Any list of infamous American gangsters begins with Al Capone. His brash bravado, acts of extreme violence, and flashy fashion, all of which were blatantly in the public eye, became what defined the gangster of the era. It is doubtful that any single person in American history can better capture the cult of personality or the celebrity of the mobster than Al Capone.
Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born on January 17, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents Gabriele and Teresa Capone were Italian immigrants from the province of Salerno in southern Italy. Gabriele, his father, was a barber and Teresa, his mother, was a seamstress. The Capone family lived in an apartment building without central heating, running hot water, or bathrooms. Al Capone quit school after the sixth grade and left his family to join a gang.
Capone bounced between several smalltime gangs until Johnny “The Fox” Torrio invited him to leave New York City for Chicago. Capone and Torrio were both members of the vicious Five Points Gang. When Torrio joined the Chicago Outfit, also known as the Chicago Mafia, and bought a club in Chicago, he offered Capone a job as a bouncer. Capone might have remained a low-level thug and lived a discreet life with his wife, Mae Coughlin, had it not been for Prohibition.
Once the black-market of alcohol took hold in Chicago, Capone was promoted by Torrio to move bootlegged whiskey from Canada to Chicago and in the process went from a small time criminal to a powerful force in the city’s underground. All the while, the authorities did little to nothing to stop the rise of the growing illicit market because they were either customers or were apathetic towards prohibition laws. Capone was able to gain favor with the authorities from a system of bribery and the ability to provide valuable illegal alcohol to the community. That favor would translate into special privileges for Capone from the corrupt police force.
Capone’s flaunting of the pass he had from legal consequences quickly became infamous. In August of 1922 after a night of drinking, Capone was racing his car along North Wabash Avenue in Chicago when he crashed into a parked taxi with the driver still in the car. Capone then jumped out of the car onto the sidewalk and in a drunken rage brandished a revolver and threatened to shoot the driver of the taxi and bystanders. “Alfred Caponi” was booked on three charges: assault with an automobile, driving while intoxicated, and carrying a concealed weapon.
In the official incident report, Capone was reported to be a deputy sheriff of Chicago. This undoubtedly was a bid by his gang, the Chicago Outfit, to get Capone out of legal trouble. Any one of the charges Capone faced would have sent an ordinary offender to prison, but like almost every case that was filed against Capone it did not even go to trial.
What many gangsters in the early illegal alcohol market quickly learned was that the chief problem to business was not the authorities, but the competition with rival gangs. Many of these gangs were comfortable with using extreme violence to remove their rivals. In Chicago, Capone would take part in multiple gang wars fueled by the desire for more sales territory and profit.
Of the many gang wars in the 1920s, none became as important to the gangster mythos as Capone’s war with the North Side Gang led by George “Bugs” Moran. This particular gang war would claim the lives of hundreds of gangsters, police officers, and civilians.
The Illinois Crime Survey by Arthur Lahly in 1930 reported, “In the period between 1920 and 1927 over four hundred gangsters had been killed by other gangsters and an additional two hundred had been killed by the police. A large number of policemen had also been killed in the war with these armed desperadoes. Some of the conflicts between rival gangs and between gangsters and policemen were carried on with machine guns firing from automobiles racing through the streets.” The gang war with the North Side Gang would continue until the dramatic final blow, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
On February 14, 1929, two men in police officer uniforms arrived at a red brick warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street in Chicago at approximately ten in the morning. They entered the building and began to order the seven men currently inhabiting the building to line up with their palms against a wall. Most of these men were members of George “Bugs” Moran's Irish North Side Gang of Chicago.
Once all the men in the building were lined up against the wall, two additional men, not in uniform, arrived. The four men then proceeded to gun down Moran’s men with a combination of handgun and Thompson “Tommy” submachine gun fire.
The men who impersonated the police officers and their accomplices then successfully fled the scene before the actual police showed up. The men who were responsible were ultimately never found or charged.
However, it is widely suspected that the ordered hit on the warehouse was given by Al Capone who was in Miami Beach, Florida during the time of the attack. This mass murder would be dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by the press and would make Capone the infamous celebrity he still is today.
To curb the violent reputation he received from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone donated heavily to the poorest of the Chicago communities. During the Great Depression, this type of charity deeply impacted the people of these communities. In December 1931, the headline for the Chicago Tribune read, “120,000 meals are served by Capone Free Soup Kitchen.” Meals were served three times a day at 935 South State Street and it was made perfectly clear to the patrons from whose hand they were eating. People at the soup kitchen told the newspapers that Capone was doing more for the poor than the entire United States government, giving them not only food but jobs.
Capone had become so notorious in the United States that he was on the cover of the March 24, 1930 issue of Time magazine. In a bid to demonstrate a sense of control on the growing issue of organized crime, the federal government began to pursue a new charge in order to incriminate and jail notorious gangsters – tax evasion.
In 1929, Al Capone was charged with income tax evasion and would spend the next two years in an extensive legal battle that he couldn’t win. The tax evasion charge was successful because it was not a matter of witnesses or physical evidence that the mafia could just make disappear, it was purely a matter of paperwork and bureaucracy. There was no bribe that could be made or person to be intimidated, and Capone was livid.
The Daily News reported on the trial, “The 260-pound gang chief made no attempt to conceal his rage. He started forward as if to strike an Internal Revenue agent half his size when the agent presented him with liens attaching his property for overdue income taxes.” Capone was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison, fined $50,000 plus $7,692 for court costs, and was held liable for $215,000 plus interest due on his back taxes. The stiffest penalty ever meted out to a tax evader.
Once in prison, Capone’s health would quickly deteriorate, and his 18-year criminal career would abruptly end. Capone had contracted syphilis and, due to it going untreated, it developed into neurosyphilis soon after he was sentenced.
Capone was a serial womanizer and most likely contracted the disease from one of his many extramarital affairs. All his adult life he was known to keep various mistresses across the United States. One alleged mistress was Hollywood movie star, Gladys Walton.
John Walton, Gladys’ son, claims that Capone purchased a 1931 Model J Duesenberg for Gladys to better hide the affair that was taking place at the Two Bunch Palms Hotel in California, which was supposedly built for the specific purpose of hiding Capone’s affairs. The Duesenberg that Capone bought for Gladys was eventually passed to her son, John Walton who has had it restored.
After seven years, Capone was paroled from prison. Once released, Capone’s health, both physical and mental, would continue to weaken due to his neurosyphilis until his death in 1947. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago, but his remains were moved in 1950 to Hillside, Illinois.