Miles Kington: Love letters straight from a Thompson sub-machine gun

Al Capone's men apparently had no instructions covering dogs working for Bugs Moran, so they spared him. Thanks, guys
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It being a good day for kind sentiments and messages of love, and so on, I thought it would be nice to ask you to spare a thought for the following: Johnny May, Frank Gusenberg, Pete Gusenberg, James Clark, Adam Heyer, Al Weinshank and Reinhardt Schwimmer.

Do the names ring any bells?

They probably won't, unless you are a quiz fanatic.

Here is a clue. They all died on the same day, in the same place, 77 years ago. Today.

I am afraid that is all the clues you are going to get, because if you haven't already guessed that they were the victims of the St Valentine's Day massacre, you never will.

Yes, 77 years ago today Johnny, Frank, Pete and the others were in a big warehouse waiting for a lorry full of illicit whisky to arrive from Detroit. They were all (except one ) employees of Bugs Moran, Al Capone's chief rival in the moonshine business, and Al Capone knew that they were going to be there on that day, with Bugs in charge, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do some Bugs spraying.

So what actually arrived outside the warehouse was not a lorry but a police car full of policemen, who went into the warehouse and told everyone there to stand against the wall for a routine check, which they did. Only, these guys weren't policemen. They were employees of Al Capone, dressed up as policemen. And when the Bugs Moran gang were standing up against the wall, the fake policemen drew tommy guns and gunned them all down as they stood there.

Nobody survived. Except for Johnny May's dog. Johnny May was a crook who had been hired by Bugs Moran as a mechanic, and he was actually working on the engine of a truck when the fake policemen arrived. He had brought his dog to work with him and tied it to the bumper. Al Capone's men apparently had no instructions covering dogs working for Bugs Moran, so they spared him. Thanks, guys.

In a way, you can't blame Al Capone for organising a massacre like this, because Bugs Moran had previously tried to do the very same for Al Capone. A year or two before, Bugs had organised a drive-past of several cars, going very slowly past Al Capone's HQ, riddling the place with machine-gun bullets, hoping to eliminate Capone.

Not only did they not get Capone, they did not get anyone. As gangland massacres went, it was a total failure.

But that seems typical of Bugs Moran. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but Bugs Moran was never in danger of being called the brains behind anything. Brawn, yes, brains, no. There was one time, for instance, when he had ambushed a much-feared rival, Johnny Torrio and, as Torrio lay riddled with bullets, Moran stood over him to deliver the coup de grâce in the head. The story is that his gun jammed. Or he ran out of ammo. Either way, Torrio survived.

And the reason that Bugs Moran survived the Valentine's Day Massacre is that he turned up very late for the rendezvous. By the time he got there, the fake policemen had already arrived, and, from his car, Moran spotted them going into the building. He skedaddled. For once, his inefficiency had saved him.

The oddest thing about the whole business is that one of the victims was not a criminal or gangster at all. That was the one called Reinhardt Schwimmer, whose day job was involved with making spectacles and who is variously described as an optometrist, or an optical mechanic. Dull work, I guess, which is probably why he fell in love with the life of the Chicago mobsters, who had a much more glamorous job than he did.

He got to know them, he hung out with them - and, on the morning of 14 February 1929, he asked if he could come along to be there when the whisky shipment arrived from Canada, via Detroit. "Sure, why not?" was the answer. It was the wrong answer. The right answer was: "No, you can't because you'll be shot dead, along with the rest of us."

On that cheerful note, a happy Valentine's Day to everyone.