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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
The newspapers called him Scarface, but the sobriquet did not safely bear repeating in his presence. It was Mister Capone instead, or Big Al; or, among trusted lieutenants of his palace guard, “Snorky,” a street word connoting a certain princely elegance. The elegance was mostly in cloth, in expensive suits from Marshall Field, silk pajamas from Sulka, the upholstery of the custom Cadillac that was said to have cost more than twenty grand in 1920’s dollars. In his pockets, it was rumored, he carried cash enough to buy two such limousines; he tipped lavishly, and showered his friends with gold-plate gifts. To hide the furrows of the scars on his left cheek, he powdered his face with talcum and explained that the wounds were inflicted by shrapnel while he was fighting in France with the “Lost Battalion.” He believed in the sanctity of the American family. “A woman’s home and her children are her real happiness,” he once told a reporter. “If she would stay there, the world would have less to worry about.…”
For a time, a good part of the world worried about Alphonse Capone of Chicago, Illinois. He was a prince, all right. Beneath the elegant veneer he was prince of the bootleggers, baron of the brothels, and vicar of assorted vices that for more than a decade scrambled the innards of the Second City, its labor, its industry, its law enforcement, its municipal officialdom. He ruled an empire of corruption the likes of which had never before and have not since been witnessed by any American city. He commanded an army of emissaries and assassins whose numbers at peak approached one thousand. He sat at the pinnacle of a society so grotesque the newspapers felt obliged to give both its principals and its understudies nicknames: Mike de Pike, Bathhouse John, Greasy Thumb Guzik, Hinky Dink Kenna, Two-Gun Alterie, and Bloody Angelo; Ecola the Eagle and Izzy the Rat and Lupo the Wolf and Duffy the Goat; Hop Toad Giunta and Blubber Bob, among dozens of others.
In Capone’s supreme snorkiness there was always some wrinkle. Though the tailoring was splendid, it never quite seemed to conceal the bulge in his jacket beneath the left armpit. The Cadillac was custom-made not just for the plush upholstery but for half a ton of armor plate, the steel visor over the gas tank, the thick, bulletproof glass, the removable rear window that converted the back seat into a machine-gun emplacement. The generous tipping was not limited to newsboys and hatcheck girls; he also tipped the eccentric William Hale Thompson a quarter-million dollars to help elect him mayor of Chicago, and Thompson later rewarded his benefactor by dismissing the city’s official obeisance to gangsters as “newspaper talk.” For Capone, a quarter-million was merely a fractional gratuity. His syndicate’s net profits in the late 1920’s were estimated by the Chicago Crime Commission at sixty million dollars a year.
There was even a wrinkle in his story about the scars, for he had never been to France in military uniform, had never felt shrapnel. He had felt instead the cutting edge of a pocketknife in a Brooklyn saloon, his reward for insulting a woman. Of which, in Capone’s view of the species, there were two distinct kinds—the ones who stayed home, and the ones who didn’t. “When a guy don’t fall for a broad,” said Big Al years later, “he’s through.” There was a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in the remark. In his time, Capone no doubt dodged—and dispensed in kind—more flying metal than any doughboy who served in France. Yet it was to be his fate to die not with his spats on but in his silk pajamas, through at the age of forty-eight, from neurosyphilitic complications.
He was of an era that today seems more romantic than grotesque, more imagined than real. He brought to the third decade of this century much of its celebrated roar; and for that, in the minds of many Americans born too late to have heard the harsh authentic decibels, he looms as something of a folk hero, a Robin Hood of the Loop, a grand desperado much closer in style to the flamboyant two-gun type of the Old West than to today’s furtive capo who, in stressful moments, is more likely to reach for a pocket calculator than a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson. In a society vicariously fascinated with crime and violence, it is not surprising that Alphonse Capone should be accorded such retrospective honors. He was the last of the Great American Gunslingers.
After Big Al—notwithstanding the subsequent rise of Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese and Frank Costello and other latter-day godfathers—everything changed. To be sure, the violence did not end with Capone; it simply became more sophisticated—ice picks through the eardrum instead of baseball bats about the head and shoulders, corpses consolidated with scrap metal rather than abandoned in the gutter. After Capone, the rackets diversified, dope preempted illicit booze, the crime families intermarried, and the profits proliferated. But no one ever quite managed to fill Snorky’s shoes. And no other name again became synonymous with Chicago.
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.
To what extent Torrio figured in the early underworld education of Al Capone is not altogether clear. Kobler quotes Capone as having said, from the perspective of middle age, that he “looked on Johnny like my adviser and father and the party who made it possible for me to get my start.” No doubt it was Torrio who steered both Capone and Luciano to apprenticeship with the Five Points gang while they were still in their mid-teens. Torrio was a man of eclectic connections and alliances. He commanded the respect of Frankie Uale (alias Yale), who specialized in murder contracts and who for ten years was national boss of the Unione Siciliane , a sort of institutional missing link between the Black Hand of the Old World and the Mafioso of the New. Yale hired Capone as a bouncer-bartender at his Harvard Inn at Coney Island. There, according to Kobler, young Al’s “huge fists, unarmed or clutching a club, struck [obstreperous carousers] with the impact of a pile driver.” In 1918 Capone married Mae Coughlin of Brooklyn. The following year, facing a murder indictment should a man he had pile-driven in a barroom brawl die, he received word from Torrio that his huge fists were needed in Chicago. Though the brawl victim survived, Big Al was already a murder suspect in two other New York cases. To Chicago he went.
It was a good time to be going to Chicago. His mentor, Torrio, was beginning to eclipse Colosimo for control of the South Side rackets. William Hale Thompson, the laissezfaire mayor, was soon to be re-elected. And Congress was preparing to make the nation dry with passage of the Volstead Act. One hour after Prohibition became the law, at midnight January 17,1920, a whisky shipment stamped “for medicinal purposes” was hijacked on Chicago’s South Side. The Anti-Saloon League had promised “an era of clear thinking and clean living.” But it had misjudged the prodigious thirst of the American people. By 1929 the bootleg liquor industry was reaping an annual income of three billion dollars—a sum more than three times greater than the amount paid that year by individual taxpayers to the Internal Revenue Service. By 1930 Chicago had ten thousand speak-easies. Each speak-easy, on a weekly average, purchased two cases of liquor (at ninety dollars the case) and six barrels of beer (at fifty-five dollars the barrel). Estimated bootleg revenues each week came to $5,300,000. And sooner than later every dollar passed through the hands of one or another of Chicago’s multitudinous gangs. Increasingly each year, the largest share found its way to the gang that was headed by Johnny Torrio and Scarface Al Capone.
Torrio had seized control of the South Side as early as 1920. On May 11 he had arranged for a shipment of whisky to be delivered to Colosimo’s Café, and Colosimo himself was to be there to receive it. The whisky never arrived. Waiting in the café vestibule, Colosimo instead received a fatal bullet in the back of his head. Police suspected, but could never prove, that the assassin was Frankie Yale, imported from New York under contract to Johnny Torrio.
With Colosimo gone, Torrio promoted Capone to the unofficial rank of chief field general, installed him as manager of Torrio headquarters at the Four Deuces on South Wabash Avenue, cut him in for 25 per cent of all brothel profits, and promised him half the net from bootleg operations. As Kobler reconstructs it: “They complemented each other, the slight older man, cool, taciturn, reserved, condoning violence only when guile failed; the beefy younger one, gregarious, pleasure-loving, physically fearless, hot-tempered. By the second year they no longer stood in the relationship of boss and hireling; they were partners.”
Among Torrio’s many schemes for extending his operations beyond the South Side was a dream of ruling the nearby suburb of Cicero. Cicero traditionally had been the turf of the O’Donnell brothers and their West Side gang; but Torrio, a master of crafty diplomacy, had managed to secure a beachhead in the community and soon installed Capone in new headquarters there at the Hawthorne Inn.
The final siege of Cicero began in the spring of 1924. It was election time. Joseph Klenha, the corrupt incumbent president of the village board, was facing a challenge from a slate of Democratic reformers. To counter the threat of a reform victory, the Klenha machine made an offer that Torrio and Capone could hardly afford to refuse: Ensure a Klenha landslide, the gangsters were told, and Cicero is yours. It was a task tailor-made for Al Capone.
In his detailed account of crime and politics, Barbarians in Our Midst , Virgil W. Peterson, director of the Chicago Crime Commission, described the Cicero election as “one of the most disgraceful episodes in American municipal history.” Armed with machine guns, Capone mobsters (some two hundred by Kobler’s count) “manned the polls. Automobiles filled with gunmen patrolled the streets. Polling places were raided and ballots stolen at gunpoint. Voters were kidnapped and transported to Chicago where they were held captive until after the polls closed.” Apprised of the reign of terror, a Cook County judge dispatched over a hundred patrolmen and detectives from Chicago to Cicero, and gun battles between gangsters and police raged through the afternoon. Among the several fatal casualties was Big Al’s brother, Frank Capone. President Klenha was handily re-elected. “And Cicero,” observed Virgil Peterson, “became known throughout the nation as one of the toughest places in America, a reputation it was to retain for many years.”
Capone’s stunning conquest of Cicero left little doubt in the minds of rival mobsters that a new and formidable leader had arrived in their midst. From Torrio he had acquired the organizational skills to put together a tightly disciplined army of thugs, hit men, and specialists in assorted vices; and with them—after the retirement of Torrio in 1925—he proceeded to wrest from his rivals a large piece of virtually any racket he fancied.
Directly under Capone on the organizational flow chart was his good friend and business manager, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik. For liaison with the Unione Siciliane , there was Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. His departmental chieftains included, for bootlegging operations, Capone’s brother Ralph (nicknamed “Bottles”) and his cousin, Charlie Fischetti; for brothels, Mike de Pike Heitler; and for gambling, Frank Pope. Farther down on the chart were Capone’s musclemen: Jim Belcastro, the bomber of breweries; Phil D’Andrea, the sharpshooting bodyguard; and Samuel Hunt, alias “Golf Bag,” so-called for the luggage in which he preferred to carry his shotgun. (Golf Bag’s first intended victim survived the buckshot, Kobler notes, and was thereafter known as “Hunt’s hole in one.”) Other torpedoes of importance included Anthony Accardo (alias Joe Batters), Sam Giancana, Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, Murray “The Camel” Humphreys, and Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, whose real name was DeMora and to whom police over the years attributed no fewer than twenty-two murders.
For the most part, Capone’s lieutenants enjoyed an esprit de corps unlike that of any other mob in Chicago. There was no place in the organization for men who would not adhere to a code of unfaltering loyalty and rigid discipline. Despite the predilection of some associates for booze and cigars, Capone insisted on keeping his troops in fine fighting shape. In one headquarters spread, at the Hotel Metropole, two rooms were set aside as a gymnasium and equipped with punching bags and rowing machines.
A subsequent command post was established in the Lexington Hotel. Capone occupied a corner suite, presiding at the head of a long mahogany conference table. Framed on the wall behind him were portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mayor William Hale Thompson. Two floors below, in a maids’ changing room, a hinged full-length mirror concealed a secret door leading to an adjacent office building. Capone used it frequently to frustrate those who tried to pry into the pattern of his daily itinerary.
He lived constantly within a shield of armed guards. When he dined in public, the bar of the chosen restaurant would be crowded—in advance—by his trusted henchmen. When he went to the theater, twelve seats were reserved for him and his entourage in the rear of the house, where vigilance was easy. In transit, the custom-built Cadillac was always preceded by a scout car, and followed by a touring car filled with his most proficient marksmen. His headquarters swivel chair had an armor-plate back. He crossed sidewalks and hotel lobbies in a huddle of bodies three deep. Yet for all these precautions, no life insurance company would write him a policy. Capone and his kind had been going to too many funerals, and too many rivals were planning a funeral for Capone.
On the North Side, for example, there was Dion O’Banion, the choirboy-turned-safecracker, and now ostensibly a florist, who had supplied twenty thousand dollars in wreaths and arrangements for the funeral of the slain Frank Capone. “A most unusual florist,” observed Virgil Peterson, for O’Banion “not only furnished flowers … but also provided the corpses.” Chicago police said he was responsible for twenty-five murders. O’Banion detested Capone. Among the choirboy’s chief lieutenants was George “Bugs” Moran, whom history remembers not only as the inspiration for a memorable Valentine’s greeting from Al Capone, but as the man who first produced and directed murder-by-motorcade, a system whereby, if all went well, the victim was rapidly riddled from a slow procession of passing cars.
Swinging counterclockwise from O’Banion’s North Side, one presently arrived on the turf of Roger “The Terrible” Touhy, whose headquarters were in Des Plaines and who had little traffic—or trouble, for that matter—with the mob of Capone. At nine o’clock—west lay the precincts of the aforementioned O’Donnell gang, perennial foes of the South Side Italians. At eight o’clock, in the valley between Cicero and Chicago’s own Little Italy, one entered the fiefdom of Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake, pious Irishmen both. Once, hijacking a beer truck parked in front of a Catholic church, Druggan was said to have ordered the bootleggers out of the cab of the truck at gunpoint. “Hats off when you’re passing the House of God,” said Druggan, “or I’ll shoot ‘em off.”
On the Southwest Side, at seven o’clock, near the site of today’s Midway Airport, yet another gang skulked under the leadership of Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane, the latter being regarded by the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice as “the most brutal gunman who ever pulled a trigger in Chicago.” Like Bugs Moran, McErlane was an innovator, the first gangster in America to demonstrate the superior firepower of the Thompson submachine gun.
Virtually all these mobs, at one time or another in the 1920’s, were aligned against the army of Capone. In fact, there was only one independent organization with which Capone had any strong ties whatsoever, and that was the Sicilian community ruled by the six Genna brothers. Through political connections, the Gennas had obtained a license to process industrial alcohol. They processed it, all right—into bootleg whisky; and soon, under their direction, alky cooking (as Kobler recounts it) “became the cottage industry of Little Italy.” The mash was powerful, the denaturing process resulted in a product capable of blinding the consumer, and in a single lot of one hundred confiscated barrels of the liquor, police were said to have found dead rats in every one. For hit men, the Gennas relied on John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, who, in the mistaken belief that garlic in the bloodstream could cause gangrene, anointed all their bullets against the possibility of a slightly misplaced shot.
Thus were the territories staked out and the players positioned when the great Chicago beer wars broke out in the fall of 1924. Sometimes the action was difficult to follow. As Virgil Peterson perceived it, “the lines of battle were constantly shifting.” No matter. The florists and undertakers had never had it so good.
O’Banion was the first to go. There had been a confrontation with Torrio over sharing profits from saloons. There had been much bad blood between North Siders and the Gennas. O’Banion had ordered the hijacking of one of the Gennas’ alky trucks. He had told the Sicilians to go to hell, and had boasted of outwitting Johnny Torrio. At noon on November 10,1924, three men (two later identified as Scalise and Anselmi) called at O’Banion’s flower shop while the Irishman was clipping chrysanthemum stems. Six shots were fired. None were misplaced.
On January 12, outside a restaurant at State and Fiftyfifth streets, a limousine with Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran at the curbside windows pulled abreast of a parked vehicle. A moment earlier, Al Capone had stepped from that vehicle into the restaurant. Weiss and Moran raked the car with buckshot, wounding Al’s chauffeur. The unscathed Capone later surveyed the damage, then put in a call to General Motors with specifications for a bulletproof Cadillac.
It was Torrio’s turn twelve days later. Standing on the sidewalk near his apartment, he was hit in the jaw, the right arm, and the groin by buckshot and bullets from a passing limousine. At Jackson Park Hospital, Capone came and sat at his bedside, weeping. But Torrio was tough. He survived, and eagerly accepted a sentence of nine months in the Lake County Jail. It was safe there. Having served his time, he announced that he would retire and leave everything to Capone. Then he departed for Italy.
Meanwhile, in May of 1925, the O’Banionites had resumed their reprisals. They struck down Angelo Genna. He was buried in unconsecrated ground at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, within shotgun range of the grave of Dion O’Banion. Capone may have sent flowers, but he shed no tears. The lines had been shifting. He wanted control of the Gennas’ alky industry. Within six weeks, two more Gennas, Michael and Anthony, were ambushed and killed. Scalise and Anselmi defected to Capone’s camp. Both were captured by the police and charged with murder. There were many suspects, but no convictions.
Then the lines shifted again, to Cicero and the West Side. In the first four months of 1926, police recorded twenty-nine gangland slayings. Among the last of that group to die was the assistant state’s attorney, William McSwiggin. He was cut down by gunfire in front of the Red Pony Inn, not far from Capone’s Cicero command post. Capone went into hiding for three months.
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.
And the risks were by no means limited to Chicago. According to crime reporter Edward Dean Sullivan, who wrote the following in 1930, “The effort to ‘get’ Capone became virtually nationwide. Killers in every town that Capone might reach were assigned to the job.… When he got to Philadelphia from Atlantic City, having failed to arrange a peace with the Moran outfit on any terms, Capone, charged with having a concealed weapon, was soon in prison and untroubled.”
Released from Eastern Penitentiary in March, 1930, Capone returned to Chicago with a bodyguard, wrote Sullivan, “the size of which indicated his state of mind.” But the climate of the windy city was such that “He left for Florida within ten days and as this is written, six months later, he has just returned to Chicago. Twenty of his enemies died in his absence.”
Sullivan further noted that Capone’s most frequently repeated statement was: “We don’t want no trouble.” As it turned out, he was about to get a large measure of trouble. By 1931 the troubles had piled up on two fronts. There were frequent raids against the Capone breweries and distilleries; G-men with sledgehammers were wrecking the old alky stills and pouring the contraband booze into the gutters. Meanwhile, as if this were not enough for Capone to contend with, agents of the Internal Revenue Service began making discreet inquiries about town as to why, after so many extravagant years of big spending, he had never once filed a tax return. In a kind of dress rehearsal for their biggest act, the IRS agents won tax-evasion indictments against Ralph Capone and Frank Nitti. Then Big Al himself was charged with twenty-two counts of failing to render unto Uncle Sam what was Uncle Sam’s; and in October, 1931, in federal court, he was found guilty by jury trial, fined fifty thousand dollars, and sentenced to eleven years in prison. Capone was stunned. It would never have turned out like this in the good old days.
But the good old days were long gone. Pending an appeal, Capone was held in the Cook County Jail, where the amenable warden David Moneypenny provided his celebrated prisoner with all the comforts of home, including unlimited visitations by the likes of Jake Guzik and Murray Humphreys and Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz. For all such audiences, Capone insisted on absolute privacy; and Moneypenny obliged by allowing Big Al to use the most secure suite in the entire jail—the death chamber.
The appeal was denied. In the spring of 1932, handcuffed to a fellow prisoner, Capone was transferred to the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia. There he was given the identifying number 40,822 and assigned to work eight hours daily cobbling shoes. For the most part he stayed out of trouble; but his old reputation belied to authorities his new good behavior. In the retributive penal spirit of the times, he was considered an “incorrigible.” And by 1934 the government had a special place for people like that. They called it Alcatraz.
Capone was among the first of the incorrigibles confined on the skullcap rock in San Francisco Bay. His new number was 85. He was assigned to Cellblock B and the laundry-room detail. He was conceded no favors. Feisty young inmates, looking for ways to enhance their own reputations for toughness, insulted Capone to his face. They called him “wop with the mop.” A thug from Texas shoved a pair of barber’s scissors into his back. He was jumped in a hallway and almost strangled before he managed to flatten his assailant. Capone somehow endured. But his health was failing. The syphilis which had gone so long untreated was beginning to erode his central nervous system. There were periods when lucidity escaped him. He could respond to treatment, but the disease was too advanced to hope for a cure.
In January, 1939 (with time off the original sentence for good behavior and working credits), Capone left Alcatraz for the less dismal precincts of a federal correctional institution near Los Angeles; and in November, at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he was released into the custody of his wife Mae and brother Ralph. In Chicago, according to Kobler, “reporters asked Jake Guzik if Capone was likely to return and take command again.” Whereupon Guzik “replied in language harsher than he intended, for his loyalty had never wavered.” Al, said Guzik, was “nutty as a fruitcake.”
Capone lingered on in Miami, his mind confused, his sleep haunted by dreams of assassins. Finally, in January, 1947, he suffered a brain hemorrhage. The hemorrhage was soon followed by pneumonia. The body was taken to Chicago for burial. The funeral was modest; the Church had forbidden a requiem mass.
There are those who say that Scarface Al Capone bequeathed to America a legacy of corruption that prevails to this day. In 1963 Senator John L. McClellan’s Subcommittee on Investigations elicited from Chicago police superintendent Orlando Wilson a remarkable statistic. Since 1919, Wilson reported, there had been 976 gangland murders in his city, but only two of the killers had ever been convicted. Wilson’s choice of 1919, not being round numbered, may have seemed arbitrary to most of his listeners; but to seasoned observers of organized crime it was clearly Chicago’s watershed year. For in 1919 a young man from New York had come to Chicago—an unsingular happenstance at the time, yet one that seems to have made all the difference ever since.