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Valentine's Day in Chicago Evokes City's Gangster Past

Most people think of St. Valentine's Day as a time for lovers, but for crime buffs and those interested in gangland history the day will always be associated with a gruesome crime on the north side of Chicago in 1929. On that day gunmen, supposedly working for gangster Al Capone, used machine-guns to murder seven men from a rival gang. Civic leaders in Chicago would like to leave all that in the past, but, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Chicago, people remain fascinated by the era.

Visitors to Chicago can experience the light side of its nefarious past at Tommy Gun's Garage, a dinner theater featuring actors portraying hoods and flappers from the Prohibition era.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, U.S. law prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages nationwide. Gangsters, like Chicago's Al Capone, took advantage of the ban to make a fortune by supplying beer and liquor to the public through a clandestine system.

Rival gangs fighting over the illicit profits killed scores of people and tarnished the reputation of Chicago. The most infamous incident was the Valentine's Day Massacre.

Chicagoan John Binder is author of the book "The Chicago Outfit," (by Arcadia Publishing) a book about the city's underworld history.

"The mayor and the city fathers may not like the fact that Chicago has this gangster history associated with it, going back to Prohibition and continuing to the present day, but history is history," he said.

Binder sometimes gives tours to people interested in seeing the places where the gangs once operated, even though not many of the old buildings remain, including the site of the Valentine's Day massacre.

He says, "In the city proper, I can pretty much take them to where things used to be. Even if the buildings are gone, it gives you a rough feel, or maybe more than a rough feel, for what happened and where and who was where and in what part of the city, beyond just reading a book."

Binder, who teaches finance at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus, says organized crime is a business and its members are in it for the money.

He says understanding the background of this type of crime can help Chicago and other cities more effectively fight it. "Organized crime is a civic cancer. It is still around in Chicago today. If we want to understand better how to fight it and minimize the influence of organized crime including on the political system, you have to take a close look at what it is and what they do and how they do it."

And, of course, the gangs of Chicago's Prohibition era will always live on in the movies, keeping the subject alive in the public's imagination.

"Doorway to Hell" , 1930, movie footage courtesy of Warner Brothers