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Kiss of Death Girl found success in world of carnivals

Kiss of Death Girl found success in world of carnivals

CALUMET ROOTS with Archibald McKinlay

A half century ago, large Region empty lots reverberated with the commercially joyous sounds of the carnival. One of the largest held forth on riverside land in Hammond next to the Calumet Avenue bridge that spanned the Grand Calumet River. Another carnival took over most of the 4000 block of Main Street in Indiana Harbor. And others showed up here and there.

Queen of the carnival in that booming era was Margaret Mary Collins, who could be found at the bingo game, where the serious money changed hands. Margaret Mary was so beautiful that someone not in the know might assume she was a painted poster promoting upcoming attractions. But she was realer than real. Blond and shapely, with a face that would give a Hollywood actress spasms, Margaret Mary had once been the most desired woman of Chicago's top echelon of crooks -- and the curse of the underworld. Indeed, she had been known as the "Kiss of Death Girl."

She would love some mobster, press her lush lips to his and before long his ardor would be cooled by an enemy's cold lead. Just coincidence? It happened to a who's who of knaves, including Dion O'Banion, Eugene "Red" McLaughlin, Irving "Sonny" Schlig, John "Dandy" Sheehy, Sam Katz, Dave Jerns and Johnny Phillips. The only top crook to survive her kiss was Solly "Bulldog" Feldman. He got shot, but he didn't die from it.

Of Margaret Mary's former boyfriends, O'Banion was the best known. He was one of the four biggest shots of Chicago's netherworld, along with Johnny Torrio, the greatest mastermind in the annals of American crime; Al Capone, who succeeded Torrio but ruled by strong-arm tactics; and Hymie Weiss, a gunman without peer. To prevent the bad guys from killing each other off, Torrio, who already controlled prostitution in Chicago and environs, organized, in 1920, beer and liquor traffic and cut Chicagoland up into territories. He allotted the North Side to O'Banion who was head of a gang of bandits, burglars and safecrackers. As long as these alliances lasted, Torrio commanded an army of 800 gunmen, "the most vicious aggregation of criminals ever brought together in one city."

A one-time choir boy at Holy Name Cathedral, O'Banion became the Errol Flynn of crime, a swashbuckling, ambidextrous, flower-loving, cheerful murderer. He wore a carnation in his buttonhole and three loaded pistols in special pockets. Chicago Police Chief Morgan Collins called O'Banion "Chicago's arch criminal," who had killed or ordered killed at least 25 men. Of course, since crime is the other side of politics, he was never brought to trial. He controlled absolutely two wards of the North Side.

In the spring of 1924, Margaret Mary's boyfriend got too cute to go on living. He double-crossed Torrio and swindled him out of several hundred thousand dollars. O'Banion, with Torrio and Capone, owned the Sieben Brewery on the North Side. On a phony pretext, O'Banion tricked Torrio into a meeting at the brewery. By then, O'Banion had sold his share of the brewery to Torrio and Capone for $500,000. O'Banion said he would help ship one more convoy of beer May 19. That night, a strong force of cops under the command of Chief Collins and Capt. Zimmer raided the brewery. They confiscated 13 trucks loaded with full beer barrels and arrested 28 gangsters and beer-runners, including Torrio, Weiss, Louis Alterie and O'Banion.

Later Torrio obtained proof that O'Banion had double-crossed him. Through his political connections, the North Sider had learned of the raid and had taken advantage of the knowledge to unload his share of the brewery on Torrio and Capone. O'Banion also knew that the prosecution would be handled by the U.S. district attorney and that Torrio's influence did not extend to the federal court.

Among those caught in the net was Ed O'Donnell, erstwhile police chief of East Chicago. O'Donnell, along with Capt. Downey, had earlier done time for obstructing prohibition agents in Indiana Harbor. While retaining his share in Sieben's, O'Donnell got another eight months and a fine. That wasn't too bad because the ex-chief had a job waiting for him at the Big House in Indiana Harbor, greater Chicago's largest (in terms of dollars) casino. He also made out a lot better than O'Banion. After being smothered in kisses by gorgeous Margaret Mary Collins, O'Banion died of a severe case of lead poisoning.

Margaret Mary's life changed in 1943 when she married and went into business with her husband. Prior to that she was best known for, in addition to hexing hoodlums, being one of the nation's most adept boosters, which is to say shoplifters. Occasionally, she miscalculated and served clink time for larceny in some 15 Midwestern cities. Her sister, Anna, was almost as notorious. But she left all that at the altar, as the underworld held its breath and waited for her husband to develop a bad case of rigor mortis. But nothing happened to her new mate.

Instead, the couple bought a toy shop on South Halsted Street and made a lot of legitimate money. Then they cashed out and entrusted their poke to a big-wheel Midwest carnival operator, who in return put them to work on the lots. Margaret Mary and her husband made it big. Whenever they took the show on the road, each of them drove an expensive car. In 1952, they shared in a "carnival cleanup" in Beaumont, Texas, and rested afterward at a fashionable hotel at Hot Springs, Ark., on the way back to the Chicago area. In the process, she remained as chic as ever and just as blond. Her husband turned out to be a superb businessman, who got a corner on most of greater Chicago's carnivals -- perhaps one you attended.

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