Sunday, January 25, 2009

Underworld Histories 2: Chicago

IF YOU were an underworld mobster would you really like the nickname "The Clown", or "The German" – or what about "Mad Sam"?

Then there's "Joe Batters" – sounds like someone who works at a fish and chip shop, doesn't it?

But they are all real-life and real scary members of Chicago's underworld: Joey "The Clown" Lombardo (also known as Lumpy), Frank "The German" Schweihs and Samuele "Mad Sam" DeStefano.

Tony "Joe Batters" Accardo (also known as Big Tuna) was the chief executive of the Chicago Outfit, that city's notorious crime gang founded by none other than Al Capone. According to this doco, Accardo earned the Joe Batters moniker because of "his talent of breaking skulls with a baseball bat".

Underworld Histories 2: Chicago is littered with such marvellously rich quotes which could be discarded as the stuff of comic book gratuitousness if it weren't recorded fact.

Like this quote from a former mob member about an associate who was being tortured with an ice pick: "Billy wouldn't come up with anything, so finally they stuck his head in a vice and they started tightening until . . ."

(OK, look away now, or up to the ceiling, like the camera does in Reservoir Dogs when they're ripping that guy's ear off, because I'm about to give you the end of this quote and it's a bit squeamy. So skip to the next paragraph if you need.)

". . . until his eyeball popped out. Then they cut his throat."

Eeee-yuk. Horrible, horrible stuff . . . but you just have to watch it somehow – like a train wreck. Or like when I saw Huey Lewis from the '80s band Huey Lewis And The News playing the part of celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway a few years back.

He was awful . . . eye-poppingly awful. It was a wonder a Chicago mobster on vacation in New York didn't open his violin case and rat-a-tat-tat him right there on stage. But back to America's "second city".

Underworld Histories 2: Chicago details the rise and fall of the Outfit from the Prohibition days of the 1920s through to the wild and wicked '60s and '70s and touches on how the city now copes with its bloody heritage, saying law enforcement agencies now have the upper hand on mobsters.

"For the people of Chicago," the narrator (who's Rory O'Shea, by the way, but who really sounds like he's channelling Phil Hartman's Simpsons character Troy McClure) says, "organised crime is the history and the foundation of the city."

The underworld of Chicago was just that. The city is located on the banks of Lake Michigan and in the mid 19th century much of it was built on stilts to avoid flooding. The bullets and bashings went on in the gloomy shadows around those stilts. But there were a few light moments in the history of the Outfit – the classic being Mad Sam DeStefano.

There's some great footage of him arriving for a pre-trial in the mid-1960s.

He's carried into court on a stretcher and he's rambling incoherently through a bullhorn to the crowds outside.

It looks like a scene from Get Smart. But once again, there is a seriousness behind all this.

DeStefano was convicted of rape and sentenced to three years' imprisonment when he was just 18. He was known as Mad Sam for his sadistic torture methods and the way he'd froth at the mouth and laugh uncontrollably when being interviewed by police.

Considered by some to be a devil worshipper, he also built his own sound-proof torture chamber in his basement.

If ever Heath Ledger had needed an archetype for The Joker, then this was the guy.

Actually, come to think of it, Huey Lewis doesn't look too horrendous against these mobsters. Now that's scary.

Thanks to Geoff Shearer

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