Roger Touhy was an Irish-American mob boss and prohibition-era bootlegger from Chicago, Illinois. In the latter part of 1933 and the early part of 1934, Roger and his gang of criminals were taken out by the FBI, at which time all members were either dead or in prison. After Touhy spent 26 years behind bars, he was released in 1959 and was murdered by the Chicago Outfit less than a month later.
Touhy was born on September 18, 1898, in Chicago, Illinois to Irish immigrant parents, James and Mary Touhy. His father was a policeman on Chicago’s Near West Side. Unfortunately, when Roger was just a small child, his mother died in a house fire and James Touhy was left to raise his eight children alone. This, however, proved difficult for him, as five of his six sons would turn to a life of crime.
In 1906, James Touhy gave up on his elder sons, who, all but Eddie, were already involved in criminal activities. Eddie stayed out of trouble and became a bartender. That year, he moved Roger and his two daughters to what was then the tiny farming village of Downers Grove, just northwest of Chicago. There, Roger attended St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic church and school and graduated the eighth grade as class valedictorian. Determined to stay on the right side of the law, he went job hunting in Chicago. At that time he was only 5’6″ tall and was said to not only have been intelligent but also ambitious and charming. He soon found work and over the next few years was employed at various jobs including as a telegrapher and a union organizer. During this time, he met a 16-year old Irish girl named Clara Morgan. He lost his first brother, James Touhy Jr. when he was shot and killed by a policeman during an attempted robbery in 1917.
At the tail end of World War I, Roger enlisted in the Navy. When the war was over, he opted for an early out with the Navy Reserve and was back in Chicago by 1919. He then made his way to Oklahoma, where he worked in the oil fields and invested some of his money into an oilfield lease. Within a month he resold the lease for a 200% profit. In 1920, he returned to Chicago with $25,000, a large sum at that time.
Meanwhile, Prohibition was in full force and his brothers, Johnny, Tommy, and Joe were working around the edges of the booming bootleg business, mostly as hired enforcers who occasionally hijacked a beer truck or two.
Determined to remain honest, Roger first became a cab driver upon his return, then an automobile salesman. His auto sales career was successful, and he made enough money to form a trucking company in Des Plaines, Illinois with his brothers Tommy and Eddie.
In 1923 he married Clara Morgan whom he had earlier met when he was working as a telegrapher. Though it would seem that marriage might have made him even more determined to avoid a life of crime, it didn’t. Before long, Roger began to lease a small fleet of trucks and drivers to Johnny Torrio’s bootlegging operation. Using the money he earned from those leases, Roger and his brothers bought a franchise from Torrio for the beer delivery routes to rural northwestern Cook County. Soon, they were also distributing illegal liquor and Touhy partnered with Matt Kolb, who was already supplying the Chicago Outfit with a third of its beer, as well as running highly profitable gambling and loan sharking operations north of Chicago.
The two men established a brewery and cooperage which made barrels and casks. Producing high-quality beer, they were soon were selling 1,000 barrels a week at $55 a barrel at a profit of over 90%. In 1926, Touhy expanded into illegal gambling and installed slot machines in speakeasies throughout the northwest Chicago suburbs, which grossed over $1 million in the first year. Johnny Touhy was killed at the Lone Tree Inn, near Niles, just north of Chicago, in December 1927 allegedly by gunmen belonging to gangster Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit.
By 1929, Al Capone was ordering hundreds of barrels of beer a week from Roger Touhy, but he soon became envious of Touhy and Kolb’s operations and wanted to take over the profitable business. Capone began to send thugs to Touhy’s headquarters, to talk his way into a partnership, but Roger refused.
Capone then began to push into Touhy’s territory, opening whorehouses just inside Des Plains and sending in beer salesmen who drastically undercut Touhy’s prices. Roger and his brothers pushed back and warned any saloon keeper who sold Capone’s beer inside their territory would be busted up. That year, when Joseph Touhy and his crew were busting up a speakeasy that Capone had opened in Schiller Park, Joseph was shot dead in June 1929.
Capone continued to pressure Roger Touhy to hand over control of his operations but Touhy resisted. In 1931, Roger approached local law enforcement officers and others to ask for their support, explaining that all he wanted to do was sell beer. In contrast, Capone and his men would bring lawlessness, gambling, and prostitution to the area. Local leaders agreed to help him and refused to buy Capone’s low-quality beer or utilize his gambling products. In response, Capone ordered Matt Kolb killed in October 1931.
Afterward, all-out war broke out between the Touhy Gang and the Chicago Outfit with sporadic gun battles occurring in rural Cook County over the next few years. In the meantime, Capone and his men were pushing against Chicago’s labor unions, who soon decided to band together for protection and pitched into a $75,000 fund that was handed over to Tommy Touhy. Roger Touhy also won the support of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak who promised police department protection for his gang if they helped to win the war against the syndicate. The war between the two gangster factions then spread into the Chicago city limits. According to the Chicago Tribune, in 1932, nearly 100 gangsters were killed.
By the spring of 1933, it appeared that the Touhy Gang was winning the war against the syndicate. Then the mob killed Mayor Anton Cermak and shot Tommy Touhy, but he survived and was later imprisoned. Later, the union bosses in Chicago surrendered to the mob.
Singly and in groups, the Touhy mobsters were accounted for. James Tribble was murdered on September 8, 1933, in Chicago. William Sharkey committed suicide at St. Paul, Minnesota on December 1, 1933. Roger Touhy and two of his henchmen were convicted in state court at Chicago on February 23, 1934, and sentenced to serve 99 years in prison for kidnapping John “Jake the Barber” Factor and holding him for ransom. Charles C. Connors was murdered at Willow Springs, Illinois, on March 13, 1934. On the same date, Basil “The Owl” Banghart, machine gunner and aviator for the mob, was convicted in state court in Chicago and sentenced to serve 99 years for participating in the Factor kidnapping. Two months later, Banghart was also tried in federal court at Asheville, North Carolina, and sentenced to serve 36 years in prison on a charge of robbing United States mail.
Two remaining members of the Touhy gang, Isaac A. Costner and Ludwig Schmidt, were also convicted on the mail robbery charge. Thus, by the end of May 1934, three members of the Touhy Gang were dead, and 11 were in prison serving long terms. Only Edward Touhy managed to stay out of trouble by becoming a bartender.