The Biggest Jew in Chicago Part 3 March 24, 2010 – Tags: Boxing, Chicago, Gangsters, Judaica, Liquor Business, Men's Studies, Prohibition
According to its press book, a movie was loosely based upon Terry Druggan, his partner Frankie Lake, and their activities.
William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), starred James Cagney as Tommy Powers/Terry Druggan and featured Edward Woods as Matt Doyle/Frankie Lake. The 1923 tragi-comic death of Sam “Nails” Morton was depicted in the movie: An avid horseman, Nails (in the film, “Nails Nathan”) was riding in Lincoln Park one morning, a stirrup broke, the horse reared, Nails was thrown, the horse kicked him in the head and killed him. So upset and grief stricken were his Irish boon companions and partners that a hit squad was sent to the stable. They aerated the horse’s head. In the film, Cagney/Tommy/Terry is the equine’s assassin. In reality, it was Louis “Two-Gun”Alterie, an ex-gunsel for Druggan and member of O’Banion’s gang, along with a couple of other equestrian executioners in the employ of O’Banion.
In A Little Piece of History: The Village of Kildeer [a small community northwest of Chicago], Clayton W. Brown recounts that:
During Prohibition a gentleman named Terrance Druggan purchased about 215 acres of land on both sides of Long Grove in what is now Kildeer’s Farmington Subdivision. Mr. Druggan had a nickname, ‘Terrible Terry.’ because he was a Chicago gangster, head of the Druggan-Lake Gang (or Valley Gang) prominent in the 1920’s. His partner was Frankie Lake, an ex-Chicago fireman…They were both trigger-happy bootleggers who controlled a territory on Chicago’s west side, between Cicero and Chicago’s Little Italy, as lieutenants of Al Capone [they were not lieutenants of Capone; their gang was part of Capone’s syndicate]. Both Druggan and Lake, as young teenagers, joined the Valley Gang then controlled by…Paddy ‘The Bear’ Ryan and Heinrich ‘Big Heinie’ Miller. When they reached maturity they took it over.
Druggan was a dwarf-like character who lisped when excited, especially when shooting down an opponent or hijacking a liquor truck. Both men wore expensive fedoras, tailor-made suits and horned-rimmed glasses, which gave them the appearance of mild-mannered businessmen. Druggan was very religious, a devout Catholic, in spite of the his criminal activities. Druggan and Lake both became millionaires during Prohibition and rode in limousines driven by chauffeurs. They owned a private railroad car, but used it only once after it’s windows were shot out by rival gangsters.
Most of their fortune came from Joseph Stenson who gave them 50 percent of five large breweries so they would stop hijacking his shipments and he could continue to operate. By 1925, Capone was taking more than 40 percent of the profits from their breweries, but provided Druggan and Lake with an army of gunmen to protect their territory. Both were imprisoned once for operating illegal breweries. Terry Druggan built a stucco-sided house on Long Grove Road, near Middleton…There formerly was a flagpole in front that could be seen from Rand Road. He had a handy man who’s job it was to raise and lower the flag. If the flag was at the top of the pole it was O.K. for Druggan to come home, at half-mast it meant someone was there looking for him and he should keep going. Whenever Druggan heard a noise outside the house he would look out the windows carrying a machine gun. Having once been shot through one of the windows caused him to move into a rear bedroom. A subsequent owner of the house claimed there were bullet holes in the gutters and siding.
In 1924, for refusing to answer questions put to them by Judge James Wilkerson of the United States District Court, Druggan and Lake were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for contempt of court. Several months later a newspaper reporter called at the county jail to see Druggan, but when he asked for the gangster he was told: ’Mr. Druggan is not in today.’
’Then I’ll talk to Frankie Lake,’ said the reporter.
‘Mr. Lake also had an appointment downtown,’ the jailer said. ‘They will be back after dinner.’
The dazed newspaper man returned to his office, and an investigation disclosed that both Druggan and Lake, in return for twenty thousand dollars in bribes, as they testified later, had been given extraordinary privileges. Supposedly incarcerated and treated the same as other prisoners, they had actually spent much more time in Loop restaurants and in their own luxurious apartments than in jail; they had been permitted to come and go as they pleased, and the death cell of the jail had been turned into a private office where they received their gangsters and issued their orders.
Poppy and Druggan loved cards, and Terry would occasionally come over to the house to play a few hands of poker or pinochle with him, continuing to do so, presumably, during his extra-joint jaunts into town.
The legal and illegal trade in liquor co-existed on an incestuous, go-along to get-along basis in an unspoken truce; there were family members on both sides. After Capone organized the various gangs and ended, for the most part, the constant hijacking of each others’ trucks, some rogue mobsters would try to hijack legitimate whiskey but if they knew you and liked you they’d leave your stuff alone. Particularly if your name was Gertz. Poppy, because of his size, reputation, where he was brought up and the people he knew, was given wide- very wide – berth. Sometimes, though, things got a bit confusing on the streets.
One night, Poppy got a call and immediately phoned Great-Grandpa Bernstein: One of National Brokerage’s trucks was being followed by mob guys and Poppy needed help; Abe Bernstein né Degrafsky was no shrinking violet. Yet another Livak from Vilna, and, like Aaron Gershowetz, a horse trader but with bear in his heart and a hard-flint disposition borne of a childhood evading capture by Cossaks for 20-year enslavement into the Russian army, he and his were not be trifled with. Armed and dangerous, the two of them chased off the would-be hijackers.
Next morning, Poppy went for his regular haircut at the College Inn Barbershop in the Sherman House, the big hotel across from City Hall where all of Chicago’s politicians, gangsters and sports crowd congregated, and ran into Terry in the lobby. Druggan comically related the previous night’s incident, excitingly commenting upon the crazy Indian pumping shot at him from the truck ahead and the wild men spraying him from behind. (Both Poppy and Uncle Sol, because of their broad, thick, high cheekbones, somewhat resembled Native-American chieftains). Poppy didn’t know Druggan was the guy following his truck, and Druggan didn’t know it was Poppy’s truck or that Crazy Sollie was literally riding shotgun in it. Poppy set him straight. “Gee, Eddie, I had no idea.” No harm, no foul.
There were a couple of occasions when Poppy and Uncle Sol were pulled over by other Capone associates while delivering a shipment.
Bad idea followed by hard swallows and awkward salutations: “Uh. Hi, Eddie.” The other opens the back of the truck and is greeted by Sol with a shotgun. “Uh. Hi, Sollie.” End of incident.
Druggan was a good guy to know if you had a special problem. A few years before, Grandma was robbed on the street. When she told Poppy about it, he immediately knew what to do. He called Druggan, Terry got hold of guys who did it and retrieved Grandma’s jewelry. No word on the fate of the thieves.
Boxing was Poppy’s favorite sport. He spent a lot of time at Davey Miller’s gym getting to know the young guys who would later become well known fighters. He took my father to all the Friday night amateur fights that Miller ran at his gym. By the mid-Twenties, Miller had become the outstanding boxing referee in Illinois.
Come 1927 and Dempsey and Tunney are set to fight their rematch in Chicago. Davey was the appointed ref for the fight but Miller had a brother, Herschie, who was a member of Capone’s gang. Capone idolized Dempsey and Davey Miller was considered to be in Capone’s pocket because of Herschie and Davey’s gambling operation. (Miller, a paragon of character and completely unintimidated by Alphonso, many years later admitted that Capone had approached him but that he had politely and firmly turned down Capone’s pre-fight bribe to make sure things went right. He didn’t report the Capone offer; having refused, it was of moot importance). Before the fight, Poppy took my father, seven years old, to Dempsey’s training camp. It seemed that everyone in the fight crowd knew Big Ed; he was a star amongst them. Poppy and Grandma had ringside seats at Soldier Field at the then extravagant price of $40 each.
In an unusual example of backbone, at the last minute the Illinois boxing commission nixed Miller, Dave Barry was substituted as referee, and the result was infamous “long count.” My father, listening to the fight on the radio at home, cried when Dempsey lost. Jack was Poppy’s friend and his as well.
Just a few weeks before that fight, Poppy went to see the Cubs play the Reds at Wrigley Field. As usual, he was in his box seat right behind the visiting team’s dugout. At the close of the ninth inning, a few men behind him gave Reds’ pitcher Pete Donohue the razz as he walked to the dugout. Donohue, assuming Poppy was the ringleader, “took him to task,” and spit-balled “Jew Bastard” at him.
Poppy jumps out his seat, leaps over the railing onto the field and decks Donohue. The entire Reds team comes to Donohue’s rescue and a few others take the horizontal express before “hostilities” are officially ended by the erstwhile cop, Officer Hunt. Poppy is unscathed. A few of his upstanding and lowstanding friends in attendance then whip up the Jews in the crowd to Poppy’s defense as he’s taken away. Post-game anarchy ensues. Enter the Riot Squad. True to form, however, Poppy made a new friend. Though Donohue – his topography and ego seriously bruised – never stood up to the plate, Reds’ manager Jack Hendricks and Big Ed became buddies.
Contrary to the newspaper accounts, Poppy was taken to Summerdale Station and held uncharged and unbooked for a few hours. The police called Grandma at home and told her he would be home shortly. Grandma was relieved. Until receiving the call, she was supremely angry, assuming that Poppy was late for dinner because he was out playing cards. Starting a riot and getting arrested were the lesser of evils, as far as she was concerned; after all, he was defending Jewish honor.
Poppy also defended hers. One day, the two are strolling along State Street, Grandma walking ahead with a friend. On the corner, a wise-acre begins to wolf-whistle and catcall the ladies as they pass by.
Said wise-acre was Harry, b. Hershel, Krakow, aka “Kingfish” or “King Levinsky,” a tall, husky, popular, somewhat buffoonish Jewish heavyweight contender with a crushing overhand right who fought Max Baer and defeated Dempsey, ending the ex-champ’s comeback. Kingfish was renowned for his colorful post-fight commentary – “I hitted him where it hoit da most. Da King ain’t no sucker, ya know,” he reportedly declared after his fight with Jimmy Slattery – and his unorthodox defense methods in the ring: An early conservationist, rather than waste valuable energy moving out of the way he blocked punches with his face.
Poppy laid him out cold on the sidewalk.
Levinsky’s post-fight commentary for this quick business is lost to history. But though his manager at the time was Davey and Herschie Miller’s brother, Al, there were no repercussions for Poppy. After all, Davey and Herschie were his friends, and Kingfish was seriously out of line; any man would have done the same. Suffice it to say, after Poppy hitted him where it hoit da most, King Levinsky became his friend: Da King wasn’t no sucker, y’know.
Later on, when there was a big fight in New York, the 20th Century Limited would run from Chicago and all the politicians, gangsters and sporting crowd would be on the train, including Poppy, so his circle of friends and acquaintances grew larger. He was the biggest, toughest Jew in Chicago and in the liquor business, a magnet for friendship and respect.