The poster child for lavish funeral floral tributes was clearly Charles Dean O’Banion, (1892‑1924) the North Side gang leader/ florist.
Aside from his darker gangster pursuits, he was co-owner of Schofield’s Flower shop, 738 N. State in the shadow of Holy Name Cathedral. The rooms above Schofield’s were used as the headquarters for his North Side Gang. Schofield’s was the premier florist of choice for Chicagoland’s gangsters, Dean and his partner Walter Schofield made huge amounts of money supplying floral arrangements for the dearly departed of Chicago’s organized crime. Sadly, “Deanie”, like most other underworld figures of the day, also violently left this earth, killed by rivals right in his own flower shop.
His lavish sendoff was over the top attended by thousands of mourners, elected officials, and a mile-long procession. His funeral alone cost $10,000 and that was before the many thousands of dollars of flowers which needed 26 flower cars and trucks to take them to the cemetery,
One rather simple basket of roses near his casket stood out from all the others. The attached condolence card read “Al Brown, Used Furniture Dealer”
Al Brown was none other than an alias for Dion’s fierce rival, Al Capone who had arranged Dion’s murder. Capone was known for sending flowers to rival gang member’s funerals; In fact in one funeral alone he spent over $5,000.
Several gangster funerals both before and after O’Banion had flowers costing in excess of $20,000 and well higher.
I was originally inspired to name this story “Please Omit Flowers” or “In Lieu of Flowers” (and will write about that in a minute) but I could not pass by “Al’s” basket of roses.
Please read on, smell the roses and understand why there was a need for fragrant bouquets, wreaths, casket blankets, and sprays.
On Sunday night, November 9, Vincenzo Genna arrived at Schofield’s where Dion loved arranging flowers. Genna picked up a $750 wreath and checked out the shop. Later that evening, Frank Uale (pronounced and sometimes spelled Yale), onetime Capone’s New York City mentor and recognized as the national head of the Unione Siciliana, called Schofield’s and placed a $2,000 flower order for Mike Merlo’s funeral who had died the day before. It was to be picked up at the shop the following morning.
Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, November 10, 1924, O’Banion was clipping chrysanthemums in Schofield’s when a man entered the shop along with Torrio/Capone gunmen John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, gaining the reputation as Chicago’s most proficient killers. They fired six bullets and Dean O’Banion died instantly. The third man was never positively identified, although he was believed to be either Frank Uale or Mike Genna.
The massive amount of flowers at Dean’s funeral were typical of gangster funerals of the day, many held at Sbarbaro & Company funeral home on North Wells Street.
Here is a rundown of some of the huge sendoffs, not in any particular order.
A massive crowd gathered early outside Tony Lombardo’s South Austin Avenue home In front of his house, across two trees, was strung a huge floral arrangement that spelled out “T. Lombardo.” The T was made of pink carnations, the rest of the name was in white. The flowers filled the entire house, the back yard, the front lawn, the gangways between the houses, and the neighbor’s lawn. The two-mile long funeral cortege, containing 17 flower cars, circled the Lombardo home once before heading to Mount Carmel Cemetery. A male quartet sang the customary tune at gangster funerals, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in Italian.
–Al Capone’s brother Frank Capone the Chicago mobster who participated in the attempted takeover of Cicero was shot by there by Sergeant Phillip J. McGlynn. On April 4, 1924, Frank received an extravagant funeral, with $20,000 worth of flowers placed around the silver-plated casket and over 150 cars in the motorcade which wending its way to Mount Carmel Cemetery. The Chicago Tribune reported that the event was appropriate for “a fitting gentleman.” Out of questionable respect for his dead brother, Al Capone closed the gambling dens and speakeasies of Cicero for two hours during the funeral. And yes, Al purchased the flowers from Schofield’s belonging to his North Side Gang rival, Dean O’Banion.
Vincent “the Schemer” Drucci’s funeral included a $10,000 aluminum and silver casket surrounded by $30,000 worth of fresh flowers, many of the arrangements arriving from William J. Schofield, O’Banion’s partner in the flower business. The crowd was estimated at 1,000. The hearse, draped in an American flag, was preceded to the cemetery by 12 carloads of flowers. At Mount Carmel cemetery, a rifle squad fired a 21-gun salute and a bugler played taps.
On May 25, 1925, George “Bugs” Moran, Vincent Drucci and Hymie Weiss chased down Angelo Genna in a high-speed car chase. Angelo’s car crashed into a light pole at Hudson and Ogden, the Northside gangs then shot him to death. He was 27 years old. The funeral procession consisted of 300 automobiles, 30 vehicles containing flowers. In a unique twist to this funeral, Angelo’s “crepe-hung,” shotgun-peppered automobile was towed along behind the procession. Among the mourners were a state senator, two state representatives, “Diamond Joe” Esposito, and Al Capone.
And the funerals get stranger and bigger
Not all gangster are killed. The head of the Unione Siciliana and exercising considerable influence in Chicago’s Democratic Party politics Mike Merlo died of cancer in his house on November 8, 1924. His funeral was one of the most spectacular in Chicago mob history, with floral arrangements estimated in various accounts to be costing from $30,000-$100,000.
But it gets better! Before his death, a lieutenant, believed to be Anthony Lombardo, had ordered a $5,000 life-size statue made out of flowers. hiring a sculptor to create a wax likeness of the Unione Siciliana leader’s head. Matching brown eyes and eyebrows and eyelashes made from actual black and gray human hair were added. The head was mounted on a copper wire frame built to match Merlo’s measurements, A suit of blue flowers completed the effigy. At the funeral home, it was said that “fear gripped” the mourners who came to pay their respects when they saw this eerie image of the departed.
Three thousand mourners gathered around his home on the day of the funeral and followed the procession to St. Clement’s Church on Deming for high mass. The 266-car cortege then made its way to Mount Carmel Cemetery led by that life-sized effigy of Merlo. At the cemetery the crowd of mourners swelled to 10,000. Among the honorary pallbearers were Mayor William E. Dever, and future mayor, Anton J. Cermak.
Anthony D’Andrea- Mafia boss of Chicago (one of the several presidents of the Unione Siciliana), went out in a $3,000 bronze casket but the Catholic Church refused to allow it and Anthony to be brought to the church, or to be buried in consecrated ground. They explained that he “had not lived as a Catholic, therefore he should not be buried as one…as he lived so shall he be buried”. The pallbearers, placed the casket on the sidewalk in the exact spot where he had been shot where 8,000 estimated mourners filled the street. One of his brothers, a priest, conducted the prayers and sprinkled holy water on the casket, then D’Andrea’s body was driven to Mount Greenwood Cemetery amid a caravan that included twelve flower cars. The funeral cortege was estimated to be two and a half miles long. Of the 39 honorary pallbearers, 21 were judges.
Giacomo (”Big” Jim) Colosimo – Reputed gangster, mafia boss, and predecessor of Al Capone in Chicago owned 200 brothels, and was also involved in gambling, extortion, and numerous other criminal activities. In 1910 Big Jim opened the popular Colosimo’s Cafe, at 2126 South Wabash. Murdered by Al Capone, His funeral was expensive and well attended. Large floral pieces surrounded a bronze coffin. Fifty three pallbearers included judges and Congressmen. One thousand First Ward Democrats marched in the funeral procession, accompanied by two brass bands. He was entombed in a private mausoleum in Oakwoods Cemetery because Archbishop George Mundelein would not allow his burial in a Catholic cemetery.
On Tuesday night, November 10, 1925, Samoots Amatuna visited his barber at the corner of Halsted and Roosevelt. After receiving a shave and a manicure, two men fired four times each. The wake included $20,000 worth of floral arrangements which spilled out onto the front lawn, backyard and neighbor’s lawns. The following day the funeral cortege wove its way through Little Italy passing by the barbershop where he was shot. The procession ended at Mount Carmel Cemetery where Amatuna was placed in a temporary vault. His body would soon be sent home to his native Sicily where it would be buried in consecrated ground..
On July 1, 1928, a brilliant Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn NY, Capone gunmen snuffed out the life Frank Uale/Frankie Yale with tommy guns. In addition to being a gangster, Frank was an undertaker, owning a funeral parlor. He was gunned down, on Al Capone’s orders, as Frank drove through Brooklyn. His funeral was one of the grandest ever held in New York, reputed to exceed $50,000. There was the $15,000 nickel and silver casket, and $37,000 worth of floral arrangements, one piece was a clock set to 4:10, his time of death. There were somewhere between 21 and 38 flower cars, 103 limos, and 250 private vehicles that formed the procession from St. Rosalia’s Church in Brooklyn to Holy Cross Cemetery
And in more recent times, John Gotti’s 2002 funeral in New York had 19 flower cars, 22 limos, and hundreds of private cars.
Not all gangland funerals were impressive. For an October 29, 1930 funeral we have Giuseppe “Joe” Aiello, a former friend and foe of Tony Lombardo . Joey was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Chicago and later be reburied in Riverside Cemetery in Rochester, New York, Although a huge procession started out from his home, by the time it reached Mt. Carmel, almost all the cars had disappeared except his hearse, a car containing Aiello’s widow Catherine and three Ford Sedans containing flowers. It was reported that police would be watching the mourners.
“PLEASE OMIT FLOWERS”
Flowers are intended to a visual expression of love, sympathy, and respect. However death notices today often carry request that no flowers be sent to a funeral. Some consider flowers as being unnecessary or unwanted and provide little lasting value. The money, many reason can be put to better use. Many families request that “in lieu of flowers”, that a donation be made to a favorite charity in memory of their Uncle Louie. It might be anything from a hospice, school, hospital or church, to a fund trying to cure disease, an animal welfare group, or a charity of the choice of the giver.
In the old days, funeral flowers were the norm and were considered to be the best way to convey a message of condolence. Funerals back then were lavish with ferns, wreaths, sprays, and casket blankets. An overabundance of flowers often required the expense of one or more specially built flower cars to move all of the floral tributes to the cemetery.
But there was also a practical reason for flowers:
They were liberally used to control the offensive and obnoxiousness of body decomposition. In 1874 when President Andrew Johnson was buried, his body was not embalmed, and by the day of his funeral the undertaker had to close the casket and heap loads of fragrant flowers on top to hide the odor long enough for the funeral to take place.
So how do flowers affect funerals in other ways?
In 1914, C. Austin Miles wrote the famous funeral hymn “In the Garden.”. “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” “And He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own….” The hymn was one of the most frequently sung hymns at funerals in the United States. The hymn also began a movement where some funeral homes embraced flowers and even some created an indoor garden theme as a back drop..
In the Midwest the custom of “flower ladies” began and can be found elswhere. Similar to the pall bearer role but instead of carrying the casket, this group of women (usually six) would carry the flowers from the place of the funeral to the flower car, and then would assist in setting them up at the cemetery. Flower ladies were chosen with as great of care as the pall bearers and were usually close friends of the family. It was a distinct honor to be chosen a Flower Lady.
And one more thing,
By my count, my story includes a total of 166 filled flower cars used in just eight of the funerals. (just in case you enjoy numbers).
The Flower Car
A true piece of American culture, now mostly forgotten, the flower car has a rich and storied past. Usually positioned in a funeral procession directly in front of a hearse, the flower car provided a glamorous sight in a funeral.. The first highly-stylized, open-well flower cars were dubbed “Chicago” or “Western” style because livery services in Chicago that typically rented hearses and limousines to funeral homes were first to use these special vehicles.
Prior to 1936, convertible sedans or open touring cars were used to carry large numbers of flowers to a funeral. This evolved into the first specially designed flower cars. The flower car has a coupe-style, forward-passenger compartment with a large open well in the rear for the purpose of displaying the baskets of lavish flowers being transported to the cemetery. It was built in North America as late as 1988 before finally being iscontinued.
Three manufacturers of flower cars were Quickly, Henney Motor Company in Freeport, IL, and Eureka Company of Rock Falls, IL. Eureka built its coupe-style, long-wheelbase car on a LaSalle commercial chassis. Other vehicle manufacturers followed the lead including Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati.
The popularity of the flower car peaked in the 1950s, when six manufacturers offered flower cars. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some funeral homes began to use cheaper car-based light pickups like the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino as flower cars. The last flower car offered as a standard production model was in 1988 when the new Eureka Coach Company in Toronto, Canada delivered about 12 front-wheel-drive Cadillacs. Also, Specialty Manufacturing in Plainview, NY, began converting old Cadillacs and produced some new flower cars
Dean O’Banion’s murder, age 32, our star of funeral flowers, sparked a brutal five-year gang war between the North Side Gang and the Chicago Outfit that culminated in the killing of seven North Side gang members in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.
He was buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery among so many other prominent underworld figures. Many of the gangsters ignored being buried in the cheap seats. Their plot or mausoleum surrounds the beautiful Bishop’s Circle right in the center of the cemetery.
As much as Dean loved flowers, he obviously could not enjoy the overkill of arrangements at his own funeral , or at the very least, Al’s basket of roses.
2 thoughts on “A Basket of Roses from Al Brown”
Hi Barry – I know you through PGS in Phoenix. I thoroughly enjoyed this article – a slice of Americana I knew nothing about. I was surprised by the seeming closeness of gangsters and politicians. Should I be?
Well hello! Sorry I am so slow getting to all the great comments. . Thanks for your kind words. See you in March!