and backed up by four of his best gorillas led by Danny McFall and a former leader in Ragen’s colts.   McFall fired off a shot in the air and screamed "stick em up" and then placed his gun to Jerry O’Connor’s head as the other O'Donnells dived for cover.
    McErlane whispered something to McFall and then slipped out the door on to the sidewalk. McFall followed with Jerry O'Connor held at gunpoint. Once outside, McErlane turned and fired both barrels into O'Connor’s face, taking it off.   On September 17, O'Donnell gang members Bucher and Meeghan were driving two truck loads of beer to their stops when two masked men, probably Danny McFall and McErlane again, leaped out on to the road and halted the O'Donnells trucks forcing Bucher and Meeghan out of the cabs. As they were about to kill them both, a car approaching from the opposite direction caught them in the headlights. Shots were fired at the car as it sped by.
   The next morning Police found Bucher and Meeghans bodies in a ditch, their arms tied behind their backs, their head full of bullet holes.        
    McErlane and Walter Stevens (1867-1939) caught up with two more O’Donnell gang, William Shorty Egan and Morrie Keane as they were delivering O'Donnell booze. The two gunners were tied up and taken for a ride. In the back seat of the car, McErlane shot Keane in the head and then fired a blast into Egan, who lived, and tossed both of them out of the car. 
   Al Capone, still a new face in town, was spotted at several of the murders but was never tied in to the killings directly. Frustrated Spike O'Donnell said "I can whip this bird Capone with bare fists anytime he wants to step out in the open and fight like a man"
  But an honest fight was never to Capone's taste.
   The police locked up McErlane for the Morrie Keene killing, but States Attorney Robert E. Crowe reduced jail term until trial to house arrest at the Sherman Hotel and then, when Torrio thought that the O’Donnells had cooled off some, ordered McErlane's unconditional release.   The Chicago public went wild and called for Crowe's resignation, so to shut them up and make the obvious less obvious, Crowe sought a grand jury indictment for McErlane, and later one for his top gunner Danny McFall for the Keane and Meeghan murders. An assistant States Attorney later dropped the cases.  A few days after the Morrie Keane killing, they killed another O'Donnell gunner named Phil Corrigan as he made a beer run. Then they got Walter O'Donnell and his imported New York gunman Harry Hasmiller in a running gun battle.
   The war of the O'Donnells and the Torrio organization went on until 1925. On September 25 1925, almost two full years after the war had begun; McErlane introduced the Tommy gun to underworld murder when he pulled off a drive by shooting against spike O'Donnell as he loitered on the corner of Sixty Third and Western Avenues. McErlane, unfamiliar with the power of the violate weapon, missed every shot.
   McErlane and his Tommy gun were back a month later to shot up Spike's car and wound brother Tommy who made the mistake of sitting in the automobile when
McErlane filled it full of holes.  That was enough for Spike O'Donnell. One of his brothers was dead and Frankie McErlane had personally killed five of his men. After having been shot at ten times and hit twice he quite the gang wars and left Chicago for two years "Life with me is just one bullet after another one, I've been shot at and missed so often, I've a notion to hire out as a professional target" 
   Frankie McErlane "the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago."   Frankie bragged that he murdered at least nine men, a woman and two dogs and is credited with introducing the Thompson sub-machine gun to Chicago's bootleg wars.
    McErlane's first arrest came 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. Sent to Joliet prison, he escaped in 1918, but still served less than three years for the murder.
  On May 4, 1924 McErlane was in a bar in Crown Point, Indiana drinking heavily with- 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 and fired a single bullet through the front of his head, killing him.
   On January 28, 1930, McErlane was rushed to the hospital, after being shot in the right leg, above the knee, shattering the bone.
     Officers who interviewed him in the emergency room didn't recognize McErlane (who was using the name Charles Miller) McErlane said that the shooting was an accident, the gun went off when he was cleaning it, a story that his common law wife, Marion Miller, backed up. Some historians hold that in fact it was Marion who fired the shoots; although it’s more likely the bullets came John "Dingbat" OBerta.
    Several nights later, McErlane was still in the hospital recovering; his leg in a plaster cast, hung in the air supported by weights and pulleys.
 At around 10:30, two gunmen, probably Dingbat OBerta and Sam Malaga stood in the doorway and fired several shot at McErlane who was ready for them. He reached under his pillow where he had two loaded pistols ready and returned fire. McErlane was hit in the chest, left groin, and left wrist and the gunmen escaped, leaving behind a .45 automatic dropped which was later traced to Malaga.
   McErlane refused to identify the gunmen telling the police “Look for 'em in a ditch. That's where you'll find 'em. They were a bunch of cheap rats, using pistols. I'll use something better. McErlane takes care of McErlane."
  Captain John Stege ordered McErlane to be transported to Bridewell a prison hospital where police could guard him "They'll kill me if you take me out to the Bridewell." McErlane screamed.
   Nine days after the hospital shoot out, Dingbat OBerta and Sam Malaga, were found dead just outside the city limits, OBerta was found on the front seat of his car on the passenger side, leaning against the door, most of the top of his head gone. Malaga's body was found lying face up in an ice filled ditch. The killer had been in the car and fired from the back seat.  OBerta's wife was the widow of labor racketeer, Big Tim Murphy who was murdered in June of 1928. She had Dingbat buried beside Murphy in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, each with a rosary in their hand.
     On September 7, 1923, the Great Chicago Beer Wars began. That evening Steven, Tommy, and Walter O'Donnell, along with gangster George Bucher, George Meeghan, and Jerry O'Connor, pushed their way into a saloon run by Jacob Geis, a loyal Saltis-McErlane customer. Geis refused to carry the O’Donnells beer and was beaten senseless as a result. The brothers then made five more forays into Saltis-McErlane salon and repeated the process. It ended in a gunfight in which Jerry O'Connor, an O’Donnell gunman was killed.
   On September 17, McErlane responded by murdering two of O’Donnells men, Georges Bucher and George Meeghan. After that the O’Donnells backed down and the war drew to a close until the following year, 1925.
   Spike O'Donnell hired a few dozen gunmen and resumed his battle with the Mob. At the same time, the Saltis-McErlane gang went to war with its neighbor, the Sheldon gang. The war spilled into 1926 until the gangs called for a peace summit to be held at the Hotel Sherman on October 20. A general peace was declared and for a brief time, the shooting stopped.
    War broke out again on December 30, 1926 when Saltis gunmen killed Hilary Clements, a member of Ralph Sheldon's gang. The war eventfully ended with the near decimation of the Brother O’Donnell.
     McErlane's heavy drinking and his unbalanced mental state came to a head one night in September 1931, when he was found staggering drunk on 78th and Crandon Avenue, flooding the street with machine gun fire, screaming "Their after me1 Don't you see them? They're laughing at me!"    A month later, on October 8, McErlane and Marion Miller were both drunk and arguing in McErlane's car when, once again, Marion, pulled a gun and fired at least one shot at McErlane but missed him. McErlane shot her dead and her two dogs as well, leaving them in the cars back seat.   McErlane, with at least $250,000 in cash, escaped to a houseboat on the Illinois River in Beardstown, Illinois, 200 miles southwest of Chicago.  Almost exactly a year later, in October of 1932, McErlane was admitted to the Hospital in Beardstown with pneumonia. He lapsed into delirium. It took four hospital attendants to hold him down. He died on October 8, 1932, one year to the day after he murdered his wife.