Grab a box of tissues and a tub of ice cream, these are sappy Valentine’s Day tales. In fact, this may be somewhat of a history lesson.
Our tale begins as so many of yore do…
In the beginning…
There was good and evil, but the lines between these two forces were no more clearly drawn than those of this history lesson.
The bounds of the Roman Empire stretched wide and glorious. The Roman army was in need of soldiers to keep up the dominance of its legions.
The market for soldiers was made up of two major types: those with wives and families (a.k.a. men with obligations) and those without such formal bonds (a.k.a. expendable). The men with obligations, though numerous, were not focused and willing soldiers, according to their emperor, Claudius II.
It seemed to the emperor that the men living life free of formal bonds to others could prove to be more effective spear-sponges in battle. Thus, Emperor Claudius II, known only for his military-mindedness and not his lack of forethought, outlawed marriages involving young men with fighting potential.
The dark shadow of oppression swept the empire and wedding cake manufacturing technology screeched to nearly a standstill.
But out from the rusting wedding bells and weeping wedding planners stepped our valiant hero. The man we can thank for making all of us who are single reassess our life situations in February; the man who made all of us who do have dates shell out money, buy flowers, and come up with some brilliant, original, romantic thing to do, had to save ancient Rome from its own emperor.
Now a Roman Catholic Saint, Valentine, or Valentinus, provided a light to the young men and women of Rome and began the ancient version of the Las Vegas wedding chapel, placing people out of the restraints of government and into the clutches of wedlock in illegal ceremonies.
Saint Valentine’s weddings were not as long-lived as those that are now performed by Elvis, as the eyes of Emperor Claudius II were many and sharp.
Upon realizing Valentine’s illegal actions to foil his plan for a larger, more expendable army, Emperor Claudius, apparently insecure about his own inability to attract women, ordered that Valentine be put to death.
And he was.
Such a display of martyrdom in connection (or perhaps celebration) with Saint Valentine was not witnessed until nearly two thousand years later with the guys that everyone hates to love, the Italian Mafia.
The world of 1929 Chicago was quite different than Valentine’s ancient Rome, but in the mob scene the people were still quite the same. There were the important people with obligations and the expendable people.
Al Capone and his right-hand man, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, had a gang with neither the power nor the breadth of the Romans, but in Chicago at least, this was going to change.
The two planned to assassinate gang rival Bugs Moran and, while they were at it, kill the rest of Moran’s gang.
The date was set: Valentine’s Day, February 14.
Their plan was ingenious and nearly carried out to a hilt by McGurn and his group of roughneck thugs while their boss, Capone, relaxed under the perfect alibi in Miami.
Although no chocolates or flowers were involved, the scene of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre had all the danger and romantic flair of an ancient Roman underground wedding hosted by the Valentine man himself.
Beginning at 10:30 a.m., the date promised more than breakfast in bed. In fact, the gifts were so exclusive, they were illegal.
America in 1929 was under the hand of prohibition and Chicago gangsters had their hands deep into the alcohol-smuggling business. Capone and McGurn’s plan was to lure Moran and his gang into a warehouse to trade money with bootleggers for fine whiskey at a cheap price.
With thoughts of a romantic and very intoxicating evening at their favorite speak-easy, Moran’s gang showed up for the trade unsuspectingly. Moran, who was running late, was nearing the warehouse just as he saw a police car pull up. Thinking it was a bust, Moran left his expendable men alone and left the scene.
It was a bust, indeed, but not of the nature Moran had predicted.
The officers, actually McGurn and Capone’s men posing as police, stormed into the warehouse and, acting as official as they could, made everyone line up to be arrested.
The bootleggers, also on the side of Capone and McGurn, acted their part and gave their weapons to the “police” who then proceeded to open fire on Moran’s men, killing them all.
The only problem was that the real objective of the plan was not achieved; Moran had escaped and, to make matters worse, had a number of inherited dates for Valentine’s Day.
As for Capone and his men, not one was arrested in connection with the most famous gangland killings in history, and they reveled, particularly Capone, in their newfound fame, no doubt having a Valentine’s Day to remember.
On an even lighter note (if that’s even possible), “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, was forced to extend his Valentine’s Day festivities in a way hearkening back to the holiday’s origins. McGurn got married to his girlfriend, Louise Rolfe, who was the only person besides those involved who knew of McGurn’s guilt; his wife became known as “the blonde alibi.”
It’s not enough simply to associate Valentine’s Day with a time of lovemaking, date taking or self-deprecating. Since its origins, the most memorable Valentine’s celebrations have involved killings of the expendable and the opposition. This year, it is important that we take this theme to heart in our celebrations. After all, Iraq needs something to celebrate, too.
Dominic Weilminster is not a historian or a supporter of war with Iraq. However, he is a pretty good cook.