Mobster Al Capone was released from federal prison 75 years ago and sent home to Chicago. He was 40 years old and in bad health, mentally and physically, because of advanced syphilis; he refused treatment because he didn’t trust people with needles.
That’s how Johnny Three Knives recounts it, and he’ll tell a lot more if you follow the Sicilian code of conduct. The wheelman, a guy named Nails, adds a scowl of agreement.
Taking a ride with these two, or their cohorts, spells trouble as in murder, extortion, bribes and bootlegging. You will pay to make them talk, and you are at their mercy as they screech into some of the darker moments of Chicago history.
What Nails (Tom Schergen, retired after 33 years as a firefighter) and Johnny (Jay Donley, a professional actor) do – sometimes three times a day – is take visitors by the busload on a two-hour tour of their city’s more notable gangster crime sites.
Al Capone is among the crooks who left a legacy of crime and still fascinate people today. It was long taboo to bring up their resumé, but the passage of time – and Hollywood glamorization through movies like “The Untouchables” and “Public Enemies” – changed that.
Gangster tours organized by Don and Cindy Fielding and her brother, Craig Alton, began in 1987, a few months after they helped launch a gangster-themed dinner theater in Chicago.
One customer was Al Capone’s driver for a night. Another was grateful for free coal that the gangster delivered in winter. The tales went on and on.
“It seemed like every person walking out the door had a story,” Craig recalls. “We knew this was going to be a lot bigger than we thought. We saw an opportunity.”
Then came international visitors. “Say ‘Chicago – bang, bang!’ and people in China know what you’re talking about, but they found no place to learn more here,” Craig says.
Adds his sister: “I think all the gangsters have been gone long enough. I don’t think anybody’s going to kill us because of what we have to say about them.”
The book “Untouchable Chicago: A Ride Through Prohibition” is a result of her husband’s historical research. Exactly what you learn depends on the day and guide.
“We have a basic plan of history that needs to be covered during our tours,” Craig says, but each of the company’s six guides adds tales of personal interest.
Tour routes vary, too, depending upon traffic and other circumstances – like the recent installation of a new archbishop at Holy Name Cathedral. That rerouted Loop traffic for a while and meant not seeing the church’s bulletholes from the 1924 O’Banion Handshake Murder.
Five years later and just two miles north, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre riddled bullets into seven others, but a lot more bloodshed and shady deals are part of this era.
A ticket for Chicago’s Original Gangster Tour costs $31.50, and reservations are advised. Private group tours are possible. gangstertour.com, 773-881-1195
Tommy Gun’s Garage, 2114 S. Wabash Ave., is an interactive dinner theater with a gangster theme. Shows began in 1987, with the help of the Fieldings, but they no longer are involved. Admission is $60-70, depending upon day of week, which includes a meal but not hootch. tommygunsgarage.com, 312-225-0273
The Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel, 636 S. Michigan Ave., offers the “Good to be a Gangster” package through March 15, 2015. Prices start at $224 per room and include lodging, two gangster tour tickets and a Sangria cocktail at Mercat a la Planxa (a Spanish tapas restaurant) for each registered guest.
The 1910 hotel closed in 1999, after the Beatles’ spiritual guru Maharishi Yogi tried unsuccessfully to turn the building into condos. The hotel reopened seven years later, after $128 million in restoration and modernization work.
The Blackstone counts Al Capone among its fans; he often got haircuts at the hotel barbershop because the room had no exterior windows. The mob boss also hid alcohol at the hotel during Prohibition, and a hidden stairway helped him avoid police raids.
Historians say the hotel’s secret passageways also were helpful during visits by 12 U.S. presidents (Teddy Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter). Top accommodations are two three-room units: the Suite of Presidents (where President Kennedy got word about the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the Smoke Filled Room (where cigar-smoking Republicans nominated Warren Harding for president in 1920).
The hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, site of Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s fateful national crime syndicate meeting, also shows up in the 1987 movie “The Untouchables.” “Color of Money” filming happened here, too; look for the 1986 movie’s pool table – a gift from Paul Newman –in the lobby.
For more about The Blackstone, which is on the National Register of Historic Places: blackstonerenaissance.com, 312-447-0955.
Just down the block is Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave., where local and nationally known musicians play the blues daily. The restaurant-nightclub opened 25 years ago; how much you pay depends on when you visit. Acoustic sets during lunch and dinner are free; other shows might be standing room only and cost $20 to attend. buddyguy.com, 312-427-1190