Chicago’s Toughest Gangster Nabbed in L.A.


On July 15, 1918, plainclothes officer Charles S. Vose of the LAPD’s new “war squad” went to 324 W. Pico Street on a tip that a man who’d been living there for the past several weeks was a draft dodger. The landlady told him her tenant, who called himself Walter Scott, or Marvin, had just stepped out to the corner store. Vose went looking for him there, but the wily “Scott/Marvin” ducked out the back and ran up Grand Avenue. Vose apprehended him near 16th & Grand and brought him in without incident. He was lucky. The man was Frank McErlane and he was wanted in connection with the murder of a policeman back in Chicago. Later called “the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger,” McErlane is credited with inventing the “one-way ride” and introducing the Thompson machine gun to Chicago’s underworld. 



McErlane had been involved with an auto theft gang believed responsible for the 1917 murder of motorcycle cop Herman Malow and the related kidnapping of a witness to the crime, Grace Lyttle, who said that McErlane and others kept her in a room before hitting her over the head and tossing her from a moving car. Detectives from the Windy City extradited Vose’s prisoner back east but Los Angeles could follow his future exploits through the papers.

In September 1918, they read that McErlane and other members of the gang escaped from the Cook County jail. McErlane was recaptured the following month in Arizona and spent time in Joliet Prison from 1919 to 1922 as an accessory to the Malow murder.

After his release, with national prohibition in full swing, McErlane allied himself with Joe Saltis and the Torrio-Capone gang. On December 23, 1923, in the midst of Chicago’s beer wars, McErlane and other Capone outfit gunmen (including Ralph Sheldon, who would later be convicted in Los Angeles for the 1930 kidnapping of gambler Zeke Caress) hijacked a beer truck belonging to rival Edward “Spike” O’Donnell and loaded its drivers, William “Shorty” Egan and Thomas “Morrie” Keene, into a car. They were bound, shot and shoved out of a speeding car. Egan somehow lived to tell the tale of his “one way ride,” a maneuver that, accurately or not, came to be associated with McErlane.

Two years later, McErlane introduced his other alleged claim to fame, the Thompson sub-machine gun, when he used one in a failed rub-out of Spike O’Donnell in September 1925. Today said to be the first known use of the weapon in Chicago, the press at the time took notice of this “new note of efficiency in gangland assassinations.”  

machine gun chicago 1925

Days after the failed attempt o Spike O’Donnell’s life (one of many) “someone” peppered the Ragen Club with bullets fired from a fast moving touring car. The Chicago Typewriter had arrived. 10-5-1925.

McErlane continued down his murderous path but always managed to beat the rap- if not the potential witnesses against him. But by 1931, his mental condition appeared to be breaking down, possibly from the effects of overindulgence in contraband alcohol. In June 1931 police found him shooting up the pavement with a shotgun in the middle of the night, drunk and raving about imaginary enemies. “They were trying to get me, he told the officers, “but I drove them off.”


LA Times 6-7-1931

A few months later, on October 8, 1931, police on Chicago’s South Side found McErlane’s common-law wife Elfrieda Rigus, aka Marian Miller, dead in a car, shot four times. Her two dogs had also been killed and the interior of the car was shot to pieces. McErlane, whose relationship with Miller was known to be stormy, was wanted for questioning but couldn’t be found. On October 23, Los Angeles County D.A. Buron Fitts announced that his men were searching the city for several fugitives from Chicago, including McErlane. 

 With McErlane still missing, Chicago police began to wonder if he might have been a “ride” victim himself after the body of one of his recent rivals, James L. Quigley, was discovered in a ditch. Quigley had been suspected of killing McErlane’s driver, Eddie Fitzgerald, but the case against him collapsed when witnesses refused to ID the gunman. Gangsters armed with Tommys later shot up Quigley’s house three nights in a row. But McErlane turned up alive, not in Los Angeles but in Wisconsin, when he surrendered to police in December. He was cleared of culpability in Miller’s death when the investigation “failed to link” him to the crime.


Finally, Los Angeles read of McErlane’s death. The man some had once called “Chicago’s toughest gangster” died not in a hail of bullets but of pneumonia, on October 8, 1932, a year to the day after Miller’s murder. The event marked another so-“first” for McErlane: he was, or so the papers reported, “the first gangster to die a natural death.”


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