- Historic Sites
Said Chicago’s Al Capone:“I Give The Public What The Public Wants…”
What the public wanted, it seemed, was a vice and bootleg business netting sixty million dollars a year-and many gangland funerals
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
According to all accounts, Chicago had always been special, the distinctively American town. It was the Queen of the Lake, the Wonder of the Wonderful West. Sarah Bernhardt found in it “the pulse of America.” Carl Sandburg praised it as hog butcher for the world. For a time, however, part of the city’s distinction was its capacity to inspire the pejorative phrase. Strangers turned away appalled by its open display of raw vice and spectacular mayhem. “It is inhabited by savages,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. “A grotesque nightmare,” said Don Marquis. One of its own, the alderman Robert Merriam, observed that Chicago was unique because it “is the only completely corrupt city in America.” The English writer Kenneth Allsop noted in his book The Bootleggers and Their Era that Chicago during the 1920’s “was effectively a city without a police force, for [the police] operated partially as a private army for the gangs.” And in his informal history of the city’s underworld, Gem of the Prairie , Herbert Asbury described the decade as a time when “Banks all over Chicago were robbed in broad daylight by bandits who scorned to wear masks.… Burglars marked out sections of the city as their own.… Fences accompanied thieves into stores and appraised stocks of merchandise before they were stolen.…”
After one especially noisy series of intergang bombings, a newspaper pundit wryly remarked that “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air/Gave proof through the night that Chicago’s still there.” In the United States Congress, a Midwestern senator suggested that President Calvin Coolidge recall the Marine expeditionary force then in Nicaragua and dispatch it to a place more worthy of armed intervention—Chicago.
The city’s pernicious reputation was well established long before the arrival of Al Capone. By the turn of the century the Queen of the Lake had become the hussy of America. Its red-light district—outshining even those of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco—sprawled for block after block across the seamy South Side. The district, according to one chronicler, swarmed with “harlots, footpads, pimps, and pickpockets” operating in and out of “brothels, saloons, and dives of every description.” Within the area were a number of subdistricts affectionately known as the Bad Lands, Coon Hollow, Satan’s Mile, Hell’s Half-Acre, and Dead Man’s Alley; later these quaint neighborhoods became known collectively as the “Levee.”
Among the city’s most notorious whoremasters was one James Colosimo. Son of an immigrant from Calabria, Italy, Big Jim Colosimo had learned all the ropes that the Levee had to offer. He had been a bootblack, pickpocket, pimp, and bagman for the aldermen who controlled the district’s votes and vices. In 1902 he met and married the brothelkeeper Victoria Moresco. Soon Big Jim was managing scores of bordellos and ancillary saloons; and from every dollar earned by a prostitute, more than half went to Colosimo. Colosimo’s Café, on South Wabash Avenue, had green velvet walls and crystal chandeliers. It had the best entertainers, the most beautiful chorus girls, the largest selection of imported wines in Chicago. It established Colosimo as a man of considerable means. Inevitably, too, it marked him as a target for extortion.
Extortion was then the specialty of the Black Hand, the secret Sicilian underworld society. Colosimo, being Calabrian, was fair game. If he could afford to pay off the South Side aldermen and the police, surely he could afford some modest tribute to the society. Say, for starters, about five thousand dollars? Colosimo agreed. Then the Black Handers upped the ante. On the second scheduled payoff, Colosimo contrived to ambush the extortionists and left three of them dead under a South Side bridge. But the threats and demands continued. Colosimo needed help. He sent for his nephew in New York, Johnny Torrio, a veteran of the notorious Five Points gang. Several years later Johnny Torrio in turn would send for Al Capone.
He was the fourth of nine children born to Gabriel and Teresa Capone, who in 1893 had emigrated from Naples to the slums of the Brooklyn Navy Yard district. Gabriel was a barber. The family lived in a dingy flat heated by a potbellied stove. Dodging vegetable carts and ice wagons, the children played stickball in the streets. Nearby, according to Capone’s most definitive biographer, John Kobler, were the fleshpots of Sands Street where “sailors piled ashore, clamoring for liquor and women.” Alphonse attended P.S. 7 on Adams Street. One of his closest friends was a boy named Salvatore Luciana, later known as Lucky Luciano. When Al was eight, the family moved a mile south to Garfield Place. There was a new social club in the neighborhood. Gilt letters in a window indentified it as the John Torrio Association.