Chicago - Mar. 31, 2020
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Confessions Of A Chicago Tour Guide Part 2: Myths Of The Mob

J.J., please . . .

Not quite in time for Oscar night and the hegemony of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, nor Valentine's Day memories of that distasteful little "gangland" dust-up on the Near North Side, Confessions was scurrying down myriad rabbit holes around the Myth of the American Mob: re-bingeing The Sopranos, re-reading Nick Tosches' searing anti-biography of Dean Martin, Dino, and reveling in, even projecting myself into, all things Cosa Nostra.

Like his recent cinematic "riff" on Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour, Scorsese's The Irishman is as full of holes as a slice of Swiss cheese. But it makes for a hell of a story, and a heck of a movie. In this atmosphere, we began digging into recurrent myths of the Chicago Mob, known locally as the Outfit.

And in Chicago, when you need to go Outfit, you go to one man: author, historian & tour guide John Binder, whose most recent book is Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition.

Binder is also owner/operator of the highly rated Chi-Town Gangster Tours.

Talk about "the guy who wrote the book!"

In a phone interview with Confessions last week, Binder said the biggest myth he confronts on his Chicago Prohibition Gangster Tours downtown is that Sam "Momo" Giancana & the Chicago Outfit got JFK elected president in 1960.

In a story aired on ABC7 Chicago news as The Irishman went wide, Binder told Chuck Goudie about the misrepresentations in the film's version of the story of the disappearance of former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. In what Goudie called an instance of marketing "a sexier version of history," the movie portrays Giancana and the Outfit as having assured Kennedy the presidency, with scenes of Outfit-supervised teams of men carefully combing through cemeteries, writing down names to register as active voters:

"There is no convincing or credible evidence that organized crime delivered for John F. Kennedy in 1960 around Chicago or nationally through union members," Binder told Goudie.

Binder tells Confessions: "Maybe the Democratic Machine under Richard Daley pulled out all the stops for JFK. I have no trouble with that. They're a political party. That's what you do, work for your candidate."

Another myth: That Daley's efforts in Illinois put JFK over the top, delivering him the presidency. In fact, even if Kennedy had lost Illinois, he had enough votes to win the Electoral College.

Continuing in a tone and cadence familiar to long-time Chicagoans, the former UIC professor radiates authenticity, reminding me specifically of former CPD Superintendent Phil Cline (unfortunately, perhaps, the phrase "right out of central casting" comes to mind): "The Cook County Democratic Party ain't the Outfit. And they ain't Joe Kennedy. He might have flashed a lot of money around for his son - that's what you do for your relatives when they're running for office - but one ain't the other ain't the other."

Binder encounters slightly different myths on his Oak Park & River Forest Gangster Tours. Out here, the myths usually have to do with both the potential treasures and tragedies left behind at these generally modest, unremarkable upper-middle class suburban homes.

J.J., please . . .

For example, bodies. On this point, Binder is succinct: "That's what the forest preserve is for." I compared it to the legend of bodies dumped into the Chicago river. "That's overblown, too. There really isn't any evidence that they made a habit of dumping bodies in the Chicago River - and certainly not at their own homes."

Or left-behind stores of cash, gold, jewelry, bonds: "Generally, no. They took it with them when they left, or when they died the wife knew where it was."

We often imagine the house of a Super Villain as a cartoon-like construction of contraptions, designed to foil intruders and fool the feds, when in fact these homes were quite ordinarily appointed given the affluence of their neighborhoods in general. A safe where cash, jewelry, documents and weapons could be stored, and/or even a furnace where cash and documents could be destroyed, are not necessarily "tells."

I took the Oak Park/River Forest tour last fall and found it first-rate. Binder's affect is scholarly yet engaging, insightful and often funny. I've lived in Oak Park for nearly a decade now and I had no idea it was all around me, except on my regular bike ride to (the) Jewel(s), where I pass Momo's house, which happens to be the first stop on the nearly two-hour coach bus tour. Turns out, it's like the Northeast Jersey or Long Island of New York Families: where the Dons go to die (my phrasing).

(Come to think of it, I lived near Grand & Damen in West Town for 20 years, about two blocks from Joey "The Clown" Lombardo. Is it me?! My landlord Carlo: "Jaybird, when Joey the Clown ran the neighborhood, a woman could walk home from work at 2:30 in the morning and feel safe," which Binder recognized as a familiar old saw).

Anyway, a group of 25 or so of us made a late Sunday morning of it, each toting our brochures, cell phones and, perhaps most importantly, our desires.

As a tour guide, I recognize the arch-typical if somewhat sympathetic Doofus yearning to belong, to be affirmed as possessing valuable esoteric knowledge, to seem "In the Know." On our tour, that Doofus was among us and kept pressing Binder on what surely must have been stash-walls, hollow statuary, a pool box (even though there's no pool), a double-secret, tug-on-a-fake-book hidden door, something somewhere where they'd hide the glamorous booty.

I mean, this guy was like so many I see on Twitter and across social media, starving for any kind of acknowledgment as Special, showing off for complete strangers in a fairly sad attempt to fill some incomparable vacuum in his soul. He just wouldn't stop. Finally, Binder had to respond.

J.J., please . . .

He was gentle but firm.

"You're watching too much Sopranos."

Even true stories, as they're passed down through generations, can get mangled into myth. It's like the game of Telephone. "A particular location might have legitimately been a gangster's home," Binder told me. "But over the years, as memories fade, the name gets lost. Decades later, that guy has morphed into Al Capone."

Or a singular, odd incident morphs over time into common practice, like the Outfit using the tunnels under the Loop to move loot.

Although the safe room Capone kept at the Hotel Geraldo back in the day may have been authentic, his or any systematic "gangland" use of the small rail tunnels under downtown, originally built for small trains hauling heating coal between buildings, is not credible.

The real tunnel is out in River Forest, at Big Tuna's. The tunnel, or portions of it, leading from the large, full basement of one of Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo's River Forest houses, the one on Ashland Avenue south to the E/W cross street, is still there, one of those singular, unique incidents that become, over time, common practice.

Finally, it's never so much the journey as it is the chase. For Binder, "the real payoff comes with those extra miles. Other authors dig the hole three inches wide. I try to dig the hole three feet wide."

And that's how you destroy myths.

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Previously:
* Confessions Of A Tour Guide Part 1: Busting The Myths Of Chicago Architecture.

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See also:

* Kogan: Poet J.J. Tindall Finds Freedom In Guiding Boat Tours.

* J.J. Tindall's Chicagoetry.

* Tindall: Ballots From The Dead.

* Tindall Music.

* Tindall: Interpretive Jazz Dance 1: The Match Game Theme.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on February 21, 2020


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