Prohibition and America’s ‘Crime Wave’ of the early 1930’s produced many ruthless, violent gangsters who thought nothing of inflicting violence, brutality and sudden death. Bombings, shootings, armed robberies, kidnappings and murder weren’t crimes to men like Hymie Weiss, they were simply standard business practice. Hymie Weiss wasn’t any more violent than the likes of Lester Gillis (AKA ‘Baby Face Nelson’) or Wilbur Underhill (the notorious ‘Tri-State Terror’) but he did make a singular contribution the annals of crime. Where New York’s Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll is known for inventing the drive-by shooting, Hymie Weiss is known as the inventor of the ‘one way ride.’
Born in Poland on January 25, 1898, he wasn’t always known as Hymie Weiss. He was born Henry Earl Wojiechkowski and immigrated to America with his family as a young man. Like many Poles, he was a staunch Catholic (though how he squared being a good Catholic with also being a career gangster is another matter). It’s therefore odd that he would choose an alias that had distinctly Jewish overtones, especially as ‘Hymie’ is a word readily used as an anti-Semitic insult. His family settled in one of the rougher parts of Chicago and it was there that he was first exposed to the underworld. At first he was nothing special, just one of a myriad of hard-hearted and hot-tempered young men looking to grab a piece of the American Dream by any means available — legal or otherwise. That lowly status didn’t last long when he hooked up with another ambitious and vicious young criminal.
The young gangster was especially impressed by Weiss and he just happened to be Dion O’Banion. O’Banion (himself suspected of murdering at least 40 people before his own assassination) rose through the criminal ranks with his younger sidekick. They started out as muggers and petty thieves while also stealing cars and learning their trade as ‘sluggers’ in Chicago’s notorious ‘newspaper wars’. Rival newspapers often employed hired muscle to torch rival newsstands, assault newspaper vendors, and rob their takings in a constant effort to steal a march on their media rivals. Eventually they branched out into other avenues of crime. O’Banion went into burglary and safe-blowing, while Weiss tended more towards robberies and general mayhem but didn’t mind blowing safes, either. They remained close and, when O’Banion assumed leadership of Chicago’s ‘Northside Gang’, he soon called on Weiss to add some extra muscle.
Prohibition Chicago was without doubt an extremely dangerous place to be even if you weren’t a professional criminal. For those who were, death was seen merely as an occupational hazard. There were several different factions fighting to control Chicago’s underworld and chief among the Northsiders’ adversaries were the ‘South Side Gang’ then led by ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo. Unfortunately for Colosimo, he didn’t see the benefits of entering bootlegging on a major scale and his two most trusted underlings did. His two most trusted underlings being Johnny ‘The Fox’ Torrio and Alphonse ‘Scarface’ Capone. Colosimo didn’t want in to bootlegging, Torrio and Capone did. Naturally, Colosimo had to go and, when he was shot through the head inside his own café, Torrio took over and made Capone his deputy. It was obvious to everybody except the courts as to who had ordered Colosimo’s death.
Torrio and Capone soon went into bootlegging in a big way while also re-organising their gang, intending to completely rule the Chicago underworld. Standing in their way, among others, were the Northsiders under Dion O’Banion. With alliances constantly changing and betrayals a regular feature in Chicago’s gangland, it wasn’t long before bullets flew, bombs exploded, and corpses began littering Chicago’s streets. The ‘Beer Wars’ had begun with a vengeance.
The Southsiders were always the largest gang in Chicago, but they were never entirely in control of the city’s rackets. With so many different factions all forming and breaking alliances as and when convenient, violence was ever-present and it was by no means unusual for rival gangs to make iron-clad agreements one week and then break them the next. All the while, the Northsiders coveted the Southsiders rackets and the Southsiders were all too aware of their rivals and their desire to wipe them out of existence.
As we’ve discussed, the conventional methods of gangland violence were common coin. Shootings on street corners were commonplace. Legitimate businesses refusing to buy a particular gang’s beer could expect to be bombed, torched, or their owners threatened, beaten into submission or murdered. Journalists daring to incur a gangster’s wrath could expect similar treatment. Police corruption was so endemic that, even when a crime’s perpetrators were abundantly obvious, the perpetrators concerned were highly unlikely to even be charged, let alone convicted.
Weiss’s contribution to the annals of crime came during his membership of the Northsiders. Stevie Wisniewski, a young neighbourhood crook otherwise of little note, earned O’Banion’s enmity by hijacking some of his bootleg booze shipments. Naturally, something had to be done and it was Weiss who offered what was then a novel solution. Wisniewski’s body was later found with a single bullet lodged in the back of his neck. Witnesses reported seeing somebody resembling Wisniewski climbing into a car with several flashily-dressed men and then disappearing. Criminal history had been made. As Weiss himself later put it (incidentally giving a new phrase to the English language in the process):
“We gave Stevie a ride. A one-way ride…”
Nowadays this method is standard. The victim is offered a lift and invited to sit in the front passenger seat. Sat behind them is their killer carrying a concealed pistol, ice-pick or garotte. At the right moment when nobody is likely to witness anything they shouldn’t, the victim will get an ice-pick in their ear, a bullet in the back of their head, or have a steel wire flung round their neck and be strangled. The body is then either left in the car (possibly parked somewhere prominent to make a statement), the body is dumped elsewhere, or the body is simply made to permanently disappear. The ‘one way ride’ was the brain-child of Hymie Weiss.
One this comparatively discrete method had been proven successful it soon became the underworld staple that it still remains. All over Chicago and in cities across America gangsters were lured or forced into cars for murder and discrete (or not-so-discrete) disposal. Bodies turned up on waste ground, in rivers, in alleys, on sidewalks, and left in cars as warnings of what would happen to anyone making too great a nuisance of themselves. Weiss’s ‘one way ride’ soon became a standard practice among gangsters — not just in Chicago, but across the country.
With the murder of O’Banion by Southside gangsters John Scalise and Albert Anselmi (known as the ‘Murder Twins’) with an assist from Capone’s old New York friend Frankie Yale, Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci assumed command of the Northsiders. His reign lasted only until he was arrested and then shot dead in the back of a police car by a Sergeant Healy. Healy claimed self-defense after Drucci allegedly made a grab for his revolver, but Weiss, now Drucci’s successor, smelt the hand of Torrio and Capone. It wasn’t long before Weiss and his deputy, the notorious George ‘Bugs’ Moran, made plans and then several attempts to murder both Torrio and Capone. Torrio was so badly injured during one failed attempt that he quit Chicago for good, handing his rackets over to Capone while still receiving a percentage after he returned to New York. Capone was now sole boss of the Southsiders, but could never be sole boss of the Chicago underworld while Hymie Weiss remained alive. Weiss, Capone reasoned, had to go. His death would be far less discrete than that of the many gangsters he’d taken for a ‘one way ride’.
On October 11, 1926, Hymie Weiss ceased to be one of Capone’s problems. Fellow gangster ‘Polack’ Joe Saltis was facing trial for the murder of Mitters Foley, one of Chacago’s lowlier crooks. Weiss was keen to ally himself with Saltis, so he arranged for himself to attend Saltis’ trial. He was there partly to show his support (not that this might have intimidated the jury in any way, obviously) and also to discretely discuss a possible alliance between the Northsiders and the gang led by Saltis and his partner Frank McErlane. It would be the last trial (or any other event, for that matter) that Weiss would attend alive.
While walking down State Street towards the court Weiss was accompanied by his bodyguard Sam Pellar, fellow gangster Paddy Murphy, lawyer William O’Brien and one of O’Brien’s investigators, Benjamin Jacobs. Without warning. a tommy gun and shotgun opened fire from an upstairs room across the street. Weiss and Murray were killed almost instantly. O’Brien was hit several times and managed to hide in a nearby stairwell while Jacobs and Pellar, themselves wounded, retreated back down State Street towards Holy Name Cathedral.
The shooters were unmerciful. They pursued Pellar and Jacobs with a hail of gunfire, leaving bullet holes in the walls of Holy Name Cathedral that remain clearly visible to this day. Pellar, Weiss’s bodyguard, did manage to draw his gun and return fire but, panic-stricken as he was, the only person he managed to hit was Hymie Weiss. It would have made no difference. Already riddled with tommy gun rounds and buckshot, Weiss was already dying when Pellar’s bullet ripped into his back. Lying face-down on State Street with his gun still holstered next to his beloved rosary, Hymie Weiss, inventor of one of gangland’s more discreet methods of murder, had died as he lived. By the gun and in a hail of bullets.
His method, of course, outlived him. Even today the ‘one way ride’ is commonplace in the underworld. Weiss was buried with a typical Chicago gangland funeral. Hundreds turned out to line the route as his casket passed by. Two of his childhood friends served as honorary pallbearers. Thousands of dollars were spent on elaborate floral tributes and even some of the Capone mob attended, if only for appearance’s sake. This wasn’t unusual in the underworld. At the funeral of Dion O’Banion Weiss, Drucci and Moran sat on the opposite grave-side from Al Capone, John Scalise, Albert Anselmi and Vincenzo Gibaldi (AKA ‘Machine Gun Jack’ McGurn). If looks could kill then there would have been a need for several more graves but, in line with gangland custom, guns stayed holstered and retribution could come later. For most of Chicago’s Prohibition-era gangsters it usually did, sooner or later.
With the deaths of Dion O’Banion. Vincent ‘Schemer’ Drucci and now Hymie Weiss, the Northsiders were taken over by safecracker and armed robber George ‘Bugs’ Moran. Moran’s reign would last until his six top aides and a casual acquaintance were rubbed out in 1929’s legendary ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’, undoubtedly ordered by Al Capone. After becoming effectively a gang boss without a gang, Moran returned to his old profession of armed robbery and died in Leavenworth while serving time for a Post Office heist.
Despite his ostentatious funeral, Weiss could be a vicious, unprincipled murderer who once even shot his own brother during an argument. Brother Fred had served in the First World War in the US Army while Hymie had been rejected on medical grounds. The two were never exactly friendly to start with and, when Fred provoked him once too often about not having served, Hymie responded by shooting him. As Fred later put it:
“I’ve seen him once in twenty years… That was when he shot me six years ago.”
That was typical of Weiss, often regarded as a human time bomb by many who knew him. His body was interred at Chicago’s Mount Carmel Cemetery, not far from his friend and mentor Dion O’Banion. By a curious irony, given their mutual hatred for their bitterest rival, they would be joined at Mount Carmel in 1947 by another Chicago big-shot, probably the first name on most people’s lips if you ask them to name a famous gangster.
They found themselves buried not far from Al Capone.