- Rod Kackley
"They Shot Him Five Times And He's Still Alive!" A Shocking True Crime Story
Godfather fans — and who isn’t — I know you remember this scene.
Keep that in mind while reading this story about one of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters — an outlaw, an enforcer, the “King of The Bombers,” James Belcastro.
And now, our story...
One hundred years ago, the newly formed Chicago Crime Commission released its list of the city’s residents “who are constantly in conflict with the law.”
Remember, this is 1923, the same year Al Capone moved his operation into the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois.
Gangsters operated with impunity in the Windy City.
So there was no lack of criminals who could be added to the roster of the most notorious.
The names of more than 28 members of the underworld made the list of public enemies, including the man who would come to be known as the “King of Bombers,” James Belcastro.
And, in 1923, this madman was just getting started.
Born in 1895 in Calabria, Italy, Belcastro became renowned for his ability to construct bombs. He was a member of the feared “Black Hand” organization and used the explosives to blackmail business owners in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood in the 1910s.
In the 1920s, Al Capone and Johnny Torrio formed the Chicago Outfit and put the Black Hand gang out of business. In other words, they killed them all. But not James Belcastro.
He was so good at what he did that Capone and Torrio asked Belcastro to join their organization. Probably made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Belcastro paid them back big time during the 1927 Chicago primary elections.
The Outfit used Belcastro and his bombs to go after those opposed to Capone’s ally, Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson.
Belcastro set off so many of his improvised explosive devices that the media branded the elections “The Pineapple Primary.” They used to call hand grenades “pineapples” in the newspapers.
And Belcastro had a problem with that, which we’ll explain later.
But now, back to our story…
Belcastro targeted neighborhoods and voting stations thought to oppose Big Bill’s re-election.
At least 15 people were killed by the campaign of terror, including an African American lawyer, Octavius Granada. A bomb didn’t end his life, though.
Granada was chased down on election day by gangsters in cars firing their Tommy guns at the attorney.
Belcastro, a few other gangsters, and four Chicago police officers were charged with the murder.
But guess what?
The charges were dropped after people who witnessed the brazen, broad daylight attack suddenly changed their minds about what they’d seen.
Belcastro was often named a leading suspect in labor and liquor racket bombings in the 1920s and 30s.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, Belcastro became one of The Outfit’s top enforcers.
He was arrested more than 150 times.
Did he do any prison time?
In 1917, Belcastro got a year in prison for assault. That was it.
Then, there was the time he was arrested for vagrancy.
Vagrancy? Are you kidding? Nope.
Belcastro and several other gangsters were arrested the same night under a new state vagrancy law to put those deemed “public enemies” behind bars.
The trial was a joke. Belcastro took the stand in his own defense on Friday, June 3, 1932.
The Chicago Tribune reported, “Public Enemy No. 4 tilted back nonchalantly on the witness stand in South State street court and wiggled a natty pair of black and white sport oxfords as he parried queries of Prosecutor Russell W. Root.”
The Tribune also reported that “Judge Thomas A. Green fumed helplessly as the state’s tottering structure of evidence buckled under defense rebuttal, and it became apparent that the only legal recourse open to him was to discharge the defendant…known as the “king of the bombers.”
Then there was the day in July 1937 when Chicago Police Sgt. Michael McFadden caught Belcastro eating a sandwich in a tavern owned by the bomber’s brother-in-law and public enemy, Rocco Fanelli.
McFadden arrested Belcastro on the spot, at 324 South Halstead Street, on “general principles.”
Belcastro was thrown into a police lineup that included pickpockets, bandits, and “fellows suspected of nothing worse than disorderly conduct,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
Was Belcastro more outraged to be (A) arrested on a trumped-up charge or “B” associated with men who occupied the lowest rungs on the criminal ladder?
Pick door “B.” That’s the winner.
Belcastro was soon released but took time to scold reporters for calling bombs “pineapples.”
No self-respecting bomber would use that word, he snarled. “They’re called ‘sticks,’” Belcastro said. Then he smiled and posed for a few photos before he went home to his wife and children.
Okay. The law couldn’t stop him. But how many of Belcastro’s compatriots survived the life they lived to die peacefully in their sleep. They’d likely be cut to shreds by machine gun fire or blown up by a homemade explosive device.
Honest cops and Belcastro’s dishonest colleagues always thought (and some hoped) that since he lived by the bomb, that’s how he’d die.
Some fellow gangsters nearly punched Belcastro’s ticket for him on January 11, 1931.
Belcastro, that night, stepped out of the front door of his in-laws’ home at 1011 West Polk Street.
He got into the front seat of his car, ready to pull it into the Fanelli’s garage when two gunmen burst out of another vehicle and opened fire.
On that bone-chilling, cold January night, five shots rang out.
Belcastro was shot twice in his left arm, once in his left hand, another bullet hit him in the back, and the fifth shot grazed his forehead.
Yup. The would-be assassins shot Belcastro five times, and he’s still alive! That must have been bad news for somebody on the other side of the Chicago gangster spectrum.
Belcastro was rushed to the Bridewell hospital. At his bedside, the 28-year-old grocery store owner told police he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to shoot him dead.
The feds also tried everything to rid Chicago of Belcastro.
A few weeks after getting shot, a federal judge nullified Belcastro’s naturalization certificate. So Belcastro was no longer an American citizen.
Then, in November 1931, the same day Al’s brother, Ralph Capone, was transported to Leavenworth to begin serving a three-year prison term for tax evasion, Belcastro was grilled by federal officials who desperately wanted to deport him back to Italy.
The feds claimed he’d lied about his arrest record, what he did for a living, and even his marital status when Belcastro filed his citizenship papers.
But anyone who could have been a witness, for some reason, had a change of heart.
Nothing worked. Neither police nor bureaucrats nor gangsters ever stopped Belcastro.
It was on August 23, 1945, that Belcastro met his end. He went out quietly, dying of a heart attack, in the Chicago house at 1011 Polk Street that he shared with his father-in-law.
Belcastro is buried in Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.
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