The Thompson submachine gun: A weapon that made the 20s roar

Newport police want their piece of history back

NEWPORT, Ky. -- The gun made famous by gangsters in the 1920s is wanted in Newport.

'The Chicago Typewriter' or more commonly known as the 'Tommy Gun,' which became iconic during the prohibition and depression eras by notorious gangsters like Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and John Dillinger, is wanted by some of the original owners - in Newport.

The gun was invented by former U.S. Army General John Taliaferro Thompson, born in 1860 in Newport. After he enlisted in the Army, his first station of duty brought him back home to Newport.

After work as Director of Arsenals for the military and time at Remington Arms Company, Thompson pursued crafting his own weapon, the Tommy gun, which was patented in 1920 and manufactured for the first time by Colt in 1921. It was primarily developed in Newport. 

During its debut, the M1921 sold for anywhere between $200 and $245, which was the equivalent to most middle-Americans' two-month income. The price was too steep for anyone but prohibition-era gangsters and depression-era bandits to buy. It would later be purchased by the U.S. Military in 1938.

The gun, with a distinct drum magazine, capable of firing 600 to 800 rounds per minute was dubbed the weapon of choice in Capone's execution of rival bootleggers in the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. Each of the seven victims killed received at least 15 bullets each, according to

Before the gun's mobster fame, the Newport PD purchased two of these guns during a strike at a steel mill in 1921. The police department retained the guns until the 1980s when they were sold, according to the River City News .

And now, they want them back.

The police department searched for the guns and found one of them, now belonging to a man in Pennsylvania. Police verified and it is one of the guns they previously owned.

But, if the department wants to buy them back, it would cost around $25,000.

"We would have to get some outside assistance from people with donations," Newport Police Chief Thomas Collins told the River City News.

Collins says the gun means a lot, talking about the connection to the mob history in Newport. 

The Newport-Covington area was a pocket for gambling and crime, once being dubbed Greater Cincinnati's "Sin City ."

Adult nightclubs from Monmouth Street to York Street are now filled with businesses, but lest not forget that Sin City was once filled with brothels, illegal gambling and gangsters.

"Bust-out joints" offered gambling in the area, home to nude entertainment and prostitution, which attracted mob syndicates from Chicago to New York, according to the Department of History.

The police department still has the arrest card of Albert "Red" Masterson, who controlled Newport for the Cleveland mob. They also once arrested Frank Joseph "Screw" Andrews, a soldier for the Cleveland mob.

George Remus , the 'King of Bootlegging,' was a lawyer specialized in the Volstead Act who moved to Cincinnati, where 80 percent of America's bonded whiskey was available, to dabble in rum-running.

He was arrested in Newport at a heightened time in his career and later retired to Covington after his stint in prison on bootlegging charges.

Remus was inspiration for the character Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' and has been portrayed as Glenn Fleshler on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

The gun, immortalized by modern day film and television such as 'Boardwalk Empire' and 'Public Enemies,' means a lot to the historic community. 

The police department has a multitude of memorabilia from over the years, and is looking to bring back yet another piece to add to the collection.

"It's influential in Newport history," said Jerome Gels of the gun. Gels is the creator of a documentary highlighting Newport's history of gambling and crime.

The 'Southgate House' or 'Thompson House ' that once belonged to General Thompson still exists in Newport and is located across from the Levee. It is currently owned and operated by a local family and has become a place of entertainment. 

Will one of the original Tommy Guns make a homecoming? Only time will tell.



Photo contributions: HBO, The Chicago Tribune, History, George Gall via Auto-Ordnance and The Examiner.

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