Thursday, September 22, 2011

Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife.

In 1934, an attempt to publish Georgette Winkeler's memoir was squelched by the mob. Found buried in FBI files 50 years later, the manuscript is now the focus of a new book, "Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife."

Author William J. Helmer weaves gangster history into the pages of Winkeler's record of her life with a member of Al Capone's Chicago mob. Some of the history centers around the capture of Fred "Killer" Burke, with ties to Berrien County.

Helmer credits local historian Chriss Lyon with much of the account of Burke's capture and the events in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph leading up to it.

"I've been working with him for about three years on this," said Lyon, communications supervisor at the Berrien County 911 Dispatch Center and a local historian and author. She is credited on page 123 of Helmer's book and listed as one of the people to whom he dedicates the book. "She was a big help in picking up the details related to the car wreck and the capture of Burke. She got all kinds of details," Helmer said in a phone interview from his home in Boerne, Texas, near San Antonio.

Helmer said that while researching the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, he learned some basic information about Burke's killing of a police officer in St. Joseph, but that Lyon filled in many details.

Burke was a member of Al Capone's gang involved in the massacre, as was August "Gus" Winkeler, Georgette Winkeler's husband. The guns used in the massacre were found at a house Burke owned in Stevensville and are now with the Berrien County Sheriff's Department. Before he was captured, Burke - believed to be one of Capone's hit men in the massacre in Chicago — shot and killed St. Joseph policeman Charles Skelley in 1929 following a traffic accident in St. Joseph. Lyon helped provide details for that section of the book.

"I got acquainted with (Helmer) through a group of people who are all working on stuff related to Al Capone," Lyon said. "He was trying to find information about Georgette, and being a genealogist, I produced information that built my credibility with him."

Helmer stumbled upon Georgette Winkeler's manuscript buried in an FBI file while doing his own research.

He said that after her husband was murdered in 1933, Georgette Winkeler attempted suicide. Then she wrote her memoirs for a book intended to expose the workings of the Chicago syndicate. Her publisher declared the book "too hot" to publish, Helmer said, probably because she names several gangsters and was threatened by the mob.

Helmer said that a frustrated Georgette Winkeler gave her manuscript to the FBI office in Chicago, where he found it buried in a file decades later.

Georgette met Gus Winkeler while she and her sister were operating a rooming house near downtown St. Louis. Despite some concerns about his behavior and his acquaintances, she soon married him. He promised to give up his old habits and companions. But Gus Winkeler soon resumed illegal activities with his old buddies, participating in a holdup with Fred "Killer" Burke, a St. Louis hoodlum. Winkeler was shot and, instead of taking him to a doctor, Burke removed the bullet from his arm with a razor blade. It was just the start of Georgette Winkeler's life with a gang member.

That life included her husband's involvement in the famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Orchestrated by Chicago mobster Al Capone, the plan was to eliminate north-side bootlegging rival George "Bugs" Moran, who escaped being killed. But the shooters, including Winkeler and Burke, killed five members of Moran's gang and a mechanic and optometrist who were known to hang out with gangsters.

Burke was never charged in connection with the massacre, but was convicted in Berrien County of the shooting death of the St. Joseph policeman and sentenced to life in prison. He died in Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula in 1940.

On page 123 of his book, Helmer notes that Lyon learned, among other things, that Burke had been a model prisoner who raised canaries in his cell. Before he died, Burke wrote a note in a Christmas card to Jane Irene Cutler, widow of the late Fred J. Cutler, Berrien County sheriff at the time of Burke's arrest.

"If every boy had a chance to come in contact with a man like Fred Cutler, life would be different," Burke wrote.

Lyon said she was honored to work with Helmer, who she said has written "the gold-standard" in gangster history books.

Helmer is also the author of "The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar," ''The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," ''Dillinger," and "The Public Enemies Almanac."

Regarding his newest book, she said, "It's a great read, and there's a good amount of Berrien County reference."

In large part, that's due to Lyon.

Thanks to Julie Swidwa

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