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Take a tour through mob boss Al Capone’s 'playground'

By David Amoruso

Al Capone. His name still stands as the most infamous among gangsters. Though he was known foremost as a Chicago mob boss, his influence and territory stretched way beyond the city limits into small town America. Crime historian Chriss Lyon now offers folks the chance to take a walking tour through one such town, dubbed “Capone’s Playground,” to see where Capone and his men relaxed, plotted crimes, and murdered their rivals.

When talking about St. Joseph, Michigan, one doesn’t automatically think of the Mafia and organized crime. Located about 90 miles northeast from Chicago, it lies on the shore of Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. Totaling just a few thousand inhabitants, St. Joseph, which officially became a city in 1891, remains the epitome of small town USA.

Behind that quiet respectability, however, is a dark past. One covered in blood and corruption. A past often recounted by its citizens as they reminisce about the days their “city” went through its wild phase.

“When I was about 6 or 7 years old,” mob historian Chriss Lyon tells Gangsters Inc. “I remember my grandma telling me the story of how a gangster shot and killed a police officer in my hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan. Later I would find out that this was the story of Fred “Killer” Burke and St. Joseph Police Officer Charles Skelly - photo right, which happened on December 14, 1929. As a kid, this baffled me because I thought gangsters lived in Chicago and New York City, not rural, small-town St. Joseph.”

The story was the beginning of a lifelong interest in organized crime for Lyon, who went on to do extensive research on the mob and write the book A Killing in Capone's Playground: The True Story of the Hunt for the Most Dangerous Man Alive about the murder of Skelly, which was published in 2014.

“The book is essentially the expanded story my grandma originally told me as a child,” Lyon says. A story which, ultimately, led authorities to the two Thompson submachines guns ballistically proven to have been used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Those same Thompson submachine guns also found their way into Lyon’s own life. “As I got older, I eventually found myself working for the Berrien County Sheriff's Department as a 911 Dispatcher. I learned that the story my grandma told me had a special connection to my employer: Berrien County holds the two Thompson submachine guns used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, recovered from a Stevensville, Michigan, residence on December 14, 1929.”

For Lyon it was the same feeling as when an archeologist finds an ancient artifact. After years of studying dusty, old archives and papers, history came to life thanks to two tools used in one of the most notorious gangland murders the country had ever seen.

While she was researching the story, Lyon learned that Capone and many of his cohorts used Southwestern Michigan and Northern Indiana as their ‘playground,’ so to speak. “Many of them purchased homes in this area, including Jake Guzik, Louis Campagna, and Philip D'Andrea,” she says. “The location was perfect for golf, beach activities and amusements, as well as a hearty fruit industry that farmers often sold directly to bootleggers. Even gangsters thought we had the best grape wine! It was a revelation to me that gangsters were amongst us during their heyday. What really baffled me was that they were not hiding, as so many legends will tell you incorrectly. These guys walked the streets like they owned them, and in some cases they might really have!”

What surprised Lyon most, though, was how St. Joseph’s citizens reacted to the presence of these hoodlums. “I never imagined that this would have been permitted by the citizens,” she gasps. “What I learned, in fact, was that Capone (photo left) and his men tipped so well that average Joes were lining up to offer their services to the boss himself. Dozens of stories were recounted to me about 12-year old boys collecting $100 tips for caddying and running errands. Now this was probably more money than most adults earned in a month! Regardless of whether it was right or wrong morally, I was amazed at the amount of people who were willing to share their stories and photographs with me.”

This didn’t change after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre either. “Chicago folks were absolutely outraged by the St. Valentine's Day Massacre,” Lyon says. “It was really the case that broke the camel's back. I think by this time the gangland wars had become so steady that a massacre of this degree set the crime apart from all the others. Now the residents in Capone's Playground of Southwestern Michigan and Northern Indiana felt to a certain degree, separated from the bloodbath. This was something that happened on the ‘other side of the lake.’ Since gangster activity had never reached a notable level amongst those who chose to vacation in the area, the massacre was a passing headline. I think eventually the notoriety of the event captured the attention of all Americans, especially when the new science of forensic ballistics was introduced during the coroner's inquest.”

These were different times, Lyon explains. “There was a certain allure of the Prohibition era; the Roaring 20s! Having evolved from the Great War, people were eager to improve their existence in ways beyond the daily drudge. I mean there were scientific discoveries, booms in the manufacturing industry, entertainment advances and even a sort of sexual revolution. Of course with all the advancement, there was one downfall of this era, namely Prohibition itself. But I think the initial momentum was forward thinking; even the gangsters got creative with their vices.”

Chief among them Al Capone, whose criminal empire encompassed not just illegal booze, but gambling, prostitution, extortion, and a variety of dirty rackets he got into thanks to rampant corruption in politics and business.

“Al Capone has often been described as the ultimate CEO,” Lyon tells us. “Even though it's quite cliché', I believe that he had a special gift that only successful business people have. He crafted a product that consumers were demanding and developed an organized company, which he treated very much like a family. Who wouldn't want to work for a boss like that? Obviously, some of the perks were deadly and traitors were dealt with in a manner most inhumane. Capone represented an era and even 100 years after his rule, he is still the most well-known criminal in the world.”

Could he have become a dominant boss if he was operating today? “I think if Capone were around today he would be like El Chapo or the computer hacking group ‘Anonymous,’” Lyon (photo right) answers. “He would definitely have to change up his game being that the competition today is worldwide. Capone had the ability to attract followers and I think he could be a player in modern crime.”

Whatever role he might’ve played in today’s underworld, Capone’s rise and fall still fascinates millions of people around the world. For those who are interested in learning more about Capone’s activities in St. Joseph, Lyon has organized a walking tour through his ‘playground’ on Saturday May 28.

Lyon: “I'm partnering up with local business, PurelyMichigan and Lt. Mike Kline from the Berrien County Sheriff's Department for a short presentation, book signing, and walking tour in downtown St. Joseph. The free event will take place from 2pm to 4pm (Eastern Time) and will include close-up views of the two Thompson submachine guns used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, as well as a host of photographs and other evidence recovered from the home of Fred “Killer” Burke in late 1929. Copies of my book, A Killing in Capone's Playground will be available for purchase and personalized signing. We'll conclude the event with a several block tour of some of the key locations mentioned in the book, including some of the gangsters’ favorite hang-outs.”

The tour has a limit of fifty attendees, Lyon tells us, so make sure you sign up as soon as possible. You can register via email, purelymichigan2015@yahoo.com , or call 269-983-3300. If you cannot make it but still want to purchase a copy of Lyon’s book, you can order one here.

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