Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio, nicknamed “The Brain,” “The Fox” and “Terrible Johnny,” was born in Italy in 1882. His father died when Johnny was two and his mother immigrated with Torrio to America. They settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where his mother remarried a grocer. After working as a porter at his step-father’s grocery store, which was really a front for illegal activities, Torrio embarked on a life of crime. He soon became the boss of the James Street Gang, and with the money he saved from his ill-gotten gains, Torrio opened his own pool hall, which was his base of operations for his assorted crimes, which included burglaries, robberies, gambling and loan-sharking.
Torrio caught the eye of Paul Kelly, the leader of the 1500-member Five Points Gang. Kelly inserted the diminutive, but tough-as-nails Torrio, as the bouncer in Kelly’s nightclub on Pell Street, considered one of the roughest dives in Manhattan. In a short time, Kelly was so impressed with Torrio’s business acumen, he made Torrio his second-in-command. Torrio figured he could make more money outside the Five Points Gang, so in 1912 he moved his operations to Brooklyn, where he opened a bar, with a hidden brothel, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with his partner, the murderous Frankie Yale. One of his bouncers was the 19-year old Al Capone.
In 1915, Torrio was summoned to Chicago by his uncle-through-marriage “Big Jim” Colosimo, to help Colosimo rid himself of treacherous Black Hand shake-down artists. Torrio had killed whomever needed to have killed and soon Torrio was in charge of Big Jim’s numerous brothels. In 1919, Torrio brought Capone out to Chicago to help with the muscle he needed to keep things running smoothly in the flesh-peddling business.
When Prohibition came into effect in 1920, Torrio saw the potential for tremendous profits by importing, selling and serving illegal booze. He tried to convince Colosimo to pare down his brothels and get into the liquor business, but Colosimo, not seeing the potential of Prohibition, turned him down flat. Frustrated, Torrio concluded Colosimo was in his way of making some big money, and in 1920, he imported Yale from Brooklyn to put Colosimo permanently out of commission. A few bullets did the trick.
After taking over all of Colosimo’s interests, Torrio decided to convince Chicago’s several gangs; other Italians, Irish and Poles, to all join forces, each with their own exclusive territories. Most fell into line, with the notable exception of the North Side Gang headed by Irishman Dion O’Banion. Torrio again called on his pal Yale, and O’Banion was cut down by a barrage of bullets in his flower shop in November, 1924.
“Homicidal” Hymie Weiss took over O’Banion’s operations and his first order of business was to eliminate Torrio. Torrio narrowly escaped death when his limousine was ambushed by Weiss’ shooters. His dog and chauffeur were killed, but Torrio escaped with just two bullet holes in his hat. Torrio was not so lucky a few months later, when he was cornered in front of his apartment building and shot four times. The shooters were Weiss and George “Bugs” Moran.
For ten days, Torrio was near death’s door, and under constant watch by Capone and thirty of his best men. While Torrio was recovering from his wounds, he decided he would live longer if he got out of the rackets completely. He was 43 years old and had accumulated enough cash than he could not spend in several lifetimes. So he handed over all his operations to Capone, saying, “It’s all yours, Al. I’m retiring.”
Torrio absconded with his wife to Italy for a few years, but then returned to America and became mentor to such notables as Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, both of whom came to Torrio many times for advice.
In 1973, Johnny Torrio died of a heart attack at the age of 75, while sitting in barber chair in Brooklyn. He died facing the door, with his eyes wide open, overcautious to the very end.