Voices from the Grave: Prohibition and early mob activity in Rockford
By Kathi Kresol
Local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events
There was much debate at the time about whether the bullets that struck him were actually meant for him or not, but one thing was abundantly clear on that August night in 1930: Joe Giovingo was dead. One minute, Joe was standing on South Main Street speaking to two detectives, and the next, he was crumpled on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.
Many people know about Prohibition and can easily call up images of police officers breaking in doors, smashing stills and confiscating bottles of illegal hooch. They can also imagine gangsters dressed in fancy suits, racing through city streets and shooting at each other or the police. But one imagines these things taking place in big cities like New York or Chicago; one hardly thinks of them happening here in Rockford.
But the Rockford Sunday Republic stated in an article from Aug. 17, 1930: “Back in 1923, Rockford bootleggers were beginning to organize into groups, now known as gangs, to withstand the attacks being made on them by enforcement officers and to hold up the tumbling alcohol and moonshine prices which were rapidly slipping down.”
During that same year, Rockford had its first reported gangster killing. It was Oct. 8, 1923, when a corpse was found forced into a culvert on Montague Road. The man would later be identified as Louis J. Milani. Milani’s throat was slashed and his body was mutilated. He also had a large rock placed on his chest. His murder has never been solved.
Aug. 14, 1930, Joe Giovingo, a Rockford native, was standing on the curb by the corner of Morgan and South Main streets, talking to four men who were sitting in an automobile. One of the men was Tony Abbot. Abbot, whose real name was Abbatini, was reportedly part of Al Capone’s gang from Chicago. Abbot allegedly killed one of “Bugs” Moran’s men, Jack Zuta, in Wisconsin and was in Rockford, hiding out.
As Joe was speaking to Abbot, two detectives called him over to speak to them. They wanted to talk to him about the recent raid at Giovingo’s home on Harding Street. The officers were Folke Bengsten and Roy Johnson.
They had just started to talk to Joe when a large “high-powered” Dodge sedan appeared on South Main Street. As it passed Abbot’s car, a shotgun was poked through the rear window and shots were fired. They struck the car that Abbot was sitting in. Abbot and the other men in the car scrambled out of the doors and hunched behind the car. Johnson hit the ground, and Bengsten ducked and then drew his gun to return fire. He hit the rear window. The car continued south on South Main and then turned onto Montague Road.
Joe had 17 wounds from the gunshot blast that had torn into his side. One slug hit his elbow first, then passed into his abdomen. He died a few minutes later.
The Dodge sedan was recovered the next day about a mile-and-a-half from the city on Montague Road. This led the police to believe this was a premeditated hit. Bengsten and Johnson also reported that Abbot appeared nervous as he was sitting in his car. Abbot kept checking the rear-view mirror as if looking for someone.
Police officers could not agree whether the bullets were meant for Abbot or Giovingo, who was a suspected bootlegger himself. Abbot and his body guards were taken into custody, but later released.
Paul Giovingo, Joe’s brother, came to the station to speak to police and then left with Abbot. Paul and Abbot were apparently good friends.
Paul Giovingo would, years later, suffer the same fate as his brother. Paul was also murdered in a gangster-type slaying in February 1933. He was found shot to death in his car on South Winnebago Street, not far from his house. There was shotgun damage to the driver side of the car and wounds on the left side of Paul’s body. The killers must have wanted to ensure Paul’s death because evidence showed they stopped the car and fired several revolver shots to the back of his head. Powder marks indicated these were contact wounds.
Kathi Kresol is a local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events. Through Haunted Rockford, Kathi gives paranormal and haunted history tours and sponsors other paranormal events in and around Rockford throughout the year. For more of Kathi’s history articles, and for information about upcoming paranormal events, visit www.hauntedrockford.com.
From the Dec. 31, 2014-Jan. 6, 2015, issue