When people hear the word "gangster" they immediately conjure up images of characters in the television show The Sopranos or in movies such as The Godfather or Goodfellas. So imagine my surprise when I found out as a young adult that my sweet, lovely Nonna had a brother who was in the Jewish mafia. Could this really be true? I had heard my Nonna speak lovingly of her brother Samuel. He had a strong devotion to his family and always expressed kindness to others, especially those in need. "He helped a lot of people", she would say. Samuel "Nails" Morton was considered a defender of the Jewish people by some, and suspect by others. While his life was cut short at the age of 29, it unfolds to tell quite an amazing story.
Samuel was born on July 3, 1893 in New York City. He came to Chicago at an early age with his Russian immigrant parents. Growing up on the west side of Chicago in poverty and without a great deal of opportunity, Samuel fell into gang warfare along with other ethnic groups such as Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles, and Greeks. Samuel got his nickname "Nails" at an early age for his involvement in gang fights.
According to Chicago writer Bill Reilly who has written extensively about Samuel Morton, he soon became a leader of the Jewish gang scene. Jewish gangs offered protection to the Jewish neighborhoods against non-Jewish gangs. During one such altercation, Samuel was brought in front of a judge and legend has it was offered either jail time or to enlist in the U.S. Army. He chose the latter and became a sergeant and then first lieutenant. He was a war hero, and was officially recognized by the French Government for his heroism with a French war cross. In the book History of the Jews of Chicago, he is listed as a Jewish hero of WWI.
Upon his return to Chicago, Samuel was lured back to the neighborhood and its gang activities. He became a gambler, and soon the proprietor of some well-known gambling establishments. By 1920 Samuel was involved in the bootleg whiskey trade, and a prominent figure at boxing matches often gambling $5,000 to $10,000 on a fighter. He owned a number of prizefighters. He was now considered a front man for the mob and worked under the guise of floral shop owner.
While Samuel was prominent in his own right, he and his friends were no match for the non-Jewish gangs. He was surrounded by the likes of Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran, Hymie Weiss (Polish, not Jewish), as well as newcomer Al Capone. The men in the Jewish mobs picked sides, and Samuel chose Dion O'Banion who was an old friend.
Samuel was very good to his family and bought them a two-flat on Augusta Boulevard. His parents and siblings lived here. He was also known to lavish family and friends with many gifts. My Nonna especially remembered that he purchased a dog for her.
In August 1920, Samuel was placed under arrest along with Hershie Miller. The two were accused of shooting and killing two detectives. Research done by Bill Reilly suggests that the detectives tried to "shake Nails and Hershie down" and when they refused, the detectives made anti-Semitic remarks. This caused Samuel and Hershie to engage in gunfire. Samuel claimed his innocence, and in two trials both men were acquitted by juries. However, there were allegations of bribery and threats to witnesses.
Samuel "Nails" Morton seemed to have two sides. While much was written in the Chicago newspapers about his popularity and fame, it was also revealed that he was arrested several times. He lived a glamorous life with beautiful women and money, but one that was also filled with danger - both for himself and for others.
On May 13, 1923, Samuel went horseback riding as he often did with Dion O' Banion and Dion's wife in Lincoln Park. Samuel was an experienced rider, but while riding the stirrup strap broke causing the horse to bolt. Samuel lost his balance and fell. Frightened by what happened, the horse kicked Samuel cracking his skull and killing him. He was twenty-nine years old. His body was taken to Piser's Chapel on Broadway, and he was buried at Waldheim cemetery. His grave is next to my Nonna and Poppy. His occupation is listed as a florist on his death certificate.
5,000 people attended Samuel's funeral claiming that he was a protector of the Jewish people. It was said that Samuel made the west side of Chicago safe for Jews. An interesting Chicago legend is that the horse that was responsible for Samuel's death was kidnapped and 'bumped off'. This was later depicted in the James Cagney movie 'Public Enemy'. It was also said to be the inspiration for the scene in The Godfather when a horse head was placed in a man's bed as a warning from the mob.
Bill Reilly writes, "It seems that Nails Morton boy street brawler, gambler, and gangster had led another life - as the struggling Jewish community's white knight, its avenging angel." "While still a teenager, Nails had put together a neighborhood defense society made up of youngsters like himself, who were tired of being pushed around because they were Jewish." "Peddlers didn't have to live in constant fear of their carts being overturned, their goods stolen; old men their beards set afire, their yarmulkes knocked off; young girls insulted openly in the street".
Samuel "Nails" Morton certainly had a colorful life filled with glamour, heroism, and crime. He has been quietly forgotten by some, and for others is an unknown man. I felt it was important to tell his story to generations of Jewish people so that they could know a man who stood up in the face of anti-Semitism. I choose to see the good and am proud to say that Samuel "Nails" Morton was my great uncle. I say this because my Nonna who was the kindest, classiest, most amazing human being believed this, and that's more than good enough for me.