*A reader reminded me that McErlane did not work directly for Capone but was considered an ally. That is technically true. However, I maintain that in the early 1930s, if you worked the booze racket on the South Side, you worked for Capone. One way or the other.
A Killer Worse Than Cold-Blooded
May 4th,1924—Capone’s three men sat at the Crown Point roadhouse that evening, knocking back a few drinks before heading back to the South Side. In their drunken conversation, John O’Reily nudged Frank McErlane and asked if he was as good a shot as everyone said. McErlane was supposed to be a stone-cold killer, but in the here and now, he didn’t seem all that much.
McErlane wasn’t an impressive-looking man, and certainly didn’t seem to be Chicago’s most dangerous man, a man so unstable that the entire Torrio-Capone outfit feared him. He stood five-eight and weighed just under 200 pounds. His cheeks and nose glowed perpetually from burst capillaries, the result of his drinking. Like a warning light, the brighter his face glowed, the drunker (and more dangerous) the man. It was this perpetual alcohol-induced psychosis that ignited McErlane’s homicidal impulses.
McErlane nodded to O’Reily and McCabe, and burped out a yes. Then the red-faced gunman stopped his drunken sway and steadied. His body straightened, his eyes narrowed and in a single, fluid motion, Frank McErlane yanked his revolver from its shoulder holster, aimed at a man drinking quietly at the end of the bar and fired.
The revolver thundered. His target—a random lawyer named Thad Fancher—catapulted backwards from his stool and flopped like a sandbag onto the ground, blood gushing from a gaping hole in his temple.
“Told you,” Frank McErlane said, shoving the revolver back in its holster. McErlane’s two companions, Alex McCabe and John O’Reilly, said nothing for a long moment. No one in the roadhouse did. The air smelled like salty gunpowder and there was a dead man on the ground. Only Frank seemed to be at ease.
O’Reilly and McCabe kicked back their stools and grabbed McErlane. The three drunk men, all part of the Torrio-Capone mob, stumbled to their cars. That night, McErlane would make it back to Chicago. His companions would be caught by police, charged, and imprisoned. John O’Reilly would receive a life sentence. McCabe would be released after the prosecutors failed to find a witness willing to identify him.
Two years passed before McErlane showed up in Indiana for his day in court, drunk. He was promptly acquitted for the murder. Again, no one wanted to testify against McErlane, since prosecutors’ witnesses had a nasty habit of dying.
An Early Start
McEralane had been in and out of prison since the age of 17. His first incarceration, it had been for a minor role in a rash of car thefts. Then it had been for a small(ish) role in the murder of a Chicagoland police officer. THEN it had been for trying to escape prison. When he finally emerged from this on-off incarceration, McErlane joined the Torrio-Capone outfit just as Prohibition began. It would be his first, last, and only career—as a professional psychopath.
The Crown Point was only another incident in the murderous life of Frank McErlane, although it was horrific in its randomness.
While his underworld associates feared the behavior of the “fat man” (as he was frequently called), they tolerated it. His fearless ferocity served the Outfit well, and it was better to have the most effective killer in Chicago in your side.
McErlane Stalks Chicago
Narrating the deeds of McErlane reads like Satan’s resume.
McErlane is credited with concocting the gangland practice of taking a victim “for a ride.” This was coercing or persuading a victim into a car, driving to an isolated location, and murdering them. In one instance, he took two drivers from the rival O’Donnell gang, drove them to an isolated spot and shotgunned both. Too drunk to make sure they were dead, McErlane left a survivor, who described it.
“The fat fellow laughs and says, ‘I’ll take care of that in a minute.’ He was monkeying with his shotgun all the time. Pretty soon he turns around and points the gun at Keane. He didn’t say a word but just let go straight at him. Keane got it square on the left side. It kind of turned him over and the fat guy give him the second barrel in the other side. The guy loads up his gun and gives it to Keane again. Then he turns to me and says, ‘I guess you might as well get yours too.’”
~William “Shorty” Egan, 1923
In the early days of the Beer Wars, while battling the O’Donnell gang, Frank McErlane confronted an unarmed Jerry O’Conner, who had been cornered by a deputy sheriff. With no regard for witnesses, Frank McErlane swung a double-barreled shotgun up from under his trench coat and blasted O’Conner in the head, killing him instantly. The red-faced psychopath had no intention of sending a message or getting revenge. It was killing for killing’s sake.
McErlane popularized using the .45 Thompson submachine gun, aka “Chicago Typewriter,” “Chicago Piano,” or most commonly the “Tommy Gun.” This lightweight firearm could be easily assembled and disassembled, and gave a single man the firepower of a rifle squad. After McErlane used one while shooting up a bar in 1926, both Chicago police AND Capone marveled at the weapon’s power and effectiveness, and both sides immediately put out orders for these “Tommy Guns.”
In 1930, while recovering from a gunshot wound in Chicago’s German Deconess hospital, McErlane held off three men sent to assassinate the weak and wounded gunman. When they found McErlane, he was ready with a .45 automatic. Too pained and drunk to be much of a shot, McErlane emptied the magazine at the three men, who fired blindly then turned and fled. The three additional gunshot wounds McErlane received in the fight didn’t slow him down.
When police asked him to identify the men, McErlane snorted and said, “Look for ’em in a ditch. That’s where you’ll find ’em. They were a bunch of cheap rats, using pistols. I’ll use something better. McErlane takes care of McErlane.” Later on, the two killers would be found, but only one lay in a ditch. The other sat upright in his car. What remained of his head lolled back on the leather seat. A shotgun had been used.
A researcher could fill a book with McErlane’s exploits. Police recorded McErlane as the prime suspect in dozens of murders in and around Chicago, from Cicero to Calumet City. Prosecutors knew of McErlane’s involvement, but couldn’t find anyone willing to testify in open court. For obvious reasons.
His drinking did him in. After a drinking session in the summer of 1931, McErlane pulled over on a South Side street in the middle of the night and blazed away at an empty street corner, a shotgun in each hand. He cursed and swore at invisible gunmen. Thinking him insane (and likely to do Capone a favor), police took him to a hospital instead of jail.
No Friends Left
McErlane’s drinking never slowed, and his rampages grew more reckless. The Chicago Outfit, now completely under Capone’s control, tolerated him, because the man did his job so damn well. They all kept clear of him, especially when his face glowed its signature psycho red. Even Capone himself, the most powerful man in the city and one of the most powerful men in America, kept his distance.
That tolerance ended in 1931. That year, at the height of Capone’s power, the IRS’s tax evasion case against “Scarface” (a nickname Capone hated) seemed less and less of a joke. Capone needed to keep business on an even keel. With booze sales becoming legal, he planned on branching out into legitimate business (particularly the dairy industry). This new world Capone wanted to create had no room for McErlane, especially after what happened to the “fat man’s” wife.
In October of 1931, Frank McErlane drove through the city, embroiled in a drunken argument with his wife. At that moment, their screaming voices, his drunken haze, and the constant barking of her beloved dogs was too much. The “fat man” snapped. McErlane pulled over, stepped out, and shot his wife four times, killing her. He stared at the barking dogs and shot them as well. Then he stepped back into the car and drove it to an isolated spot on the South Side and went home. Later on, police would say only McErlane would be cruel enough for such a murder.
That was the end of it. Out of respect for McErlane’s service—and because Capone knew the drunk had no money saved up—the Outfit took up a collection, putting together enough money to provide McErlane with a place to live and stock booze. They didn’t give it to him at once, but paid him every week as a kind of underworld pension. When McErlane told the Outfit he was thinking about moving to central Illinois to live on the Illinois River, the Outfit encouraged the idea. Enthusiastically. The further away from Chicago, the better.