Shoot-out at the C-U corral

According to the book The Countess and the Mob by Maureen Hughes, someĀ of Champaign’s noted families (Robeson and Davis) helped keep Champaign wet during Prohibition. Another name connected with gangsters were the Sansones, an 11-member family born in Sicily that had immigrated through Ellis Island before settling in Champaign.

Michael Sansone’s profitable taffy concession stand was kept at Crystal Lake when it wasn’t touring the summer county fairs, while his brother Henry’s popcorn wagon was parked near the Virginia Theater. That popcorn had the most amazing taste and I’m sure many others tried to coax out the secret ingredient to no avail.

Local lawyer Julius Hirshfeld was one of Henry’s regular customers and Henry’s stories of pheasant hunting on his property somehow spread through Hirshfeld all the way to Al Capone, and thus began the annual pheasant hunting pilgrimages to the Sansone property just outside Champaign.

According to local legend, sometimes Capone and his boys would rent out the entire Turk’s Head rather than drive back to Chicago. The other option was booking the top three floors at the fanciest hotel in Champaign, located across the street from the train station. Turk’s Head may have used by his crew when they wanted to keep a low profile while in town, as the police station and newspaper office were all clustered within a block of that train station, while Turk’s Head was buried in campus-town.

Henry realized that setting up hunting trips could be quite lucrative and decided to expand his hunting schedule to include George Bugs Moran, an enemy of Capone. This shouldn’t have been a problem, writes Hughes, Sansone scheduled Moran and his boys on opposite weekends from when Capone was down.

This would have worked well, except the scheduling was done by word of mouth, and one weekend the dates got mixed up. One particular Saturday when Moran was hunting, three black cars pulled up two hours later, and five men got out, including Al Capone. Everyone was dressed in hunting gear, so it was hard to positively identify anyone. By mid-morning, the men from both gangs were just two or three hundred feet apart when one of Capone’s men asked why Moran was there.

That’s all it took for the shooting to start.

Both gangs retreated to their cars, and several had to lie in the back seats all the way to Chicago because they had lead shot in their rear ends. So ended the hunting trips to Champaign.