Al Capone (1899-1947) was an American gangster who rose to fame during the prohibition era. He was an uncompromising boss of the Chicago Outfit who ran illegal speakeasies, gambling and brothels. He used an unprecedented level of violence and intimidation to cement his power and influence over the local police and other gang members. It was Al Capone who ordered the St Valentine’s Day massacre of fellow gang members in 1929. Capone was convicted on charges of income tax evasion and sentenced to jail.
Capone was born Alphonse Gabriel Capone on 17 January 1899 in Brooklyn, New York to the parents of Italian immigrants. He was one of nine children. Two of his brothers Ralph and Frank would work with him in later bootlegging enterprises.
Capone was a bright student, but rebellious – aged 14 he was expelled from a local Catholic school after hitting a teacher. Initially, he sought temporary jobs in Brooklyn, such as working in a bowling alley and candy store, but seeking better prospects, he began to fall in with elements of the criminal underworld and came under the wing of gangster Johnny Torrio.
Capone became a member of various New York gangs, such as the Brooklyn Rippers and the Five Points Gang of Manhattan. Capone worked as a bouncer in nightclub and bodyguard for more senior gang members. It was while working as a bouncer that he got slashed in the face by Frank Gallucio. Capone had, by mistake, insulted Gallucio’s sister and this was Frank’s revenge. The scar stayed with him for the rest of his life, leading to the nickname ‘scarface’ (which Capone hated). Capone’s mafia friends called him “the Big Fellow.”
In 1918, aged 19, he married Mae Josephine Coughlin, an Irish Catholic. One year later, he moved to Chicago at the invitation of his crime mentor, Johnny Torrio. In Chicago, Capone worked as a boxing promoter and bouncer in a brothel – all part of a local gang, run by James “Big Jim” Colosimo. The introduction of prohibition in 1919 had made organised crime even more profitable, especially because the new law proved almost impossible to implement.
Shortly after Capone’s move to Chicago, Colosimo was murdered (possibly with Capone’s involvement). This allowed Torrio to become the new head of the gang, and Capone as a trusted right-hand man.
Torrio now led one of the biggest (mostly Italian) crime gangs in Chicago – but, despite attempts to mediate between different ethnic gangs, conflict flared up over disputes over territory.
In 1925, Torrio was shot several times by rival gang members. Although he survived, he was severely wounded, and he passed on the crime syndicate to Al Capone. Aged only 25, Capone was now one of the most powerful men in Chicago.
Capone as head of Chicago Outfit
Capone soon proved to be a ruthless gang leader. He expanded his business empire through violence and intimidation. A big part of his business was the sale of alcohol, Capone would force businesses to buy alcohol through him. Bars which refused were usually blown up.
“You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”
Al Capone – as quoted in Forbes (6 October 1986).
With profits from the sale of alcohol, racketeering and brothels, Capone paid law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye. With the backing of both money and the threat of violence, he appeared to be above the law. His crime empire stretched from Chicago all the way to Canada – which was the important railroad corridor for illegal alcohol supplies.
Capone also became influential in local Chicago politics. He is said to have helped, with a donation of $250,000, Republican William Hale Thompson to become mayor in 1927. In 1928, Capone was a key figure behind the Pineapple Primary – a political campaign marked by a bloody bombing campaign which included over 62 bombs and the deaths of two politicians.
Despite many deaths associated with Capone’s mafia activities, he became a popular public figure. Capone dressed smartly and wore extravagant jewellery. He was savvy with the media – presenting an image of the smart businessman offering the public what they wanted. Photos of Capone in immaculate pin-stripe suits have become a caricature of the prohibition mobster – frequently depicted in popular culture. Capone also helped promote his image through high profile donations to charity – through charitable donations; he tried to cultivate an image of a modern-day Robin Hood.
However, conflict with other gangs was never far from the surface. Resenting the growing influence and power of Capone, the North Side Gang made an attempt on Capone’s life in 1926.
St Valentine’s Day Massacre 1929
Simmering conflict and rivalry with the North Side Gang, led to the infamous St Valentine’s Day Massacre on 14 February 1929. Under Capone’s orders, Capone’s men dressed up as policemen and got seven members of the North Side Gang to line up against a wall. Then other members came in with sub-machine guns and shot the North Side Gang members dead.
The shocking images of the dead lying against a wall was a tipping point for Capone’s public image. The level of violence turned many against Capone and there was a growing clamour to deal with Capone and gang violence. Capone’s health was also deteriorating; he had put on weight and was suffering from syphilis and gonorrhoea. By 1932, he weighed 250 pounds (110kg) and had damaged his nose through a cocaine addiction. Capone struggled to deal with his decline in fortunes, becoming security conscious and suspicious of everyone.
“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”
– As quoted in How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) by Dale Carnegie, p. 26
Shortly after, in March 1929, Capone was arrested by FBI agents
on charges relating to prohibition. He was later imprisoned for one week on charges of carrying a gun, but the FBI and law officials struggled to get anyone to testify against Capone on more serious charges. However, newspapers were becoming more brazen in challenging Capone, and he was now listed as public enemy number one.
When Capone visited Miami in 1930, the local governor had him arrested on charges of vagrancy, in a deliberate attempt to force him away.
Charges of Tax Evasion
In 1930, Capone’s brother Ralph was successfully convicted of tax evasion on undeclared income. Capone instructed his lawyers to try and regularise his tax status. However, by declaring income of $100,000 in 1928 and 1929, Capone gave prosecutors evidence that he had undeclared income. Rather than doing a deal with Capone, the FBI – under Frank J. Wilson – sought to prosecute Capone for income tax evasion, as well as charges for violation of prohibition.
In November 1931, Capone was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in federal prison. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, but the original conviction was upheld.
After Capone’s high profile conviction, his crime syndicate became lower profile, avoiding the violent publicity of the Capone years, but still running profitable sidelines of racketeering and gambling. Capone’s violent enforcement of bootleg liquor also helped turn the public against prohibition and in 1933, the Volstead Act was overturned.
Capone was sent to Atlanta US jail, where he worked stitching soles on shoes for eight hours a day. His poor health and increasingly erratic mental state meant he struggled to cope. He fell under the protection of a former gang member Red Rudinsky, but Capone was marked out – not as a fearless gang leader, but as weak and vulnerable. There was also suspicion Capone received special favours.
Partly as a result of this and also his lingering infamy, Capone was moved to the newly opened Alcatraz prison off the San Francisco coast. His mental and physical health increasingly frail, he was transferred to a prison hospital where he struggled to maintain normal awareness. He was released on parole in November 1939 and transferred to a hospital specialising in the treatment of syphilis.
Capone never regained his health and spent the years of the Second World War cared for in hospitals and his mansion in Palm Island Florida. In January 1947, he suffered a stroke and contracted pneumonia. He died on 25 January 1948.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Al Capone Biography”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, 11th Jan. 2017.
Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend
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