Al Capone called him “that bastard Hoover” and blamed him for his going to prison. Capone should have been talking about J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but he was not. J. Edgar, as early as 1930, demonstrated that he most certainly was not going to have anything to do with any form of organized crime, and certainly not with the Capone mob in Chicago. There were considerable grounds for J. Edgar Hoover, despite his later denials, to enter the fight against Capone. Yet the definitive biography Capone by John Kobler astonishingly finds it necessary to mention J. Edgar Hoover only once, when the head G-man innocuously visited the federal penitentiary at Atlanta while Capone was doing time there.
Capone’s real enemy on the national level was “that bastard” President Herbert Hoover. He held the president responsible for getting him convicted on income tax charges, preventing a later “deal” to settle the claims and giving him a long sentence compared to the short ones handed to other gangsters including his own brother Ralph Capone.
It was now a matter of folklore inside the underworld that the president railroaded Scarface Al to prison because of a personal vendetta. Legend has it that Hoover hated the Chicago kingpin for one or both of two reasons. One allegedly dates to shortly after Hoover won the 1928 contest against Al Smith and vacationed at the J. C. Penney estate on Belle Isle in Florida, not far from the Capone compound on Palm Island. The tale goes that there was so much shouting, females crying, and shooting during the night from the Capone retreat that Hoover could not sleep. His puritanical ire aroused, Hoover decided then and there to destroy the famous gangster when he took office. The second reason describes an enraged Herbert Hoover. The president-elect watched in dismay as a drove of reporters suddenly abandoned him in a Miami lobby when a more important personage — Al Capone — strolled in.
There probably is little truth to either story. But Hoover was determined to crush Capone who he viewed as a disgrace to the national honor. When he came into office, he found the presidential aim thwarted. It was obvious that Capone had local and state authorities in his hip pocket and had nothing to fear at that level. On the federal level were only corrupt Prohibition agents and J. Edgar Hoover.
It was Colonel Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News, who finally came forward with a solution. Like the president, Knox despaired of law enforcement’s inability to nail Capone and told President Hoover the only hope was to go after him on two federal offenses—bootlegging and income tax evasion.
Hoover turned to his Treasury Department for action, and Andrew Mellon, the secretary of the treasury at the time, later recounted the events that occurred daily at “meetings” of the president’s socalled Medicine Cabinet, a group of high officials he had in to the White House each morning to toss around a medicine ball. “Every morning when the exercising started, Mr. Hoover would bring up the subject,” Mellon said. “He’d ask me, ‘Have you got that fellow Al Capone yet?’ And at the end of the session, he’d tell me, ‘Remember now, I want that Capone in jail.’”
In due course Hoover succeeded. Some observers consider Hoover one of this nation’s most inept chief executives, but had other presidents followed in Hoover’s footsteps, the outlook for the Mafia and organized crime would have been bleak indeed.