“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Today is the 85th anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Generally assumed to be directed by Al Capone, no one was ever convicted of the crime of killing 7 people in broad daylight with witnesses present.

The crime itself was brilliantly executed.  Two men in police uniforms carrying shotguns entered a garage/warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side used by George “Bugs” Moran, leader of the North Side Gang.  Thinking it a routine shakedown by the police, 7 men lined up against a wall when two more men dressed in business attire and overcoats entered the garage and opened up with Thompson submachine guns.  Horrified witnesses watched, then cheered as the police officers escort the two shooters out of the garage at gun point, hands in the air. Only one of the victims, Frank Gusenberg survived the shootout with 14 bullet wounds. He died three hours later, uttering the immortal words, “I ain’t saying anything.”  It seemed like an open and shut case, and people were glad to know the criminals were in custody.

Except they weren’t. That’s the real genius of the crime. Those two men in police uniforms weren’t real police. They were Al Capone’s thugs dressed as police. Capone knew Bugs Moran’s men wouldn’t resist a routine shakedown by cops, and he could easily trick them into walking out into the open unarmed. He knew that spectators wouldn’t intervene when two “police men” hurried the shooters away from the crime scene. He knew they would get away before anyone discovered the deception.

Eventually, the real police located the getaway car and the Thompson submachine guns, and everyone KNEW who was responsible– but there were no convictions because of witness intimidation and a general lack of specific evidence that would put the individuals at the scene of the crime.

Justice eventually came to all involved – they either died violent death or were convicted of other crimes.  Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion and lost most of his crime empire while in prison.

The St. Valentine’s Massacre teaches us a lot about human behavior, failure, and assumptions.

  1. The execution – The hit was planned in detail but it missed its original target, George “Bugs” Moran. Despite all their complex planning, no one thought to check whether or not their target was even there.
  2. Use and manipulation of appearances and people’s assumptions – Capone knew that people accept appearances, and he exploited that. Why would Malone’s thugs doubt their safety around police officers? Why would anyone question whether or not justice was served when they watch the police arrest the criminals immediately after the crime?  
  3. The cover up – There’s a saying in the west about wolves that’s stated as the three S’s – shoot it, shovel it, and shut up!  Capone’s people generally followed this edict. They didn’t talk

You’d think that would make the operation a success. But for Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Massacre turned out to be a major blunder.  Bugs Moran was already a determined, deadly enemy, and Capone made him even angrier. The attempted hit convinced federal law officials that Capone was dangerous, too — and they decided they had to focus their attention on him instead.  

But most fatal for Al Capone was the damage done to his reputation.  Before the hit, he had been considered a Robin Hood figure by the public because of his generous contributions to charities. But pictures of the massacre turned public opinion again him.  They stopped supporting him, the press turned, and that was his ultimate doom.

    A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.