Said Chicago’s Al Capone:“I Give The Public What The Public Wants…”

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It was a relatively quiet summer—a few desultory killings here and there, a gun battle on Michigan Avenue. Capone reappeared in his old haunts. On September 20 he lunched at a restaurant next door to the Hawthorne Inn. Suddenly there was a burst of machine-gun fire. Capone dove for the floor. Outside, on Twenty-second Street, an eleven-car motorcade slowly passed in review. Guns protruded from every window. The inn, the restaurant, storefronts on either side were raked by tommy guns, shotguns, and revolvers. Slugs ripped through twenty-five autos parked at the curb, and the sidewalk glittered with shards of broken glass. As the eleventh car sped away, up from the floor rose Capone, unhurt, but paler than the talc on his otherwise ruddy jowls. There is no record of what he was thinking then, but very possibly he was thinking only—and darkly—of Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran.

 
 
 

And within a month, Weiss was dead, shot down from ambush in the shadow of Holy Name Cathedral, near the flower shop where O’Banion had died barely two years before. “It’s a real goddamn crazy place,” New Yorker Lucky Luciano was reported to have said of Chicago after a visit. “Nobody’s safe in the streets.”

Throughout all the vicious years, Al Capone no doubt held himself in high personal esteem. After all, he was merely providing services, the supply of which, like his brothel whores, could never quite meet the demand. “I give the public what the public wants,” he told a reporter during one of his many “frank” interviews. “I’ve given people the light pleasures … and all I get is abuse.”

Surprisingly, a large segment of the public seemed to share Capone’s view of himself as the pleasurable benefactor. Though on one day Chicagoans might read with horror of the latest atrocity linked to his mob, on the next they might cheer his waving arrival at Charlestown Racetrack. In Evanston once, during a Northwestern University football game, an entire troop of Boy Scouts startled the crowd with the rousing cry “Yea, Al!” (He had bought them their tickets.) His fan mail was heavy. By some accounts, he was Chicago’s greatest philanthropist. At the pit of the Depression, he was said to have financed a South Side soup kitchen dispensing 20,000 free meals a week. People liked to remember things like that—and liked to forget just exactly what it was the big fellow did to afford such beneficence.

But not everyone was impressed by the good-guy image. On a visit with his wife to Los Angeles, his presence came to the attention of the police; they gave him twenty-four hours to clear out of town. In Miami he was persona non grata until he discovered that the mayor was a realtor. So Capone bought a house, a fourteen-room villa on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay. He promptly improved it with an encircling wall of concrete blocks and a thick, oaken portcullis. Capone liked to swim and fish and bask in the sun; the sun helped him forget all the troubles of Chicago. In fact, he was doing just that on February 14, 1929. It was Valentine’s Day.

The infamous massacre of seven Bugs Moran associates in a warehouse on Chicago’s North Clark Street bears no detailed recounting here (having been the focus of numerous books and movies), except to note that quite by accident Moran was not among the machine-gunned victims, and that the triggermen were the garlic anointers, Scalise and Anselmi. For these two thugs, it should further be noted, there was a strange reward. On May 7, at the Hawthorne Inn, Capone assembled a roomful of mobsters ostensibly to honor Scalise and Anselmi for their recent deeds. It was a jovial occasion until, shortly after midnight, Capone announced to the guests of honor that he was privy to their part in a budding conspiracy to dethrone him. Having passed sentence on the Sicilians, Capone signaled his bodyguards to bind and gag them; and then, according to witnesses, the good guy who gave people so many simple pleasures proceeded to club his lieutenants to death with a baseball bat.

 
 

The following week Capone was in Atlantic City, attending a business convention. Guzik and Nitti flanked him at the conference table. Joe Saltis was there, and Frankie McErlane. There was “Boo Boo” Hoff from Philadelphia. From New York there were Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Dutch Schultz. Torrio had returned from Italy to preside as the elder statesman. The purpose of the conference was peace. There was to be an end to the killing. The nation henceforth was to be redistricted; the Unione Siciliane was to be reorganized, and the Chicagoans were to stop this petty quarreling among themselves and merge under the leadership of Capone. Big Al was delighted, except for one catch: Bugs Moran had declined an invitation to the meeting. Back in Chicago, Moran would still be after him. Back in Chicago, a dozen Sicilian gunmen were awaiting their chance to avenge the clubbing of Scalise and Anselmi.