Capone, Al (1899-1947)

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Capone, Al (1899-1947)

Perhaps the most recognizable figure in the history of organized crime in the United States, Al Capone gained international notoriety during the heady days of Prohibition when his gang dominated the trade in bootleg alcohol in Chicago. Known as "Scarface" for the disfiguring scars that marked the left side of his face, Capone fascinated Chicago and the nation with his combination of street brutality, stylish living, and ability to elude justice during the 1920s. Even after his conviction on charges of tax evasion in 1931, Capone remained a dominant figure in the national culture, with the story of his rise and fall—which author Jay Robert Nash has succinctly described as being from "rags to riches to jail"—serving as the archetype of gangster life in film and television portrayals of American organized crime.

Capone was born to Italian immigrant parents on January 17, 1899, in the teeming Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. By age eleven he had become involved with gang activities in the neighborhood; he left school in the sixth grade following a violent incident in which he assaulted a female teacher. Developing expert street-fighting skills, Capone was welcomed into New York's notorious Five Points Gang, a vast organization that participated in burglary, prostitution, loan-sharking, and extortion, among its myriad criminal activities. He came under the influence of Johnny Torrio, an underboss who controlled gambling, prostitution, and influence peddling in Williamsburg. Under Torrio, Capone worked as an enforcer and later got a job as a bouncer and bartender at the gang-controlled Harvard Inn. During this time an altercation with a knife-wielding bar patron resulted in the famous scars that came to symbolize Capone's violent persona. He was arrested for suspicion of murder in 1919 in New York City, but the charges were dismissed when witnesses refused to testify against him. He followed Torrio to Chicago later in the same year after killing another man in a fight.

Posing as a used furniture dealer, Capone quickly became a significant force in the underworld of Chicago, where the number of corrupt law enforcement and government officials helped to create an atmosphere of lawlessness. When the Volstead Act outlawed the manufacture and distribution of liquor in 1920, Capone and Torrio entered into a bootlegging partnership, and Capone assassinated the reigning syndicate boss, "Big Jim" Colosimo, to clear the way for their profiteering. The combined operations of prostitution and bootleg liquor were generating millions of dollars in profits in the mid-1920s, but the Torrio-Capone organization repeatedly battled violently with rival gangs in the city, most notably with the operations headed by Dion O'Bannion on Chicago's north side. Following O'Bannion's murder in November 1924, Torrio was convicted of bootlegging and several days later was wounded in a retaliatory attack by O'Bannion's men. He subsequently left the city, and Capone gained full control of the multimillion dollar criminal activities in gambling, prostitution, and liquor.

The late 1920s saw increasingly reckless violence in the streets of Chicago among the warring criminal factions. Several attempts were made on Capone's life by his enemies, including an attempted poisoning and a machine-gun attack on Capone's headquarters in suburban Cicero by the O'Bannions in 1926. In the most notorious event of the period, which became known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Capone hired a crew to kill rival Bugs Moran on February 14, 1929. Capone's operatives, posing as police officers, executed all seven men they found in Moran's headquarters. Moran, however, was not among the victims, and the public expressed outrage at the brutal mass murder. By 1930 Capone had effectively eliminated his criminal competitors, but he faced a new adversary in federal authorities. When it was discovered that he had failed to pay income taxes for the years 1924 to 1929, the Internal Revenue Service made its case, and Capone was convicted of tax evasion in October 1931. He was sentenced to eleven years in federal custody but was released because of illness in 1939. He had developed paresis of the brain, a condition brought on by syphilis, which he likely had contracted from a prostitute during the 1920s. Suffering diminished mental capacity, Capone lived the remainder of his life in seclusion at his Palm Island, Florida, estate. He died in 1947.

—Laurie DiMauro

Further Reading:

Dorigo, Joe. Mafia. Seacaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1992.

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Vol. I. Wilmette, Illinois, Crime Books, 1990.

——. World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime. New York, DeCapo Press, 1993.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York, Smithmark, 1992.