The Life and Crimes of Notorious Mobster, Johnny Torrio

It seems like most famous American mobsters end their careers either with arrest or by going down in a hail of bullets…but not all of them.

Johnny Torrio, an Italian-American gangster who rose to power in the 1920s, would survive both arrests and multiple gunshot wounds to retire. All while keeping his reputation as one of the founding fathers of organized crime. 

From killing his own uncle to hiring Al Capone, Johnny “The Fox” Torrio held many titles–mobster, bootlegger, and crime boss. Despite it all, he lived to the ripe old age of 75 and died.

However, he did not die on the streets with a gun in his hand, but comfortably in his barber’s chair. Read on to learn more about Johnny Torrio, leader of the Chicago Outfit. 

Mug shot of Italian-American mobster Johnny “Papa Johnny” Torrio, 1936

Early Life in Italy and Immigration to New York City 

John Donato Torrio was born in the quaint town of Irsina, in the Basilicata region of Italy, on January 20, 1882. His parents were Maria Carluccio and Tommaso Torrio. 

Johnny wouldn’t reside in Italy long though. When he was just 2 years old, his father, a railway worker, would die on the job. His mother took Johnny and immigrated to America, specifically to the Lower East Side of New York City

His mother would wed again, and Johnny’s first job would be at his stepfather’s grocery store, which functioned more as a bar. His family lived in the slums, but this didn’t hold Johnny down. 

His first taste of crime came when he joined the James Street Boys, and quickly became the top dog. Unlike former leaders, he had a good head for finances. Under his control, the James Street Boys were able to open a billiards parlor. 

Things weren’t exactly above board at the parlor, though. Like the grocery-store-turned-bar that his stepfather owned, Johnny’s gang would run loan sharking and gambling rackets at the billiards hall. This made even more money for the small group. 

This financial intelligence didn’t go unnoticed, either. Paul Kelly, the leader of a larger local gang, the Five Points Gang, wanted Johnny to work for him and absorbed the James Street Boys in the process. Working for Kelly, Johnny would meet one of the most important people in his life, Al Capone.

A Johnny Torrio in 1903

Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo and the Chicago Outfit 

By 1909, Johnny Torrio was running multiple business ventures for the Five Points Gang on the Brooklyn docks, including but not limited to brothels and bars. With him was his friend Al Capone, and another associate, Frankie Yale. 

It was going well for Johnny, but things could get even better. His aunt, Victoria Moresco, had married Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, the owner of over 100 brothels in Chicago.

When Colosimo was facing extortion by the Black Hand, and an Italian extortion racket, he called in his wife’s nephew to come and handle the threat. 

Johnny swiftly dealt with the threat, and Colosimo liked him enough to keep him on. Colosimo was a major crime boss in the Chicago area, and Johnny had gained enough experience and knowledge working in New York to be a big asset to him. 

Through efficiency and the closeness of their relationship, Johnny Torrio rose in the ranks of Colosimo’s empire, known as the Chicago Outfit. He became Colosimo’s right-hand man, 

In 1919, Johnny Torrio called for his old confidante, Al Capone, to join him in Chicago, and Capone was glad to accept the invitation. 

Prohibition and the Murder of Giacomo Colosimo 

One year after Johnny Torrio brought Al Capone out to join him in Chicago, Prohibition went into effect. Johnny immediately recognized how lucrative bootlegging would be. He pushed Colosimo to get into the business early. 

Surprisingly, Colosimo refused. Around the same time, he divorced Johnny’s aunt and quickly married another woman. With all of this combined, it’s no wonder that tensions were rising between the two men. 

In May of that same year, Johnny called Colosimo and told him to expect a shipment at one of his many restaurants. Colosimo left to accept the shipment, but when he arrived, he was ambushed and killed. 

Colosimo, circa late 1910s – 1920

While nothing was ever proven, it’s believed that the murder was carried out by either Frankie Yale, who Johnny would have brought in from Chicago, or Al Capone, who was already in the town, at the behest of Johnny Torrio himself. 

With Colosimo gone, control of the Chicago Outfit was quickly assumed by his right-hand man, Johnny “The Fox” Torrio. Moving into the slot of Johnny’s right-hand man was, of course, Al Capone.

The North Side Gang and Assassination Attempt on Johnny Torrio

Just as Johnny had predicted, bootlegging was indeed a lucrative business. So lucrative, in fact, that many smaller gangs and bootlegging outfits were popping up all over Chicago, leading to skirmishes and gang wars which left Torrio feeling uneasy. 

To nullify this problem, Johnny organized a city-wide cartel of bootleggers with small territories still belonging to individual gangs. One of the larger of these gangs, the North Side Gang, had joined the cartel but was having issues. 

Leaders of the North Side Gang discovered that men who worked with Torrio were encroaching on their territories to sell alcohol. O’Banion, the leader of the North Side Gang, went to Johnny to try and fix things before they became ugly, but Johnny was dismissive. 

In retaliation, O’Banion swindled Johnny out of half a million dollars by offering to sell his share of a local brewery on May 24, 1924. When Johnny arrived to make the sale, he was instead greeted by a police raid and arrested. 

Torrio was furious. Revenge was to be the first course of action, but Johnny stayed his hand at the request of powerful leader Mike Merlo, head of the labor organization Unione Siciliana.

Agreeing to keep the peace for Merlo, Johnny waited. When Mike Merlo died later that year, there was nothing to hold The Fox back.

Three men, rumored to have been Albert Anselmi, John Scalise, and once again, Frankie Yale, walked into a flower shop owned by the North Side Gang two days after Merlo’s death. O’Banion was working behind the counter, and the men shot him dead. 

A few months later, on January 24, 1925, Johnny Torrio and his wife were ambushed by leading members of the North Side Gang. Torrio was shot several times, taking bullets in the jaw, lungs, legs, and stomach. 

Amazingly, he survived. During his recovery, he handed the reins of the Chicago Outfit over to Al Capone, and would never truly return to leadership. 

How Many Times was Johnny Torrio shot?

Johnny Torrio was shot five times in the assassination attempt by the North Side Gang. He survived the attack in part to his wife, Anna, who drug him to the sidewalk and worked to stop the blood leaking from the numerous wounds. 

Once he healed, Torrio found that he was done with the life of crime. He retired to Europe. 

John Torrio leaving the federal court house in New York during his trial, 1939

What happened to Johnny Torrio?–Later Life and Death

After spending a few years in Italy with Anna and his mother, Johnny Torrio was needed back in the United States once more. He returned to help organize the disjointed East Coast bootlegging operations and called for a conference to be held to deal with the problem.

At that conference, the National Crime Syndicate was born. 

Johnny Torrio would die at the age of 75 after suffering a heart attack in his barber’s chair. Fittingly, this happened in Brooklyn, New York, where his life in organized crime first began. 


“Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio – Presiding Over the Chicago Outfit”

“Shooting of Johnny Torrio, 1925”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top