Animal. Beast. Brute.

Beithíoch: The Life and World of Chicago Gangster Frank McErlane by Daniel Waugh. Two volumes, 887pages. Published December 10, 2021. Photos courtesy of the author.

Review by Michael Pierce

Beithíoch (Irish): Animal. Beast. Brute.

And there’s no better word to describe Frank McErlane.

Born in 1894 to an Irish immigrant father and first generation Irish American mother, young Frank grew up in the rough and tumble and not-so-Gilded Age south side of Chicago.

By the time he was 18 years old he was engaged in a life of crime, pulling off small time robberies and car thefts. But it was during the era of Prohibition, and the Chicago Beer wars, that McErlane came of age and found his true calling.

McErlane rose to become the leader of a bootlegging operation in the Back of the Yards area of the city. He gained a reputation as being one of the most brutal gangsters in Chicago, a reputation that seems to be well-deserved.

It’s rumored that he was so brutal, and had such a hair-trigger temper, that even the notorious Al Capone feared him. Not helping the situation was McErlane’s own alcoholism. A wrong word or look could quickly send him over the edge into a violent outburst after a period of heavy drinking.

Tradition credits him with originating two things. It is said that McErlane invented the ‘one way ride.’ It’s also said that he was the first person to use a Thompson Submachine Gun (aka as a Chicago Typewriter) during the commission of a crime.

Until now, McErlane has usually appeared as a footnote in the stories of gangsters like Capone and others, some of whom (like Capone) have achieved folk hero status in American history.

Daniel Waugh is becoming a force in the true crime and gangster biography genres, and this two-volume set is not a disappointment. Waugh takes his readers not just on a ride through the life of Frank McErlane, he also takes us to the Chicago of the 1920s and 1930s. With the passage of Prohibition small time hoodlums became nationally known gangsters, and Waugh puts us in their world with skill and aplomb and an easy-to-read narrative style. Add to that extensive end notes and he has given us a biography that is not only entertaining but informative.



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