Wednesday, August 15, 2012

American Gangsters: Al Capone

Born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York, to poor immigrant parents, Al Capone went on to become the most infamous gangster in American history. In 1920 during the height of Prohibition, Capone's multi-million dollar Chicago operation in bootlegging, prostitution and gambling dominated the organized crime scene. Capone was responsible for many brutal acts of violence, mainly against other gangsters. The most famous of these was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, in which he ordered the assassination of seven rivals. Capone was never indicted for his racketeering but was finally brought to justice for income-tax evasion in 1931. After serving six-and-a-half years, Capone was released. He died in 1947 in Miami. Capone's life captured the public imagination, and his gangster persona has been immortalized in the many movies and books inspired by his exploits.


Alphonse Capone (1899–1947) was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of recent Italian immigrants Gabriele and Teresina Capone. A poor family that came to America seeking a better life, the Capones and their eight children lived a typical immigrant lifestyle in a New York tenement. Capone's father was as a barber, and his mother was a seamstress. There was nothing in Capone's childhood or family life that could have predicted his rise to infamy as America’s most notorious gangster.

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 December 30.

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 protégé. 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.

After an attempt on his life in 1925 by rival mobsters, Torrio decided to leave the business and return to Italy, turning over the entire operation to Capone. Scarface again ignored his mentor's advice to maintain a low profile and instead, moved his headquarters to a plush suite in the Metropole Hotel in downtown Chicago. From there, he began living a luxurious and public lifestyle, spending money lavishly, although always in cash to avoid a trail. Newspapers of the time estimated Capone's operations generated $100 million in revenue annually.


The press followed Capone's every move avidly, and he was able to gain public sympathy with his gregarious and generous personality. Some even considered him a kind of Robin Hood figure, or as anti-Prohibition resentment grew, a dissident who worked on the side of the people. However, in later years, as Capone's name increasingly became connected with brutal violence, his popularity waned.


In 1926, when two of Capone's sworn enemies were spotted in Cicero, Capone ordered his men to gun them down. Unbeknownst to Capone, William McSwiggin, known as the "Hanging Prosecutor," who had tried to prosecute him for a previous murder, was with the two marked men and all three were killed. Fed up with Chicago's gang-dominated lawlessness, the public clamored for justice. The police had no evidence for the murders, so instead they raided Capone's businesses, where they gathered documentation that would later be used to bolster charges against him of income-tax evasion. In response, Capone called for a "Peace Conference" among the city's criminals, and an agreement was reached to stop the violence. It lasted just two months.


By early 1929 Capone dominated the illegal liquor trade in Chicago. But other racketeers vied for a piece of the profitable bootlegging business, and among them was Capone's long-time rival "Bugs" Moran. Moran had previously tried to assassinate both Torrio and Capone, and now he was after Capone's top hit man, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn. Capone and McGurn decided to kill Moran. On February 14, 1929, posing as police, McGurn's gunmen assassinated seven of Moran's men in cold blood in a North Side garage. Alerted to the danger as he approached the garage, Bugs Moran escaped the slaughter. Although Capone was staying at his Miami home at the time, the public and the media immediately blamed him for the massacre. He was dubbed “Public Enemy Number One.”


In response to the public outcry over the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, President Herbert Hoover ordered the federal government to step up its efforts to get Capone on income-tax evasion. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1927 that income gained on illegal activities was taxable, which gave the government a strong case for prosecuting Capone. On June 5, 1931 the U.S. government finally indicted Capone on 22 counts of income-tax evasion.

Although the government had solid evidence against him, Capone remained confident that he would get off with a minimal sentence and struck a plea bargain in return for a two-and-a-half year sentence. When the judge in the case declared that he would not honor the agreement, Capone quickly withdrew his guilty plea, and the case went to trial. During the trial Capone used the best weapon in his arsenal: bribery and intimidation. But at the last moment, the judge switched to an entirely new jury. Capone was found guilty and sent to prison for 11 years.


Capone spent the first two years of his incarceration in a federal prison in Atlanta. After he was caught bribing guards, however, Capone was sent to the notorious island prison Alcatraz in 1934. Isolated there from the outside world, he could no longer wield his still considerable influence. Moreover, he began suffering from poor health. Capone had contracted syphilis as a young man, and he now suffered from neurosyphilis, causing dementia. After serving six-and-a-half years, Capone was released in 1939 to a mental hospital in Baltimore, where he remained for three years. His health rapidly declining, Capone lived out his last days in Miami with his wife. He died of cardiac arrest on January 25, 1947.

When Capone died, a New York Times headline trumpeted, "End of an Evil Dream." Capone's was at times both loved and hated by the media and the public. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, some in the public felt that Capone's and others' involvement in selling liquor had been vindicated. But Capone was a ruthless gangster responsible for murdering or ordering the assassinations of scores of people, and his contemptible acts of violence remain at the center of his legacy. Capone's image as a cold-blooded killer and quintessential mobster has lived on long beyond his death in the many films and books inspired by his life as the most notorious gangster in American history.


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 headquarters.

 

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