Updated: Dec 23, 2020
In this day and age numerous organizations and individuals are calling for defunding of police departments, certain folks look at law enforcement as evil, or they plain don't trust them. Because of this, I decided to go deep into the history of the police here in St. Louis and find the good, a beacon of benevolence to shine through. I went back to the turn of the twentieth century where St. Louis city was plagued by seven gangs of all ethnicities. They were fighting bloody wars against one another, claiming many lives in the process. It was here that one name stuck out like a Homeric hero from ancient times, his name was Captain Frank Nally.
Frank Nally was born in Claremorris, County Mayo, Ireland in 1875. He was one of 12 children, talk about your Irish-Catholic family. At the age of 18 he immigrated to the United States and ran a saloon with his brother, Eugene, here in St. Louis. I couldn't find much on his saloon days, but I imagine a saloon in the late 1800s was not the most friendly place to visit, and the Nallys would have had to be tough owners.
Now, throughout most of the 19th century and early 20th century Irish immigrants took jobs as police officers and firefighters. Work for these immigrants was often very difficult to find. Factories and shops displayed signs reading “NINA” meaning No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the civil service jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both — firefighters and police officers — jobs that no one else wanted. Both of these careers were considered undesirable due to low pay, few benefits, and poor working conditions. The Irish gladly accepted these careers because it was a way to become a part of mainstream America, and it was a way to give back to their new country. One of these immigrants was Frank Nally, and at the age of 24 he joined the St. Louis Police Department in 1899.
His first assignment as a patrolman was the Laclede Avenue District, at that time it was a major stamping ground for hoodlums. For his tenacious fighting skills the gangsters of that time gave Nally the nickname 'Bull'. Almost a century ago Nally had quoted to the Post-Dispatch, "The gangsters of those days were men, and not dirty little cowards like the gunmen we got now. It was good clean fighting with them, with fists, or maybe a cobblestone or half a brick. Many's the night, I'd be walking by the alley between Olive and Locust east from Jefferson, and one of them guys would holler that if I didn't have that club in my hands I wouldn't dare to show up around there. So I'd throw the club over the fence and go down the alley after them."
It was a different era of policing, crime was rampant throughout the city, patrolmen would walk a beat alone, usually armed with a police baton and nothing else. During one of Nally's arrests he was attacked by twenty people, luckily he survived and the prisoner was successfully detained.
During this time Nally was also known as a star in departmental baseball games, tugs-of-war, and walking contests (whatever the hell those were). He soon worked his way up to sergeant and eventually lieutenant. He was then given command of the North Market District and due to his involvement and policing ended the reign of a gang of boxcar thieves headed by Joe 'Yellow' Smith, who would shoot at cops and do their looting at night. He obtained enough evidence to send the leaders to prison and the rest of the gang left the district. It was said he was married to the police department. He was a bachelor, and was not financially ambitious. His salary was enough for him and he was known to take no favors or handouts, which was unusual for a cop back in those days.
Nally was promoted to the rank of Captain and as a 'reward' was put in charge of the Fourth District/Carr Street District which was dubbed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time "the toughest district in town". For Frank Nally he did look at it as rewarding, this is where he shined, a chance to take down criminals.
Now why was the Carr Street District so bad? Well, it was the roaring 1920s, bootlegging was on the rise, and it just so happened that two Italian-American mafia gangs were at war with one another in the district. Not to mention the other gang wars that were taking place around the rest of St. Louis between its overall seven organized crime groups! The two mafia gangs that were at each others throats were 'The Green Ones' led by The Giannola Brothers, with Alphonse Palazzolo as their Underboss, and 'The Russo Gang' also known as the 'American Boys' headed by Boss, Willie Russo. Before Captain Nally took over the district five men were gunned down in various parts of the city within weeks of the gang war kicking off. Some died from the blast of a shotgun, were machinegunned, or pistoled. Countless suspects were arrested, but no one talked. To talk back then in that neighborhood was to die.
Frank Nally definitely had his hands full. At first the Italian gangsters tried to make peace with the new Captain in charge. Nally's friend, Catholic priest Father Timothy Dempsey knew many of the Sicilian gangsters in the area and claimed they were not all bad. One day Father Tim was on the street talking to Green Ones Boss, Vito Giannola, when Captain Nally approached. Father Tim said, "Frank, I want you to shake hands with Vito. He is not a bad boy at all." Nally replied with an Irish whisper, "Beggin your Reverence's pardon, I won't shake hands with a dirty thief." Nally let his stance be known clearly to the gangsters, he would not let them slide.
So much so that Willie, Anthony, and James Russo appealed to the court for an injunction to restrain Captain Nally from raiding their filling station at the intersection of Seventh and O'Fallon, which Captain Nally alleged was a hangout for gangsters. Nally was pissed, in spite of the court's injunction he single-handedly went to the filling station and arrested many notable characters and found three illegal firearms. He then was called into court and after a hearing the injunction was lifted. Willie Russo claimed that due to the Captain's harassment his filling station business was being ruined. Frank Nally replied with, "Let it rot!"
Nally claimed in an article from the Post-Dispatch in 1926 that, "Italian Black Hand extortionists were shaking down Italian merchants, especially at the Italian Fruit Exchange on Carr Street. We would get anonymous letters describing alleged extortions. Our informers related that the gangs were so bold they levied a certain fixed percentage on merchants earnings. Sometimes they even went into his place and looked at his books to make sure he wasn't holding out on them. If the merchant refused to pay he was ganged, or his place shot up, or he stood in danger of being killed. Few Italians refused to pay, they had been accustomed to such tribute levies in the old country by bands of thugs, and they preferred to submit rather than take chances."
Nally understood how these gangsters operated, where they operated, and had no problem hitting them where it hurt. John Giannola, brother of Vito, once made an announcement that Captain Nally would never arrest him. Word of his cockiness reached the tough Irishman's ears and an hour later he was hauling John Giannola into the station. The heavy set gangster was sporting a black eye and split lips but did not complain. Nally booked him on suspicion of murder, as to whose murder, that was never made clear. The Giannolas even offered local government officials $25,000 to have Nally removed as Captain. Nally was never removed. In 1928 John Giannola left St. Louis only to return in 1931. When he did return his first stop was to see Captain Frank Nally to appeal to him that he was done with organized crime. Nally obviously did not believe him and arrested him multiple times until John Giannola left again for Detroit stating that he was not welcome in St. Louis.
Nally's style was attrition. He was relentless on the gangs and showed no fear. He organized hard-hitting homicide squads, and brought gang related murders in his district to a near halt. Two cases that were cleared up by the Irish Captain were the gangland assassination of Alphonse Palazzolo and the extortion kidnapping of Sam Scorfina. Nally also advised Russo Gang Boss Willie Russo to take his family and leave St. Louis and the criminal lifestyle behind. Green Ones Boss Vito Giannola was not so lucky however. On December 28, 1927 Giannola was hiding in an attic when gunmen from a rival gang entered his house and shot through the ceiling firing 95 rounds, 37 of which hit Giannola's body killing him.
Ultimately the gangland wars in St. Louis were put to bed thanks to the work of tough cops like Frank Nally. It would be years before the Italians would have another organized crime family in St. Louis. Gang homicide in the Fourth District of Carr Street was virtually gone and Nally turned his attention to other needs of the community. No public records exist, however in numerous articles there is mention of Captain Nally being very generous, giving considerable money to charities, and helping less fortunate families. He helped Father Timothy Dempsey in organizing his free kitchen and only had one rule, nobody intoxicated was allowed in the bread line, if they were Nally would surely remove them.
Prohibition, which caused most of the violence on the streets of St. Louis, came to an end in December 5th, 1933, but not before Captain Nally's death. He died just four months before prohibition ended at De Paul Hospital. He was 58 years old, a victim of chronic heart disease. Well he definitely did have a heart, and a passion for people, a disdain for criminals, iron fists, and a hard head. He was given a police funeral here in St. Louis and then his body was sent back to his native Ireland to the town where he grew up, so that he may rest under fields of green. And so ends the tale of this 'Knight of the Night Stick'.
As I stated before, many people in this day and age do not trust the police. Sure, you have your bad apples in any profession, but there are still cops out there like Frank Nally, ready to go twelve rounds with evil, for you. Next time you see a cop, especially on the streets of St. Louis, remember Captain Frank Nally, and the legacy he left behind.
If you are interested in more articles on STL Crime History make sure you follow Underground St. Louis. Also for further reading check out Gangs of St. Louis: Men of Respect by Daniel Waugh.