seems you can’t swing a Tommy gun in Wisconsin and not point to a
place that wasn’t frequented by some of the most notorious gangsters
Chicago ever produced — Baby Face Nelson, Bugs Moran, John Dillinger
and Al Capone.
The deep woods of
northern Wisconsin had many well-known gangster getaways during
Prohibition, says Chad Lewis, author of "The Wisconsin Road Guide
to Gangster Hot Spots," and southeastern Wisconsin has its share of
legends and lore as well. Those who actually saw the wise guys are
quickly slipping away into history themselves, Lewis notes, but many of
the encounters have not been forgotten. There are plenty of stories, for
example, of gangsters pulling into a service station, buying $1 worth of
gas and giving the attendant a $20 tip.
nothing to these guys, because when they ran out of money they just went
out and got more," Lewis says. "It’s almost as if they were
the celebrities of the day."
Stephen Hauser of Elm Grove agrees. In the 1930s, when the country was
deep into the Great Depression, a bit of gangster cash was just the
thing for keeping yaps shut. In those days, when what is now Elm Grove
and Brookfield were unincorporated and the area was dominated by farms,
bootleggers would sometimes rent space in farmers’ barns to distill
very generously, probably better than they even needed to," Hauser
notes. There are stories about a farmer’s child needing an operation,
for example, and a gangster pulling a stack of cash from his wallet and
handing it to the farmer for the hospital bill. "Gangsters were
often seen in a positive light by many rural people."
wooded areas in southeastern Wisconsin were perfect settings for halfway
houses for gangsters on their way "up north" from Chicago and
In those days,
Bluemound Road was untamed, Hauser says. Because there were no local
police departments in the area, it was patrolled by county sheriff’s
deputies, some of whom took payoffs to turn a blind eye to houses of ill
repute and speakeasies. Some deputies were eventually convicted of
corruption and served jail time, he adds.
had a home right off Bluemound Road," Hauser says. The street now
known as Capone Court was his driveway, and "nobody arrived
unexpectedly at Al Capone’s house." A watchtower was built for a
lookout post, and Capone kept a well-fed flock of Canadian geese on the
property. If federal agents tried to surprise Capone, the geese would
make enough noise to warn him. A tunnel led from the house to the garage
so the gangster could make a quick getaway without being seen.
agents did manage to enter the home once when Capone was away and smash
the still he operated on the property, Hauser says.
Capone also owned
part interest in a greyhound racetrack that once stood just west of what
now is Brookfield Square, Hauser says, and trained the dogs at the Mound
Kennel Club across the street from the track.
In what is now
Bishop’s Woods, a little shack off Elm Grove Road was used as a
meeting place for gangster confabs. On occasion, Hauser says, their cars
would get stuck in the muck, and an auto repairman just down the road
would get a phone call and be asked to bring his tow truck. When he
arrived, the gangsters told him to stay in the cab and look straight
ahead. As soon as the gangsters hooked the car up for the tow, and he
hauled it back on the main road, the repairman would be rewarded with a
wad of cash.
When it was time
for a break from the stress of dodging the law and rival gangs, some
mobsters headed for Lake Country.
liked lakes," Hauser says. "They loved to put on the old
dungarees and flannel shirts and go fishing."
So, Lake Country
resorts and speakeasies, from Pewaukee Lake west to Okauchee and
Oconomowoc lakes, also became gangster hangouts. Lewis says they would
arrive at the lakeside resorts in pinstripe suits and shiny black
Packards and try to blend in as tourists.
That tactic didn’t
work for Jack Zuta, a Capone bookkeeper who defected to George
"Bugs" Moran’s gang. Zuta, who knew that Capone did not take
kindly to disloyalty, tried to hide out under the name "J.H.
Goodman" at the Lake View Resort on Upper Lake Nemahbin in the town
of Summit. Suspecting that a hit squad was on the way, Zuta was
overheard making a frantic phone call from an Oconomowoc drug store,
pleading for bodyguards to escort him back to Chicago.
Legend has it the
hit squad sent to take care of Zuta was staying at a Lake Nagawicka
resort, and lawmen at the time suspected them of robbing a Hartland bank
to the tune of $100,000.
Just around sunset
on Aug. 1, 1930, Zuta was pumping coins into a player piano in the
ballroom of the Lake View Resort, according to the history section of
the city of Waukesha’s Web site. A five-man assassination squad filed
in through the back door, aimed their guns at Zuta, opened fire in full
view of horrified hotel guests, turned and left the building. According
to a Time Magazine account published on Aug. 11, 1930, the piano played
the song Zuta chose just before the guns began blazing — "Good
for You, Bad for Me."