Jack Zuta

Jack Zuta – Angina from the Grave

By Allan May


     “We only kill each other,” Bugsy Siegel once said to a contractor who was worried about getting on Bugsy’s bad side in Las Vegas. Siegel’s statement held true, most of the time. When it didn’t, it created sensational newspaper headlines and outraged citizens. Two such incidents occurred in Chicago during the Prohibition years. The first was the murder of William H. McSwiggin, an Assistant State’s Attorney, on the night of April 27, 1926. The second was the killing of Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, on the afternoon of June 9, 1930 in a crowded pedestrian underpass. In both murders there were several theories. The case of Jake Lingle involved a North Side mobster named Jack Zuta.

     Zuta was born in Russia where the family name was spelled Zoota. He arrived in Chicago prior to World War I and found a job peddling house-wares door to door. Adopting the name John R. Zuta, he worked as a junk dealer and later rented a cheap hotel and got involved in the vice trade. As he prospered, he bought the hotel and then purchased several others on the West Side along West Madison Street.

     He developed a profitable operation, but it soon attracted the attention of Capone whorehouse manager Mike de Pike Heitler who soon drove Zuta out of his resorts and out of Chicago. Zuta later returned to the vice trade and branched out into gambling under the protection of the North Side gang.

     In John Kobler’s “Capone,” Zuta is described as “the whore monger who became (Bugs) Moran’s business manager (and) was a familiar figure around the detective bureau. He had been brought there frequently. Whining and servile, he was thought capable, if sufficiently frightened, of sacrificing his own mother.”

     Although the North Siders tolerated Zuta because of his business acumen, which was considered second only to Jake Guzik, he was looked upon as a coward and despised for that reason.

     At the time of the Hotel Sherman Peace Treaty, on October 20, 1926, Zuta, William Skidmore, and Christian “Barney” Bertsche ran several North Side prostitution houses and gambling dens. As a result of the treaty, their operations now came under Capone who would be collecting a percentage of their profits. The three men hated Capone and over the next couple years would snub him and conspire with the Moran – Aiello combination against him.

     On the afternoon of September 7, 1928, Antonio Lombardo, the man Capone had waited so long to put into the presidency of the Unione Siciliano, and a bodyguard were gunned down by two killers near the corner of Dearborn and Madison. Another bodyguard, Joseph Lolordo, took off in pursuit of the killers only to be stopped and arrested by police officers. Arrests warrants were issued for Zuta, and Joe and Dominick Aiello. When the three were finally brought in they had airtight alibis. Chicago Police Captain John Stege grilled Zuta, and put the fear of God in him by telling him, “You’re doomed. I’ve told that to 14 other hoodlums who sat on that same chair you’re sitting on and all of them are dead.”

     In the wake of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the police cracked down on many organized crime activities in Chicago. One of the gambling dens that was closed was the Sheriden Wave Tournament Club. A year later, Zuta and his gambling partners were ready to reopen the plush gambling casino. When Lingle got word of this he became greedy and let Zuta know that he wanted $15,000 up front, or 50% of the net for protection. Zuta balked at Lingle’s greed figuring the reporter needed the money to recover his stock market losses. When Zuta refused to pay, Lingle told him, “If this joint is opened up, you’ll get see more squad cars in front ready to raid it than you ever saw in your life before.”

     The murder of the popular Lingle created sensational headlines in Chicago and the Tribune printed daily that a $55,000 reward was available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his killer.

     One of the police theories was that Zuta had arranged for Frank Foster, a North Side hood, to do the killing. On June 30, police went to an apartment on Lakeside Place, after they received a tip that gunmen were there. Police discovered Zuta, a woman, Leona Bernstein, two associates, Albert Bratz and Solly Vision. Bratz’s real name was Eli Zoota, Jack’s cousin and his vice lieutenant. All were held overnight and questioned about the murder of Lingle. Late on the evening of July 1, the prisoners were released. Something spooked Zuta and he was scared to leave the station. Around 10:30, Zuta ran into one of the officers that had arrested him, Lieutenant George Barker, who was going off duty.

     According to Barker, Zuta approached him and stated, “I’ll be killed if I go through the loop. When you arrested me you took me from a place of safety and you ought to return me to a place of safety.”

     “I told him to run along and then he pleaded with me to help him for the sake of the woman with him. I finally told him I was driving to the loop and I would see him safely that far and he could get a cab downtown.”

     Bratz sat in the front seat with Barker while Zuta insisted on sitting between Vision and Bernstein in the back. As they approached the Loop, Zuta screamed out, “We’re being followed.” Barker watched as a dark blue Chrysler containing three men pulled up quickly from behind. A man in a tan suit wearing a Panama hat climbed out on the running board and pulled out a .45. Bratz hopped over the seat into the back where he huddled with the others on the floor as the man on the running board fired seven times into Barker’s automobile.

     Barker jammed on the breaks and jumped from the car with his revolver in hand. The position of his automobile forced a streetcar to come to a halt behind him. By this time all three gunmen were blazing away at the heroic Barker who stood in the bright lights of the Loop’s “million dollars’ worth of newly installed candle power.” One of the gunmen’s bullets crashed through the windshield of the streetcar hitting the conductor in the throat. The 43 year-old father of three died in the hospital an hour later. Another bullet wounded a night watchman on his way to work.

     As the shooters blasted away at each other, Zuta and his three companions scurried away to safety. It was later revealed that Zuta was wounded slightly in the abdomen. When the shooting stopped the gunmen sped off. Patrolman William Smith arrived and was about to shoot Barker when the lieutenant, who was out of uniform, pulled his badge. The two jumped back into Barker’s car to pursue the gunmen. Near Adams Street the driver of the Chrysler unleashed a cloud of smoke from the engine creating a smoke screen to aid their escape. Barker went through it and got as close as fifty yards before his engine died due to a bullet that went through the gas tank.

     For his heroic performance, Barker, the youngest lieutenant on the Chicago Police force, was suspended for “furnishing Zuta with safe conduct.” Barker was later exonerated after a department hearing.

     Zuta quickly left the city and headed to a resort region in Waukesha County, Wisconsin near Milwaukee, to hide and recuperate. Zuta originally checked into one resort under the name J. H. Goodman with two other men and a woman. He later sought refuge on his own. Zuta ran into a friend, Tony Scaler, a Milwaukee speakeasy owner, and the two spent time fishing and swimming together during the last two weeks of July.

     On August 1, a young lady working at a local drug store stated that Zuta came in and made a phone call. “He asked for Chicago,” she remembered. He was nervous and cursed on the phone, “You better send someone up here damn quick. I want a bodyguard and an escort back to Chicago, and you better send ‘em here in a hell of a hurry.’

     Later that Friday evening, Zuta was in the dance pavilion of the Lake View hotel on Upper Nemahbin Lake near Delafield, Wisconsin where he was dropping nickels into a player piano. As couples danced nearby, the current show tune, “It May Be Good for You but It’s So Bad for Me,” was playing. With his back turned, Zuta didn’t notice five men who walked into the pavilion in a single file line. One man carried a machinegun, another a pistol, the others a combination of rifles and shotguns. Just as Zuta turned to face his assailants, a bullet ripped through his face just below his nose. The shot spun him around and, as he tried to run, 15 more shots hit him in the head and body, several being fired after he fell. The shooters hurried out and, along with three lookouts, took off in two automobiles with Illinois license plates.

     Zuta’s body was sent by train to Middlesboro, Kentucky to be buried with the rites of the Jewish Orthodox Church. Irving Ginsburg, a cousin of Zuta’s, said a will that had been prepared would be read at the funeral. The $1,900 found in Zuta’s pockets was taken by Internal Revenue agents who were looking into his income taxes.

     An investigation showed that the killers had rented cabins in the area and had been there for at least a week prior to the murder. Several names came up during the murder investigation, among them, Tony Accardo, Jack McGurn, Sam “Golf Bag” Hunt, Lawrence Mangano and even a couple of gunmen who had been associated in the past with the North Siders, Henry Finkelstein and Ted Newberry. The only mobster arrested in the killing was Capone gunman Danny Stanton who was imprisoned for five months while fighting extradition to Wisconsin for questioning. He was never tried for the slaying.

     Zuta’s murder, however, did not silence him completely. According to Judge John H. Lyle in “The Dry and Lawless Years,” Zuta, “threw nothing away. His packrat hoarding habit caused no end of embarrassment in political and police circles.” Lyle prepared the search warrants for Zuta’s safety deposit boxes and warehouse. In the box investigators discovered cancelled checks to two judges and two state senators, records showing $3,500 in bribes to police officers. In addition, there was one certificate identifying Zuta as a charter member in Mayor William Hale Thompson’s political club, and another certificate issued by a sheriff informing deputies that, “That Mr. Zuta was entitled to special courtesies.” The citizens of Evanston, Illinois were amazed to find out their police chief had borrowed $400 from the vice-lord.

     Zuta’s warehouse revealed, “wire-tapping equipment with rolls of recorded conversations and films evidently taken surreptitiously of men and women in compromising situations. They were used for blackmail and to keep these people in Zuta’s power.”

     In addition there were many photographs of public and political officials with Zuta and other hoodlums. While these revelations initially caused a stir, apathetic Chicagoans were used to these revelations and soon another scandal would overtake the front pages.

     As for the Lingle murder, Leo Vincent Brothers was tried and convicted of the murder on April 2, 1931. To the astonishment of many the killer who had created the sensational headlines received a fourteen-year sentence and was released after serving eight. When the sentence was announced, Brothers’ turned to a reporter and stated, “I can do that standing on my head.”


Copyright A. R. May 1999

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