Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre: Chicago, 1929

Originally known as St. Valentine’s Day in honor of the early Christian martyr named Valentinus, the holiday that falls on February 14 each year has become a non-religious celebration of love, with such symbols as hearts and Cupid’s arrows printed on mass-produced greeting cards, boxes of chocolates, balloons and more.

But this annual day of love has seen its fair share of violence and brutality. One such occurrence happened 83 years ago today: the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago.

That day, four men posing as police officers entered a local warehouse where George “Bugs” Moran’s gang had been known to store liquor, presumably announcing a raid, which police routinely conducted during Prohibition. They entered the building and ordered seven men, six of them members of Moran’s gang, to line up facing the wall. The police imposters then uncovered machine guns and opened fire, killing all seven men.

The prime suspect was notorious Chicago gangster Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, who became known in the newspapers as “Public Enemy No. 1.” Law enforcement officials, however, could not prove Capone had anything to do with the massacre, since he was in Miami at the time. No one was ever tried for the seven murders.

The massacre launched a public outcry for law enforcement to put a permanent stop to the Chicago gang violence that had soared in the 1920s with the alcohol ban, an unusual reaction from a public numbed by the violence. According to a New York Times piece that ran shortly after the February 1929 events unfolded, local law enforcement officers reacted by taking an aggressive stance on smothering gang activity, gaining control and restoring justice. “It’s a war to the finish,” Chicago Police Commissioner Russell said. “I’ve never known of a challenge like this – the killers posing as policemen – but now the challenge has been made, it’s accepted. We’re going to make this the knell of gangdom in Chicago. ”

As a result of the massacre, federal authorities had reasons to begin investigating Capone, which moved the gang problem to a different jurisdiction than the local Chicago police. Capone eventually faced a string of arrests for other offenses (contempt of court, carrying concealed weapons, income tax evasion) until being released from prison in 1939, dying a recluse in his Miami home eight years later. Although his reputation as a ruthless gangster and his power over the city was clinched on Valentine’s Day, it also brought the beginning of law enforcement involvement that brought about his downfall.

(Pictured: the S.M.C. Cartage garage at the time of the Massacre, with a crowd of curious onlookers;

Museum visitors will be able to learn about this event and many others related to gangsters and law enforcement in the “Gangsters and G-Men” Time Capsule exhibit space, which will feature artifacts such as Al Capone’s bullet-resistant vest and other items belonging to the federal agents who tracked down mobsters of the era.