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 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 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 and running highly profitable gambling and loan sharking operations north of Chicago.
The two men established a brewery and cooperate, 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. 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 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 Touhy Gang members were dead, and 11 were in prison serving long terms. Only Edward Touhy managed to stay out of trouble by becoming a bartender.
Roger Touhy was quickly forgotten after he was received in Stateville Penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois, in 1934. Basil Banghart started serving his long term in the Illinois State Prison at Menard. However, after a break from Menard in 1935, he was transferred to Joliet, where he renewed acquaintance with Touhy. For seven years, Touhy and Banghart remained in prison, keeping in touch with their old outside contacts through the underworld grapevine, watching for any possible chance of escape.
Initially, they took no one into their confidence. Banghart already had four previous escapes on his record, and when he went to Joliet, he boasted that no prison in the world could keep him. He observed prison guards’ activities and assimilated every item of information that might be important in a planned escape. He learned the exact location of all prison facilities, the height of the walls, the prison towers’ position and the distance between them; and the number of guards and the kind of weapons they carried. He even claimed to know that the guards carried rifles sighted in at 100 yards, although they manned towers 300 yards apart. Ultimately, a plan of escape matured, a plan which necessitated assistance both inside and out.
As the time grew closer, they recruited five other prisoners to work with them on the break:
- Big Ed Darlak, 32-year-old lifer serving a 199-year sentence for murder;
- William Stewart, 43 years old, under two 20-year sentences as a habitual criminal, parole violator, and highway robber;
- Eugene Lanthorn, 36 years old, under a sentence of one year to life for assault to commit murder and for two previous escapes from Joliet;
- St. Clair McInerney, 31 years old, under sentence of one year to life for robbery, burglary, and violation of parole; and;
- Martilick Nelson, 40 years old, under sentence of one year to life as a robber, habitual criminal and parole violator.
Shortly before 1:00 p.m., on October 9, 1942, Roger Touhy began the break from Joliet. He assaulted the driver of a prison garbage truck, obtained the truck and drove to the mechanical shop where Eugene Lanthorn was working, arriving there simultaneously with Banghart, McInerney, Darlak, Stewart, and Nelson. Working together, the seven convicts overpowered guards on duty in the shop, cut telephone wires, ripped some ladders out of locked racks, piled into the truck and headed for the northwest corner of the prison yard, holding two guards as hostages. Touhy and Banghart were brandishing .45 revolvers. Lanthorn was armed with a “Molotov Cocktail” that he had fashioned in the prison shop and intended to use to start a panic if necessary.
When the truck pulled up at the foot of tower number three, one of the convicts fired at the tower’s guard, bringing him under control. Others threw ladders up against the wall. Touhy led five of the men up into the tower where they disarmed the guard and seized the keys to the tower gate and the keys to the guard’s car. Banghart stayed below to cover them and the guards who had been brought from the shop as hostages. Nelson went down the outside wall by rope, opened the tower door with the guard’s keys, and the gang ran out. They fled in the guard’s automobile and headed to Chicago, where they lived in various apartments.
Holding such a collection of desperate men together and keeping them in safe hiding was no easy job and Banghart ruled them with an iron hand. He allowed no drinking, except for an occasional bottle brought into the apartment, and permitted no promiscuous associations with outsiders. Every day when a man went out for food and supplies, Banghart, armed with a sawed-off shotgun wrapped in a newspaper, followed them. The convicts frequently changed clothes with each other, made every effort to disguise themselves, and, when on the streets, always walked facing oncoming traffic so that police or FBI cars could not slip up on them from behind.
In early December, the first serious rift occurred after Stewart and Nelson went out one night and returned to the apartment drunk. Banghart disarmed them and pistol-whipped them both, beating them until they were unconscious and leaving them behind. The other five convicts immediately abandoned the apartment and moved to another on Leland Avenue. After Stewart and Nelson recovered, they split up with Nelson going to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Stewart seeking refuge with a former girlfriend in Chicago.
Although the men escaped from prison on October 9, the FBI did not enter the search for them until October 16. They were state prisoners, and in escaping they violated no federal law. But after a week had passed and they had failed to present themselves for registration under the Selective Service Law they became draft delinquents. Realizing that this gang of desperadoes constituted a grave threat to public safety, Director J. Edgar Hoover personally took charge of the Touhy investigation and from his Washington Headquarters, he directed a continent-wide manhunt that had no equal since the days of John Dillinger.
Agents at FBI Headquarters dug into the old files for every fragment of information about Touhy and Banghart’s past associates, hide-outs, habits, friends, and relatives. Agents were also sent into Joliet to review prison records and interview prison guards and convicts for information on all seven escapees. Before long, every known relative, friend, character witness, and attorney known to have represented the men were located. Those who were cooperative were interviewed for their assistance, while others were watched night and day. Photographs, descriptions, and brief criminal histories of all the escapees were sent to every law enforcement agency in America, to all leading newspapers, and Canada and Mexico agencies. Stops were placed along the borders and all patrol stations were given photographs of the convicts.
The first break came on December 15, 1942, when Nelson attempted to contact a relative in north Minneapolis. Knowing, that Nelson was in the area and was not staying with relatives, agents assumed that he stayed at a cheap hotel using an alias. A logical alias would be the name of some Chicago citizen who had lost his wallet in a recent stickup. The next day, they found Nelson in a hotel and arrested him. He was registered under the name of Harold Seeger, who was a Chicago groceryman who was held up by a masked bandit on December 11 and robbed of his wallet, identification papers, and pocket money.
On the same day, agents also found William Stewart living in a hotel in Chicago. He was going by the name of James Shea, who had been robbed of his wallet and identification papers in Chicago on November 22, 1942. However, agents did not arrest Stewart immediately, as they hoped he would lead them to Touhy and his gang. For four days there were no significant developments. Then, on December 20, 1942, Stewart had a rendezvous with two men unknown to surveilling agents. The agents surmised that Stewart was not in direct contact with the gang and that these two men were couriers between him and Banghart. Agents quietly took Stewart into custody and followed the two couriers.
The next day, agents following one of the couriers recognized Banghart and Darlak whom the courier met in a crowded, downtown area. The agents then began to follow the fugitives, hoping they would lead them to their hide-out so that all five fugitives could be taken at once without endangering the lives of innocent citizens. The surveillance on Banghart for the next seven days was difficult. He carried his shotgun at all times and he knew all of the tricks of shaking off or detecting surveilling officers. However, the surveillance finally paid off with Banghart never realizing that he was being followed.
Within five days, agents had learned that the entire gang lived in an apartment on Leland Avenue but that they were splitting into two groups. McInerney and Lanthorn remained in the apartment on Leland Avenue while Darlak, Touhy, and Banghart were moving into an apartment on Kenmore Avenue.
Only one thing remained to be done before arrangements could be made for the arrests. The agents, who had never before seen McInerney and Lanthorn, had to be certain that these were the right men before attempting the arrest because they knew there would be gunplay. On Sunday afternoon, December 27, 1942, the two men believed to be McInerney and Lanthorn both left their apartment for a few minutes. While agents were following them on the streets, two other agents slipped into their apartment and obtained some discarded bottles which could be processed for fingerprints. In the Chicago office, they developed on these bottles fingerprints identical with those of the two fugitives.
Director Hoover hurried to Chicago to make final plans for the raid. In both apartment houses, unsuspecting neighbors who might be in the line of fire had to be secretly evacuated. Arrangements had to be made with the police department to block off the streets. Every conceivable means of an exit had to be covered, and the agents deployed so that they would not be caught in their own crossfire.
On Monday evening, December 28, 1942, McInerney and Lanthorn again left their apartment and visited the other fugitives. Two agents slipped into their room to await their return. Other agents filtered into the building to cover all possible means of escape. At 11:20 p.m., the two fugitives returned. They approached the door of their apartment with their guns drawn. After a tense, listening pause before the door, Lanthorn inserted a key and threw the door open. One of the agents in the room called for their surrender: “We are federal officers. Put your hands up.” But, the fugitives immediately opened fire, and both were killed.
Director Hoover next took his men to Kenmore Avenue apartment where they surrounded the building and took up their assigned posts in adjoining apartments. At 5:00 a.m., on December 29, 1942, powerful searchlights were turned on to illuminate the apartment building and play on the windows of the fugitives’ first-floor apartment. As the lights went on, one of Director Hoover’s assistants began speaking into a microphone connected with a loudspeaker outside the apartment door. “Touhy, Banghart, Darlak, we are the FBI. Surrender and come out with your hands up. There is no hope of escape. You are surrounded. You have ten minutes to decide. We will then start shooting.” In the end, all three men surrendered and were sent back to prison.
On August 9, 1954, a federal district court ruled that Roger Touhy should be freed because the court found that Factor’s kidnapping had been a hoax, and his conviction had been secured with perjured testimony. Touhy was then freed but, less than 50 hours later, he was back in prison after a federal court of appeals ruled that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because Touhy had not yet exhausted all state court appeals.
On July 31, 1957, the Illinois governor commuted Touhy’s original 99-year sentence to 72 years and reduced his 199-year sentence for escaping to three years. Touhy subsequently won parole for the kidnapping. Under the parole terms, he had to serve six more months for the kidnapping and the full three-year sentence for the escape. On November 13, 1959, Touhy was granted parole for his escape and left prison on November 24, 1959 – 25 years and nine months after his incarceration.
Just 22 days after his prison release, Roger Touhy and his bodyguard were gunned down by mob hitmen on December 16, 1959.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2020.