Limey the Tough:
The Quest for Al Capone's Glasgow Gunman by NEIL ROOT
Were there two men called John Sherry involved in the gang wars in Prohibition Chicago? John Sherry, born in Glasgow, was said to have worked for Al Capone. But there was another John Sherry, an American, allied to Capone’s deadly rivals the North Side Gang, founded by the psychopathic Irishman Dean ‘Dion’ O’Banion. Were two men named John Sherry operating in 1920’s Chicago on opposite gangland sides? And was the John Sherry born in Glasgow a hijacker, gunman and political corrupter for Al Capone, or just a street-fighting Glasgow hard man with Walter Mitty fantasies?
I decided to investigate, to uncover the truth.
It all started when I came across an old Australian newspaper report in the Adelaide Chronicle, dated Thursday 23 September 1937, which read:
“Limey The Tough” Found Murdered-
Was Al Capone’s Gunman in Liquor Racket
-London, September 20
“Limey the Tough”, Al Capone’s gunman during liquor racket, otherwise John Patrick Sherry, former boxer, 42, was found with his neck broken and wounds in his head in a house in Holloway, London. Police, after a night hunt in Islington, arrested a woman and two men in connection with the murder.
Sherry fought in the Inniskilling Dragoons during the war. Al Capone regarded him as the toughest Englishman he had met. Sherry was once “taken for a ride” by rival gangsters, but he battled his way out by sheer strength.
It seems that when John Sherry was found dead with head injuries in a house in north London in September 1937, newspapers in England and Scotland, and as far afield as Australia, reported that Sherry had been called ‘Limey the Tough’ and ‘the toughest Britisher I ever met’ by Al ‘Scarface’ Capone. It was said that Sherry had served as Capone’s gunman and hijacker in 1920’s Chicago, during the ultra-violent and corrupt Prohibition years in that city, where Capone ruled with autonomy. In recent months and years, key lieutenants of Capone had been killed in Chicago, such as his No.1 gunman, ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn, Scarface himself having gone to the Atlanta Penitentiary and then Alcatraz for tax evasion.
My research revealed that John Patrick Sherry was born in the tough area of Bridgeton in the East End of Glasgow on 21st May 1894, in a slum tenement in the gloomy shadow of the shipyards, where the notorious ‘Billy Boy’ gang under Billy Fullerton would flourish, along with the violence used by the other ‘razor gangs’, and Glasgow gained the reputation of ‘Britain’s Chicago’ by the early 1930’s. It was a truly tough place which was evocatively immortalised in the 1935 novel No Mean City by H. Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur.
The Scottish National Archives in Edinburgh reveal that John Sherry was first arrested in 1912 for breach of the peace and would go on to serve no less than seventeen sentences in Glasgow’s infamous Barlinnie Prison, for offences ranging from theft, assault, attacking with a weapon and assaulting policemen, on one occasion attracting a sizeable article in a Glasgow newspaper. Sherry was also an amateur boxer, but never turned pro, and the leading boxing historian Miles Templeton confirmed to me that there is no record of John Sherry boxing professionally.
Bridgeton, Glasgow, where John Sherry grew up. Courtesy of Anthony Duda
Courtesy of Anthony Duda
Courtesy of Anthony Duda
After serving in the Inniskilling Dragoons during the First World War where he became a crack shot, so now formidable with both fists and firearms, John Sherry joined the Merchant Navy, then the passport to the world for many young working-class men.
John Sherry, circa 1920, on his merchant’s seaman’s card
But was John Sherry also in Chicago in the 1920s, working for Al Capone during the Prohibition years, when gangsters were ‘taken for a ride’ to their deaths, tommy guns peppered rival mobsters and scarred buildings? And by the later 1920s, the political, judicial, and policing apparatus were almost all in the hands of Capone because of his huge graft payments- estimated to have been $30million a year out of the estimated $100million of what was sometimes called the Capone ‘combination’ was pulling in annually by 1928-29, an enormous sum now, but a vast fortune then.
This is the world where after seeing off the bootlegger Spike O’Donnell from the Irish Southside O’Donnell’s, Capone had to face his most mortal enemy, the Irish and Polish Northside gang. Its territory centred on the incredibly corrupt 42nd Ward, and it was led first by the psychopathic Dean O’Banion, followed by Hymie Weiss, then Vincent ‘the Schemer’ Drucci (shot by a police officer while in custody in very dubious circumstances), and finally, the wily George ‘Bugs’ Moran. Capone had the first three killed and tried to kill Moran in the infamously brutal St. Valentine’s Massacre of 1929, when six members of the Northsiders were killed, along with a hanger-on optometrist.
Capone’s Outfit used every possible dirty tactic to get the Republican ticket elected under its chosen puppet, the enormously corrupt William Hale ‘Big Bill’ Thompson, whose campaigning slogan in the middle of the dry Prohibition years was ‘I’m wetter than the Atlantic Ocean.’ And Capone’s most bitter and relentless enemies the Northside Gang used terrorising tactics to get out the rival Democratic vote. Sluggings, kidnappings, voter strong-arming, bombings, murders- all these tactics were used by both sides in an attempt to gain the political upper hand.
Back in November 1926, a man called John Sherry had committed massive election fraud during Chicago’s 42nd Ward primary, for which he was arrested in the following year. This man was allied to the North Side Gang, predominantly Irish but with Polish and Italian members too, founded by the trigger-happy O’Banion in 1919. In November 1929 John Sherry would face a further indictment- a formal accusation- before a Federal Grand Jury, as federal documents I accessed show.
Sherry was never convicted by the Grand Jury, and the case was allowed to fade- the then leader of the North Side Gang, George ‘Bugs’ Moran, Capone’s main target at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre nine months earlier, would undoubtedly have used his political influence here to get Sherry off the charge. But was it the same John Sherry who was born in Glasgow in 1894?
Chronologically, it is possible, as although John Sherry was in and out of Glasgow’s notorious Barlinnie Prison like a bellows on a bagpipe, there is a large gap between early 1923 and July 1927, and it is possible for him to have been in Chicago in late 1929 for his Grand Jury trial. Added to this, Sherry had gained his Merchant Navy card in 1918 just after the First World War, so could easily have travelled back and forth to the United States- after his death, a friend said that he had travelled to Hong Kong and South America as well as the US.
In 1930-31, just as Capone was under mounting pressure from the authorities over tax evasion, and the public mood was turning against him after the primal viciousness of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Chicago authorities were cracking down on foreigners engaged in crime in the city, and the Glasgow Evening News reported that around 100 Scots were deported. There is no record of John Sherry having been deported, but my researcher in Chicago (an ex-Chicago police officer) told me that he may well have been asked to leave as an ultimatum.
So did John Sherry, who would meet a squalid end in London in September 1937, really work for Capone, as his partner, friends and newspapers believed?
No, he almost certainly did not. There’s no record of the John Sherry who died in London in 1937 ever having been in the United States. The John Sherry committing the 42nd Ward election fraud in 1926 and who faced the Grand Jury was definitely not the John Sherry who was born in Glasgow in 1894.
In March 1936, the John Sherry who had been indicted for that corruption had his saloon attacked in North Clark Street in the 42nd Ward-the very same street where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had taken place seven years earlier, and just a month after ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn, thought to have planned the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, was murdered in a Chicago bowling alley in February 1936. In August 1940, this John Sherry was found ‘accidentally shot to death’ in his Chicago home- although this does not necessarily mean it really was an accident in Chicago at that time.
So how did the John Sherry from Glasgow, who was thought by those who knew him to have worked as a gunman for Capone in Chicago, come to have his neck broken in London in September 1937?
Sherry was living with a Mrs. Murphy as his common-law wife, and they were both heavy drinkers. Mrs. Murphy had fallen out with a Mary Sullivan from a few doors down, and the feud had been festering for a while. Finally, accompanied by her son and one of his friends, Joseph Williams, Mary Sullivan had gone around to where Sherry and Mrs. Murphy lived on Holloway Road in Northeast London- the site where the row of terraced houses then stood is now an upmarket block of flats, in the shadow of Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium.
When the enraged Mary Sullivan got physical with his partner a very drunk John Sherry intervened on Mrs. Murphy’s behalf. Both William Sullivan and his friend Joseph Williams then attacked Sherry, punching him in the head many times and Sherry broke his neck when he fell over. Mary Sullivan, William Sullivan, and Joseph Williams went on trial for murder, and Mary was eventually acquitted, while William Sullivan and Joseph Williams went to prison for manslaughter. So, if he was to be believed, John Sherry had survived his incredibly dangerous years in Chicago, but was ironically killed over a petty argument his lover had with another woman.
So, both men named John Sherry met an untimely death- the Glaswegian John Sherry was killed in a mundane domestic dispute in London in September 1937, while the American John Sherry was ‘accidentally’ shot with a gun found next to him while he was cleaning it in August 1940 in Chicago.
The latter, an American, was a bona fide participant in the Chicago gang wars, a political slugger, but one who stood on the opposing side to Capone, an extremely dangerous position in the 1920s and early 1930s. The former, John Sherry from Bridgeton, was almost certainly a fantasist who invented his Chicago past to give him real tough guy cache, elevating him from a Glasgow streetfighter to a tommy gun wielding henchman for Capone.
Other Scottish men had gone to Chicago to try to get work with Capone’s Outfit, and the American gangster’s criminal exploits were widely reported in Britain as they were in many countries from the mid-1920s onwards, when Capone first became publicly visible, first nationally in the US, and then internationally. Two other Scots sold their stories to Glasgow newspapers using pseudonyms, claiming to have worked for Capone in Chicago- and due to the level of detail they gave in 1929 and 1932 respectively, they are highly likely to have at least been there.
It’s entirely plausible that the John Sherry born in Glasgow read their stories, and other news of the infamous Capone and the mordant glamour of the deadly Prohibition gang wars, where high hundreds of gangsters were slain, and created his own legend, shoehorning himself into that brutal milieu, a dishonest Forrest Gump who fooled those around him and which the newspapers picked up on when reporting his violent death.