By Scott Braucher
TUCSON, AZ - Dan Tortorell, who was one of the first on the scene at the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, an NPPA Life Member, and a former writer and photographer for the Tucson Citizen, died March 5, 2008, in Tucson, AZ, after a short illness. He was 95.
Tortorell was born in 1913 in Chicago to a large Italian family, and began his newspaper career as a teenager working as a copy boy at the Daily News. He told about a time that he and a buddy took apart a spare typewriter to “see how it works,” and then dropped it piece-by-piece into the Chicago River to cover up their deed.
In those days copy boys went with photographers as assistants, mounting 4x5 cameras on tripods — called “setting up the sticks” — and filling the flash pan with explosive flash powder. On a cold morning in February 1929, Tortorell was called to go with photographer Russell Hamm after gunshots were reported at a garage on North Clark Street. They were among the first on the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang were killed by mobsters posing as police.
As he progressed as a newspaperman, Tortorell became a photographer and writer. He was armed with his Speed Graphic camera and banged out stories on Underwood No. 5 typewriters. He worked at several Chicago papers before he was hired by the Chicago Tribune.
In his later years, Tortorell told stories of the camaraderie between photographers of the day. Sometimes competing photographers would pool their resources to light a large scene, necessary due to slow film and lenses used at the time. To shoot a large train wreck at night, they would set up their cameras on tripods, open the shutters on bulb, and manually fire their flash bulbs — all at once. “There was enough flash to light up a city block,” Tortorell said.
And competitors often played pranks on each other. A favorite prank was to trip another photographer’s rear shutter to the closed position. Speed Graphic press cameras usually had two shutters. The lens contained a shutter, and the camera had a rear focal plane shutter that was kept in the open position when the lens shutter was in use. Pressing a lever on the camera would cycle the rear shutter to the closed position — blocking all light from the lens to the film. All the negatives shot by the unsuspecting victim would be blank.
“We would always shoot an extra negative and tube it to him, so he wouldn’t get canned,” Tortorell said.
While he was at the Tribune, Tortorell was acquainted with many Chicago gangsters — including Al Capone — and later their associates in Arizona. He freelanced for WGN television, shooting newsreel films of movie stars, like John Wayne, who stopped in Chicago on coast-to-coast plane flights.
During his years in Chicago, Tortorell also specialized in aerial photography, often using surplus K20 cameras. He covered a tragedy from the air on December 1, 1958, getting some of the first pictures after fire swept through Our Lady of the Angels School claiming the lives of 92 children.
By the 1960s Tortorell had relocated to Tucson and joined the Tucson Citizen as a staff writer and photographer. His specialty was human interest stories and portraits. His motto, “Everyone has a story,” served him well over the years. His stories included the life of Native Americans on reservations in southern Arizona, and he documented the historic route of Father Kino through the missions of Arizona and northern Mexico.
In 1980 Tortorell retired, spending his time working on a home he built in the Arizona desert, tinkering with tools, cars, and machinery, and going for long walks with his dogs among saguaros and wildlife near his home.
He is survived by his wife Marybeth, along with his children and grandchildren.