Boardwalk Empire Season 5: The Real Johnny Torrio

We take a detailed look at a key player on Boardwalk Empire season 5, the real Johnny Torrio.

SPOILER ADVISORY: These Boardwalk Empire lineups are based on history. Chances are what really went down will spoil what’s going to happen on the show. 

Johnny Torrio was known as “Papa Johnny” “The Fox” and “The Immune.” He is best known for being Al Capone’s boss in Chicago. But Johnny Torrio should be known as “The Architect,” because he drew up the blueprints for the National Syndicate. Johnny Torrio died in a barber’s chair. But not in a hail of bullets like his associate, Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia, who died of “natural” causes, when measured by the mob. Torrio’s ticker died out. He actually died unnaturally in an oxygen tent a couple hours later. On Boardwalk Empire, Johnny Torrio is played by Greg Antonacci.

Giovanni Torrio was born in Irsina, Italy, in 1882, although the intrepid fact-checkers at reddit will say I’m wrong that he was born in Naples or Amalfi but fuck them, they’ve been correcting my shit with bad info, Big Six my ass. Torrio’s old man died when he was a kid and his mother took him to New York when he was 2. They settled in the Lower East Side, the home of the street gangs The Whyos, the Dead Rabbits, The Plug Uglies and The Bowery Boys (not to be confused with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the boys, well, maybe to be confused with them), remnants of the street captains that Martin Scorsese showed in Gangs of New York. Johnny Torrio ran with the James Street Boys, which he brought together with the Five Points Gang.

Johnny Torrio wasn’t always a criminal, when he was a kid he worked as a porter in his stepfather’s grocery store. Of course, it wasn’t really a grocery store. Yeah, it had some milk and cheese, but it was really a front to sell moonshine. Johnny Torrio’s James Street crew opened their own pool hall, put money on the street and kicked up enough money to local mobster Paolo Vaccarelli, AKA Paul Kelly, that he made Johnny Torrio his underboss in the Five Points Gang. Torrio used this to swap jobs with Frankie Yale’s crew. Kelly told Torrio to stop cursing and cultivate some legit businesses. Torrio was in charge of a crew that included Danny “Big Wang” Glaister, and “the Juniors'” Jimmy “The Shiv” DeStefano and a pre-Scarface Al Capone, who Torrio sent to work at Yale’s Harvard Inn on Coney Island, where Capone got his scar.

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Through some family connections, Johnny Torrio got a job taking care of Black Hand problems in Chicago for “Big Jim” or “Diamond Jim” Colosimo.  Colosimo was married to Torrio’s aunt Victoria Moresco. Torrio broke the Black Hand’s thumbs by hiring help and killing them at a drop off point. Torrio stayed in Chicago to keep an eye on Colosimo’s string of cathouses, refurbishing most of the bordellos, cleaning the crabs from the cribs and turning them into classy places. Frankie Yale got in touch with Torrio in 1918 so he could help out Al Capone who was ducking a murder rap. Prison records, however, show that Capone didn’t arrive in Chicago until 1921. Torrio made Capone a bouncer and a roper at one of his brothels and then made Capone a manager of The Four Deuces. Meanwhile Torrio and Jean Forrenzo made themselves a son, who they tried to pass off as George Miller.

Johnny Torrio’s family connections ran out when “Big Jim” Colosimo divorced Johnny’s aunt in 1920. The Volstead Act had just passed (on Jan 17, 1920, Al Capone’s 21st birthday) and Torrio wanted to take advantage of it. Colosimo had just married una miricana Dale Winter and wanted to lay low and stay out of the headlines. Oo fa. Torrio asked permission from the Aiello family to bring the Beau Brummell of Brooklyn, Frankie Yale, into town to break Colosimo’s shoes. They did and Yale did the job on Colosimo with a .38 behind his ear in his own Café on May 11, 1920. The murder was never solved even though everyone, including Victoria Moresco, was questioned. Torrio became a bootlegger and expanded The Outfit, bringing in millions from downtown Chicago. Uptown wasn’t too thrilled.

[related article: 20 Real-Life Gangsters Who Inspired Boardwalk Empire]

Uptown was called the Gold Coast and it was controlled by Dion O’Banion and his North Side Gang. The Genna crime family controlled Little Italy and wanted to go prospecting. The Gennas were six brothers from Marsala, Sicily, “Bloody” Angelo, Antonio “The Gentleman”, Mike “The Devil”, Peter, Sam, and Vincenzo, who they called “Jim,” who survived the Alderman Wars in Chicago and now represented Cosa Nostra in Chicago. Torrio brokered a deal splitting the territories and the Gennas didn’t give a shit. They sold booze in O’Banion’s neighborhood. O’Banion turned to Torrio, who was from the Naples area and represented the Camorra to help him with the Mafia. Torrio asked Mike Merlo, the boss of the Unione Siciliana, to pull the Gennas back. Then O’Banion got stupid and boosted Genna’s whiskey and stiffed Torrio. The Gennas and Torrio went to Frankie Yale, who was the national director of Unione Siciliana and not really bound by the politics of his local counterpart, to say the least. Yale brought in John Scalise and Albert Anselmi to deliver O’Banion some flowers. Which they did on Nov. 10, 1924. Mike Genna drove them home.

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Two months later, on Saturday, January 24, 1925, Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and Bugs Moran from the North Side Gang went for payback. They went after Torrio when he was coming home from shopping with his wife, Anna. Hymie Weiss and George “Bugs” Moran shot Torrio and his chauffeur with a .45 automatic and a .12 gauge shotgun Torrio was carrying packages for his wife. Bugs Moran was going to polish Torrio off, pressed his .45 to Torrio’s temple for the final blow but ran out of bullets. Drucci signaled the getaway and they left Torrio for dead in front of his own apartment on 7106 South Clyde Avenue. Torrio instructed the ambulance driver to cauterize the wounds because he believed the bullet-tips were smeared with garlic. Torrio lived and proved himself a standup guy. When he got out of the hospital he did a year for violating the Volstead Act. When he got out of jail Torrio decided he missed Italy. In 1925, Torrio told Capone “It’s all yours Al” and took off for Europe.

It’s a good thing he did. After the attempted hit, the North Side Gang went after The Outfit and the Genna family constantly. Bugs Moran shot and killed the Genna don, Angelo Genna, during a car chase in May 1925. Mike Genna was killed by cops after he tried to take out Moran and Drucci. On July 8, “Tony the Gentleman” Genna was shot in the back five times while shaking hands with Giuseppe “The Cavalier” Nerone. As Nerone shook Tony’s hand in front of a grocery store, an unidentified man stepped forward and shot Tony five times in the back. Nerone bought it in a barbershop a couple days later. The Outfit was hit hard but survived. Frank Nitti planned the Hymie Weiss hit in 1926. Vincent Drucci was killed on the way to a police station for questioning by angry cop Detective Dan Healy on April 4, 1927.

Torrio came back to the United States when Benito Mussolini was cracking down on the Mafia in Italy in 1928. Torrio was tired of the wars and organized the Big Seven, which included East Coast bosses Lucky Luciano, Longy Zwillman, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky, and would evolve into the National Crime Syndicate. Torrio and Dutch Schultz ran a legitimate bail bond operation. When Shultz was killed in 1936, Torrio thought it might be a good time to see Brazil. The feds nabbed Torrio on tax evasion charges while he was picking up his passport and he went to jail for another two years starting in 1939.

When Torrio got out of prison, he kept his nose clean, investing in real estate in Brooklyn, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Cincinnati. He died in the hospital after suffering a heart attack in a Brooklyn barber shop in 1957. The newspapers didn’t find out about Torrio’s death until three weeks after he was buried. Elmer Lincoln Irey, the head of the IRS unit that nabbed Al Capone, called Torrio “the biggest gangster in America. He was the smartest and, I dare say, the best of all the hoodlums.”

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