Julius Rosenwald, secret crime fighter?

Posted on November 14th, 2012 by

Did Julius Rosenwald make it his last philanthropic act to fund the investigation of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone? Although he never spoke about it publicly before his death in 1932, Rosenwald was allegedly a member of the “Secret Six,” an organization of wealthy businessmen who, when faced with the inability of the police and courts to stop organized crime in Chicago, took matters into their own hands and funded a private investigation of the Chicago “Outfit.”

The impetus for the formation of the Secret Six came in 1930 when Philip Meagher, construction superintendent for the new Chicago Lying-In Hospital was gunned down in broad daylight by two gangsters at the construction site. The new hospital was being built on the University of Chicago campus thanks to a large donation by Julius Rosenwald, who was also a benefactor of the hospital at its previous location. While receiving treatment for his wounds, Meagher told the police the shooting was due to “labor trouble,” as the construction company Meagher worked for had chosen to use non-union workers.

A postcard of the completed Lying-In Hospital, date unknown

Shortly after this event, Colonel Robert Isham Randolph, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce, told the press that the CAC was taking an interest in the case because violence was increasingly moving from the criminal underworld of alcohol bootlegging into the world of legitimate business. Randolph formed a subcommittee of the CAC to combat organized crime and when he wouldn’t reveal its members to the press, one newspaperman dubbed them the “Secret Six.” In April of 1930 (two months after the shooting of Philip Meagher) Randolph was quoted by the Chicago Daily Tribune, describing the purpose of the Secret Six:

“We want it understood that we have not taken over the city from its constituted authorities. We are not vigilantes and we are not adopting extra-legal methods. The law enforcing agencies were scattered and there was an apparent lack of coordination between them. We feel that we have brought about a coordination of police, prosecutors, and Criminal court judges. We have done more—we have set up a real secret service for the prosecutors—something they would have been unable to do themselves.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 15, 1930)

Specifically, it seems that the Secret Six funded private investigators, began a protection and relocation program for state’s witnesses and supported an income tax investigation (tax evasion was what Capone was ultimately convicted for). This six man anti-crime organization was necessarily secret: in this time of bribed law enforcement and bold intimidation of civil servants by gangsters, it was important that anyone wishing to stand up against organized crime remain anonymous. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rosenwald never claimed membership in the Secret Six, especially because he passed away shortly after Capone’s conviction. Randolph, in his 1932 eulogy for Rosenwald addressed to the Chicago Association of Commerce, expressed gratitude for Rosenwald’s financial support of the Secret Six, calling him “the most human of men” and praising his “wise” philanthropy.

Mugshot of Capone taken June 17th, 1931 by the United States Department of Justice

The Secret Six’s role in bringing down Al Capone and other racketeers has been overshadowed by the more heavily dramatized story of Eliot Ness and the “Untouchables,” but their financial support of crime fighting efforts was crucial to Capone’s conviction. At the time, the Secret Six were well known nationally. Their work was discussed in many newspaper articles and the story was the subject of a pre-Code gangster film in 1931 named The Secret Six, about the rise and fall of a bootlegger named Slaughterhouse Scorpio (a character loosely adapted from Capone). Although it’s less well known than other pre-Code classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (though it was released within a few months of them) it’s no less exciting and fast-paced. It also serves as a revealing document of the popular perception of Prohibition-era gangsters (and those who worked to bring them to justice) made during a time when alcohol bootlegging and the attendant violence was still very much a reality in cities like Chicago.

In a humorous touch, the Secret Six don black masks before meeting members of the press in the 1931 film, The Secret Six

By Michael Rose