Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone got expelled from school when he was 14 and, left to his own devices, was soon hanging out with gangs like the Junior Forty Thieves and the Sicilian–American Five Points gang in his Brooklyn neighborhood. When Prohibition went into effect a few years later in 1919, he became involved in running major smuggling and bootlegging operations that would win him fame, the intense interest of federal agent Eliot Ness, and the half-fascinated, half-appalled attention of Americans. His final days were spent in prisons including Alcatraz.
Capone’s career in crime was centered in Chicago where he took pride in being labeled “Public Enemy No. 1” by the FBI and the media. As one of the most notorious criminals in American history, his influence as a change agent in American life was, in one way, completely negative. But his reign of criminal activity and his organization, the Outfit, set a pattern for the way gangs and criminals would operate, and eventually motivated better law enforcement and regulation of organized crime. During the 1920s Prohibition era, Capone’s activities exposed the disarray and corruption of the police force in Chicago, a city that has never entirely shaken off a lawless reputation. Capone was such a galvanizing figure that dozens of films and stage plays were based on his life, feeding the ongoing American fascination with the underworld. Francis Coppola’s three-part Godfather series, based on the novel by Mario Puzo and starring Marlon Brando, is perhaps the most well regarded and successful of these efforts, depicting the activities of an Italian-American Mafia family. The Sopranos, a long-running television series about the New Jersey Mafia, enjoyed great popular success and ratings.
What was there about an acknowledged criminal, one who wreaked havoc and murder on the populace, that made him a hero? Like John Gotti, the Dapper Don of more recent Mafia fame, Capone’s arrogance and aggressiveness in making short work of his enemies, his lavish lifestyle as boss of a dangerous group of criminals, and his evasion of the authorities gave him the kind of outlaw status Americans grudgingly admire. His exploits made good copy for the press, which tended to glorify his deeds even as it shook its finger at him. Prohibition and the moneymaking opportunities it created spawned more criminals than ever before in the United States. There were dozens of gangsters at large like Capone, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Babyface” Nelson, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde, who became folk heroes in the 1920s and 1930s, captivating audiences with their exploits. Though all were eventually brought down and imprisoned or killed, law enforcement was overwhelmed. Violent crime shot up. The nation’s murder rate rose dramatically during Prohibition as did alcoholism. At one point, New York City essentially stopped trying to enforce Prohibition laws.
Capone, a cold-blooded killer, deliberately worked to counteract his criminal reputation, establishing a Robin Hood image for himself by opening a soup kitchen to feed the unemployed, throwing silver dollars out of the windows of his Cadillac as he traversed the streets, and contributing heavily to the Catholic Church. That armored Cadillac, outfitted with bulletproof glass, run-flat tires, and a police siren, later wound up as the official car of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having been seized by the Treasury Department in 1932.
A heavyset man, Capone was known as “The Big Fellow,” standing not quite 6 feet tall but taking up a lot of room with his nearly 200-pound bulk. He had a bad temper and flew unpredictably into rages and fights. One fight when he was 18 left him with two prominent knife-slash scars on his left cheek, inflicted by the brother of a girl Capone had insulted. The scars became a kind of badge of honor, adding to his menacing air, and the press bestowed him with his famous nickname, “Scarface.” Ever vain, Capone would not allow photographers to photograph him from the left.
Capone left Brooklyn when he was 22 to join the real action in Chicago, following his mentor in crime, Johnny Torrio. Prohibition was barely a year old and there was plenty of money to be made smuggling in booze from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean and supplying it to the speakeasies—illegal, undercover bars—that began to spring up in Chicago and all over the country. The ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution established Prohibition in January, 1919, outlawing the production and transportation of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. But no one had anticipated the problems and criminal effects that Prohibition would generate, and by the end of 1919, Congress had to pass the Volstead Act to authorize federal enforcement. Meanwhile, seeing their opportunity, Capone and Torrio began a profitable bootlegging operation that Capone soon expanded into gambling and prostitution and at the height of his various operations pulled in some $100 million a year, controlling bookie joints, racetracks, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries, as well as brothels and gambling houses.
Perhaps it was inevitable with so much money to be made that there would be rivals in such business. One major competitor of Torrio and Capone was Dean O’Banion who headed up the North Side Gang. He pulled a fast one on them by selling them a brewery he knew was about to be raided by federal authorities. Torrio and O’Banion were both arrested in the raid, and a gang war between the two groups then erupted with O’Banion assassinated in revenge for the raided brewery. Torrio himself barely escaped being killed and, fearing for his life, turned the whole bootlegging operation over to Capone and fled to Italy.
Capone had taken up residence, now with a wife and baby, in Cicero just outside of Chicago and began to take over there, starting with a primary election in which his thuggish minions threatened voters and swiped ballot boxes, assuring that his candidates won. A contingent of Chicago police officers, sent in to restore order, ended up shooting and killing Capone’s brother Frank. Capone himself, in a rage, shot and killed a man in a bar a month later. Though there were patrons in the bar at the time, no witnesses to the shooting came forward and no indictment or trial could go forward, an outcome that came to be typical of Capone’s escapades. The cops could never get him on any murder charge as there would never be any witnesses. Capone’s eventual arrest and prison time were the result of income tax evasion, not murder.
He was, by the end of the 1920s, ruling Chicago. He had managed to bribe the mayor, William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson, and could carry out his operations relatively free of harassment. By 1929, Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness was on his case and President Herbert Hoover wanted to run Capone out of town and the country. Although he kept his wife and son in their South Side Cicero home, Capone was frequently hiding out elsewhere. He had headquarters in Chicago at various hotels including the Hawthorne and the Lexington, surrounded by bodyguards, and had spies all over town to keep him informed of other gang activity. Capone had a glamorous lifestyle, enjoying custom-made suits, jewelry, good food and drink, and plenty of pretty young women (he personally interviewed candidates for his brothels). Capone also owned homes and hideouts in various parts of the Midwest as well as a large estate in Florida on Palm Island near Miami Beach.
The cult of the gangster in the United States was, in the 1930s, fed by the media and a public thirsty for excitement in the dark days of the Depression. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment, the American Mafia had established itself, first on the Lower East Side of New York City, then spreading to New Orleans and Chicago. Some Americans blamed immigration for the influx, but the Sicilian Mafia in Italy had long been into operations on U.S. soil. Its stranglehold on the island of Sicily began in the 19th century as landowners hired private patrols to protect their property. These patrols eventually banded into what is called Cosa Nostra, or “our thing,” also understood as the Mafia, a Sicilian term meaning, variously, a bully, arrogant, fearless, proud. The Mafia preserves a code of “omertà” or silence and secrecy to prevent betrayal by any member, and the penalty for violating omertà is death. In the United States, there were five main Mafia families operating in New York City and environs, identified by the family names of Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Colombo, and Bonanno. Though largely weakened by FBI roundups and prosecution, the families still operate and infiltrate businesses in the city like garbage collection and construction, luring younger recruits with promises of power and money.
Capone claimed to be on vacation in Florida when his most famous exploit took place in Chicago, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929. Seven people in a rival gang, Bugs Moran’s North Side Irish, were ambushed and gunned down in a warehouse on Clark Street with submachine guns, apparently a revenge killing. A group of four men, two dressed as police officers, the others in trench coats, left the bloody scene with their hands up as the “policemen” herded them out at gunpoint, giving onlookers the impression that everything was under control. Moran’s men had supposedly been lured to the building by the promise of a cut-rate shipment of liquor, though that has never been firmly established. Lookouts had watched from across the street as the Moran men entered the warehouse, then the costumed killers climbed out of a Cadillac and moved in.
The Chicago newspapers gave the incident its name and kept it going day after day in the news with headlines and gory pictures of the massacre’s victims. Though Capone was the prime suspect behind the killings, he could not be indicted for lack of evidence and no one was ever tried for the murders. Nonetheless, Eliot Ness was working with federal revenue agents trying to get Capone, and in 1931, they finally did, amassing enough evidence to indict him on income tax evasion. A long trial ensued, and Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison and a fine of $50,000. He was sent to the Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary, then in 1934 to Alcatraz.
It was an ignominious turn of events for the flashy Alphonse Gabriel Capone who had ruled the Second City as well as the headlines. Born to newly arrived Italian immigrants Gabriele Capone, a barber, and Teresina Capone in Brooklyn on January 17, 1899, Capone was the fourth of nine children. The family lived in the same neighborhood as other immigrants from Italy and went to the local Roman Catholic Church. From all accounts they were a quiet and conventional family, with “no special genius for crime,” according to one biographer, Laurence Bergreen. By the time he was 18, Capone was married. His new wife, Mae Josephine Coughlin, had given birth to their son, Albert Francis (“Sonny”) Capone a month before the wedding.
Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, but Capone was not at liberty to dream up new schemes. His influence had dwindled and, in prison, his health was deteriorating and his mind was going, said to be effects of the syphilis he had contracted long ago. After he was released from prison and paroled in 1939, a psychiatrist said he had the mental capacity of only a 12-year-old. Capone and his wife moved to the Palm Island, Florida, estate where he died of a stroke and heart attack in January 1947. He was 48 years old. Only a handful of mourners attended his funeral in Chicago, where he was buried.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Touchstone, 1994.
Eig, Jonathan. Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.