Battleground Chicago

With establishment of Yellow Cab Company in 1915, John Hertz systematically

began eliminating competition through a variety of means that ranged from purchase of other taxicab companies operating within the area, gaining control through the trade of down payments for percentages of company ownership, or forcing small companies to close through attrition. With the franchise of Yellow Cab Company, and the application of similar principles, Hertz soon controlled a large percentage of, or dominated the taxi business in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, and other major metropolitan areas.

In Chicago, by 1919, only the Checker Cab Company established by cab driver Frank Dilger provided serious opposition. Resultant of its loose structure, this company presented a more formidable obstacle as tactics previously utilized to gain control of, or starve out taxi companies did not work. Most companies, including Yellow Cab Company operated as an entity that purchased and repaired taxis, and hired drivers, Checker Cab Company was an association of independent driver owners operating under the umbrella of a single livery.

As a result, Hertz employed a different tactic in his battle with Checker Cab Company. Shortly after creation of this company, amendment to the 1895 Cab Stand Ordinance received approval from Mayor William H. Thompson, a friend and political ally of Hertz. The amendment required that cab drivers obtain a city issued permit, after investigation, before they could operate from municipal cabstands.

This allowed for the deployment of delaying tactics that resulted in a disproportionate number of Checker drivers forced to find other means of financial support rather than driving taxis, while most Yellow Cab Company drivers received almost instant permit approval. This fueled the volatile atmosphere in the taxi business that included the simmering labor issues.

The advent of prohibition and the rise of organized gangs that battled for dominance of the illegal alcohol trade, the post war recession that resulted in increased unemployment and racial strife that was manifesting in unprecedented riots in numerous cites further added to the incendiary climate. The taxicab and its drivers were often on the front lines.

Associated Press, Chicago, July 27, 1920 – “A battle between fleets of taxicabs, in which the vehicles were maneuvered according to the best strategy of tank warfare while their drivers fired hundreds of shots at each other, raged through the early morning hours on the streets of Chicago’s west side today. The battle was the result of longstanding differences between drivers of the Yellow Cab Company and the Checker Taxicab Company, a rival concern.

For hours, the battling drivers played every trick of mobile warfare against each other that they could think of. Strings of Yellow Cabs, in line, rushed past the headquarters of the Checker Company at breakneck speed, emptying revolver broadsides into the latter’s offices. Rallying, the black and white checkered cabs of the attacked concern dashed out en masse and ripped into the Yellow for counter attacks according to the best tactics of shock action.

While these engagements were being fought, numerous individual battles were fought by drivers, who, racing their taxicabs hub to hub, emptied their pistols at each other at close range.

The battle started in a bit of fist skirmish in which two southside drivers of the rival concerns were engaged. The engagement then moved to the west side sector, and became general. The first, powder action began when a lone machine, acting as a scout, moved on a branch garage of one of the companies. Occupants of the machine fired into the garage.

This fire was promptly returned, the machine was driven off amid a regular barrage. A few minutes later a dozen cabs in close formation roared by the branch garage of the other company, with pistols of the occupants crackling like machine guns. The garage defenders replied with several volleys, and sent a fleet of their cabs in pursuit. Another branch garage was attacked by a patrol of three cabs, and from than on numerous individual encounters were reported until daybreak.”

The promise of lucrative profits represented by the taxicab as a legitimate business and the resultant battle for dominance of a limited market were enough to ensure the taxi wars raged on long after this battle. This coupled to the potential profits derived from nefarious activities such as the use of taxis for the transportation of illegal alcohol, or to transport passengers to “blind pigs,” extortion, and the provision of muscle for enforcement or retribution also ensured that the battles were not limited to the streets of Chicago.

On August 20, 1920, a driver was shot and wounded after an evening in which fifty cabs had in the process of jockeying for positions in front of a Chicago loop district theater began ramming taxis from rival companies. On August 7, random gunfire wounded two drivers. By the end of the month, the casualty count had climbed to ten, and in September, bombings and arson destroyed numerous cabs.

United Press, Chicago, June 10, 1921 – “Chicago’s taxicab war broke out again Saturday. Four clashes between the forces of the Yellow and Checker Taxi company drivers were reported.

Two men, one a passenger, were injured. The passenger was hurt in a serious smashup when a Checker cab, alleged by its driver to have been surrounded and forced off the street, crashed over a curbstone.”

Clashes between Checker and Yellow drivers continued throughout the day. One driver was wounded in the Loop district, and near Grant Park, the windows of a Yellow taxi were smashed. At the Hotel Sherman, a Checker taxi rear-ended a Yellow taxi at a high rate of speed, a brawl between drivers ensured, and the police intervened and arrested several Checker drivers. At Logan Square and Milwaukee Avenue, a driver was shot in the foot after a group of drivers affiliated with the Yellow Cab brand overturned a Checker taxi. In another incident at the Hotel Sherman, Morris Stuben suffered a severe injury when struck in the head with a brick.

A 1921 grand jury investigation into the increasing violence between taxi companies in Chicago noted that Yellow Cab operated 1,100 taxis. Checker had 674 taxis in operation with plans to add an additional 250 before the end of the year. The investigation also determined that favoritism, cronyism, and outright corruption were contributing to the escalation of violence.

Seven years later a Chicago Tribune investigation confirmed this and revealed that little had changed. The published expose centered on the murder of a Checker Driver outside the Granada Café at 68th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. According to their report, a detective prevented a patrolman from arresting the Yellow Cab driver under the pretense that the shooting was in self defense.

By mid 1923, a new chapter in the Chicago taxi wars erupted. Efforts to unionize taxi drivers had been ongoing for more than a decade with varying results. Organized crime violently worked to gain control of unions. In the middle were drivers for both Checker and Yellow Cab.

On February 8, 1924, after union officials were ousted by company officials at Checker, a protective police detail was recalled and four masked gunmen arrived at company headquarters shortly afterwards. They stood all available drivers and mechanics against a wall in a show of intimidation. The following morning a drive by shooting left a driver dead, and another severely wounded.

The battles at the Hotel La Salle were a microcosm of the violence sweeping the city. Initially the hotel had operated its own cabs as a service for clients. Sabotage and similar tactics led management to abandon this practice and give Diamond Cab exclusive use of the hotels cabstand. This company succumbed to attacks orchestrated by Yellow Cab drivers, and De Luxe Cab Company obtained exclusive rights to the lucrative location.

The arrangement was also short lived as Yellow Cab drivers began targeting the company’s entire operations. Meanwhile, Premier Cab Company, formed by the faction of union drivers ousted from Checker, assumed control of the Hotel La Salle cabstand.

Daily reports of violence moved all but the most sensational stories from the front page. One of these was an expose published resultant of a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed Checker garage business manager Michael Sokoll had summoned Phillip Fox, a Checker driver, to pick up Stuben and James Mogley, Max Podolsky, and Charles Goldstein, to enforce retribution against Yellow taxi drivers after an incident at the Hotel Sherman. Unknown to Fox, the four passengers were members of the Johnny Torrio crime syndicate.

Fox drove to a Yellow taxi stand at the corner of Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue. Upon arrival, the enforcers opened fire killing Thomas Skirven. Witnesses identified Fox and Stuben, they were arrested within the hour, and the next morning both men confessed to the murder but refused to identify their cohorts.

Fox later repudiated his confession stating that he was beaten and forced to sign. This and the subsequent trial became a media sensation. The initial proceedings in 1922 ended in mistrial, but a subsequent conviction with sentence of life imprisonment marked the culmination of the 1925 trial. Working behind the scenes, attorneys in the employ of Checker had the sentences commuted in 1928, and the governor issued pardons for both men in December.

Meanwhile, the battle between Checker and Yellow Cab spread to other cities in which the two companies vied for dominance of lucrative territories. Drive by shootings, arson, and other acts of mayhem soon became common news items in Detroit and New York City, Racine and Milwaukee.

Cover photo Acme News Services (shooting on Dykman, New York)