Johnny Torrio, AKA “The Fox” and “Papa Johnny” (1882 – 1957), is best known as the founder of the Chicago Outfit – the criminal empire inherited and made infamous by his protege and successor, Al Capone. He started his criminal career in a street gang, became its leader, and steadily worked his way up the criminal world’s ranks with gambling and loansharking, before catching the eye of Paul Kelly, leader of NYC’s Five Points Gang, who took him on as a protege.
He was invited to Chicago by his aunt’s husband, “Big Jim” Colosimo, who owned over 100 brothels, to deal with extortionists preying on his businesses. Torrio did and stayed on as Colosimo’s right hand and muscle. As soon as Prohibition was declared in January of 1920, Torrio recognized the opportunity for fabulous riches to be made in making alcohol and selling it at a steep markup, now that it was illegal. A criminal visionary, he came up with the idea of buying breweries, now shuttered and thus readily purchased for pennies on the dollar, and operating them illegally to supply the thousands of speakeasies, brothels, and nightclubs in Chicago and the surrounding region.
However, when he ran the idea by his boss, Colosimo rejected it, reasoning that all of Chicago’s criminal outfits were thinking the same thing, and involvement would invite troubles and drag him into confrontations he would sooner avoid. When Torrio proposed running it on his own, assuming all the risk and splitting the proceeds with Colosimo, his boss prohibited him, decreeing that nobody in his organization was to participate in bootlegging.
The potential profits were too lucrative, however, and Torrio, with the assistance of his protege, Al Capone, went ahead and purchased breweries without informing Colosimo, and began operating them and raking in the profits. However, juggling the books, which were regularly inspected by Colosimo, started getting tricky, and when Colosimo started getting suspicious, Torrio struck first, calling in Frankie Yale from NYC, who shot Colosimo dead in May 1920. Within hours of Colosimo’s death, Torrio took over his empire, creating what became known as The Chicago Outfit, and becoming that city’s biggest Mafiosi and one of its most powerful kingpins.
As the Outfit expanded its operations from its base in Chicago’s South Side, it came into conflict with the Irish-American North Side Gang. After initial attempts at peaceful coexistence failed, Torrio ordered the murder of the North Side boss in November 1924, sparking a bloody gang war. In retaliation, Torrio was ambushed outside his apartment with a fusillade of gunfire, taking bullets to the jaw, lung, abdomen, groin, and legs. Severely wounded, he was spared from a finishing shot to the skull by the killer’s gun jamming. The near-death experience frightened Torrio, and convinced him to get out while he still could, and in 1925 he handed control of the Outfit to Capone and moved to Italy.
His retirement did not last long, however – Mussolini’s crackdown on Mafiosi forced Torrio back to the US in 1928, where he became a mob consultant and respected emeritus figure. A visionary and one of the American mafia’s most talented and intelligent leaders, Torrio branched out from traditional crime and went into the boardrooms, becoming the godfather of corporate crime. He also set up the National Crime Syndicate – a loose confederation of several ethnic organizations, mainly the American mafia and the Jewish mob, and to a lesser extent, Irish-American outfits and African-American gangsters, among a total of 14 different organization, which cooperated from 1929 until the 1960s. He died peacefully, of a heart attack on a barber’s chair in 1957.