‘Shoot Him With A .44’: The Golden Age Of Assassination By Piano

October 22, 2012

Amid other dubious distinctions, 1920s-era gangland Chicago served as the birthplace of a particularly brutal form of assassination: the dropping of a piano on one’s enemies from a tall building.

The practice established itself after underworld kingpin Lefty “Underworld Kingpin” Capizzi read about a man who had been crushed flat by a dropped piano in a moving accident in Kansas City. He immediately imported the tactic for use against a bitter rival, Joseph “Nickname” Basilli.

Capizzi invited Basilli to a meeting on the sidewalk outside the Galemore building under the pretense of discussing the city’s gambling and numbers rackets. Basilli complied, suspecting nothing. Twenty-eight floors above, Capizzi’s henchmen, disguised as movers, were hoisting a half-ton piano up the building’s side. At a given signal, they cut the line, and the piano plunged three hundred feet, transforming Basilli into what the Tribune described as ‘tomato paste in a sixty-seven dollar charcoal-grey suit.’

Capizzi was pleased, and began dropping pianos on more of his enemies. When his men complained of backaches, Capizzi ordered the pianos cut in half; half a piano could do the job as readily as a whole one, he reasoned, and would save money. The phrase ‘shoot him with a .44’ became gangland code for assassination by piano (half of 88 keys = 44). It was a grand psychological assault as well as a physical one: the noise of a Steinway striking the pavement (and the unsuspecting victim thereupon) could be heard more than half a mile away. Beloved Chicago tabloid wit Franklin Pierce Adams mused that ‘the note that sounds when the piano hits its target is almost always a ‘be flat’.”

In 1927 piano assassinations took the lives of sixty-three prominent Chicago gangsters, with ‘copycat’ killings in other major cities claiming dozens more. Killers huddled in speakeasies comparing notes and techniques: a halved baby grand was reputed to be more accurate than an upright but could be unreliable in high winds. Piano manufacturers from around the world opened warehouses in Chicago to cater to the instrument’s sudden high demand, with the boldest among them advertising their models’ weight and ease of ‘use’ (“A Squash-Tone piano goes up easy and comes down hard!”). Criminals huddled in doorways and alcoves until ‘spotters’ employed to scan the Chicago skyline for dangling pianos gave them the ‘all clear’ via an intricate series of signal flags. Even then the most cold-blooded gangsters ran from building to building and frequently held important meetings in the middle of the street.

The last known piano assassination in Chicago took place on June 5, 1931, when an unidentified gangland associate was crushed by a plummeting Aschenbach outside the Allerton Hotel. The left, or ‘deep’, side of the piano was used, indicating the man was probably killed as a result of gambling debts.

The Great Depression saw a decline in the availability of pianos due to lack of materials, and the practice had all but ceased by World War II.

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