Al Capone

Al "Scarface" Capone (1899-1947) was a notorious American gangster of the prohibition era. His career illustrated the power and influence of organized crime in the United States.

Al Capone, whose real name was Alphonso Caponi, was born to Italian immigrant parents on Jan. 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York. Like other young Americans from minority backgrounds, Capone was taught that the main purpose of life was to acquire wealth and that the United States was a land of opportunity. But he also discovered that his family background made it impossible to succeed in school and his ethnicity and working-class status resulted in discrimination, both in the business world and socially. Embittered by the gap between the American dream and his own reality, Capone began to engage in illegal activities as a means of achieving success in what he saw as an unjust society.

Capone was a natural leader. He possessed a shrewd business sense, gained the loyalty of those working for him by showing his appreciation for a job well done, and inspired confidence through his sound judgments, diplomacy, and "the diamond-hard nerves of a gambler." He left school at 14, married at 15, and spent the next ten years with the street gangs of his Brooklyn neighborhood. During a barroom brawl, he received a razor cut on his cheek, which gained him the nickname "Scarface."


Finds Success in Chicago

In 1919, the same year the U.S. government ratified the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages, Capone fled Brooklyn for Chicago to avoid a murder charge. In Chicago he joined the notorious Five Points Gang and quickly moved up its ranks to become the right-hand man of boss Johnny Torrio. After Torrio fled the country, Capone found himself in control of part of the bootleg operation in the city that had sprung up after prohibition. Chicago had voted 6 to 1 against passage of the prohibition amendment, and its citizenry—rich and poor, officials included—felt that liquor deprivation had been unfairly imposed. Capone took advantage of the popular willingness to break the law, and openly plied his trade. As he would tell reporter Damon Runyan, "I make money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers … some of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as me."

Capone protected his business interests by waging war on rival gangs. During the legendary St. Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, seven members of a rival gang led by George "Bugsy" Moran were gunned down in a Chicago garage. Other business strategies included bribing public officials, providing a ready market for the illegal homebrewed liquor produced by poor Italian ghetto residents, and becoming a supply source for the "respectable" customers of city speakeasies. Interacting in Chicago society in the manner of a well-to-do businessman rather than a shady racketeer, Capone gained a fabulously profitable bootleg monopoly, as well as the admiration of a large segment of the community, including members of the police and city government. Between 1927 and 1931 he was viewed by many as the de facto ruler of Chicago.


Seen as Common Thug outside Chicago

However, the rest of the country and certain elements in the Windy City regarded Capone as a menace. In the late 1920s President Herbert Hoover ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to find a way to jail Capone, who up until now had managed to evade being implicated in any illegal act. Perhaps more significantly than the efforts of the U.S. Treasury department, Capone's power had by now begun to wane due to both the coming of the Great Depression and the anticipated repeal of prohibition. Bootlegging was becoming less profitable.

After detailed investigations, U.S. Treasury agents were able to arrest Capone for failure to file an income tax return. Forced to defend himself while being tried for vagrancy in Chicago, Capone contradicted some previous testimony regarding his taxes, and he was successfully prosecuted for tax fraud by the federal government. In October 1931 Capone was sentenced to ten years' hard labor, which he served in a penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, and on Alcatraz. Because of syphilis Capone's mind and health deteriorated, and his power within the nation's organized crime syndicates ended. Released on parole in 1939, he led a reclusive life at his Florida estate, where he died in 1947.


Further Reading on Al Capone

John Kobler, Capone (1971), is the most thorough study of Capone's life. See also Fred D. Pasley, Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man (1930). For information on his life after imprisonment see James A. Johnston, Alcatraz Island Prison, and the Men Who Live There (1949). An excellent contemporary description of Capone's career and perhaps still the best analysis of the era is John Landesco, Organized Crime in Chicago, pt. 3 of the Illinois Crime Survey (1929). A reliable historical account is John H. Lyle, The Dry and Lawless Years (1960). Excellent for a sociological perspective is Kenneth Allsop, The Bootleggers and Their Era (1961).