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Alphonse “Scarface Al” Capone

(1899-1947)
Chicago Crime Leader

Al Capone

His name – Al Capone – is synonymous worldwide with “Chicago gangster.” There were men who did far more than Al Capone to foster organized crime in America, but his remains Public Enemy Number One.

To become that, Capone had to achieve a certain metamorphosis of character and personality. It goes with the territory in bigtime crime. Unless a gangster can make this transition he almost certainly is doomed to fall, more often than not to the underworld itself, since the mob always demands a high standard of its leaders than it does of itself.

By instinct Capone was a heartless, mindless murderer. The gun, young Capone believed, solved all. Yet by the time he was 26 Capone was transformed from a mindless killer into a shrewd criminal executive, bossing an enormous payroll and charged with keeping criminal rewards flowing. At that tender age he had become the most powerful crime boss of the time and he could – and did – boast he “owned” Chicago.

At the zenith of its power the Capone organization numbered upward of 1,000 members, most of them experienced gunmen. Yet this represented only a portion of Capone’s strength. “I own the police,” Capone announced, and that was gospel. Only a naïve observer of the Chicago scene would have concluded that anywhere less than half of the city’s police was on the Capone payroll. The payoff proportion for politicians was undoubtedly higher since their value to the mob was greater. Capone had “in his pocket” aldermen, state’s attorneys, mayors, legislators, governors and even congressmen.

The Capone organization’s domination of Chicago approached the absolute; in such suburban areas as Cicero, Illinois, it was total. When Capone wanted a big vote he got the vote; when he wanted to control the election returns, he unleashed his gangster-animals to intimidate and terrorize voters by the thousand. Politicians Capone put in power were expected to deliver upon demand. Once the mayor of Cicero, in an inexplicable exercise of independence, actually took an action without first clearing it with Scarface. Capone seized His Honor on the steps of City Hall and proceeded to kick and punch him to a pulp. All the while a very embarrassed police officer worked very hard at averting his gaze.

The fourth of nine children of immigrant parents from Naples, Al Capone was born in 1899 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He attended school through the sixth grade when he proceeded to beat up his teacher, was in turn beaten by the principal and then quit school for good. After that, he learned “street smarts,” especially through a tough outfit of teenagers called the James Street Gang. Run by an older criminal, Johnny Torrio, James Street was a youthful subsidiary of the notorious Five Points Gang to which Capone later graduated. Among his closest friends, in school and in the gang, was a kid who was to become a major crime figure, Lucky Luciano, and the two would remain dear friends the rest of their lives.

In his late teens, Capone was hired by Torrio and his partner, Frankie Yale, and a bouncer in a saloon-brothel they ran in Brooklyn. It was here that Capone picked up his moniker of “Scarface Al,” after his left cheek was slashed in an altercation over a girl with a hoodlum name Frank Galluccio. Later Capone would tell acquaintances and reporters that he got the wound serving in the “Lost Battalion” in France in the Great War, but he was never even in the service.

In 1919 Capone was in trouble over a murder or two the law was trying to pin on him. He relocated in Chicago to take on new duties for Torrio, who had been summoned there to help his uncle, Big Jim Colosimo, the city’s leading whoremaster, run his empire. By the time Capone arrived Torrio was deeply in dispute with Big Jim. Seeing the huge financial opportunities that came with Prohibition, Torrio wanted Colosimo to shift his organization’s main thrust to bootlegging. Big Jim was not interested. He had become rich and fat in the whoring trade and saw no need to expand. He forebade Torrio to get into the new racket. Torrio now realized that Colosimo had to be eradicated so that he could use Big Jim’s organization for his criminal plans. Together he and Capone planned Colosimo’s murder and sent to New York for the talent to carry out the job. Capone and Torrio meantime would act out airtight alibis.

Dean O’Banion

The Torrio-Capone duo soon was on the move, taking over mobs that bowed to their entreaties or threats and going to war with those that wouldn’t cooperate. Their most impressive coup was arranging the killing in 1924 of Deann O’Banion, the head of the largely Irish North Side Gang. Utilizing the murderous abilities of Frankie Yale of Brooklyn, the same man who carried out the Colosimo assassination, O’Banion’s death ultimately failed to rout the North Siders who, instead, waged war off and on for several years. Torrio himself was badly shot in an ambush but, after lingering on the edge of death for days, recovered. When he got out of the hospital in February 1925, Torrio told Capone after considerable soul-searching: “Al, it’s all yours.” Torrio took the $30 million he had squirreled away and retired back to Brooklyn, thereafter to function as a sort of elder statesman and adviser to the leaders of organized crime and the national crime syndicate that would emerge in the 1930s.

In a sense it was a dirty trick to play on the 26-year-old Capone who cold turkey found himself in a position calling for a premium on brains rather than on his strong suit, muscle. He suddenly had to become a major business executive, heading up a workforce of over 1,000 persons and with a payroll running over $300,000 a week. And he had to demonstrate that he could work with other ethnics, including Jews, Irish, Poles and blacks. Here Capone excelled, appreciating any man, provided he was a hustler, crook or killer; and there was never an intimation that he discriminated against any of them because of their religion, race of national origin.

Capone was perhaps the underworld’s first equal opportunity employer. Of course, he killed a number of ethnics if they did not bend to his will, but he did the same to many of Chicago’s mafiosi, including the Gennas and the Aiellos, for the same reason. Capone did a thorough job of purging his city of Mafia Mustache Petes long before Luciano succeeded in doing so in New York.

Although he was a murderer and continued to order wholesale butchery as head of the outfit, Capone nevertheless changed in public image, mixing well with political, business and even social figures. He took on the character of a “public utility” by limiting his mob’s activities mainly to rackets that enjoyed strong public support, such as booze, gambling and prostitution. If you give people what they want, inevitably you gain a certain respectability and popularity; thus Al Capone was cheered when he went to the ballpark. After 1929 Herbert Hoover was not.

Capone surrounded himself with gangsters he could trust, and this trust was, in turn, returned to him by his men. As long as a gangster didn’t try to double-deal him, Capone backed him to the limit. Capone was shrewd enough even to hire Galluccio, the hood who had scarred him, as a bodyguard, an act that demonstrated to his men his capacity for magnanimity. It also caused some rival gangs to hook up with Capone, now believing his promises that they would prosper under his wing. He thus gained the loyalty of the Valley Gang under Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan and the machine-gun-happy Saltis-McErlane mob.

Not that Capone could ever relax his guard, as he was constantly under threat of assassination. He was shot at numerous times and once almost had his soup poisoned. In 1926 O’Banion sent an entire machine-gun motorcade past the Hawthorne Inn, Capone’s Cicero headquarters, and poured in 1,000 rounds, but Capone escaped injury when his bodyguard shoved him to the dining room floor and fell on top of him.

One by one Capone did eliminate his enemies, especially the North Siders. His most famous personal killings involved treachery within his own mob. Hop Toad Giunta and two of Capone’s most lethal gunners, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, were not only showing signs of going independent but were cooperating with other Capone enemies to kill him. Capone invited them to a banquet in their honor and, at the climax of the evening, produced a gift-wrapped Indian club with which he bashed their brains out.

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

This occurred in 1929, a fatal year for Capone, although it hardly seemed so. Just shortly before the Indian-club caper, he committed a monumental blunder in ordering the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an effort to kill Bugs Moran, the last major leader of the old O’Banion gang. Seven men were lined up against a garage wall and machine-gunned to death by Capone hit men dressed as police officers. The victims thought they were being subjected to a routine bust and had offered no resistance. Unfortunately, Moran was not present at the time. Even worse, the public attitude started to change about the savage bootleg wars. Washington began applying heat. While Capone could not be convicted of murder, he was eventually nailed for income tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years at the federal prison in Atlanta.

In 1934 he was transferred to Alcatraz and within a few years his health started to deteriorate. Released in 1939, he was a helpless paretic, a condition brought on by the ravages of untreated syphilis contracted in his early whorehouse days. In Alcatraz Capone also exhibited signs of going “stir crazy,” not uncommon with prisoners on “The Rock.”

Capone’s family took him to his mansion in Florida where he was to live out the next eight years, alternating between periods of lucidity and mental inertia. His boys from Chicago visited him from time to time but there was no way he could be involved in mob activities. He died on January 25, 1947.