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The Most Exclusive Residence for Sale

Daniel J. Kelley 30 June 2008 7 Comments

The local real estate market has been quiet as of late. The long term affects of the home mortgage crisis have reduced the number of sales in recent months. Imagine, everyone applying for a mortgage needs to have a complete and thorough credit check performed and the property must be appraised by a qualified professional before any funds can be loaned. A few months ago, before the real estate bubble burst,loan officers were handing out money left and right with little or no questioning whatsoever. Borrowers did not even have to establish that they were legal residents of the USA to qualify for loans.

Ah, well, those palmy, balmy days of the real estate speculation land rush are now a distant memory. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is prepared to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted from its stall. Madigan will be joining other legal officers in suing lenders who made mortgages available to unqualified borrowers and charged confiscatory fees and penalties when the unfortunates defaulted and the banks foreclosed upon their properties. One would almost think that the virtuous step-daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan might be seeking some headlines to further her political ambitions. Do not be so cynical. It is far too early to begin circulating nominating petitions for the 2010 election cycle.

In my wanderings, to and from the clubhouse parking lot and the first tee, I happened to motor through Rogers Park and happened upon a most interesting opportunity for a real estate investor. There is a single family home available for sale or lease on 6081 North Ridge Avenue in Chicago. It is an inauspicious frame house, but it is not without historical interest despite its nondescript appearance.

While that address may not immediately register with you as being significant, it nonetheless has a connection with Chicago’s colorful and unique urban history. Two of the prior residents of the house were a pair of love struck newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Dion O’Banion. O’Banion married Viola Kaniff at Our Lady of Sorrows basilica on West Jackson boulevard before moving into the honeymoon house. By all accounts, it was a happy, if tragically brief, marriage. The groom was employed in a variety of occupations, but was best known as a florist who specialized in funeral arrangements for slain mobsters and deceased criminals. He was the partner of William Schofield in the flower business, which boasted two locations. The main store was immediately opposite Holy Name cathedral on North State Street while a satellite store on Devon avenue served customers on the far north side of the city. The latter location was close to the O’Banion home on Ridge Avenue.

O’Banion was an industrious man with varied business interests which also included a profitable bootlegging operation, gambling houses and speakeasies, hijacking trucks, safecracking, political precinct work, occasional labor racketeering, and other endeavors such as terrorizing newsstand vendors who sold rival newspapers who did not pay O‘Banion tribute to help boost circulation. His closest business associates included Earl “Hymie” Weiss, George “Bugs” Moran, Samuel “Nails” Morton and other worthies. Eventually, O’Banion’s business activities necessitated a move to a luxury apartment building at 3608 North Pine Grove avenue, which was closer to his base of operations in the 42nd and 43rd Wards. O’Banion had attended school at Holy Name and he remained active in the community until his untimely passing.

In 1924, O’Banion’s political favor was courted by both Democratic and Republican politicians alike with a view to carrying the Gold Coast in the November elections. Democratic officials held a testimonial banquet in his honor at the Webster Hotel a few weeks prior to the election. O’Banion accepted their hospitality, but threw in his lot with the Republicans in November and delivered both wards to the GOP on election day. Political observers were amazed by this turn of events as the districts were typically Democratic enclaves.

A few short days after the election day triumph, O’Banion greeted several customers who called at Schofield’s to pick up a funeral arrangement for the late Mike Merlo, the former leader of the Unione Siciliana, a benevolent and fraternal organization that also acted as a front for organized crime. During the course of a friendly conference with his customers, O’Banion was killed instantly when his guests fired multiple shots at him from close range. Appropriately enough, O’Banion had been cut down in the young flower of his manhood. His lifeblood mingled with crushed petals strewn on the shop floor.

The murder investigation file was closed as officially unsolved. The coroner dutifully reported that O’Banion had been killed by persons unknown. Those in the know pointed to the fact that Mike Merlo had been on good terms with O’Banion and stayed the hands of his rivals. As soon as Merlo died of cancer, O’Banion was promptly executed by his foes. They had been offended by the fact that he had insulted and laughed at them too often as he branched out of his assigned territory and expanded his bootlegging operations. Thirsty Chicagoans preferred O’Banion’s products since he sold quality liquors rather than rot gut alky. His success displeased other members of the crime cartel.

Municipal Court Judge John Lyle described the lavish funeral accorded to O’Banion as “the most nauseating thing” that had occurred in his experience. Lyle’s future colleague on the Municipal Court, John Sbarbaro officiated at the funeral proceedings from his family’s funeral parlor on Wells Street. The archdiocese of Chicago forbade the use of Holy Name Cathedral for a Requiem Mass and denied burial for O’Banion’s expensive coffin in consecrated ground at Mount Carmel Cemetery. When a Catholic priest defied the cardinal and prayed at the grave site, he was promptly reassigned to Central America for his insubordination.

While the police department was unable to apprehend O’Banion’s killers, his gang associates were satisfied that they knew who the responsible parties were and took matters into their own hands. Retaliatory gun battles ensued and Chicago soon developed a reputation for gang warfare as O’Banion friends and followers targeted Johnny Torrio, the Genna brothers, and their contract killers, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, for death. Torrio survived his wounds after being shot by Bugs Moran and quit Chicago shortly after recovering in a hospital. He designated his lieutenant Al Capone as his successor in the rackets when he opted to leave Illinois for his health.

Chicago has never seen fit to designate the humble house as a landmark. Geraldo Rivera has not come calling to excavate the basement in search of discarded soft drink bottles. Capone seems to dominate the tourist trade despite opposition from two generations of Daleys. A 2003 biography of O’Banion, “Guns and Roses,“ by Canadian writer Rose Keefe, incorporated Capone’s infamous name into the book’s lengthy subtitle to spur additional sales. It was a good marketing gimmick.

Coincidentally, Mike Merlo’s son, John Merlo, went on to serve in the Illinois General Assembly as both a representative and a state senator. He also was an alderman in the Chicago city council where he represented the 44th Ward. Upon his death, the Chicago Public Library renamed a branch library in Lakeview in his honor. It is called “The Chicago Way. “

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Daniel J. Kelley is a regular contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.”

7 Comments »

  • Eddy (author) said:

    Dan, the modern 42nd is downtown (the old 1st and southern edge of the old 42 after the 92 remap) the modern 43 is Nort Ave.

    Borders change over time, the 19th was once on the west side and known as the “bloody 19th” moved to the far south side to irratate the Dutch and other prostents.

    Where are the 42/43 modern wards.

    Sweep

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    You are quite right about the recent changes occasioned by redistricting. For many years, the historic 42nd and 43rd Wards were immediately North of the Chicago River along the lakefront and bounded by the North Branch of the Chicago River. In former days, before election remap litigation, the ward boundaries did not change so often and when they did the changes were minimal.

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    In answer to a question from a reader, O’Banion’s full name was Dean Charles O’Banion, but for whatever reason the newspapers always printed his name as “Dion O’Banion.” Similarly, his birthplace was in Maroa, Illinois, but the press frequently printed “Aurora, Illinois” instead. Nevertheless, he was always “Dean” to his friends and family members and that is the name engraved on his head stone at Mount Carmel.

  • John Powers (author) said:

    Maroa? Home of many illustrious Central Illinois Irishmen, including members of my own family.

    O’Banion’s had a barber shop, if I recall, it has been closed a long time.

    JBP

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    Absolutely correct, John.

    The best explaination for the repetitive error in all of the newspaper accounts is that a reporter misheard “Aurora” when O’Banion’s father provided the name “Maroa” to a coroner’s jury.

    In almost every account published afterwards, Aurora was listed as O’Banion’s birthplace and hometown. His father once worked as a barber before moving to Chicago. O’Banion’s mother, who died of tuberculosis, is buried in Maroa. When he came into ill gotten money, Dean O’Banion purchased a more expensive headstone for her grave. You will need to seek out Rose Keefe’s book “Guns and Roses” for more details.

  • Finn K (author) said:

    You mentioned how the Cardinal at the time reassigned the priest to central america for his actions. Could you imagine where father Pfleger (excuse me if I am spelling his name wrong) would have been reassined to based on his actions and defiance of the current cardinal. Mars perhaps?

  • :) (author) said:

    Dan,

    If they map Mell any further North will he still be in the city limits of Chicago?

    How much longer will it be before the carve a second downtown ward as the did when 34 move South to adjust for population growth?

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