John Donato Torrio (born Donato Torrio, [doˈnaːto ˈtoːrrjo]; January 20, 1882 – April 16, 1957) was an Italian American mobster who helped to build a criminal organization, the Chicago Outfit, in the 1920s; it was later inherited by his protégé, Al Capone. He also put forth the idea of the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and later became an unofficial adviser to Lucky Luciano and his Luciano crime family.
He gained several nicknames but was mostly known as "The Fox" for his cunning and finesse. Widely considered one of the most influential personalities in American organized crime, Torrio impressed authorities and chroniclers with his business acumen and diplomatic skills.
The US Treasury official Elmer Irey considered him "the biggest gangster in America" and wrote, "He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums. 'Best' referring to talent, not morals." Virgil W. Peterson of the Chicago Crime Commission stated that his "talents as an organizational genius were widely respected by the major gang bosses in the New York City area." Crime journalist Herbert Asbury affirmed: "As an organizer and administrator of underworld affairs Johnny Torrio is unsurpassed in the annals of American crime; he was probably the nearest thing to a real mastermind that this country has yet produced".
Torrio was born in Irsina (then known as Montepeloso), Basilicata, in Southern Italy, to Tommaso Torrio and Maria Carluccio originally from Altamura, Apulia. When he was two his father, a railway employee, died in a work accident; shortly after, Torrio immigrated to New York City with his widowed mother in December 1884. She later remarried.
His first jobs were as a porter and bouncer in Manhattan. While he was a teenager, he joined a street gang and became its leader; he eventually managed to save enough money and opened a billiards parlor for the group, and from there grew illegal activities such as gambling and loan sharking. Torrio's business sense caught the eye of Paul Kelly, the leader of the infamous Five Points Gang. Torrio's gang ran legitimate businesses, but its main concern was the numbers game, supplemented by incomes from bookmaking, loan sharking, hijacking, prostitution, and opium trafficking. Al Capone, who worked at Kelly's club, admired Torrio's quick mind and looked to him as his mentor.
Capone had belonged to the Junior Forty Thieves, the Bowery Boys and the Brooklyn Rippers; they soon moved up to the Five Points Gang. Torrio eventually hired Capone to bartend at the Harvard Inn, a bar in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn owned by Torrio's business associate, Frankie Yale.
Move to Chicago
Torrio was the nephew of Victoria Moresco, the wife and business partner of "Big Jim" Colosimo, who had become the owner of more than 100 brothels in Chicago. According to Laurence Bergreen, "Torrio is [also] described as Colosimo’s nephew, but in the absence of any evidence to confirm the relationship, it is more likely their kinship was spiritual rather than familial."
In 1909, Colosimo invited Torrio to Chicago to deal with extortion demands from the Black Hand. Torrio eliminated the extortionists and stayed on; he ran Colosimo's operations and organized the criminal muscle needed to deal with threats to them.
In 1919, Capone also left New York for Chicago at the invitation of Torrio. Capone began in Chicago as a bouncer in a brothel, where he contracted syphilis. Timely use of Salvarsan probably could have cured the infection, but he apparently never sought treatment.
When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, Torrio pushed for the gang to enter into bootlegging, but Colosimo stubbornly refused. In March 1920, Colosimo secured an uncontested divorce from Moresco. A month later, he and Dale Winter eloped to West Baden Springs, Indiana. Upon their return, he bought a home on the South Side. On May 11, 1920, Torrio called and told Colosimo that a shipment was about to arrive at his restaurant. Colosimo drove there to await it, but instead he was shot in an ambush and killed. Frankie Yale had allegedly traveled from New York to Chicago and personally killed longtime gang boss Colosimo at the behest of Chicago Outfit friends Torrio and Capone. Although suspected by Chicago police, Yale was never officially charged. Colosimo was allegedly murdered because he stood in the way of his gang making bootlegging profits, having "gone soft" after his marriage with Winter. Al Capone has also been suggested as the gunman. Colosimo's ex-wife, unhappy with the financial arrangements of the divorce, is also theorized having arranged the murder.
Rivalry with North Side Gang
Torrio headed an essentially Italian organized crime group that was the biggest in the city, with Capone as his right-hand man. He was wary of being drawn into gang wars and tried to negotiate agreements over territory between rival crime groups. The smaller North Side Gang led by Dean O'Banion (also known as Dion O'Banion) was of mixed ethnicity, and it came under pressure from the Genna brothers who were allied with Torrio. O'Banion found that Torrio was unhelpful with the encroachment of the Gennas into the North Side, despite his pretensions to be a settler of disputes. In a fateful step, Torrio either arranged for or acquiesced to the murder of O'Banion at his flower shop on November 10, 1924. This placed Hymie Weiss at the head of the gang, backed by Vincent Drucci and Bugs Moran. Weiss had been a close friend of O'Banion, and the North Siders made it a priority to get revenge on his killers.
Assassination attempt and handover to Capone
In January 1925, Capone was ambushed, leaving him shaken but unhurt. Twelve days later, on January 24, Torrio was returning from a shopping trip with his wife Anna, when he was shot several times. After recovering, he effectively resigned and handed control to Capone, age 26, who became the new boss of an organization that took in illegal breweries and a transportation network that reached to Canada, with political and law-enforcement protection. In turn, he was able to use more violence to increase revenue. An establishment that refused to purchase liquor from him often got blown up, and as many as 100 people were killed in such bombings during the 1920s. Rivals saw Capone as responsible for the proliferation of brothels in the city.
In late 1925, Torrio moved to Italy, where he no longer dealt directly in mob business, with his wife and mother. He gave total control of the Outfit to Capone and said, "It's all yours, Al. Me? I'm quitting. It's Europe for me." Torrio left a criminal empire which grossed about $70,000,000 a year ($997,500,000 in 2018 dollars) from bootleg booze, gambling and prostitution.
In 1928, Torrio returned to the United States, as Benito Mussolini began putting pressure on the Mafia in Italy. He is credited with helping to organize a loose cartel of East Coast bootleggers, the Big Seven, in which a number of prominent gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, Longy Zwillman, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky played a part. Torrio also supported creation of a national body that would prevent the sort of all-out turf wars between gangs that had broken out in Chicago and New York. His idea was well received, and a conference was hosted in Atlantic City by Torrio, Lansky, Luciano and Costello in May 1929; the National Crime Syndicate was created.
Torrio was charged with income tax evasion in 1936, and after several failed appeals, Torrio was sent to prison in 1939, serving two years. After his release, he lived quietly until his death.
On April 16, 1957, Torrio had a heart attack in Brooklyn while he was sitting in a barber's chair waiting for a haircut; he died several hours later in a nearby hospital.
The media did not learn about his death until three weeks after his burial.
In popular culture
Torrio has been portrayed several times in television and motion pictures:
- by Osgood Perkins in the 1932 film, Scarface (as Johnny Lovo).
- by Nehemiah Persoff in the 1959 film, Al Capone.
- by Charles McGraw in the 1959 television series of The Untouchables.
- by Harry Guardino in the 1975 film, Capone.
- by Guy Barile in the 1992 film, The Babe.
- by Frank Vincent in the 1993 The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode "Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues".
- by Byrne Piven in the pilot episode of the 1993 television series, The Untouchables.
- by Kieron Jecchinis in the 1994 television series, In Suspicious Circumstances.
- by Greg Antonacci in the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
- by David John Cole in the 2016 independent film Capone
- by Paolo Rotondo in the 2016 television miniseries The Making of the Mob: Chicago
- by Al Sapienza in the 2017 film Gangster Land