Irish Ghosts of America: Haunted bricks from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Chicago

Perhaps the most famous gangland massacre in history, it cursed even the bricks that the bullets hit.

You probably already know about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: On February 14, 1929, Chicago gang members from Al Capone’s South Side gang, dressed as police, targeted boss Bugs Moran of the North Side gang, executing seven men in a garage with a spray of Tommy gun fire. The South Side gang was mostly Italian, the North Side gang was mostly Irish, and they had battled over liquor and control of various parts of the city for years. In fact, the founder of the North Side gang, Dion O’Banion, had been shot to death five years earlier, and the intervening half-decade had been all-out war between the two gangs.

Despite the North Side’s reputation for Irishness, the gang had plenty of Poles and Germans working with it — of the seven who died on the day of the massacre, only one was Irish-American, John May, pictured right, and he wasn’t even a member of the gang. May was the son of an Irish immigrant and worked as a mechanic. He had a background as a safecracker, but was trying to go straight, and so his work with Moran and associates was limited to fixing their trucks. The rest of the victims were Germans, but for a Jewish eyeglass fitter named Reinhardt Schwimmer who just liked to rub shoulders with mobsters. The target of the assassination, Bugs Moran, wasn’t Irish either — his family was French — and was in a coffee shop. He had seen Capone’s assassins, and because they were dressed as police assumed there was a raid in progress. The assassins saw another gangster, Albert Weinshank, and reportedly mistook him for Moran. Weinshank was shot nine times and died in the garage. The only survivor of the shooting was May’s pet German Shepherd, whose agitated barking alerted neighbors.

The warehouse is gone — if you’re in Chicago, it was at 2122 North Clark Street; it’s now a small fenced in lawn for a nursing home, and apparently a tree marks the north wall where the shootings took place. It’s the site of one of the ghost stories that have emerged from this event — reportedly passers-by still hear screams and machine gun fire, and dogs that pass the spot seem especially agitated. Al Capone is said to have complained that he was haunted by the ghost of one of the murdered men, James Clark; when he went to prison, guards reportedly heard him begging someone named “Jimmy” to leave him alone.

But by far the strangest story is that of one of the north wall of the garage. The company responsible for tearing down the building in 1967, the National Wrecking Company, salvaged 414 bricks from the wall. They auctioned them off to a Canadian publicist, George Patey, who originally planned to use them in a set in a shopping mall in British Columbia, with actors reenacting the massacre. Irate citizens complained, and so Patey scrapped the plans.

The wall makes it to the urinal of a Candian nightclub.

He came up with something weirder: Patey opened a 20s-themed nightclub in Vancouver called the Banjo Palace, and he installed the wall behind the urinals in the men’s room, allowing women to peek in a few days per week. The club closed in 1976, and Patey sold some of the bricks and put others in storage. After he died, the remaining bricks went to the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, where the rebuilt wall can be seen today.

As to the individual bricks that were sold?  A persistent story, unconfirmed, is that there were people who bought the bricks who quickly returned them to Patey, complaining that they had brought bad luck, or that earlier bricks, smuggled out before Patey ever bought the wall, brought ruin to the owners. True? Who knows? The bricks certainly didn’t ruin Patey, but, then, they didn’t help him much either — every plan he made with them went bust, and even his nightclub only lasted a few years.

It seems that it just doesn’t pay to have a cursed massacre brick.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.