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Al Capone’s Greek Bible

September 30, 2023

They say, anything is possible in Chicago. So, the fact that Alphonse Capone kept a Greek Bible exclusively for his collective of hardened gangsters should come as no surprise. As with many historic artifacts, this Bible and its extended use has a unique history. What follows is but an outline of this collection of unexpected actors, historical connections, and holy parchments.

It was during the early summer of 1930. Harold E. Willoughby, then associate professor of the New Testament at the University of Chicago, received a totally unexpected phone call. Michael Biskos, then manager of the Colosimo Café in Chicago’s Levee neighborhood, was calling. Vincenzo ‘Diamond Jim’ Colosimo (b. 1878) was crime boss of Chicago from around 1902 until his death in 1920. On May 11, 1920, ‘Diamond Jim’, was gunned down in the front doorway of this café. The Colosimo led gang became known, after his death, as the Chicago Outfit.

Biskos, was a relative of Mike ‘The Greek’ Potson (1883-1955). Mike Potson, a Greek immigrant, was during his lifetime an especially notorious criminal. Biskos, who sees little to no other public description beyond this one incident, wanted to sell the University what he called ‘a Bible with an odd history (c.f. ‘The Mafia Encyclopedia by Carl Sifakis’ NY: Facts On File, 2005: 24).Allegedly this volume was brought from Greece to the United States by the Biskos family. It was said to have “once been part of the ritual equipment of the Cathedral of Argos, Greece (Bismarck Tribune July 17, 1930).” According to Biskos, once in Chicago however, “the manuscript had been used as an ‘oath book’ by patrons of his restaurant (Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (PA) 17 July, 1930).”

Biskos went on to claim that this book was employed when inducting gangland associates. The aspiring inductees placed their hand on this volume and then swore an oath of allegiance to the Chicago Outfit. This same book was also said to have been specifically employed by Al Capone. On an array of other occasions, Capone would have various members of his gang of outlaws place their hand on this Bible and then swear that they were telling the truth.

Given that Biskos operated Big Jim Colosimo’s café and its long association with Chicago criminals, his remarks about an ‘oath book’ suggested that this manuscript “may have figured strategically in the (then) recent history of Chicago gangland (Lansing State Journal (MI) 17 July 1930; Plain Speaker (PA) July 17, 1930).”

For those of you largely unfamiliar with the Chicago crime scene, James ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo was the city’s first recognized gang leader. Colosimo, ran a popular restaurant, the Colosimo’s Cafe,’ at 2126 S. Wabash Avenue, which proved to be a hot-spot for Chicago vice. Colosimo was gunned down in the front doorway of his restaurant on May 11, 1920. One theory has it that his second-in-command, Johnny Torrio, set up the killing, and that, in fact, it was Al Capone who pulled the trigger. Whatever the case may have been, Torrio took over Big Jim’s empire until he handed the reins to Capone.

Upon close examination by University of Chicago experts, this ‘Bible’ proved to be a ninth century lectionary. According to Wikipedia “a lectionary…is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Jewish worship on a given day or occasion.”

Whatever else it may have been this 1,000-year-old lectionary was reportedly the volume that Al Capone and other Prohibition-era gangsters swore their darkest oaths upon (Plain Speaker (PA) July 17, 1930).

Alphonse Gabriel Capone (1899-1947), for those of you who just arrived in North America, was sometimes known by the nickname ‘Scarface’, and proved to be an especially notorious American gangster and businessman who attained dubious notoriety during the Prohibition era as the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit. His seven-year reign as a crime boss ended when he went to prison at the age of 33.

Known as the ‘Gangster Bible’ in the public press, today, within the University of Chicago collections this volume is official known as ‘Lectionary 1599’ and is more formally designated by siglum ℓ 1599 (in the Gregory-Aland numbering system).

The manuscript was examined by Clark and William Hatch, and Ernest Cadman Colwell. In point of fact, rather than a bound volume of pages, it is rather a collection of pages and sections from a Greek manuscript of the New Testament, on parchment. The original codex contained lessons from the Gospel of John, Matthew, and Luke with some lacunae. A reported 145 parchment leaves of the codex have survived. The individual leaves measure 28.8 cm by 22 cm.

The text is written in Greek uncial letters, in two columns per page, 17 lines per page (and, at times, more). The manuscript contains weekday Gospel lessons for Church reading from Easter to Pentecost and Saturday/Sunday Gospel lessons for the other weeks. One can also find music notes on various pages. The initial letters of each beginning section/page are decorated. As publish accounts further report “the style of handwriting of this codex bears a striking general resemblance to that of three Gospel manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries: Codex Cyprus, Lectionary 3, and ℓ 296.”

Since this collection of material was taken from the cathedral in Argos, today, among academics and in formal accounts, it is most commonly referred to as the ‘Argos Lectionary,’ from its place of origin.

Various academics, including those at the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago, dated this same collection of documents as being similar to an earlier collection of parchments and so date the Mob collection of documents to the 9th or 10th century. Whatever the case may be, today the codex is housed at the University of Chicago Library (Ms. 128) in the Goodspeed Manuscript Collection (News-Palladium (MI) 17 July, 1930; St. Cloud Times (MN) July 18, 1930; Chillicothe Gazette (OH) 17 July 1930).

Now, Chicago being Chicago, there is at least one more story about how this body of parchments became known to University of Chicago historians. In this version of the tale a student of Goodspeed showed him the Argos Lectionary. Goodspeed wanted to find out more about it, and this led to a meeting between this scholar and one of the owners of Colosimo’s restaurant.

Given that the initial news reports on the University of Chicago’s acquisition of this rare and extremely valuable collection of religious documents, it was trumpeted in the nation’s press as the ‘Gangster Bible.’ Curiously while all accounts report that this lectionary was sold to the University of Chicago, no amount given for these materials is ever cited. I wonder – why not? It’s not like you can steal this collection of assorted parchments and sell them one-by-one to some other university.

And one final point. Be aware that this swearing of oaths on Bibles or under other circumstances is not unknown of even uncommon among American criminals. Numerous accounts exist that report upon this practice among criminal organizations all across the nation. All in all then, it should come as no surprise that the Chicago Mob has its own ‘Greek Bible’.

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