Al CaponeAl Capone
Al Capone is America’s best known gangster
and the single greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order in the
United States during the 1920s Prohibition era. Capone had a leading role
in the illegal activities that lent Chicago its reputation as a lawless
Capone was born on January 17, 1899, in
Brooklyn, New York. Baptized “Alphonsus Capone,” he grew up in a rough
neighborhood and was a member of two “kid gangs,” the Brooklyn Rippers
and the Forty Thieves Juniors. Although he was bright, Capone quit school
in the sixth grade at age fourteen. Between scams he was a clerk in a candy
store, a pinboy in a bowling alley, and a cutter in a book bindery. He
became part of the
notorious Five Points gang in Manhattan
and worked in gangster Frankie Yale’s Brooklyn dive, the Harvard Inn, as
a bouncer and bartender. While working at the Inn, Capone received his
infamous facial scars and the resulting nickname “Scarface” when he insulted
a patron and was attacked by her brother.
In 1918, Capone met an Irish girl named
Mary “Mae” Coughlin at a dance. On December 4, 1918, Mae gave birth to
their son, Albert “Sonny” Francis. Capone and Mae married that year on
Capone’s first arrest was on a disorderly
conduct charge while he was working for Yale. He also murdered two men
while in New York, early testimony to his willingness to kill. In accordance
with gangland etiquette, no one admitted to hearing or seeing a thing so
Capone was never tried for the murders. After Capone hospitalized a rival
gang member, Yale sent him to Chicago to wait until things cooled off.
Capone arrived in Chicago in 1919 and moved his family into a house at
7244 South Prairie Avenue.
Capone went to work for Yale’s old mentor,
John Torrio. Torrio saw Capone’s potential, his combination of physical
strength and intelligence, and encouraged his prot? g? . Soon Capone was
helping Torrio manage his bootlegging business. By mid-1922 Capone ranked
as Torrio’s number two man and eventually became a full partner in the
saloons, gambling houses,and brothels.
When Torrio was shot by rival gang members
and consequently decided to leave Chicago, Capone inherited the “outfit”
and became boss. The outfit’s men liked, trusted, and obeyed Capone, calling
him “The Big Fellow.” He quickly proved that he was even better at organization
than syndicating and expanding the city’s vice industry between 1925 and
1930. Capone controlled speakeasies, bookie joints, gambling houses, brothels,
income of $100,000,000 a year. He even acquired a sizable interest in the
largest cleaning and dyeing plant chain in Chicago.
Although he had been doing business with
Capone, the corrupt Chicago mayor William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson, Jr.
decided that Capone was bad for his political image. Thompson hired a new
police chief to run Capone out of Chicago. When Capone looked for a new
place to live, he quickly discovered that he was unpopular in much of the
country. He finally bought an estate at 93 Palm Island, Florida in 1928.
Attempts on Capone’s life were never successful.
He had an extensive spy network in Chicago, from newspaper boys to policemen,
so that any plots were quickly discovered. Capone, on the other hand, was
skillful at isolating and killing his enemies when they became too powerful.
A typical Capone murder consisted of men renting an apartment across the
street from the victim’s residence and gunning him down when he stepped
outside. The operations were quick and complete and Capone always had an
Capone’s most notorious killing was the
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, four Capone men entered
a garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. The building was the main liquor headquarters
of bootlegger George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side gang. Because two of Capone’s
men were dressed as police, the seven men in the garage thought it was
a police raid. As a result, they dropped their guns and put their hands
against the wall. Using two shotguns and two machine guns, the Capone men
fired more than 150 bullets into the victims. Six of the seven killed were
members of Moran’s gang; the seventh was an unlucky friend. Moran, probably
the real target, was across the street when Capone’s men arrived and stayed
away when he saw the police uniforms. As usual, Capone had an alibi; he
was in Florida during the massacre.
Although Capone ordered dozens of deaths
and even killed with his own hands, he often treated people fairly and
generously. He was equally known for his violent temper and for his strong
sense of loyalty and honor. He was the first to open soup kitchens after
the 1929 stock market crash and he ordered merchants to give clothes and
food to the needy at his expense.
Capone had headquarters in Chicago proper
in the Four Deuces at 2222 S. Wabash, the Metropole Hotel at 2300 S. Michigan
Avenue, and the Lexington Hotel at 2135 S. Michigan Avenue. He expanded
into the suburbs, sometimes using terror as in Forest View, which became
known as “Caponeville.” Sometimes he simply bribed public officials and
the police as in Cicero. He established suburban headquarters in Cicero’s
Anton Hotel at 4835 W. 22nd Street and in the Hawthorne Hotel at 4823 22nd
Street. He pretended to be an antique dealer and a doctor to front his
Because of gangland’s traditional refusal
to prosecute, Capone was never tried for most of his crimes. He was arrested
in 1926 for killing three people, but spent only one night in jail because
there was insufficient evidence to connect him with the murders. When Capone
finally served his first prison time in May of 1929, it was simply for
carrying a gun. In 1930, at the peak of his power, Capone headed Chicago’s
new list of the twenty-eight worst criminals and became the city’s”Public
Enemy Number One.”
The popular belief in the 1920s and 30s
was that illegal gambling earnings were not taxable income. However, the
1927 Sullivan ruling claimed that illegal profits were in fact taxable.
The government wanted to indict Capone for income tax evasion, Capone never
filed an income tax return, owned nothing in his own name, and never made
a declaration of assets or income. He did all his business through front
men so that he was anonymous when it came to income. Frank Wilson from
the IRS’s Special Intelligence Unit was assigned to focus on Capone. Wilson
accidentally found a cash receipts ledger that not only showed the but
also contained Capone’s name; it was a record of Capone’s income. Later
Capone’s own tax lawyer Lawrence P. Mattingly admitted in a letter to the
letter, and the coercion of witnesses were the main evidence used to convict
In 1931, Capone was indicted for income
tax evasion for the years 1925-29. He was also charged with the misdemeanor
of failing to file tax returns for the years 1928 and 1929. The government
charged that Capone owed $215,080.48 in taxes from his gambling profits.
A third indictment was added, charging Capone with conspiracy to violate
1922-31. Capone pleaded guilty to all three charges in the belief that
he would be able to plea bargain. However, the judge who presided over
the case, Judge James H. Wilkerson, would not make any deals. Capone changed
his pleas to not guilty. Unable to bargain, he tried to bribe the jury
but Wilkerson changed the jury panel at the last minute.
The jury found Capone not guilty on eighteen
of the twenty-three counts. Judge Wilkerson sentenced him to a total of
ten years in federal prison and one year in the county jail. In addition,
Capone had to serve an earlier six-month contempt of court sentence for
failing to appear in court. The fines were a cumulative $50,000 and Capone
had to pay the prosecution costs of $7,692.29.
In May 1932, Capone was sent to Atlanta,
the toughest of the federal prisons, to begin his eleven-year sentence.
Even in prison Capone took control, obtaining special privileges from the
authorities such as furnishing his cell with a mirror, typewriter, rugs,
and a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Because word spread that Capone
had taken over in Atlanta, he was sent to Alcatraz. There were no other
outfit members in Alcatraz, and security was so tight that he had no knowledge
of the outside world. He was unable to control anyone or anything and could
not buy influence or friends. In an attempt to earn time off for good behavior,
Capone became the ideal prisoner and refused to participate in prisoner
rebellions or strikes.
While at Alcatraz, he exhibited signs of
syphilitic dementia. Capone spent the rest of his felony sentence in the
hospital. On January 6, 1939, his prison term expired and he was transferred
to Terminal Island, a Federal Correctional Institution in California, to
serve his one-year misdemeanor sentence. He was finally released on November
16, 1939, but still had to pay fines and court costs of $37,617.51.
After his release, Capone spent a short
time in the hospital. He returned to his home in Palm Island where the
rest of his life was relaxed and quiet. His mind and body continued to
deteriorate so that he could no longer run the outfit. On January 21, 1947,
he had an apoplectic stoke that was probably unrelated to his syphilis.
He regained consciousness and began to improve until pneumonia set in on
January 24. He died the next day from cardiac arrest. Capone was first
buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago’s far South Side between the
graves of his father, Gabriele, and brother, Frank, but in March of 1950
the remains of all three were moved Cemetery on the far West Side.
– Allsop, Kenneth. The Bootleggers: the
Story of Chicago’s Prohibition Era. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House,
– Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: the Man
and the Era. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
– Enright, Richard T. Capone’s Chicago.
Likeville, MN: Northstar Maschek Books, 1931; 1987 reprint.
– Halper, Albert, editor. The Chicago
Crime Book. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1967.
– Hammer, Richard. The illustrated history
of organized crime. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1989.
– Kobler, John. Capone: the Life and World
of Al Capone. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.