Al Capone - American Gangster Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Al Capone - American Gangster

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You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.
- Al Capone

Al Capone was a US gangster. He was born Alphonsus Capone on 17 January, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Italian immigrants Gabriel and Theresa Capone, and he had six brothers and two sisters. The family lived in a cramped block of flats close to Brooklyn Navy Yard and was law abiding. However, when Al Capone dropped out of school at the age of 12, it was clear that being law abiding was the last thing on his mind. He joined a notorious street gang belonging to Johnny Torrio, called the Five Points Gang.

When he was 18, Capone took a job as a bouncer at the Harvard Inn on Coney Island with another criminal called Frankie Yale. It was while doing this job that he sustained injuries that were to leave his face scarred. He apparently insulted the sister of a drunk called Frank Gallucio, who then struck Capone. It was after this that he got the nickname 'Scarface'.

A year later, an event happened that could have changed the way Capone was living his life: he had a son called Albert Francis (Sonny) with a woman called Mary (Mae) Coughlin, and married her soon after. However, having a son did not stop Capone from committing crimes and he soon killed an Irish 'White Hand' gang member.

Meanwhile, Torrio had moved to Chicago and joined forces with the gangster James Colosimo (also known as Big Jim). On hearing what had happened in Brooklyn, Torrio felt that Capone should join him in Chicago.

Prohibition and Business

Prohibition has made nothing but trouble.
- Al Capone

In 1919, Capone joined Torrio in Chicago. A year later, Prohibition - brought in by the 18th Amendment (to the US constitution) - came into force, banning people from making, transporting and selling alcohol. There are a number of reasons why this law was deemed necessary, including:

  • The USA had entered World War I.
  • It was believed alcohol would lower the morale of the people.
  • Religious beliefs stated that drinking alcohol was wrong.
  • An organisation known as the Anti-Saloon League, which had a firm grip on US politics at the time, also felt alcohol damaged society.

Despite the ban, people still wanted to drink. This gave the gangsters the opportunity to make large sums of money by supplying illegally obtained alcohol. It was called 'bootlegging' and the drinking dens they set up were known as 'speakeasies'.

The gangs ran gambling and prostitution businesses, too, but would also enter into legitimate trades such as cleaning and dyeing. So on the face of it they appeared to be law-abiding citizens. They were even popular among employees' associations, labour unions, and public officials.

Leader of a Gang

In 1920, Big Jim was shot, and died leaving his gang in the hands of Torrio. Capone was paid $75 a week as Torrio's right-hand man. He also became the most wanted criminal in Chicago and, when his boss became badly injured from an assassination attempt, Capone took over. Capone's mob had a firm foothold in Chicago, but was not without its rivals, such as Bugs Moran and his clan.

By 1928, the New Yorker magazine named Capone 'the greatest gang leader in history'. He was suspected to be the man behind most of the murders in Chicago. However, it was difficult to prove this. The legal businesses he ran always left him with an air of respectability that hid the real truth. He gave the impression that he was a gentleman who gave jobs to the poor (despite them being the bootlegging business), and he had a family and house; he led his neighbours to believe he was a second-hand furniture dealer.

As leader of the gang, he appeared to love the attention that people in the area gave him. Every time he was jailed in Miami, his celebrity status grew. He even went as far as hiring himself a press agent soon after an infamous event on 14 February, 1929. That day saw the climax of the rival gangs' (belonging to Capone and Bugs Moran) battle to sell illegal alcohol during the Prohibition Era. The 'St Valentines Day Massacre' saw seven members of the Bugs Moran gang killed by machine gun in a garage in Chicago. The massacre was believed to have been carried out by Capone's henchmen, but their leader was in another US state at the time of the incident.

Capone Caught Out

In May, 1929, Capone was sentenced to a year in prison for concealing deadly weapons in Philadelphia. He was in jail almost a year, while, unbeknown to him, Herbert Hoover was elected president and the IRS Special Intelligence Unit began finding evidence that would put Capone in jail for much longer. The unit believed Capone was evading paying his taxes and his home on Palm Island, Miami, supported this claim. At the same time, lawman Eliott Ness set up an elite group that were to become known as the Untouchables - because the men he chose could not be bought or bribed, nor could they be influenced by any of the corrupt police that were in the pay of the gangs. His primary task was to bring down the gangster's illegal empire.

Meanwhile, Capone was showing signs of good behaviour inside jail, and was released a few months earlier than first expected. He returned to his home in Miami, where he heard that the Chicago Crime Commission had taken to referring to him as 'Public Enemy Number 1'.

He continued bootlegging in Miami, but at the same time hosted several 'goodwill dinners' and pretended that his time in jail had changed him into a law abiding citizen. Those who came to the dinners did not believe him, though, and were proved right when Capone and most of his gang were charged with 5,000 counts of tax evasion. Of these, Capone was held to account for over 22, and sentenced to jail on 17 October, 1931, for 11 years.

Al in Alcatraz

He was imprisoned in Cook County Jail initially, but, as the trial judge had refused bail, Capone was transferred to the US penitentiary in Atlanta on 4 May, 1932 and fined over $50,000. Despite being behind bars, it was possible for him continue running his business. And he received privileges from the guards, as he kept a large amount of money in his cell and would tip them off. However, in 1934 his luxuries and business were taken away from him for good as he was transferred to Alcatraz. Capone was the 85th prisoner and occupied cell B-206.

During his time in prison, confinement and paresis derived from syphilis, which he had contracted before his marriage and unknowingly passed on to his son, took their toll. By 1938, he was showing signs of dementia associated with syphilis and, having paid back all the taxes and fines he owed, it was decided he should be released.

He left Alcatraz on 16 November, 1939 and was quickly admitted to a hospital in Baltimore for brain treatment. On leaving hospital he returned to his home in Miami, where he spent his time living a reclusive lifestyle with his close family until his death on 25 January, 1947, from a stroke and pneumonia.

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