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The Life of Al "Scarface" Capone

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Likely America’s most well-known gangster from the Prohibition Era, Al Capone made his way into history by being one of the most successful gangsters of all time. With a nickname like Scarface, how could he not get into some kind of life of crime? He received the nickname from a scar across the left side of his face he got in a fight when he was younger. The young man sliced his cheek with a knife or razor which gave him one of his most distinguishable features. With most of his time spent in Chicago, Capone made his hundreds of millions of dollars with various illegal activities, such as prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging. He had a net worth of 100 million dollars in his time which would be $1.3 billion today. It is believed that he earned $60 million from bootlegging, $25 million from gambling, $10 million from vice and $10 million from racketeering (Al Capone Biography). He was also a strong believer of eliminating his competition, as seen in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Even though he was most well-known for his brutal and vicious ways of dealing with his enemies, he was also one to walk around the people being friendly with handshakes and smiles, never expecting anything in return for what he did for people.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Al Capone was born on January 17, 1899, to immigrant parents. Even though he was regarded as an extremely bright student, Al Capone was expelled from his school at the age of 14 for hitting a teacher and never went back to school. After he dropped out of school, he became associated with Johnny Torrio, lieutenant of the Five Points Gang, who showed him the ropes of running a gang effectively and efficiently (Al Capone Biography). He started out doing the smaller activities, such as bartending and bouncing at the brothels that Torrio had operated and then slowly worked his way up into higher ranks within the gang. In 1918, Al Capone married an Irish girl named Mae Coughlin and got a job as a bookkeeper, taking a break from the gangster life. After the unexpected death of Capone’s father, Capone returned to working for Torrio. During his break from the gang, Al and Mae had a son, Sonny, in 1918 (Al Capone Biography). In 1920, Torrio sent for Capone to join him in Chicago to help with the prostitution business there. It was rumored that Capone killed Big Jim Colosimo who was Torrio’s boss to make way for Torrio to take over the gang. In 1919, the 18th amendment was ratified and prohibition began across the United States which led to the new bootlegging operations that brought in large amounts of money for the gangs. Torrio retired from his place as the gang leader in 1925 after a failed assassination attempt from a rival gang, which made Capone the gang leader now taking control of the bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution businesses. He became well known when he started to take down the rival gangs that threatened his place on top. While his reputation among the gangs grew, he never carried a weapon as a sign of status, but he also never went anywhere without at least two of his bodyguards around him, and he also rode between them in cars. By then, he only traveled at night unless it was absolutely necessary to travel in the light of day (Al Capone Biography).

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While doing his work on the south side of Chicago, he had his competition on the north side. Many of these competitors are also vastly well known gang leaders such as Bugs Moran, Hymie Weiss, and Dean O’Banion. These were tolerable competitors until a comment made by O’Banion got back to Capone in 1929, ‘Tell them Sicilians to go to Hell’ (Kobler). This comment, of course, made Capone extremely angry as he was Sicilian and took the comment personally. Capone ordered a hit on O’Banion, and O’Banion was assassinated which led to a war between the two gangs. It was estimated about 130 gangsters from around ten different mobs were killed over the course of the year (Binder). Like so many gangsters from the Prohibition era, Al Capone had to have a business front to help hide what he was really doing behind closed doors. According to the phone book, the store he owned was an antique store. The whole shop was filled and never sold anything to anyone, and if a customer called about an item, he or she was always told that the item had already been sold. If someone ever approached the store, the sign on the door would say it was closed for the day. It seems it would be easy to catch what exactly was going on in the building but every time the FBI or other government agencies would investigate, Capone would tell some of his men to pretend to buy products at the store to throw them off. This business front made it easy to hide Capone’s real business with his bootlegging and other illegal ventures; bootlegging was the most profitable at the time. To take down a threat to his empire in Chicago, Capone allegedly ordered a hit on the George ‘Bugs’ Moran gang, which would turn out to be ‘the most infamous of all gangland slayings in America’ (O’Brien). Four men, two dressed as police officers, burst into a garage that Moran was using for his illegal ventures, it is assumed the four men announced it was a raid and ordered the seven men in the garage against the wall and opened fired on them with Thompson submachine guns. Those killed in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre included Frank Gusenberg, Moran’s enforcer and Frank’s brother, Peter Gusenberg. Four other men were gangsters for Moran, but the last one was an optician who hung around criminals for fun. Missing that day was Capone’s main target, Moran. Al Capone was not present for the massacre as he was on vacation at his home in Palm Island, Florida. Capone not being in the state gave him a strong alibi and nobody was ever charged with anything about the massacre (O’Brien). Although many saw Al Capone as a violent, pitiless person, he was not entirely an awful person all of the time. In the eyes of some, he was a leader in the community because of the things he did during the Great Depression. Capone started a program that provided milk to Chicago children to combat a disease that softens the bones called rickets. He also advocated for the dates that everyone knows on the jugs of milk to help ensure the children in the city’s safety (Al Capone 85-AZ). In addition, he opened up many soup kitchens for those severely affected by the Great Depression. The kitchen served over 120,000 meals to the people in the communities for free (Harvey). He was also known to send flowers to his rival gang member’s funerals, one time spending over $5,000 on flowers. Capone became super popular with the people during the Prohibition era because of his speakeasy businesses supplying them with alcohol (Al Capone).

In April of 1930, the Chicago Crime Commission issued its first Public Enemies list with 28 names on it, Al Capone’s name was number one on the list (Exhibit: Al Capone Verdict). For most of his gang-related career, Capone had evaded prosecution for his criminal activity within the gang. Eventually, in 1930, after a grueling investigation by the federal government, Al Capone was indicted for tax evasion (Exhibit: Al Capone Verdict). Which seems, after all the other more serious criminal activities he had committed, a bit ridiculous as he had committed way worse crimes than just tax evasion, but he was outstandingly efficient at making sure he would not get caught or that he had a strong alibi. The man responsible for the takedown of the gangster was Eliot Ness, one of the most well-known federal agents for his work on the Capone case. President Herbert Hoover actually said ‘I want that man in jail’ talking about Al Capone (Al Capone Biography). According to the ATF website, a force of 3,000 police officers and 300 Prohibition agents had failed to bring Capone to justice (Eliot Ness). Originally, Ness and his team of ‘untouchables’ were trying to get Al Capone on prohibition charges. They found over 5,000 of those violations on him but threw those out a week later in favor of his indictment for tax evasion because there was a possibility that the jurors would be more sympathetic towards him for his bootlegging businesses (Eliot Ness). After his indictment for tax evasion, the judge also tacked the Prohibition indictments back on to make sure he had a long sentence in jail. According to the FBI’s website, on June 16, 1931, Capone pleaded guilty to the tax evasion and the Prohibition charges and bragged about how he had a deal for a 2 ½ year sentence, but he was actually not bound by a deal. After that, he changed his plea to not guilty (Al Capone, FBI). On the 18th of October in 1931, Capone was convicted and in November was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison, fined $50,000, charged $7,692 for his court costs, with $215,000 with interest on back taxes (Al Capone, FBI). He started out in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta serving two years there, 4 ½ years at Alcatraz and finishing his sentence at Terminal Island Prison. He was moved from the U.S. Penitentiary because of his manipulation of the guards in charge of him there. He had persuaded the guards to give him whatever he wanted. He had a lavish cell with expensive furnishings such as a personal bed, a desk, and other furnishings that were not given to the other inmates who had the lesser sentences. He had a carpet and a radio where the guards would sit around to talk and listen to the radio. Nearby the penitentiary, Capone’s family stayed in a hotel and he always had visitors. In 1934, Capone was put on a prison railroad car and went on a trip to Alcatraz. As soon as he arrived on ‘the rock,’ Capone tried to work the system to his favor like it was when he was in Atlanta. Capone met Warden Johnston when he arrived and tried several times to get special privileges, but they were always denied. Johnston said that he would not be given anything special and would have to live like all the other inmates in Alcatraz. Capone spent 4 ½ years on ‘the rock’ and had many jobs during his time there. One time he got into a fight and was placed in isolation for eight days, and another time while waiting to get a haircut, another inmate stabbed him with shears. Capone was put into the prison hospital and released with minor wounds. While in Alcatraz, Capone’s latent syphilis became symptomatic, and it was obvious that he had been carrying the virus for many years. Then in 1938, he was taken to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California for the rest of his sentence and was released in November 1939. Immediately after he was released, he was sent to a hospital in Baltimore for brain treatment due to complications from syphilis and then went to his home in Palm Island, Florida. He never returned to Chicago after his release from prison as he had become mentally incapable of running a gang again. In 1946, a Baltimore psychiatrist and Capone’s personal doctor examined Capone’s mental capacity and ruled that he had the mentality of a 12-year-old. Capone stayed on Palm Island with his family until his death from a combination of a stroke and pneumonia on January 25, 1947 (Al Capone, FBI). Al and Mae stayed married until his death.

Al Capone has been brought up in many different pop culture places such as television, music, and movies as he is one of the most famous American gangsters of all time. There have been many movies made based on Capone’s time in the gang life and what his private life was like during those times. One of the more popular ones was The Untouchables which is about how Eliot Ness brought Capone down from his empire he built with the gang. There is one that is going to come out soon called Fonzo and is a biographical film based on Capone’s life starring Tom Hardy. In Looney Tunes, there is a character that Bugs Bunny gets into arguments with that is based on the gangster and in another cartoon, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, the mystery gang runs into Al Capone’s ghost. There is also a variation of Capone in The Super Mario Brothers Show called Al Koopone, in reference to the Koopas in the video games. He is also in season 2 episode 7 of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In music, Al Capone is briefly mentioned in the song Stone Cold Crazy by the British rock band, Queen and is also assumed that Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is singing about how he was Al Capone in his dream. There is another British group that mentions Al Capone in a song called The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. Another song that references Al Capone is Michael Jackson’s song Al Capone which was recorded originally for the Bad album but was not included originally. It was released in 2012 in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Al Capone is also mentioned many times in literature, such as the books, Al Capone Does My Shirts.

While Al Capone did some pretty good things for his community, he also did some really awful things as well. He always cared about the safety of the children in his community which is an awesome thing for someone perceived as a cold-hearted gangster to do. He also did many great things to make sure Chicago was taken care of during the Great Depression but also caused problems within the city. Like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, even though he wasn’t technically physically involved with the shooting, he did order it. It is also ludicrous that a gang leader who ordered all the bad things to happen never was charged with those exact crimes; he was caught on tax evasion. Al Capone did so much bad in the world, but he also did some good in his community because he cared about the well-being of the people around him. This was probably because he did not grow up with large amounts of money in the family so he probably did not want the kids to do and go through what he did. He probably wanted them to do some good with themselves. Capone once said, ‘Once in the racket you’re always in it (Helmer).’ Al Capone had some barbarous ways of dealing with people he did not like, but he was still a good man to some of the public, and he was also called the Robin Hood of Chicago.

Works Cited

  • Al Capone. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016, www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/al-capone.
  • Al Capone. Msu.Edu, 2019, msu.edu/~szandzi2/alcapone/legacy.html.
  • Al Capone Biography. Biography, 28 Apr. 2017, www.biography.com/people/al-capone-9237536.
  • Al Capone 85-AZ. Alcatrazhistory.Com, Alcatraz History, 2019, www.alcatrazhistory.com/cap1.htm.
  • Binder, John J. Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime During Prohibition. Prometheus Books. 2017.
  • Eliot Ness | Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Atf.Gov, 2016, www.atf.gov/our-history/eliot-ness.
  • Exhibit: Al Capone Verdict. Archives.Gov, 2019, www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/capone.html.
  • Harvey, Ian. During the Great Depression, Al Capone Created One of the First ‘Soup Kitchens’ for the Unemployed. The Vintage News, 28 Oct 2016, www.thevintagenews.com/2016/10/26/during-the-great-depression-al-capone-created-one-of-the-first-soup-kitchens-for-the-unemployed/.
  • Helmer, William J. and Jan Rekemeyer. The Wisdom of Al Capone. National Claim Resources Incorporated. 2017.
  • How the Law Finally Caught Al Capone. FBI, 2019, archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2005/march/capone_032805.
  • ‌Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, New York. 1971.
  • O’Brien, John. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Chicagotribune.Com, 14 Feb. 2014, www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-valentinesmassacre-story-story.html.

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