Samuel J. "Nails" Morton: From War Hero to Gangster

by Jay Robert Nash

Samuel J. Morton was born in Chicago in 1894, and was raised in the city's oldest Jewish community near Maxwell Street. As a child, Morton was a tall, muscular youth whose neighbors included families that would see their sons rise to great prominence. From Morton's neighborhood came Arthur Goldberg, who became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Hyman Rickover, later one of the U.S. Navy's most distinguished admirals, and Barney Ross, a championship fighter. Morton, too, would also become famous, first as a WWI hero, and then as a ruthless gangster.

By the time he reached his teens, the brawny Morton had joined a Jewish gang. He excelled as a street fighter, quick with his fists and so tough that three or four opponents at a time found it difficult to best him. He earned the name "Nails" for his tough-as-nails attitude and fighting prowess.

Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, medal-winning soldier of WWI, who
Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, medal-winning soldier of WWI, who killed at least eight men in Chicago's gang wars in the early 1920s. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Morton also took it upon himself to defend the streets of the Jewish community against invading gangs of other nationalities. Since the area was neglected by the police, Morton would patrol the small streets at night with friends, carrying a baseball bat and woe to anyone who thought to break into a Jewish-owed shop.

In 1917, Morton was arrested for almost beating several members of a Polish gang to death. Found guilty of assault, Morton was given a choice: either go to prison or join the army and fight for his country, then at war with Germany. Morton opted for the army and enlisted the next day, joining the 131st Illinois Infantry, which was sent to France as part of the Rainbow Division.

Morton proved to be a good soldier and was soon promoted to sergeant. In one engagement where his company was pinned down by murderous machine gun fire, Morton led a squad of men through No-Man's-Land, wiping out an enemy machine gun nest and clearing a trench full of Germans, capturing twenty men. Wounded twice in hand-to-hand fighting, he was only survivor of his squad.

Promoted to the rank of lieutenant, Morton was given the Croix de guerre by the French government. His superiors noted in his files that "in addition to possessing natural leadership qualities, and coolness under fire, Lieutenant Morton has an unusual aptitude for weapons."

Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie, Chicago gangster, who shot and kill
Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie, Chicago gangster, who shot and killed the horse that had kicked his friend Morton to death. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Returning to Chicago as a war hero, Morton opened up some gambling parlors. He then met and befriended Charles Dion O'Banion, crime boss of the North Side. At the dawn of the Prohibition era, O'Banion appointed Morton as head of his beer and liquor distribution.

In 1920, Morton shot and killed two Chicago policemen in the Pekin Café. Police officers William Hennessey and James Mulcahey entered the saloon and began drinking at the bar. When the two officers tried to force Morton to pay their bar tab at gunpoint, the gangster shot and killed both men. Charged with murder, he claimed self-defense and was acquitted.

In 1921, Morton was present when Earl "Hymie" Weiss and George "Bugs" Moran invented the underworld's "one-way ride." The three caught rival gangster Steve Wisniewski, threw him into the back of a car, and drove him to a remote spot. Wisniewski had had the nerve to hijack an O'Banion beer truck. Weiss, Moran, and Morton shot him to death and dumped his body along a deserted roadway.

The following year, Morton and Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie killed Frank Constanza, a New York killer-for-hire, who had been assigned by Johnny Torrio to murder O'Banion. Morton tossed Constanza's body into the empty boxcar of an eastbound train, remarking to Alterie: "Now the bum's headed back to New York where he belongs."

Nails Morton, by 1923, was one of the most visible gangsters in Chicago. He lived high on his bootlegging proceeds, about $250,000 a year, driving large touring cars and wearing tailor-made suits with special pockets where he could secret two revolvers.

Women idolized the handsome gangster, and he was often seen in nightclubs and the better restaurants with one or two showgirls. He wore pearl grey fedoras, sported a diamond stickpin in silk ties, and carried an ivory-handled walking stick, which contained a small, razor sharp sword. Morton opened a restaurant, and he owned and operated several gambling casinos on the North Side, in partnership with O'Banion.

Then Morton developed an abiding interest horseback riding. He had visited Alterie's ranch in Colorado and had ridden one of Alterie's prize horses. He made a habit of riding regularly in Chicago's Lincoln Park Bridle Path. On, May 13, 1923, his recreation turned lethal. Morton's horse was a spirited mount, and he threw the gangster, then kicked high, his hooves striking Morton in the head, killing him.

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in <em>Public Enemy</em>, 1931, a film in
James Cagney and Jean Harlow in Public Enemy, 1931, a film in which Cagney re-enacts the killing of a horse that killed "Nails" Morton. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

When O'Banion and Alterie heard the news, they became incensed. Alterie went to the stable a few days later and rented the horse that had killed Morton. He led the animal to a deserted spot on the bridle path and shot it.

After killing the horse, Alterie called the stable-owner and barked over the phone: "We taught that damned horse of yours a lesson! If you want the saddle, go and get it!" (This scene was re-enacted in the movie Public Enemy, in which James Cagney shoots and kills a horse that had kicked to death fellow gangster, Leslie Fenton, playing the part of "'Nails' Nathan.")

Morton's funeral was lavish. O'Banion, Weiss, Alterie, Moran, and other North Side gangsters were pallbearers. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone attended, even though they were adversaries of the North Side gang. More than 25,000 Jewish inhabitants of the old Maxwell Street area thronged the streets, following the hearse carrying Morton's body.

To many of these people, Morton was not only a WWI hero, but a champion of Jewish citizens of Chicago. The police report that closed Morton's police dossier stated he had murdered at least eight men. None of that mattered to some attending his funeral. To these naïve mourners, Samuel J. "Nails" Morton had made good. He had been a success.