The following contains spoilers for Fargo season 4.
The FX series Fargo begins every episode of every season with a disclaimer that the stories are true but the names are changed. This gives the show a lot of leeway in picking its stories and how to present them. Fargo season 4 is set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950. Two mobs in one small city make a truce, which appears to be traditional in that part of town. It’s been done for at least two generations. Loy Cannon, played by Chris Rock, boss of an African American crime family, trades his youngest son Satchel (Rodney Jones), with the youngest son of Mafia family boss Donatello Fadda (Tommaso Ragno) to keep the peace. Donatello dies shortly after, in the usual unusual circumstances. There is no evidence of this kind of underworld trade in any of the true crime books I personally own, and have found no references to any books which reference it in an internet search. There was a beef in town which resulted in Mafia deaths and racial skirmishes in the Midwest crime world. They are unconnected but fill in some of the gaps.
But the central conflict in Fargo appears to be, at least inspired by, a crime war in the Midwestern city of Chicago where the Bronzeville area’s Policy Kings came up against Sam Giancana’s The Outfit. This is the same outfit Al Capone once ran, but the specific turf war came in the late 1940s and ended in the early 1950s, exactly when Fargo is set.
Sam Giancana is a fairly well-known crime figure whose fingerprints have dusted such high-profile hits as the JFK assassination and the attempted whack on Fidel Castro. He was one of the CIA’s “Family Jewels.” Giancana started out as a getaway driver for the 40 Thieves gang, which started out by busting heads for Chicago’s political bosses. He was the first member of the wild 42 Gang to get pulled into the majors and the very first thing he did when he came to bat for The Outfit was go after the Policy Kings’ numbers racket.
Fargo’s crime history holds that there were two gangs during the early part of the 20th Century, but the African American gang had been running the area’s policy rackets since 1918 and expanded into surrounding neighborhoods during the “Roaring 20s.” Black street gangs formed in the Bronzeville area after the 1919 race riots with Irish gangs. After the riots, the gangs became go-betweens for tourists looking for the best food, a good time, or the hottest jazz clubs, of which the neighborhood was loaded. They also showed out-of-towners where to gamble, get laid, or score drugs. The Policy Kings recruited from street talent, just like the Outfit chose Giancana.
The numbers racket is an illegal street lottery where people pick three numbers which are determined by a random drawing the next day, usually the last three numbers of racetrack totals. You place bets with a bookie and runners transport betting slips and cash to the numbers bank. In the Black section of Chicago it was called the Wheel Game, and the Policy Kings set talented gang members up with wheels of their own. The wheels had two drawings a day, one in the afternoon and another at night, bets were picked up every two hours by wheel men. Bookies got 25 percent of their bets. The bank got the rest. It was a no-lose proposition for the house.
During World War II, the epicenter of the Bronzeville area, Grand Boulevard, housed the Black upper class and celebrities on the east side and the struggling citizens on the west. The Policy Kings was stitched together by a tailor named Edward P. Jones, who went in with his brothers on a Wheel. Edward started as a slip runner and borrowed the $15,000 to start his own wheel, called the Harlem-Bronx, from his mother. Jones’ first runner was Teddy Roe, who was working as a tailor in the shop, which was really a front for a policy wheel. Born in Galliano, Louisiana, and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Roe had been going back and forth between legitimate work and bootlegging, and could pass for white according to the book, Robin Hood of the Hood: The Life and Times of Teddy Roe, Policy King by Ron Chepesiuk and Michael Roe. He would go on to build an illegal gambling empire on Chicago’s South Side.
The street lottery was protected by politicians Edward Joseph Kelly and Patrick Nash. Chicago’s “Big Twelve Policy Syndicate” was organized in 1932. Energized by the Black vote, the city’s Democratic Party gave tacit approval the next year. By 1938 the Policy Kings were making $10,000 a day. Al Capone noticed their success but left the Black neighborhoods in the hands of the Jones Brothers. By 1946, The Policy Kings were pulling in more than $25 million a year.
Racketeers routinely gave back to the community. This bought them goodwill, and more than its investment in terms of alibis. Roe was nicknamed “The Robin Hood of the Southside” because he paid hospital bills for newborns, funeral tabs for the dead, and was known to hand out $50 bills to the homeless. But also, because he expanded into legitimate businesses and hired locally. Like the Chris Rock character’s operation on Fargo, The Policy Kings were the Black community’s banks and employers in Chicago.
The numbers game generated a lot of money to poor neighborhoods and the Policy Kings kept it there, investing in car dealerships, supermarkets and churches. The Jones brothers bought the Ben Franklin department store which employed 150 people, and was also convenient as a front their policy bank. They bought apartment buildings, first on the South Side and then in more affluent neighborhoods. They also lived large. Eddie Jones’ wife Lydia was a former Cotton Club chorus line beauty queen. She wore satin or mink every day.
Jones and Giancana were cellmates at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Giancana was doing time for bootlegging. Jones was serving 28 months for tax evasion, a rap he took to take the heat off his family. The Jones brothers had been working with the other cellmate, Billy Skidmore, who ran 19 casinos inside Chicago’s red-light district. Prodded by Skidmore, a proud Jones told Giancana he ran the biggest of thirty policy games in the city. When Giancana got out of jail in 1946, he brought the idea of taking over the Black policy games to Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, who had been the de facto boss since Capone’s imprisonment, but he and future Outfit boss Tony Accardo, also known as “Joe Batters” and “Big Tuna,” were caught up in a Hollywood labor investigation.
Giancana and “Fat” Leonard Caifano, a bookmaker and loan shark, visited Jones in prison to get him to put up the money for a vending machine operation. Jones gave his brother George orders to bankroll it. Within six months, they had 12,000 jukeboxes, cigarette and pinball machines, and a crew of about 500. The machines were legal, but the soda, candy, records and cigarettes which were in them fell off the backs of trucks.
The mob, seeing earning potential in the African American neighborhood, kidnapped Jones in May of 1946, and demanded $100,000 and a promise he hand over the policy rackets as ransom. Jones was held for five days and released at the corner of Loomis and 62nd Street, with adhesive tape over his eyes, and cotton stuffed in his ears. Roe paid the money, but decided to keep the rackets for himself. Jones moved his whole family to Mexico, though they could have moved to the villa in France where their mother Harriet lived.
Roe did not like or trust the white mob. He was respected as a crook with honor because he refused to give in to the Outfit, stiffing the mobsters their street tax. Ricca and Accardo didn’t take interest in the Black policy rackets until November of 1946, when Tom Manno drove them to the operation’s basement counting room which was filled with piles of money stacked to the ceiling. Accardo gave the order to take control of the policy business by January 1947.
Caifano tried to work out a partnership agreement, but Roe refused to even meet with him. He never backed down from a fight, vowing never knuckle under to any white gangster. A dozen mobsters from The Outfit and an unknown number of Roe’s gang were killed in the gang battle by the end of 1946. Caifano took over gambling parlors and set up bookie joints in the Black wards. Roe’s house was bombed, his wife and children were shot at, his collectors were beaten. Roe became a living legend in the Black community just for surviving, and it was good for business as the betting grew as part of neighborhood unity.
Giancana personally met with Roe. He offered him $250,000 in cash to quit the policy rackets. Roe told him “I’ll die first.” Giancana reasoned he “just might.” On June 19, 1951, Fat Lenny tried to kidnap Roe. He and his brother, Marshall Caifano, along with Vincent Ioli flagged down Roe and his three off-duty Chicago-cop bodyguards. Fat Lenny got shot in the head when they tried to pull Roe into the car. Bill Baxter, one of the off-duty cops, reputedly fired the fatal shot, but Roe took the rap.
The Chicago Police Department booked Roe for murder and put him in Cook County jail. After hearing reports he might be executed, they put him under extra heavy guard and Roe’s meals were prepared outside the jail in case someone tried to poison him. Roe was also charged with conspiracy to violate the state anti-gambling statute. He was denied bail six times before and during his trial. For the murder charge, Roe pleaded self-defense. His defense team linked the prosecution to the mob and Roe beat the case. Roe told reporters “They’ll have to kill me to take me” when he left the courtroom.
But Roe didn’t beat mob rule. Lenny Caifano was a made man, and his brother Marshall Joseph Caifano, was a capo. After Caifano’s killing, Giancana waged a shakedown war on Chicago’s Black bookmakers. Roe was hiding out in his mansion on South Michigan Avenue. He hired a small army for protection, according to Kings: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers by Nathan Thompson. On Aug. 1, 1952, doctors told Roe he had incurable cancer. He dismissed his bodyguard. On August 4, 1952, he left his house dressed in a three-piece suit and hat. Roe was hit in the back, face and jaw by five blasts from a 12-gage shotgun before he reached the other side of the street. He did not have a chance to pull out his revolver. He died slumped against a tree outside 5239 S. Michigan Ave.
“The king is dead,” Chicago newspapers reported. Roe’s was the biggest funeral Chicago’s Black community had since Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champ, died in 1946. Roe was laid out in a $5,000 casket. He had an 81-car funeral procession. Thousands of people lined the streets.
Police said they had no clues in the killing. They disagreed on whether the Outfit hired hit men or if it was other racketeers. In the early 1970s, Giancana was caught on an FBI wire tape admitting Roe “went out like a man. He had balls. It was a fuckin’ shame to kill him.”
After the last Policy King was gunned down, Giancana took over the Policy racket and began selling Heroin. The largest street gang in the neighborhood by that time was the Deacons, who could do little to protect the neighborhood.
Fargo airs Sundays at 10 pm on FX.