The Life and Death of Nails Morton

Nails Morton wasn’t your ordinary gangster. Nor was his death ordinary. And the aftermath of that death became the stuff of legend.

He was born Samuel Marcovitz in New York in 1893, the oldest of seven children. Around 1900 the family moved to the Maxwell Street area of Chicago. Marcovitz was changed to Morton at that time.

Young Sammy quickly became involved with the Jewish street gangs in his neighborhood. His weapon of choice was a baseball bat studded with nails—hence, his nickname.  He was in and out of scrapes with the law, and a judge finally gave him the choice of going to prison or enlisting in the army.  Morton chose the army.

Samuel "Nails" Morton

Samuel “Nails” Morton

“Channel those aggressive instincts!” Maybe the judge told him that.  World War I was on.  Fighting in France, Morton was twice wounded and earned a major decoration for bravery. He entered the army as a buck private; he came home a first lieutenant.

Back in Chicago, he went back to his old ways. He opened some gambling houses.  In 1920, with Prohibition taking hold, Morton joined up with Dion O’Banion’s North Side mob.  O’Banion put him in charge of liquor distribution and enforcement.

The public first became acquainted with Nails Morton in 1921, when he was put in trial for killing two cops. He was acquitted in court.  There was talk that jurors had been threatened or bribed.

Morton became a gangland celebrity. He was seen at the city’s fanciest restaurants and in the best seats at sporting events, a female companion or two keeping him company.  He wore custom-tailored suits and drove a block-long touring car.  Leaving Maxwell Street behind, he bought a graystone two-flat facing Humboldt Park.

For relaxation he took up horseback riding. When he wasn’t busy shooting competitors or romancing ladies, Morton could usually be found atop a mount in Lincoln Park.  By 1923 the kid from the inner city was an accomplished horseman.

On the morning of May 13th he was riding through the park with some friends.  A stirrup strap broke, the horse bolted, and Morton fell to the ground.  The excited horse kicked him in the head, killing him instantly.

Morton was interred at Waldheim cemetery. The eulogists at his brief funeral service spoke of his war heroics.  They also noted that Morton had “organized a defense society to drive Jew-haters from the West Side.”  His other activities were passed over.

"The Public Enemy"--Cagney learns Nails has been killed

“The Public Enemy”–Cagney learns Nails has been killed

The North Side mob was shocked that their buddy had met death in such a prosaic manner. A few days after the funeral, Louie Altiere kidnapped the horse that had killed Morton.  Altiere led the animal to the spot where Morton had fallen, then shot it dead.  “We taught that damned horse of yours a lesson,” he told the stable owner.

Now we move forward to 1931, and the movie The Public Enemy.  Gang boss James Cagney learns that his buddy “Nails Nathan” has been killed by a horse.  So Cagney leaves Jean Harlow behind, goes to the stable, and shoots the horse.

And they say Hollywood movies aren’t true to life . . .

—30—

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