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Gangster's paradise
During the 1930s, Waukesha County was a favorite hangout for Chicago gangsters


September 3, 2011

It seems you canít swing a Tommy gun in Wisconsin and not point to a place that wasnít frequented by some of the most notorious gangsters Chicago ever produced ó 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.

"Money meant nothing to these guys, because when they ran out of money they just went out and got more," Lewis says. "Itís almost as if they were the celebrities of the day."

Local historian 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 farmersí barns to distill liquor.

"They paid very generously, probably better than they even needed to," Hauser notes. There are stories about a farmerís 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."

Relatively rural, wooded areas in southeastern Wisconsin were perfect settings for halfway houses for gangsters on their way "up north" from Chicago and back again.

In those days, Bluemound Road was untamed, Hauser says. Because there were no local police departments in the area, it was patrolled by county sheriffís 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.

"Al Capone 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 Caponeís 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.

Federal revenue 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 Bishopís 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.

"These guys 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 didnít work for Jack Zuta, a Capone bookkeeper who defected to George "Bugs" Moranís 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 Waukeshaís 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 ó "Good for You, Bad for Me."


This story ran in the September 2011 issue of: