How Al Capone became one of the world’s most notorious gangsters

Luke Tomes

Twentieth Century
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Nicknames: Scarface, Fonzo, Snorky, Big Al
Born: Brooklyn, New York, 17 January 1899
Died: Palm Island, Florida, 25 January 1947
Cause of Death: Syphilis, Paralytic Dementia
Specialist Area(s): Bootlegging, racketeering, prostitution, extortion

Background

When you think gangster, you think Al Capone. The man is widely recognised as one of the most notorious crime bosses that has ever existed throughout history. Capone’s rise to power and infamy came, mainly, as a direct result of Prohibition in the United States – a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Prohibition in America created the perfect opportunity for established criminal enterprises to capitalise on the void left in the market for alcohol. Several gangs, including Capone’s ‘Chicago Outfit’, were involved in the process of illegally smuggling alcohol into the country and selling it in the numerous ‘speakeasies’ (illicit establishments that sold alcohol) set up across America.

Al Capone in 1930. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Bootlegging was a logistically challenging operation, but it was also extremely lucrative. At the peak of his career as a kingpin, Capone was raking in as much as $100,000,000 a year ($1,400,000,000 in 2018).

In Chicago, Capone was able to create a vast criminal network that enabled him to obtain absurd amounts of wealth. Cooperation with other institutions was key to the success of his rum-running operation. Protection was needed from rival gangs, for speakeasies and from nosey cops and politicians.

Instilling fear was also vital and became a trademark of Capone’s gang. The crime boss was a notoriously violent individual and his employees were renowned for their ruthless nature. Yet despite this infamous reputation, Capone became somewhat of an idol in the late 1920s.

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Youth

Capone was born in New York to a family of Italian American immigrants. His family, having initially migrated to the Croatian port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) in 1893, boarded a vessel in the same year headed for the United States. He came from humble beginnings; his father was a barber and his mother was a seamstress.

A photo of young Al Capone with his mother, (c. 1904-1910). (Image Credit: Public Domain).

At the same time that he became involved with petty criminal outfits, Capone worked as a sweet store clerk, a bowling alley pin boy, an ammunition plant labourer, and a book bindery cutter. Once his schooling career ended at age 14 after he hit his female teacher in the face, Capone began to associate with more serious, criminal organisations and leaders, such as the notorious gangster Johnny Torrio.

While working as a bouncer at a dancehall and saloon in Coney Island owned by a fellow racketeer, Frankie Yale, Capone was slashed with a knife across his face by the brother of a woman that he had insulted. The incident left two scars across the left side of his face, and the wounds led to his nickname “Scarface”, which he famously hated.

Al Capone’s scars on the left side of his face. He attempted to conceal them publically whenever he could. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Rise

Capone’s quick rise to power commenced upon his arrival in Chicago in 1919, at the invitation of his mentor, Johnny Torrio. Torrio had worked for the syndicate crime boss “Big Jim” Colosimo who operated hundreds of brothels and gambling rackets in the Windy City. Capone was employed as a bouncer in various brothels where he contracted syphilis – an infection that would later kill him.

Mugshots of Johnny Torrio, Capone’s mentor. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Despite being a hugely successful Mafia boss, Colosimo had refused to enter into the business of bootlegging, which, with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, was viewed as a huge growth opportunity for organized crime groups. Torrio had pushed tirelessly for the gang to expand into this enterprise but “Big Jim” had stood firm.

It is believed by many that Capone was heavily involved in subsequent murder of Colosimo, who was shot multiple times whilst waiting for a “shipment” Torrio had claimed was waiting for him at his restaurant. It is very likely that Torrio had ordered the hit, quickly filling his former boss’ shoes and quickly capitalizing on the illegal alcohol industry. Capone became his right-hand man.

Law enforcement officials tried to crack down on the illegal trafficking of alcohol during Prohibition. However, the scale of bootlegging operations made their job virtually impossible. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Capone spent five years in this position, becoming heavily involved in the smuggling of alcohol across the border from Canada, although he always denied any involvement.

“Why, I don’t even know what street Canada is on.” – Al Capone

The Boss

Twelve days after he and his gang were ambushed, Capone learnt that his mentor Torrio had been shot several times in an assassination attempt. After a long recovery from his injuries, Torrio handed over control of the Chicago Outfit to his apprentice. At the age of 26, Al Capone was in charge of one the largest and most powerful crime units in America.

One of the most significant distinctions between Torrio’s tenure and Capone’s, was the use of violence. Capone rapidly expanded his criminal network and the organisation’s profits by instilling fear into his competitors and law enforcement officials. Establishments that refused to cooperate with the Chicago Outfit or buy their alcohol were often blown up.

Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, 1929. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Rival gangs rarely dared interfere with Capone’s operation, instead choosing to cooperate and collaborate. One outfit that refused to do so was George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side Gang, leading Capone to (allegedly) order the killing of seven of Moran’s associates in what became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

The infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago made Al Capone number one on the Chicago PD’s “Most Wanted” list. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Fame and Idolisation

Capone’s ruthless reputation was nonetheless accompanied and often overshadowed by his bravado and idolised public image. Through his political and music industry connections, Capone was able to become somewhat of a celebrity in his own right by the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was demonstrated by his appearance on the front cover of TIME Magazine on 24 March, 1930.

Al Capone on the front cover of TIME Magazine, 24 March, 1930. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The man who came from humble beginnings in Brooklyn was able to cultivate an image of a pragmatic businessman, concerned with the welfare of his fellow Chicagoans. He opened local soup kitchens in Chicago during the Great Depression and was often viewed as the “modern-day Robin Hood.”

“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want” – Al Capone

People were happy to turn a blind eye to his involvement in the bootlegging industry. Prohibition was extremely unpopular, and many Americans were actually grateful for the services Capone provided.

Food kitchen opened by Al Capone during the Great Depression. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Downfall

While he managed to maintain this image for some time, Capone was also making headlines for all the wrong reasons. While many newspapers accused him of being responsible for the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone was also being investigated by the FBI for tax evasion.

At the same time that he was facing numerous charges for various different offences, Prohibition Bureau agents were clamping down on his business. These lawmen were incorruptible and were termed ‘The Untouchables’.

Al Capone’s FBI Criminal Record in 1932. The record shows that most of the charges against him had been dismissed. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

On 18 October 1931, Capone was eventually convicted of tax evasion and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. Investigators and lawyers did not have to prove that Capone was orchestrating gambling, protection, prostitution and bootlegging rackets, simply that he wasn’t paying taxes on his income.

Capone essentially retired as leader of the Chicago Outfit after his imprisonment.

Illness and Death

Capone served his long sentence in several different penitentiaries including Alcatraz. By the late 1930s he was struggling with his failing health, caused by the sexually transmitted disease that he had failed to seek treatment for earlier in his life.

The Italian mafia boss was relocated from Alcatraz, and referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for the treatment of paresis, a severe neuropsychiatric disorder caused by late-stage syphilis.

In 1946, his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist concluded that Capone had the mentality of a 12-year-old child. He spent the last few years of his life living in his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, where he eventually died of heart failure on 25 January 1947.

Tags: Al Capone

Luke Tomes