Alphonse Capone, (Alfonso Capone in Italian) known as Al Capone, born in Brooklyn (New York) on January 17, 1899 and died in Miami Beach (Florida) on January 25, 1947, is one of the most famous American gangsters of the twentieth century. Nicknamed “Scarface”, he made his fortune in bootlegging during Prohibition in the 1920s.
Of Italian origin and godfather of the Chicago Outfit from 1925 to 1931, Al Capone contributed greatly to the emergence of the Mafia system, using corruption of police officers, the judiciary, political figures, as well as physical threats to avoid prosecution witnesses, and not hesitating to resort to assassination. His criminal activities were targeted by the federal government after the Valentine”s Day Massacre, a killing aimed at his main rivals in Chicago. His business is plagued by the intervention of the Incorruptibles, a group of police officers under the leadership of Treasury Agent Eliot Ness. Having escaped trial until then, however, thanks to his organization”s control of law enforcement, he is finally arrested thanks to the investigation of Internal Revenue Service Special Agent Frank J. Wilson. Judge James Herbert Wilkerson sentenced him on October 24, 1931 to 17 years in prison, of which 11 years were firm.
An emblematic figure in the rise of organized crime in the United States during Prohibition, he helped give Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s its reputation as a lawless city. Al Capone became the archetype of the gangster. His myth developed with Howard Hawks” Scarface in 1932, which earned him a somewhat overrated reputation, with the legend sometimes exceeding reality.
Children and youth
His parents are originally from Naples. Fleeing the misery of their native country, they will like many of their compatriots try their luck hoping to achieve the American dream. His father Gabriele (born on December 12, 1864 and died on November 14, 1920), was a barber in the Italian town of Castellammare di Stabia. He first became a cashier in a grocery store and then succeeded in opening a barber shop that also served as a barber. His mother, Teresa Capone (born Raiola on December 28, 1867 and died on November 29, 1952), Catholic and very religious, spent her childhood in the town of Angri in the province of Salerno and then became a seamstress. They arrived in New York in 1893 with two small children and a third to come (Salvatore, renamed Frank). Al was the fourth of nine siblings (his younger siblings were Amadeo, renamed John, Umberto, renamed Albert, Matthew, Rose and Mafalda), almost all of whom followed him in his criminal activities.
Capone”s family emigrated briefly to Canada, before returning to New York City in 1894 to live in a dilapidated apartment in the Brooklyn borough of 95 Navy Street, near the New York Navy Yard. Alphonse Capone moved several times with his family during his childhood, but always stayed in New York. Gabriele Capone became a naturalized American citizen in 1906. Despite a good start in Catholic parochial schools for immigrants with strict discipline, Alphonse left school at 14 after hitting a teacher. His family moved to 21 Garfield Place, and one of his neighbors, Johnny Torrio, a mob boss, No. 2 of the Five Points Gang, who controlled the Italian neighborhood lottery as well as several brothels and gambling dens, and for whom young Al had already accomplished small “missions”, became his mentor.
As a teenager, he did odd jobs (shoe shine boy, candy store clerk, paper cutter) and joined small neighborhood gangs that engaged in theft, racketeering and illegal gambling: the Brooklyn Rippers, the Forty Thieves Juniors, the Bowery Boys and, of course, the notorious Five Points Gang. Torrio left for Chicago in 1909, going to help his uncle by marriage Big Jim Colosimo develop his gang in Chicago. He left Five Points in the hands of Frankie Yale, who hired Capone as a bartender and bouncer at his bar, the Harvard Inn (de), which he ran on Coney Island. Al Capone was then 18 years old.
During an argument with a client, Franck Gallaccio, a local mobster, whose sister he had inadvertently insulted at the door of a nightclub where he was one of the bouncers, he had his left cheek slashed with a razor. His three scars earned him the nickname Scarface. When he was photographed, Capone hid the left side of his face and claimed that his scars were war wounds. Capone apologized to Gallaccio at Yale”s request and later made him his bodyguard.
On December 30, 1918, he married a woman of Irish origin named Mae Coughlin (born in 1897 and died in 1986) of whom he had just had a son, Albert Francis Capone (the latter”s godfather was Johnny Torrio. Wanting a respectable job for his family, he moved to Baltimore where he found a job as an accountant for the construction firm of Peter Aiello.
The Chicago Outfit
Al Capone”s father died on November 14, 1920 of heart disease at the age of fifty-five. According to Laurence Bergreen, his father”s death also put an end to Al Capone”s legitimate activities. The sudden disappearance of parental authority coincided in any case with the abandonment of his career as an accountant. Torrio contacted him, telling him that Chicago was almost free (he had just taken over his uncle”s organization after having him murdered), and he invited him to join him there. It was in Chicago that Capone, collaborating with Torrio, began his rise to the highest levels of organized crime.
When Al Capone arrived, Torrio”s organization was already a very profitable business, bringing in $10 million a year through beer, gambling and prostitution. The gang numbered between 700 and 800 men. Al Capone started at the bottom of the ladder as a flirt at the entrance to a brothel. It was probably there that he met Jake Guzik, a member of a Jewish family involved in pimping. They quickly became friends, and Guzik became the “treasurer” of the organization. In 1922, Capone, having thus shown his good disposition, became Torrio”s right-hand man. He was joined by his brother Ralph. Al Capone became the boss of the “Four-Two”, and an associate of Torrio. He received a salary of $25,000 per year. In 1923, driven by the election of William E. Dever, an uncooperative mayor who had shut down 7,000 speakeasies, Torrio and Capone moved their headquarters from the Four-Two to the Hawthorne Inn in Cicero, in the suburbs of Chicago, and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the mayor of Chicago.
The area was dominated by the Western Electric plant, which employed 40,000 people and paid well. So the population had plenty of money to spend in Al Capone”s betting shops and bars. But Cicero was also home to a large Czech community, accustomed to the bohemian beer supplied by the O”Donnells on the West Side. The O”Donnells have not joined Torrio”s organization, and consider Cicero part of their territory. Without informing them, which basic professional “courtesy” would have dictated, Torrio tested the extent of their power by setting up a brothel on Roosevelt Road. The local police, at the request of the O”Donnells, promptly shut it down, as the O”Donnells disapproved of prostitution. They allowed gambling, but only in the form of slot machines, controlled by a local elected official named Eddie Vogel. Torrio, in revenge for the closing of his brothel, sends the Cook County Sheriff to confiscate Vogel”s slot machines. Torrio then arranges a meeting with Vogel and the O”Donnells and negotiates a truce.
The machines are then returned, and Torrio agrees not to open brothels in Cicero. He allowed the O”Donnells to continue distributing beer in certain parts of the city. In exchange, the Syndicate was allowed to sell beer in the rest of the city, and to open casinos and cabarets wherever they wanted. Having gained a foothold in Cicero, Torrio left the business in Al Capone”s care and returned to Italy with his mother and a few million dollars. He buys a villa for the old woman, puts the rest of the money in an Italian bank, and heads back to Chicago.
Rise of Al Capone
In 1925, Torrio was seriously wounded in a shootout and decided to retire to his native Italy, leaving Capone in charge for good. The ruthless war that Capone waged against his adversaries Bugs Moran and Hymie Weiss, as well as the establishment of organized corruption of the local authorities under his rule, brought him international fame. In 1925, Al Capone”s “reign” over Chicago began.
The American Mafia (led mostly by Italian-Americans) emerges in power in major U.S. cities thanks to Prohibition. In 1919, the American Senate voted in favor of Amendment 18 to the American Constitution. It is with the objective of reducing alcoholism, increasing productivity in factories and reducing rapes that Prohibition comes into force on January 17, 1920. The name of the amendment is the “Volstead Act”, named after the representative of Minnesota Andrew J. Volstead, its promoter.
Alcoholism was a huge problem in 19th century America and in Europe, since the democratization of distillation in the early 18th century. Seeking to combat this scourge, temperance leagues were set up from 1824 onwards. The Women”s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), founded in 1893, turned the movement into a nationwide political force, supporting candidates with clearly stated anti-alcohol views in local and national elections. The WCT, and later the ASL, were very effective in their attacks on the sale of alcohol to the public. The ASL raises substantial funds in churches throughout the country. Many prominent industrialists, such as John Davison Rockefeller and Henry Ford, supported the Prohibition movement. The liquor industry severely underestimated public support for prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed on January 16, 1919, when two-thirds of the U.S. states voted in favor of Prohibition. This amendment became law on January 17, 1920, with the Volstead Executive Order of 1919 authorizing the IRS to enforce the amendment. The golden age of American-style gangsterism could begin. Suddenly, criminals were given access to the lucrative liquor smuggling market.
Al Capone, master of Cicero
The first challenge Capone faced was to take over the town of Cicero, which bordered Chicago. The opportunity arose in the 1924 municipal election between Democrat Rudolph Hurt and Republican Joseph Z. Klenha. The election took place on April 1. Al Capone put all the weight of the Syndicate in the balance to favor Klenha. He moved his entire family to Chicago, and his brothers Ralph and Frank, along with his cousin Charly Fischetti, helped campaign hard for Klenha and the other gang-supported candidates. They were assisted by 200 henchmen who were set up around polling places to terrorize voters. In traditionally Democratic districts, they even empty ballot boxes and stuff them with their candidate”s ballots.
The violence of these operations and the rumor of the fraud reached the county judge, Edmund J. Jarecki, who deployed a force of 70 police officers, in plain clothes and unmarked cars, with orders to go to Cicero to look for those responsible. The first person they see as they pass the power plant is Frank Capone, Al”s brother. They hit the brakes and get out of their vehicles. Believing it to be an attack by a rival gang, Frank tries to draw his gun, but is literally cut in half by the discharge of several guns. The police empty their weapons on his body and leave him there. Frank Capone was 29 years old. The gang gave him a beautiful funeral, in a silver-plated casket, and the little Capone house on South Prairie Avenue was decorated with $20,000 worth of flowers. With Klenha elected, Al Capone was now the master of Cicero.
Al Capone”s empire
Al Capone then built a veritable empire. The base of operations was the Hawthorne Inn, at 4833 22nd Street in Cicero. The attack that cost Frank Capone his life resulted in the securing of the place: armed men stood guard in the lobby, armored shutters were put on the windows. Al Capone now controlled 161 speakeasies and 150 gambling dens in Cicero. One of them, the Hawthorne Smoke Shop, located in the Hawthorne Inn, brought in $50,000 a day. He also owns 22 brothels, no longer feeling bound by the O”Donnell agreement. These are last-rate establishments where girls used to sell for five dollars and customers wait on wooden benches. The turnover of Al Capone”s empire was around $120 million a year, but the operating costs were high. Bribes to the police alone account for 30 million. Despite this, the profits were still colossal. The men working for Capone earned about $250 a week. Compared to Western Electric employees, they were rich. Al Capone, at age 25, was wearing $5,000 suits.
He continued to prosper for years, eliminating several opponents such as Dion O”Banion (1924) and Hymie Weiss (1926), leaders of the Irish mafia of the North Side gang. From 1925 to 1932, at the height of Prohibition, Al Capone was the boss of the vice industry in Chicago. Thanks to the operation of Speakeasies (speakeasies), slot machines, brothels, nightclubs, fishmongers and butcher shops and his activities in the underworld, he amassed an immense fortune, according to federal estimates, the turnover of his gang reached 120 million USD at the time, the equivalent of 1.5 billion USD in 2011. His methods of intimidation are such that, due to the lack of witnesses against him, he is never prosecuted, even for notorious crimes.
In 1927, following the trial of Sullivan, a gangster operating in the sale of illicit liquor, against the U.S. Attorney”s Office, the Supreme Court passed a law authorizing the IRS to tax the income from the illicit sale of liquor as it would any other income. The law quickly became a powerful weapon against traffickers. They can now be sent to jail for tax evasion if they don”t declare all their income. But if they do report it, they are admitting their involvement in illegal activities. The U.S. Attorney”s Office in Chicago estimated that Capone”s organization had $105 million in sales from bootlegging, gambling, pimping and racketeering, none of which was taxed. Al Capone had a very expensive lifestyle and often used false identities. This made it difficult to charge him.
The Valentine”s Day Massacre
In 1929, Al Capone controlled the entire city of Chicago except for the North Side, which was under the control of the North Side gang, now led by Bugs Moran. Al Capone, who coveted control of the city and had several assassination attempts made against him, set up an operation, probably devised by Jack McGurn, to eliminate Bugs Moran and key members of the gang. Capone left Chicago for Florida, leaving McGurn in charge of the plan, and he created a perfect alibi for himself. Moran”s headquarters was the SMS Cartage Company garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Al Capone had to be certain that Moran and his men were all together before he could act. To set up the trap, he asked a Detroit cargo robber to offer to sell Moran a truckload of bootleg whiskey (from Canada). Moran agrees to buy it and asks to have the truck brought to the garage at 10:30 a.m. on February 14, Valentine”s Day.
At the appointed hour, instead of the truck, three men wearing Chicago Police uniforms and carrying Thompson submachine guns showed up, accompanied by two men in civilian clothes. Their car passes through the garage door. There are seven people there, six gang members and a respectable Chicago eye doctor, whose only crime is that he likes to hang out with gangsters. The gang members are not overly concerned, thinking it”s just a police raid. They are ordered to line up facing the wall. Then the “cops” (actually Capone”s men) open fire, killing them all. Ballistics experts later found between 80 and 100 .45 caliber bullets. Bugs Moran, the leader of the clan targeted by the attack but who, miraculously, was not at the scene at the time of the massacre, declared: “Only Capone kills people like that. That was the end of the Northside gang and Al Capone reigned supreme in Chicago. Unlike most other gang leaders, he not only sold liquor illegally, but had those who did not submit to his power killed.
The Valentine”s Day massacre had an immediate impact and demonstrated the violence of Al Capone who, until then, had enjoyed the good image of someone who claimed to be fighting on behalf of the people against the excesses of prohibition. He appears as the greatest threat to society and becomes public enemy number 1.
The false arrest of Public Enemy No. 1 and the popular demonstrations against prohibition and the Mafia
A false arrest of Al Capone (in itself the very first arrest of which he was the target) was arranged. In order to calm public opinion following the publicity of the Valentine”s Day Massacre, it was decided to give him a sentence of at least one year. Al Capone agreed to this “shelter”, as he had already been the subject of several murder attempts by his competitors, and there were still many “contracts” against him. Al Capone and Hoff, the chief of a Chicago police station, agree on an indictment for carrying an illegal weapon. Sentenced to nine months in prison in August 1929 in the Eastern State Penitentiary, he had his cell fitted out in a luxurious way (carpeting and antique furniture). He was released after ten months in prison. Each policeman who arrested Capone received $10,000 for his capture.
Several anti-prohibition demonstrations took place and public opinion, following the Valentine”s Day massacre, changed in the face of the mafia. Before the massacre, the crime syndicates enjoyed a significant popularity. Providing people with alcohol despite Prohibition, they had popular support. But the bloody massacre shocked public opinion. Anti-prohibition and anti-mafia demonstrations followed one another.
In 1930, as the repeal of Prohibition loomed, an associate of Capone”s, Murray Humphreys (en), suggested another source of income. He noticed that the margins on milk were higher than on bootleg whiskey and that the market was larger, since children consumed it. Al Capone likes this idea. Humphreys had the president of the local milk delivery union kidnapped and used the $50,000 ransom money to set up his own delivery company – Meadowmoor Dairies – and undermine the competition by employing non-union drivers. Prices fall, and Meadowmoor gains a de facto monopoly on the market.
The heyday of Al Capone
At 31, Al Capone is the most powerful man in Chicago. With his income from racketeering and pimping, he was able to corrupt Chicago”s police, judges and politicians. This was the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s. All over the country, companies went bankrupt and huge sums of money were swallowed up by the stock market, which collapsed on October 24, 1929, dragging the financial markets of the whole world with it. At the beginning of 1931, as the crisis worsened, thousands of unemployed people found themselves in the streets of Chicago. Al Capone seized the opportunity to combat his image as public enemy number one and opened a soup kitchen on South State Street during the winter months. On Thanksgiving Day, he fed over 5,000 people. This show of goodwill helped to improve his image among the American people.
Eliot Ness and Frank Wilson against Al Capone
A small group of Chicago businessmen, who did not want publicity (they were called “The Secret Six”), asked President Herbert Hoover to fight against the Al Capone gang, which was harming the economic development of Chicago and was in danger of getting out of control. President Hoover, who was highly criticized at the time because of the misery resulting from the 1929 crisis, saw this as a way to raise the public”s esteem and asked his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to arrest Al Capone. However, the economic depression was such that the federal government could no longer afford to put thousands of investigators on the case.
Two actions, funded by the Secret Six, are launched:
The end of Al Capone
On June 5, 1931, Al Capone was indicted for tax evasion; the indictment was 3,680 typed pages long and he was charged with 21 counts of tax evasion and Prohibition violations. Al Capone made a huge mistake: he had a tax lawyer, but his fees were too high, so he replaced him with two lawyers he knew well, but who were not used to tax procedures. The attorneys, hoping to get their client off the hook by paying some or all of the money owed, plead guilty in the belief that he will get off easy, but Judge James Herbert Wilkerson denies the attorneys” request, saying that this procedure is impossible in federal court. The lawyers changed their strategy once and Al Capone pleaded guilty in exchange for a 30-month prison sentence.
Frank Wilson, worried about the resistance of his witnesses, tries to convince the judge to accept this agreement. Al Capone was very confident and told his friends the good news. But the judge refuses the guilty plea and sends Al Capone and his lawyers back to a jury. The trial of “Public Enemy No. 1″ began on October 6, 1931 and thousands of people came to court to watch. The lawyers changed their strategy a second time, and Al Capone finally pleaded not guilty. The judge suspected an attempt to suborn the jury and decided at the last moment to swap it with another case, which the judge selected for its great severity in previous cases. Frank Wilson tried to show that the defendant”s lifestyle did not correspond to his income. He feared that the defense lawyers would ask and obtain that the main piece of evidence in the indictment, the account book of the “Hawthorne Smoke Shop”, be declared inadmissible because of the statute of limitations, since the taxes concerned should have been paid in 1924, that is to say, seven years earlier. But the lawyers Al Capone had chosen were not specialized in tax proceedings and did not know about the statute of limitations. Al Capone thus missed his only chance to escape conviction.
Eliot Ness submitted 5,000 violations of the laws to the court, but the prosecution chose to prosecute Al Capone on the tax side and at no time asked the Treasury agent to take the stand. He was nevertheless present on October 17, 1931 when the jury found Al Capone guilty on five counts from Frank Wilson”s file. On October 24, 1931, Judge Wilkerson sentenced Al Capone to 17 years in prison, of which 11 years were firm, a $50,000 fine, and $30,000 in court costs. Eight days before his arrest, he distributed to his main lieutenants checks from $4,500 to $327,000.
Bail was denied and Al Capone was first transferred to Cook County Jail and then, after his appeal was denied, transferred on May 4, 1932 to Atlanta State Prison, from where he continued to run his business. Placed in custody on August 19, 1934 in the federal prison of Alcatraz, he was subjected to a more severe regime and placed in solitary confinement, including in a dungeon for trying to bribe a guard, thus eliminating all his opportunities for action. With the end of Prohibition and the absence of its leader, the “Empire” that Al Capone had built declined under the leadership of Frank Nitti, but remained unstoppable and endured.
Al Capone had contracted syphilis in his youth, and his condition worsened in prison, evolving into neurosyphilis which deteriorated his physical and mental health. Penicillin treatment did not exist at the time, so the doctors at the penitentiary center practiced malariatherapy on Capone. After being stabbed in the back by a fellow inmate, he was sent on January 6, 1939 to Terminal Island, near Los Angeles, then transferred to Lewisburg Prison on November 13 to be returned to his family: he was released on conditions on November 16, 1939. On January 21, 1947, at his Palm Island property in Miami Beach, Al Capone suffered a stroke that caused him to lose consciousness. Three days later, in a coma, he contracted pneumonia. He died the next day, January 25, 1947, of cardiac arrest. Al Capone was first buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago, next to his father Gabriele and his brother Frank. But in March 1950, his ashes were transferred to Mount Carmel (Hillside) Cemetery near Chicago, where many gangsters are buried.
When Al Capone arrived in Chicago in 1921, the city was a hodgepodge of gangs of different origins fighting for territory. Ten years later, when he was sent to prison, the situation had changed. When Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933 by the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the old gangs were gone, absorbed by Al Capone”s organization. The authorities and the American people believed that by eliminating Capone and confining him to Alcatraz, his gang would collapse, whereas the new godfather of the Chicago Outfit was none other than his lieutenant Frank Nitti. The press portrayed the gangster as a criminal genius, solely responsible for the political corruption and violence that gripped the city at the time. Of course, Al Capone established a model of hierarchy in criminal organizations, but when he died, his organization did not disappear. Al Capone built the Torrio organization into a modern enterprise that would outlive its creators. Prohibition allowed him to amass enough money to create and diversify a network linking him to other criminal groups in New York, New Jersey, Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City, Canada and the Caribbean, all of which were involved to varying degrees in the production and logistics of alcohol smuggling, and whose activities continue into the 21st century.
Frank Wilson became from 1937 to 1946 the director of the US Secret Service, and thus responsible for the security of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Eliot Ness became director of public safety in Cleveland at the end of Prohibition in 1935 and then worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C. He resigned in 1944 to found a security company in Ohio, Diebold Corporation. He resigned in 1944 to found a security company in Ohio, Diebold Corporation.
On April 21, 1986, 181 television stations around the world broadcast live the opening of Al Capone”s vault in the basement of the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, the headquarters of his organization, thinking they would discover the gangster”s loot never recovered by the American tax authorities. The mystery of Al Capone”s vault, so widely publicized, leads to… an empty room.
In 2021, an auction of Al Capone”s belongings brought in over $3.1 million. The most popular item was his favorite pistol, which sold for $860,000, among other items, such as personal photographs as well as jewelry and furniture.
Al Capone is without a doubt the most famous and “popular” American gangster of the 20th century. He has been the subject of numerous articles, books and films. He also directly inspired the character of Tony Camonte, alias “Scarface”, who gave his name to the novel by Armitage Trail, which was later made into a film twice.
Al Capone and the Untouchables
For the general public, it was the “Untouchables” and their leader, Eliot Ness, who were responsible for Capone”s downfall. The publication in 1957 of the book The Untouchables by journalist Oscar Fraley, 200 pages written from Eliot Ness” 21 pages of notes and press clippings, embellishes their role. Fraley writes: “We have to stray from the truth now and then, we have to make a successful book and after all, we have poetic license. It is this book that will be the basis of the homonymous film by Brian de Palma in 1987. Eliot Ness will only receive 300 USD for his collaboration with Oscar Fraley, with whom he will fall out because of the many inaccuracies in his book.
Frank Wilson, whose investigation brought down Al Capone, will never attract media attention, while Eliot Ness, who was not called to testify at the trial, will become famous and will be presented by Hollywood movies as Al Capone”s killer.
Prince Buster released the song Al Capone in 1967. Reworked by The Specials, it was re-recorded in 1979 and renamed Gangster.
Al Capone”s name appears in the song Stone Cold Crazy by the band Queen in their third album Sheer Heart Attack released in 1974.
Michael Jackson recorded a song called Al Capone, a demo of the track Smooth Criminal that can be found on the album Bad 25.
The Yugoslavian band Riblja Čorba wrote, composed and performed the song Al Kapone, in their album Koza Nostra, released in 1990.
Al Capone is a protagonist opposed to Blackbeard in an Epic Rap Battles of History, season 3 (2010).
The interpreters of Al Capone in the movies are numerous: in particular Stephen Graham, Wallace Beery, Rod Steiger, Neville Brand, Jason Robards, Robert De Niro, Ben Gazzara, Tom Hardy and Paul Muni.
On television, the “legend” of Al Capone is one of the themes of the Incorruptibles series, begun in 1959, which gave rise to the myth of a personal rivalry between the “Scarface” and the Incorruptible Eliot Ness.
Al Capone is one of the rare historical characters to make an appearance in an album of Hergé : Tintin in America.