Born January 7, 1899 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died January 25, 1947 (Palm Island, Florida)
Organized crime leader
"Everyone calls me a Racketeer. I call myself a businessman."
Al Capone was one of the most notorious criminals of all time. During the Roaring Twenties, he gained fame both for the success of his criminal operation and for the violent way it was built and maintained. Capone became a symbol for the lawlessness of this decade, when Prohibition (the constitutional ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages that was intended to improve society) seemed to lead directly to murder and corruption. With his bulky body and facial features, his slick suits and hats, his money, power, and disregard for the law, Capone remains a popular icon of the 1920s.
Growing up tough in Brooklyn
Alphonse "Al" Capone was born in the Brooklyn area of New York City in January 1899. He was the fourth of nine children born to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. Capone's father was a barber and his mother a seamstress. They were a hardworking family with no apparent criminal connections or tendencies. The neighborhood, however, was tough, and Capone became involved at a very early
age with several youth gangs, including the Brooklyn Rippers and the Forty Thieves Juniors.
When he was fourteen, Capone got into a fight with a teacher who had struck him. He dropped out of school and soon joined the Five Point Juniors, which was the youth branch of a well-known criminal organization called the Five Point Gang. Capone became a kind of apprentice to a racketeer (someone involved in illegal business activities) named Johnny Torrio (1882–1957). He ran errands for Torrio and learned from him about using cleverness, instead of violence, to get ahead.
Despite this early involvement in the city's criminal underworld, Capone also held a number of ordinary jobs, including work as a candy-store clerk and as a paper cutter in a bookbindery. He was employed as a bartender in a saloon when he received the facial marks that earned him the nickname "Scarface." He made a remark to a young woman that her brother, who was seated next to her, found insulting. The knife-wielding brother gave Capone three slashes on the left side of his face. For the rest of his life Capone was self-conscious about the scars and tried to cover them with powder.
While he was still a teenager, Capone met the young woman who would become his wife, Mary "Mae" Coughlin, who was a department-store clerk and two years older than Capone. She became pregnant and in early December 1919 gave birth to Albert Francis "Sonny" Capone. The couple married at the end of the month. Sonny, Capone's only child, later developed a serious hearing problem that may have been the result of syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) inherited from his father. In any case, Capone loved Sonny dearly and always provided well for him.
A young gangster gets his start
Meanwhile, Torrio had moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1915. There he went to work for the thriving criminal operation of his uncle, James "Big Jim" Colosimo (1877–1920), who ran saloons, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution. In 1921 Torrio invited Capone to join him in Chicago. According to some sources, Capone was fleeing responsibility for several murders when he moved his family to Chicago and joined Colosimo's organization.
Capone arrived just as Prohibition was beginning. The Eighteenth Amendment, which made Prohibition official, had gone into effect in early 1920. The ban on alcohol had been brought about by reformers who wanted to protect society from the ill effects of drinking, which they felt damaged not only people's health but also their relationships and ability to work and support their families. Although some people had opposed Prohibition from the start, especially members of immigrant communities, for whom alcohol consumption had an important cultural role, most U.S. citizens supported the ban. Even Prohibition's supporters were surprised, however, when the Volstead Act (which spelled out the terms of the amendment) defined as illegal not only distilled beverages like whiskey but also fermented ones like beer and wine, which many had assumed would not be included.
Members of criminal organizations and gangsters (the popular term for this kind of criminal) quickly realized the moneymaking potential of Prohibition. They knew that people still wanted to drink alcohol and that they would pay for it. Thus bootlegging (the sale and distribution of illegal liquor) became an important focus of criminal activity, though gambling and prostitution operations still continued.
Not long after Capone's arrival in Chicago, Colosimo was assassinated by some unidentified rivals; a few commentators suspected Torrio and Capone of having something to do with the murder, but this was never proved. Torrio took over his uncle's operations, with Capone as his second-in-command. Capone demonstrated a shrewd business sense and steady nerves, both qualities that would serve him well in the years to come.
A prominent public figure
During the early 1920s, Torrio and Capone expanded their activities. They formed relationships with some criminal groups, such as the Purple Gang, with headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, while engaging in bitter and often brutal rivalry with others. Their main enemies were the members of the gang run by George "Bugs" Moran (1903–1959), which operated on the north side of Chicago, while Torrio and Capone controlled the south side. In January 1925 Moran's men made an unsuccessful attempt to kill Capone, and later in the month they attacked Torrio, seriously wounding him. Spooked, Torrio retired from his life of crime and moved to Italy. That left Capone in charge of one of the most prosperous criminal organizations in history.
During the second half of the 1920s Capone ran a sprawling criminal empire that included bootlegging operations, liquor distilleries and beer breweries, speakeasies (places where illegal liquor was sold and consumed), gambling establishments, prostitution rings, racetracks, and nightclubs. At the height of his success, his income was reportedly as high as one hundred million dollars per year. He protected his businesses by bribing police officers and political leaders, and he managed to rig elections so that the right people stayed in office. One of these was the mayor of Chicago, William "Big Bill" Thompson Jr.
Capone was a well-known public figure around Chicago, admired and respected by those who considered him more a businessman than a criminal. He appeared in flashy clothes and jewelry and often demonstrated generosity toward the needy. For example, he opened one of the first soup kitchens to serve the poor during the Great Depression, the period of economic hardship that began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted until the beginning of World War II in 1939. Capone boasted, with some justification, that he ran Chicago. As quoted in Thomas Pegram's Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933, Capone complained that "everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman."
Capone's money, power, and glamour went hand in hand, however, with ruthlessness (showing no compassion), a hot temper, and a willingness to engage in whatever violence seemed necessary to accomplish his goals. Chicago had become a nearly lawless place, with corrupt police officers and politicians not only tolerating but even taking part in criminal activity, and gangsters frequently having shoot-outs on the streets. Capone was at the heart of the action. He was suspected of involvement in more than two hundred murders of enemies and rival gang members. Because people involved in organized crime would not talk to the police—out of fear, loyalty, or because of their own guilt—it was almost impossible to solve or prosecute these kinds of crimes.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
The violence continued to escalate throughout the 1920s, lending fuel to the growing public resistance to Prohibition. Finally an event occurred that sent shock waves through the nation, as Chicago became the setting for one of the most horrifying episodes of the decade. For a long time Capone had had his eye on Moran's territory. In addition, Moran had recently tried to kill "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, one of
Capone's closest associates. The double motives of greed and revenge led to what came to be called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Members of Moran's gang were known to use a certain garage as a drop-off point for shipments of illegal liquor. On February 14, 1929, seven gang members were at the garage when several policemen suddenly burst in; these were actually Capone's men, dressed in stolen uniforms. Assuming this was a raid on their bootlegging operation, Moran's men stood facing a wall with their hands in the air.
At this point, more members of Capone's gang ran in and used machine guns and other weapons to shoot and kill the Moran gang members, pumping almost two hundred bullets into their bodies. By a stroke of luck, Moran himself (likely the intended target of the attack) was not among them. It was probably McGurn who was responsible for the execution of this attack, but Capone is thought to have been at the heart of its planning. At the time it occurred, however, Capone was in Florida, and neither he nor anyone else was ever charged.
The Untouchables step in
News of this bloodbath shocked not only Chicago but the rest of the nation as well, including the top leaders of government. Calls for action led President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry) to order a crackdown on organized crime, targeting Capone in particular. He was subsequently arrested on a weapons charge and jailed for a year. Capone seemed to view prison as a welcome refuge, however, since other gang leaders (especially Moran) were supposedly plotting against him.
When Capone emerged from prison, he faced more pressure from several government agencies determined to curb his illegal activities. One of these was the Justice Department, which set up a new squad of special agents headed by Eliot Ness (1902–1957), a twenty-six-year-old Chicago native who had already been working for the department's Prohibition Bureau. Ness was known for his honesty; in fact, Capone had tried unsuccessfully to bribe him and, failing that, made some attempts on his life. The young agent was authorized to choose nine other men to join him in battling bootleggers, racketeers, and corrupt police officers. Ness's hand-picked agents, all of them under thirty, and each specializing in a skill such as wiretapping or weapons handling, had such spotless records that the squad was known as the Untouchables. It was understood that they would never give in to either bribery or threats of violence.
The Untouchables did much to block Capone's business operations; for example, they conducted raids that shut down thirty breweries and netted more than one hundred arrests. They did not, however, put Capone in jail. That feat was managed through a different and somewhat unusual channel. When Capone was finally sent to prison, it was not for murder or for violating Prohibition, but for tax evasion (failing to pay income tax).
Eliot Ness: Top "Untouchable"
While Al Capone was known as the most successful of the organized crime leaders who made their fortunes during the Roaring Twenties, Eliot Ness is recognized as the decade's leading lawman. As head of the squad known as the "Untouchables," Ness hindered Capone's bootlegging operation and also contributed to his eventual arrest and conviction for tax evasion.
Ness was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1903, the son of a Norwegian immigrant. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1925, and, two years later, he passed a civil service examination, earning a position as a special agent with the Treasury Department. He was soon transferred to the Justice Department to join the new Prohibition Bureau, an agency established to fight the recent increase in organized crime related to the illegal liquor trade, based out of Chicago.
President Herbert Hoover's particular concern over Al Capone's activities in Chicago spurred the Prohibition Bureau to establish a special group of agents to focus on shutting down Capone and his bootlegging network. Ness led the group and handpicked the agents making up the team. By October 1929 he had hired nine men respected not only for their investigative skills but for their personal honesty and integrity.
Ness took aim at Capone's sizable income (estimated at $75 million per year), which gave the gangster the power to pay the bribes and buy the special privileges that kept his business thriving. While gathering evidence to use against Capone in court, the agents also sought to destroy Capone's manufacturing facilities. Within six months, the task force had shut down nineteen distilleries (where hard liquor was made) and six breweries (were beer was brewed), costing Capone about $1 million.
After one of Capone's men offered Ness $2,000, plus weekly payments of the same amount if Ness would lay off Capone's business, Ness angrily called a press conference. He announced that Capone would never succeed in paying off either Ness or his agents. The following day, an article in the Chicago Tribune referred to the squad as the "Untouchables," referring to their incorruptibility.
Capone fought back, ordering the murder of one of Ness's friends and three unsuccessful attempts on Ness's life. The Untouchables continued their work, however, shutting down several more of Capone's highly profitable breweries.
In June 1931 Ness brought five thousand different Prohibition-related charges against Capone before a grand jury. By that time, however, prosecutors had already decided to charge Capone with tax evasion, a case they felt had a better chance of winning. The trial began on October 6, 1931, and lasted two weeks, with Ness present in the courtroom every day. It ended, much to Capone's surprise and Ness's delight, with the gangster's conviction; he was sentenced to eleven years in a federal prison.
From 1935 to 1941 Ness served as Safety Director for the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was responsible not only for investigating crimes but for implementing traffic safety and control measures. Ness was credited with significantly reducing the city's traffic fatality rate. During World War II, he was director of the Division of Social Protection, part of the Federal Security Agency. Ness later served as chairman of the board of Diebold, a company that produces safes and security systems. He died in 1957.
A criminal career finally halted
During most of the 1920s, it had been assumed that income that came from illegal activities could not be taxed. But in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that this kind of income was indeed subject to income tax. In June 1931 Capone was indicted (formally accused) on twenty-three counts (charges) of income tax evasion. He had never filed an income tax return (a statement of earnings that must be submitted to the federal government every year), and he owned nothing in his own name. A persistent agent of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), however, found a notebook that showed income recorded under Capone's name. Capone was charged with owing the government more than two hundred thousand dollars in unpaid taxes.
During the course of the trial, Capone tried to bribe the jury to find him innocent. The judge changed the jury at the last minute. To his surprise, Capone was convicted on four of the counts, which was enough to send him to jail for eleven years. He went first to Chicago's Cook County jail, where he could pay for privileges and comforts and even continue to conduct business from behind bars. After a year, though, he was transferred to a harsher environment at the federal penitentiary (prison) in Atlanta, Georgia. Two years later he was moved to the newly built prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Surrounded by icy, shark-infested waters, the prison was totally isolated from the outside world. During his imprisonment, Capone lost all his influence and power in the world of organized crime. Meanwhile, the syphilis he had contracted as a teenager had returned, this time in its final and worst form, leading to brain damage. By the time he was released in November 1939, Capone's mental capacity had greatly decreased. He spent his last years living quietly at his Palm Island, Florida, estate. He died in 1947, soon after his fortyeighth birthday.
For More Information
Allsop, Kenneth. The Bootleggers: The Story of Chicago's Prohibition Era. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968.
Altman, Linda Jacobs. The Decade That Roared: America during Prohibition. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: Putnam, 1971.
Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Ness, Eliot. The Untouchables. New York: Messner, 1957. Reprint, 1987.
Pegram, Thomas. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.
Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.
Schoenberg, Robert. Mr. Capone: The Real—and Complete—Story of Al Capone. New York: Morrow, 1992.
"Al Capone." Chicago Historical Society. Available online at http://www.chicagohs.org/history/capone.html. Accessed on June 22, 2005.
Al "Scarface" Capone was an American gangster who rose to power during the Prohibition era (1920–33), when the United States banned the production and sale of liquor. His vicious career illustrated the power and influence of organized crime in the United States.
"Scarface" is born
Alphonso Caponi was born on January 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. He was one of seven children born to Gabriel and Teresa Caponi, who came to the United States from Italy in 1893. His father was a barber. Capone attended school through the sixth grade, at which point he beat up his teacher one day and was himself beaten by the school's principal afterward.
Like many other American children at the time, Capone was taught that the main purpose of life was to acquire wealth and that the United States was the land of opportunity. He discovered that prejudice (unfair treatment) based on his ethnic background made it difficult to succeed in school and that others looked down on the children of immigrants and members of the working class. Angered by the gap between the American dream and his own reality, Capone began to engage in criminal activities as a way of achieving success in what he saw as an unjust society.
Capone worked at odd jobs for a while but found his calling when a gangster named Johnny Torrio (1882–1957) hired him to work in a bar owned by Torrio's friend. Torrio knew Capone did not mind violence and often had him beat up people who were unable to repay loans. Over time, Capone learned more and more about the criminal world. During a fight in a bar he received a razor cut on his cheek, which gained him the nickname "Scarface." He then met a woman named Mae Coughlin (1897–1986), with whom he had a child named Albert Francis Capone (nicknamed Sonny). Capone and Coughlin married a short time later, on December 18, 1918.
Success in Chicago
In 1919 the U.S. government approved the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a law prohibiting (or preventing) the manufacture, sale, and transport of liquor. The same year, Capone fled Brooklyn for Chicago to avoid a murder charge. In Chicago he joined the Five Points Gang and quickly moved up its ranks. He became the top assistant to the gang's leader, his old friend Johnny Torrio, who had set up operations in the city. Capone worked as a bartender and enforcer for Torrio and was arrested many times for assaulting people, but Torrio's influence saved him from jail.
After Torrio fled the country, Capone found himself in control of part of the bootlegging (illegal supplying of alcohol) in Chicago that had sprung up after Prohibition (preventing by law the production, sale, or transportation of liquor). The citizens of Chicago had not been in favor of Prohibition. Many of them were more than willing to break the law by purchasing alcohol. Capone took advantage of this attitude and conducted his business openly. As he would tell reporter Damon Runyon, "I make money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers … some of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as me."
Capone protected his business interests, which also included gambling houses, by waging war on rival gangs. During the St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, seven members of a rival gang led by George "Bugsy" Moran were shot to death in a Chicago garage. Protecting these businesses also often involved either bribing or beating up public officials. As Capone's profits continued to grow, he began to act as if he were a well-to-do businessman rather than a vicious criminal. Many people, including members of the police and city government, admired him. Between 1927 and 1931 he was viewed by many as the real ruler of Chicago.
The truth is that Capone was totally unworthy of admiration. He was a cold-blooded criminal who killed hundreds of people without a second thought. He paid off mayors, governors, and other elected officials to allow his crooked operations to continue. He could even influence elections by having members of his gang intimidate people into voting the way he wanted. Capone's reign of terror gave the city of Chicago a reputation as a gangster-infested place that it would hold for years, even after he was long gone.
Menace to society
Most of the rest of the country (and even some people in Chicago) correctly regarded Capone as a menace. In the late 1920s President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) ordered his secretary of the treasury to find a way to put Capone behind bars. Capone had up to this point managed to escape jail time for any of his crimes. The government's decision to crack down on him just added to the problems he was having. His profits from bootlegging had started to decline as a result of the coming of the Great Depression (a period from 1929 to 1939 during which nearly half the industrial workers in the country lost their jobs) and the ending of Prohibition.
After detailed investigations, U.S. Treasury agents were able to arrest Capone for failure to file an income tax return. Forced to defend himself while being tried on a different charge in Chicago, Capone's testimony regarding his taxes did not match previous statements he had made, and he was found guilty of tax fraud. In October 1931 he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor, which he served in a prison in Atlanta, Georgia, and in prison on Alcatraz Island in California's San Francisco Bay.
Capone suffered from syphilis, a disease passed from person to person through sexual contact. The disease can affect the brain if left untreated. Capone became physically weak and started to lose his mind. As a result, his power within the nation's organized crime system ended. Released on parole in 1939, Capone spent the rest of his life at his estate in Palm Island, Florida, where he died on January 25, 1947.
For More Information
Hornung, Rick. Al Capone. New York: Park Lane Press, 1998.
Kobler, John. Capone. New York: Putnam, 1971.
Pasley, Fred D. Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man. 2nd ed. London, Faber, 1966.
Al Capone became famous in the 1920s as one of the most notorious criminals in American history. He considered himself a businessman, but his business was organized crime. Even in the twenty-first century, Capone remains a symbol of the Roaring Twenties .
Capone was born on January 7, 1899, the fourth of nine children of Italian immigrants. His father was a barber and his mother a seamstress. Capone grew up in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York , where he learned at an early age how to survive street life. As a teen, he joined several youth gangs.
Capone dropped out of school at the age of fourteen after getting into a fight with a teacher. He joined the Five Point Juniors, a younger branch of a criminal organization called the Five Point Gang. Capone learned racketeering (illegal business transactions) through his gang affiliation. During this time, he also held legitimate jobs.
Earns his nickname
At one point, young Capone worked as a bartender, where he made the mistake of insulting a female patron. The woman's brother defended his sister's honor by slashing Capone's face three times with a knife. Capone's facial scars never disappeared, and they earned him the nickname “Scarface.”
While still a teen, Capone met Mae Coughlin, a department store clerk two years his senior. Coughlin and Capone married in December 1919 just after Mae gave birth to Albert Francis “Sonny” Capone. Sonny was their only child.
In 1921, Capone received an invitation from a gangster he knew from his Five Point Gang days to move to Chicago, Illinois , and join the operation of James Colosimo (1877–1920). Capone moved his family to the city just as Prohibition (the constitutional ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages that was intended to improve society) was beginning. Despite the new law, people still wanted to drink alcohol. Gangsters (the popular term for members of organized crime) knew this and realized they could make a great deal of money by providing the illegal beverages. The sale and distribution of illegal liquor, known as bootlegging, quickly became a focus of organized crime, alongside gambling and prostitution.
Becomes a household name
Soon after his arrival in Chicago, Capone became second in command of organized criminal activity on the south side of the city. His boss, Johnny Torrio (1882–1957), was the man who had apprenticed him in his early gang days and summoned him to Chicago. Torrio recognized in Capone a shrewd businessman who did not act without careful consideration.
Capone and Torrio formed relationships—not all good—with other criminal organizations across the country. Their main enemy was George “Bugs” Moran (1903–1959), who ran crime on the north side of Chicago. Moran's gang tried to kill Capone and Torrio in January 1925. Capone and Torrio survived the attempt, but Torrio was seriously wounded and retired to Italy, leaving Capone in charge.
Capone's empire included speakeasies (places where illegal liquor was sold and consumed), gambling establishments, prostitution rings, nightclubs, racetracks, and liquor distilleries. He earned as much as $100,000 a year and protected his businesses by paying police officers and political leaders on the side. With these powerful authority figures accepting his bribes, Capone made Chicago nearly lawless. It was a city of intense violence and corruption.
Everyone knew who Capone was. With a penchant for flashy suits and jewelry, he made quite a spectacle wherever he went. He was not all bad, as he used his wealth to help the needy. Capone opened one of the city's first soup kitchens during the Great Depression (1929–41).
Shocks the nation
As the 1920s progressed, the level of organized crime violence escalated. This increase in crime only served to make the public outcry against Prohibition even louder. On February 14, 1929, an event of catastrophic violence occurred that shocked the nation.
Capone's feud with Moran was well-known. A recent attempt on the part of Moran to kill a close associate of Capone's led Capone to seek revenge. Moran's gang used a garage as a drop-off site for shipments of illegal liquor. Seven members of that gang were at the garage on February 14, 1929, when a group ambushed them. The men were dressed as police officers, so Moran's men assumed this was a raid on their bootlegging operation and turned to face the wall with their hands in the air. The uniformed men were Capone's gang dressed in stolen outfits. They shot the men facing the wall as well as more members of the gang who burst in. Moran's men were gunned down with nearly two hundred bullets. Although Capone was in Florida at the time, he was widely credited with what came to be called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre . Capone was never prosecuted.
President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) responded to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre by cracking down on organized crime, and on Capone in particular. The mob boss was imprisoned for a year, and when released, faced even greater pressure to cut back on his illegal pursuits. The Justice Department set up a squad of special agents headed by Eliot Ness (1902–1957). Ness and his nine men became known as the Untouchables, and they worked around the clock to fight organized crime, especially bootlegging, police corruption, and racketeering.
Ness and his men finally brought Capone down, but not for murder or racketeering. The gangster was sent to prison in 1931 for failing to pay his income taxes. He owed the government more than $200,000. During his trial, Capone attempted to bribe the jury into finding him innocent. At the last minute, however, the judge switched jury members, and Capone was convicted on four counts of tax evasion, a charge that landed him in jail for eleven years.
During his imprisonment, Capone lost his influence as a mob boss. He spent his last years in jail ill, as the syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) he had contracted as a teen came back in its final form. Capone suffered brain damage and spent his final years living quietly in Florida. He died in 1947 at the age of forty-eight.
Al Capone, whose real name was Alphonso Caponi, was born to Italian immigrant parents on Jan. 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. Like other young Americans from minority backgrounds, Capone was taught that the main purpose of life was to acquire wealth and that the United States was a land of opportunity. But he also discovered that his family background made it impossible to succeed in school and his ethnicity and working-class status resulted in discrimination, both in the business world and socially. Embittered by the gap between the American dream and his own reality, Capone began to engage in illegal activities as a means of achieving success in what he saw as an unjust society.
Capone was a natural leader. He possessed a shrewd business sense, gained the loyalty of those working for him by showing his appreciation for a job well done, and inspired confidence through his sound judgments, diplomacy, and "the diamond-hard nerves of a gambler." He left school at 14, married at 15, and spent the next ten years with the street gangs of his Brooklyn neighborhood. During a barroom brawl, he received a razor cut on his cheek, which gained him the nickname "Scarface."
Finds Success in Chicago
In 1919, the same year the U.S. government ratified the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages, Capone fled Brooklyn for Chicago to avoid a murder charge. In Chicago he joined the notorious Five Points Gang and quickly moved up its ranks to become the right-hand man of boss Johnny Torrio. After Torrio fled the country, Capone found himself in control of part of the bootleg operation in the city that had sprung up after prohibition. Chicago had voted 6 to 1 against passage of the prohibition amendment, and its citizenry—rich and poor, officials included—felt that liquor deprivation had been unfairly imposed. Capone took advantage of the popular willingness to break the law, and openly plied his trade. As he would tell reporter Damon Runyan, "I make money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers … some of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as me."
Capone protected his business interests by waging war on rival gangs. During the legendary St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, seven members of a rival gang led by George "Bugsy" Moran were gunned down in a Chicago garage. Other business strategies included bribing public officials, providing a ready market for the illegal homebrewed liquor produced by poor Italian ghetto residents, and becoming a supply source for the "respectable" customers of city speakeasies. Interacting in Chicago society in the manner of a well-to-do businessman rather than a shady racketeer, Capone gained a fabulously profitable bootleg monopoly, as well as the admiration of a large segment of the community, including members of the police and city government. Between 1927 and 1931 he was viewed by many as the de facto ruler of Chicago.
Seen as Common Thug outside Chicago
However, the rest of the country and certain elements in the Windy City regarded Capone as a menace. In the late 1920s President Herbert Hoover ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to find a way to jail Capone, who up until now had managed to evade being implicated in any illegal act. Perhaps more significantly than the efforts of the U.S. Treasury department, Capone's power had by now begun to wane due to both the coming of the Great Depression and the anticipated repeal of prohibition. Bootlegging was becoming less profitable.
After detailed investigations, U.S. Treasury agents were able to arrest Capone for failure to file an income tax return. Forced to defend himself while being tried for vagrancy in Chicago, Capone contradicted some previous testimony regarding his taxes, and he was successfully prosecuted for tax fraud by the federal government. In October 1931 Capone was sentenced to ten years' hard labor, which he served in a penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, and on Alcatraz. Because of syphilis Capone's mind and health deteriorated, and his power within the nation's organized crime syndicates ended. Released on parole in 1939, he led a reclusive life at his Florida estate, where he died in 1947.
John Kobler, Capone (1971), is the most thorough study of Capone's life. See also Fred D. Pasley, Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man (1930). For information on his life after imprisonment see James A. Johnston, Alcatraz Island Prison, and the Men Who Live There (1949). An excellent contemporary description of Capone's career and perhaps still the best analysis of the era is John Landesco, Organized Crime in Chicago, pt. 3 of the Illinois Crime Survey (1929). A reliable historical account is John H. Lyle, The Dry and Lawless Years (1960). Excellent for a sociological perspective is Kenneth Allsop, The Bootleggers and Their Era (1961). □
A child of Brooklyn, New York, Alphonse Capone (January 17, 1899–January 25, 1947) found notoriety and wealth in Chicago through organized crime. Capone was born to an Italian immigrant family in 1899. Though a promising student, he left school in the sixth grade, and from then it was a life in the streets. Capone was probably twenty when he killed his first victim. Three years later, he followed Johnny Torrio, his mentor in crime, to Chicago. Together, they built a model criminal organization.
Torrio was a modernizer who did for gambling, prostitution, and the Prohibition-era sale of liquor what John D. Rockefeller had for the oil business. The automobile and telephone—as well as the Thompson submachine gun—were some of the modern tools Torrio employed. When a 1925 assassination attempt left him wounded, Torrio retired and left the business to his protegé.
Like Torrio (and Rockefeller, Sr.), Capone rationalized the marketplace with a pool arrangement, where different gangs were allowed control of different sections of the city. Anyone dissatisfied with their share met a bloody end. The seven victims of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre were but one example.
Perhaps Capone's true genius lay in his crafting a public image. "They call Capone a bootlegger," he once complained. "Yes. It's bootleg while it's on the trucks, but when your host at the club, in the locker room or on the Gold Coast hands it to you on a silver platter, it's hospitality" (Bergreen, p. 268). Such comments always served Capone well with the public. So did his reputation for generosity: When the Depression struck Chicago with nearly 50 percent unemployment, Capone opened up soup kitchens to feed the needy. The public did not care that Capone "encouraged" others to pay the cost of his project—Big Al lent a helping hand at a time when government did not. "Capone has become almost a mythical being in Chicago," (Bergreen, p. 402) one critic lamented in 1930. Hollywood gave the story form a year later with Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar, who was Capone by any other name. The press had already made much of Capone as a kind of street philanthropist.
Capone was grossing some $100 million annually by the late 1920s. This wealth proved his undoing, or at least his failure to report it did—he was convicted of income tax evasion in 1931 and spent eight years in federal prisons, including Alcatraz. By then, Capone had fashioned a myth for the Depression and beyond. He was the gangster as antihero. Capone died from the ravages of syphilis in 1947.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. 1994. Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. 1971.
al capone was a gangster leader who controlled much of Chicago from 1920 to 1931. Chicago in the 1920s was a city of vice, corruption, and gangland killings, and synonymous with the evildoings of this era is the name of Al Capone.
Capone was born January 17, 1899, in Naples, Italy. His family emigrated from Naples, Italy, to New York and Capone was raised in the Brooklyn slums. During his early years in New York he made strong gangland contacts and in 1920, he became a member of the John Torrio gang. Torrio, originally from New York, relocated his operation to Chicago, with Capone at his side.
The passage of the volstead act in 1919 (41 Stat. 305), which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of liquor, ushered in an era of big business for gangsters. Capone and Torrio were no exception; they operated and organized speakeasies, secret nightclubs that sold the banned liquor. Capone began to gain more power and by the time Torrio retired in 1925, Capone's control had extended to gambling, brothels, and politics. He was responsible for the gangland murders of his rivals and for forcibly controlling election results in certain precincts of Chicago; through these maneuvers, he increased his power and received protection and political favors.
Capone was at the peak of his power in 1931, when he was arrested—ironically—for income tax evasion. The internal revenue service succeeded where other authorities had failed: uncovering concrete evidence against Capone for tax evasion. It investigated Capone's earnings and discovered that—despite his huge income, which was judged to be approximately $105 million in 1927—Capone had never filed an income tax return. In October 1931 Capone was tried in a federal court and found guilty. He was required to pay a penalty of $50,000 and to serve eleven years in jail.
An appeal was pursued and Capone spent his first days of captivity in Chicago's Cook County Jail. There he was still awarded the privileges of an underworld king. Warden David Moneypenny allowed him to visit with his gangland associates, including Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano. Capone had requested and was given an isolated place—the death chamber of the Cook County Jail—to meet and conduct business with fellow mobsters.
The appeal was denied, and Capone was sent to a federal jail in Atlanta, Georgia. There he performed the duties of a shoemaker until 1934, at which time he was transferred to Alcatraz in California.
At Alcatraz Capone was not treated with the respect and fear to which he was accustomed. He spent his days as a laundry worker and was harassed by inmates who took pleasure in persecuting the once powerful mob king. Capone's mental capacities dwindled due to an untreated attack of syphilis and in 1939 he was released to the care of his wife and brother. He died January 25, 1947, in Miami Beach, Florida.
Al Capone ★★★ 1959
Film noir character study of one of the most colorful gangsters of the Roaring '20s. Sort of an underworld “How to Succeed in Business.” Steiger chews scenes and bullets as they fly by, providing the performance of his career. Plenty of gangland violence and mayhem and splendid cinematography keep the fast-paced period piece sailing. 104m/C VHS, DVD . Rod Steiger, Fay Spain, Murvyn Vye, Nehemiah Persoff, Martin Balsam, Al Ruscio, Joe De Santis; D: Richard Wilson.