Al “Scarface” Capone.
Al Capone, born Alphonse Gabriel Capone, is often referred to as the most famous gangster in history. Capone dominated Chicago during the prohibition era; combining a flashy and extravagant persona with the brutality and violence necessary to succeed in the criminal underworld. His enduring notoriety stemmed from the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, an act of bloodshed which horrified America and ultimately led to Capone’s own downfall.
Capone was born in a tough Brooklyn neighbourhood that was home to many Italian immigrants. He quickly became involved in gangs and even in the early days of his criminal career started to form a persona that set him apart from other street punks. Although intelligent Capone was expelled from school at fourteen after hitting a teacher. He held a number of regular jobs in his early years but ultimately devoted himself to the criminal underworld and gangs that were all around him.
In his late teens Capone started work as a doorman in a Coney Island bar owned by the gangster Frankie Yale. While working at the bar Capone made a lewd remark to a woman and was subsequently slashed across the face with a razor by her brother; Frank Gallucio. This left Capone with unsightly scars on the left side of his face. Capone hated the scars and the nickname “Scarface” which resulted from them. Subsequently he always tried to present the right side of his face for photographs.
Capone would work with Yale for another two years. At the end of this time things got too hot for Capone in New York and Yale approached his friend and mentor Johnny Torrio to arrange for Capone to go to Chicago.
Al Capone went to Chicago in 1919. The previous year he had married an Irish girl called Mae. Capone’s wife and son Albert Francis (Sonny) did not accompany him to Chicago, instead Mae, Sonny and the rest of Capone’s family joined him there in 1923 when his criminal career began to take off.
In Chicago Capone worked for Torrio as a bouncer in a brothel and quickly became the manager of The Four Deuces club. Torrio saw and appreciated the combination of brutality and intelligence in the young Al Capone. Violent men were easy to find but a man who could combine a sharp mind with ruthlessness was much more valuable.
Torrio took Al under his wing; even advising him to pay more attention to how he dressed and to lose his Brooklyn accent. Capone took this advice on board, dressing in flamboyant suits and earning the nickname “Snorky” which means “snappy dresser” or “elegant”. He also cultivated an appreciation for music, particularly opera. Capone used this extravagance combined with great generosity to achieve fame in Chicago and was regularly photographed by the press.
When prohibition came into effect in 1920 Torrio saw the opportunity to make vast amounts of money by manufacturing and distributing alcohol. Torrio had strong business acumen and wanted to apply this to what he saw as a great business opportunity. Torrio asked his boss, “Big Jim” Colosimo to expand from supplying his own establishments with illegal booze to bootlegging. The recently married Colosimo refused, he did not want the additional risk and felt satisfied with his life and level of wealth as it was. This decision proved fatal for Colosimo. In 1920 he was shot in his own café, no one was ever arrested for the crime but it is likely that Capone was the assailant.
Chicago’s criminal underworld now became dominated by the “Chicago Outfit”, run under the authority of Torrio with Al Capone as his right hand man.
South Side vs North Side.
Capone and Torrio were based in the “South Side” of Chicago. The “North Side”, highly lucrative bootlegging territory, was controlled by the “North Side Gang” run by Dean O’Banion, better known as Dion O’Banion.
Tensions between the two gangs gradually escalated over the 1920s. At one point O’Banion tricked Torrio by offering to sell him a distillery. In reality the police were alerted and Torrio arrested, since Torrio had a previous conviction for bootlegging he went to jail for nearly a year and O’Banion never paid back the money he made from the fake deal.
Torrio was furious but Mike Merlo, head of the Unione Siciliana, urged that peace be maintained. When Merlo died in 1924 his restraining influence over the underworld was gone. Before Merlo was even buried Capone had Frankie Yale and two associates come in from New York and assassinate O’Banion in his north side flower shop. The death of O’Banion resulted in all out gang war. As well as the resentment between the two gangs a border war also erupted with the two sides challenging each other’s territory.
The North Side gang was now led by Hymie Weiss. Along with Vincent Drucci and Bugs Moran Weiss carried out an assassination attempt on Johnny Torrio in 1925. Torrio survived but, deeply shaken, he decided to retire while he still could and passed the leadership of the South Side gang to Al Capone who, at twenty-six years of age, now became one of the youngest mob bosses of all time.
At this time the use of the Thompson submachine gun became common on the streets of Chicago. Originally brought into the city by the North Side gang it now became so closely associated with the Chicago criminal underworld that it gained the nickname “the Chicago typewriter”.
Ultimately Capone succeeded in having Weiss assassinated in 1926. Leadership of the North Side gang now passed to Drucci who was killed a few months later in a clash with police. Bugs Moran, the only remaining top level member of the North Side gang, took over. After the assassination of one of his close friends Capone decided to devastate the North Side gang in one master swoop and take over the much desired territory Moran controlled. This plan would be the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.
Saint Valentines Day Massacre.
On February fourteenth 1929 Moran and some of his men responded to an offer to meet a hijacker selling cut-price alcohol. This invitation was a hoax organised by Capone. Once all the men were inside the warehouse they were ambushed by a group of men disguised as police officers. Having no particular fear of police officers Moran’s men handed over their guns without fighting and lined up against a wall in the warehouse. At this point gunmen in plain clothes armed with Thompson submachine guns entered the warehouse and opened fire.
Only one man was not killed on the scene, dying a short time later in hospital. For many years the public had maintained the mantra that gangsters killing gangsters was acceptable so long as the carnage did not spill over onto ordinary people. Lurid images of the massacre challenged that perception. Photographs of the gore and blood horrified people and public opinion towards Capone and gangs in general shifted. Some of the seven dead men had been cut almost in half by machine gun fire.
Bugs Moran was not actually killed in the attack. When walking to the warehouse he had spotted the police car being used by the killers and, fearing a real raid was in progress, he walked away from the building again. After the massacre Moran controlled the North Side gang until the repeal of prohibition when much of his organisation diminished. He left Chicago and after some years of involvement in petty crime he would ultimately die in prison and be buried, with barely a dollar to his name, in the prison cemetery.
The St. Valentine’s Day gunmen were never arrested but it was widely accepted that the man who ordered the massacre had to be Al Capone and the government now decided to move against him. There was very little chance of convicting Capone of any crime he had masterminded. Instead the federal government decided to focus on the gap between Capone’s lavish lifestyle and his modest declared income.
A few months after the massacre the Great Depression took hold in America and Capone opened up soup kitchens without which many people would have gone hungry or even starved. Despite this Capone’s generous, flamboyant image was irrevocably tarnished.
In 1930 after the murder of a building contractor’s superintendent was killed a group eventually referred to as the “Secret Six” formed with the aim to unify Chicago businessmen against Al Capone. Little is known of their activities but they acquired information and provided financial backing to the tax evasion case being built against Capone.
In 1931 Capone was indicted. His attempts to have jury members bribed or intimidated were thwarted by Eliot Ness and his task force known as “The Untouchables” because of their insusceptibility to corruption or influence. Ness had painstakingly picked the members of his team for this strong sense of integrity. Since one of Capone’s main advantages had been a wide network of corrupt officials and law enforcement officers this was a highly effective play against the gangster.
Capone was found guilty and given a sentence of eleven years, this was very long in relation to the crimes he was actually being sentenced for. Capone originally managed to acquire special privileges while staying in Atlanta U.S Penitentiary but in 1934 he was sent to the infamous Alcatraz where his attempts to bribe and manipulate guards were unsuccessful. Prohibition ended in 1933, dealing a heavy blow to Capone’s organisation and forcing it to restructure.
While at Alcatraz Capone developed tertiary syphilis. He had contracted the disease years earlier from his frequent liaisons with prostitutes and the condition now spread to his brain and caused dementia. This weakening physical and mental state led to his early release in 1939. Capone then lived in Miami until his death in 1947 of a heart attack, he was forty-eight years old. He is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Illinois, the same resting place as his former rivals; Dean O’Banion and Hymie Weiss.
Author : Stefanina Hill