Dead Man’s Blues – Book Notes

Below is the historical note I wrote as an afterword for the original UK edition of Dead Man’s Blues (contains spoliers)…



I have tried to make this book as factually accurate as possible, but as always with historical fiction, I sometimes had to choose between historical accuracy and telling the story I most want to tell. In some cases, different histories contradicted each other, or there was not enough evidence to determine what had actually happened. Below are some notes on where I deviated from established fact, or made calls between opposing accounts; any other deviations were either too minor to include here, or are my own errors or omissions, for which I apologize.

Armstrong’s journey to Chicago in the prologue is based on his description of that journey in his autobiography (Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans). I deviated from the story to include elements from other people’s accounts of their journeys northwards as part of the Great Migration, so that the episode became something of an amalgam.

The Mafia funeral that starts the book is also an amalgam, in this instance of a number of Chicago gangster funerals: most notably those of Dean O’Banion and Mike Merlo in 1924 (the latter is the source of the blue-flower theme). The planes full of flower petals are also based on fact. For ‘Diamond’ Joe Esposito’s funeral in 1928 two planes were indeed loaded with flowers to create a rain of roses; on the day, however, due to bad weather, the planes never took flight.

Sherlock Jr., the Buster Keaton film Ida and Louis go to see, was actually released four years earlier in 1924. Keaton’s film of 1928 was Steamboat Bill Jr, perhaps his masterpiece. I chose the earlier, less well-regarded film as it closer fitted the book’s themes.

Perhaps my greatest sin against history was the inclusion of the Long Count Fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. This fight actually occurred in September 1927, some nine months before the events of the book. I wanted to include both this, and another landmark event – Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘West End Blues’. The latter, though, occurred in 1928. In deciding to fit both into one summer, I had to choose between misrepresenting the history of boxing, or of jazz, and ended up choosing the former.

The recording is a seminal one, not only in Louis Armstrong’s life, but also in the history of jazz and popular music. Armstrong had spent years experimenting with song structures and forms for the solo (the form he established back then is still used across genres today). In the recordings he made in the summer of 1928 his achievements in these areas found their perfect expression. The 1920s was a decade of modernism and artistic avant-gardism – Armstrong’s radical innovation and experimentation means there is a case to be made for adding him to the pantheon of 1920s modernist stars – a case eloquently made in Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism and Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz.

The arrival of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in Chicago, and the subsequent jam sessions between them and Louis and his band-mates, actually occurred a few months earlier as well, in November 1927.

Throughout this entire period, Armstrong and Capone were indeed on familiar and friendly terms. The two got on so well together that their closeness was remarked upon by other jazz musicians who were in Chicago at the time. The two men’s lives did indeed have all the parallels mentioned.

Poison booze was a widespread phenomenon during prohibition. The inspiration for the batch of champagne in the book was the real-life case of amateur chemists Harry Gross and Max Reisman, who developed an adulterant that would allow Jamaican Ginger extract (a medicine that was 70% ethanol) to pass Treasury Department tests while preserving its drinkability. Unfortunately, the adulterant they developed turned out to be a neurotoxin. Poisoned Jamaican Ginger led to thousands of cases of paralysis and death. The most common effect was a withering of the muscles in the foot and ankle, causing victims to walk with a peculiar limp or shuffle. The infirmity was so widespread, a number of blues songs were written and recorded about it.

The conspiracy at the heart of the book – heroin dealers attempting to make inroads into Chicago – is based on fact. The ‘French Connection’ (the route through which heroin made its way from Turkey to the United States) was already well established in the late 1920s. New York gangsters (notably ‘Lucky’ Luciano) were already involved in the distribution and sale of the drug, whilst the older guard were against it. Capone was content to keep his focus where he had originally made his money – alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Luciano and his associate Meyer Lansky used the tactic of letting rival factions attack each other before stepping into the breach in the Castellammarese War in New York in 1930–31. The war was fought by the Masseria and Maranzano crime families for control of the city. Almost as soon as Salvatore Maranzano won and declared himself capo di tutti capi, Luciano stepped in, assassinated him, and set up a power-sharing commission. I thought it possible that if New York gangsters were looking to wrestle back control of Chicago in 1928 (as indeed they were), they might use the same tactic. Due to the timing of the Castellammarese War, however, Michael’s knowledge that it was brewing in 1928 is somewhat fanciful.

Capone’s visit to the doctor I invented. Whether he knew about his syphilis in 1928 is hard to confirm, although he was certainly showing signs of it by then, having contracted it as a youth in Brooklyn. The first documented evidence of it is from 1932, when Capone underwent a medical examination on entry to the Atlanta US Penitentiary (the exam also revealed he was suffering from gonorrhea).

The extent of Capone’s cocaine use is yet another matter for debate. That he used it is not in doubt, but the evidence that he was a habitual user seems to rest solely on his autopsy in 1947, which revealed that he had a perforated septum, a symptom of heavy cocaine use, but also of syphilis.

Capone’s war with Bugs Moran reached its climax about eight months after the end of this book, in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Capone hired men to attack Moran’s North Side Gang in their Lincoln Park headquarters. Posing as police officers, they lined seven of Moran’s men against a wall, then gunned them down. With Moran’s customary good luck, he was by chance not on the premises at the time. The massacre was the beginning of the end for Capone. Bloody photos of the incident made front pages around the world, the goodwill of the cityallocated ever more resources toward having him imprisoned. He was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and released eight years later, by which time he had been ravaged by syphilis, both mentally and physically. He died on his Florida estate in 1947, at the age of forty-eight, an invalid with the mental age of a child.

A great introduction to the era is Bill Bryson’s excellent One Summer: America, 1927. For more information on the Chicago jazz scene in the 1920s, I would recommend Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, and William Howland Kenney’s Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History 1904–1930. The most enjoyable of the Capone biographies I read was Laurence Bergreen’s Capone: The Man and the Era.


Dead Man’s Blues is intended to be the second in a four-part series which charts the history of jazz and the Mob through the middle fifty years of the twentieth century. In an Oulipo-inspired conceit, each of the four parts will contain a different city, decade, song, season, theme and weather. Part Three will be set in 1940s New York in the autumn. The weather, theme and song are yet to be decided, although for the latter, ‘Autumn in New York’ seems an obvious choice. Maybe too obvious. We’ll see. The main characters from the first two books will reappear in the next two.


Ray Celestin

London, March 2016



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