BIG AL “Scarface” CAPONE

The Original Public Enemy Number 1

In his youth, circa 1915, Al Capone took to the mean streets of New York like a duck to water. He joined the first gang in US history, known as the Forty Thieves. Then, after being in a couple of small-time gangs for a few of his most formative years, Al Capone became involved with the Brooklyn Rippers, followed by the powerful Five Points Gang in Lower Manhattan. Al Capone was recruited by Paul Kelly and his lieutenant Johnny Torrio. However, in many ways, it wasn’t until Al Capone turned 18 that his criminal career really began to take shape. It did so under the guidance of Torrio’s protege Frankie Yale. This was important because, like his mentor, Torrio, Yale was one of a new breed of profit-driven criminals known for their vicious reprisal slayings. More significantly, after making money from racketeering, in 1917, Frankie Yale opened a bar in Coney Island known as the Harvard Inn. Then, young Al Capone began working there as a bouncer and bartender, shortly thereafter.

Not long after he was hired at the Harvard Inn, Al Capone foolishly told a young lady named Lena Galluccio that she had a nice ass, which he claimed to have meant as a compliment. Nonetheless, as a consequence of his lewd remark, her brother Frank slashed Capone with a straight razor repeatedly across the left side of his face, in an effort to protect Lena’s honor. The deep wounds, that later required dozens of stitches, led to the nickname “Scarface” which Capone absolutely loathed. He considered the disfiguring scars to be marks of shame, which he tried to hide with daily applications of talcum powder. More to the point, that’s why he was often called “Snorky” instead. That is at least by his closest friends. This was a much more fitting name for Al, since it was a compliment given to sharp dressers at the time, and Capone’s signature look, as a flashy flamboyant pimp, consisted of outfits like a lime green suit with a white fedora, for instance. He also wore a $50,000 diamond pinky ring in his heyday, flaunting his fortune right in front of God and everyone. In so doing, he would go on to turn himself into a celebrity gangster.

Prior to that, in the midst of Scarface’s ascension in organized crime, a gradual ban on alcohol had begun. It did so in response to the growing numbers of protests led in large part by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, among other groups in the movement. This resulted in a socio-religious struggle between primarily dry Protestants and wet Catholics, particularly in regards to Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. Of course, the Jews were also caught up in the culture clash which led to deadly ethnic gangland turf wars. As part of this, in 1917, the US Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18th. Then, a year later, on November 18th of 1918, prior to ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of spirits having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28%. Another year later, upon being approved by a 36th state, on January 16th of 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified as a part of the US Constitution. Finally, on January 17th of 1920, the Prohibition Era began. The thing was, as if his meteoric rise in bootlegging and rumrunning had been written in the stars, it was Scarface’s 21st birthday, of all days.

Regardless, as time went on, during the period between WWI and WWII, Scarface soon left New York City for Chicago, at the invitation of Johnny Torrio, who was working as an enforcer for his uncle the kingpin “Big Jim” Colosimo. Once he arrived in Chicago, Scarface quickly learned that the North Side Gang controlled Navy Pier and everything north of it between the river and the lake, whereas the South Side Gang, otherwise known as the Chicago Outfit, obviously controlled the south side of the “Windy City”. More importantly, Torrio and Capone wanted to get into bootlegging and hijacking, but Colosimo just wanted to stick to the hookers in his hotels, which were exceptionally seedy whorehouses that had made him quite wealthy. Still, believing Colosimo to be short-sighted and scared, one day, during a secret meeting, Torrio and Capone hired Yale to do a hit on Colosimo. They paid Frankie Yale $10,000, and then the job was done on May 11th of 1920. In the end, Big Jim was gunned down right in the lobby of Colosimo’s Cafe, of all places. Then, after the funeral, Johnny Torrio became the godfather of the underworld, and Al Capone was his right-hand man.

There were hundreds of gangs in Chicago back then, but none of them were as notorious as the South Side Gang, especially under the leadership of Johnny Torrio and then later Al Capone. With Colosimo out of the way, they were free to muscle their way into bootlegging, setting up hundreds of speakeasies all across the city. In line with this, jazz music had come from New Orleans to Kansas City and then on to Chicago, by way of African-American communities. Unfortunately, the problem with illicit drinking and dancing was that the unregulated homebrewed bathtub hooch often led to rampant alcohol poisoning. Therefore, an average of a thousand people a year died across the country from tainted liquor during the Prohibition Era. To make matters worse, it was served to adults and children alike. The dandies and flappers would pay anywhere from a dime to three dollars for a single shot, which might be watered-down, depending on where they went. Regardless, socialites flocked to the speakeasies. As an unintended consequence of this, the Chicago Outfit became incredibly wealthy, bringing in millions of dollars in illegal revenue every year.

As a result of this, while supporting a massive over-the-counter cocaine addiction, in 1923, Al Capone purchased a 15-room house on the south side of Chicago. However, unfortunately for Torrio and Capone, they couldn’t bribe Mayor Dever, the way they had done with Mayor Thompson. So, they were forced to move the Outfit’s base of operation to Cicero instead. It was just five miles from downtown, and the local politicians were far more open to graft. Therefore, having relocated from the big city to a small suburb, effectively annexing the town in the process, the syndicate rigged the Cicero election to get Joseph Klenha in office. Still, this was an age of rapid innovation, so the burgeoning skyscraper skyline of Chicago beckoned the mobsters back to the big city. The higher the city rose, the more the “Big Shot” Al Capone wanted to control it, all over again. After all, the Chicago Board of Trade became the tallest building west of the Big Apple. The problem was that Mayor Dever was still incorruptible, so the Outfit ran their extensive empire from the outskirts of the metropolis. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the South Side Gang used freight and drain passageways to smuggle contraband or flee from the law during raids. The “Underground” literally used the underground to get around, right underfoot of the general public. Of course, a great deal of crime was also done topside, sometimes in broad daylight.

Don’t get me wrong. The cops did the same kinds of unlawful things. The perfect example of what I mean was when members of the Chicago Police Department killed Al Capone’s brother Frank. So, Scarface declared war on the CPD, in the midst of the bitter Beer Wars, no less. Violence was now at the forefront of Prohibition. As part of this, on November 10th of 1924, the leader of the North Side Gang, Dion O’Banion, was murdered at his flower shop by Frankie Yale and two of his out-of-town hitmen. Of course, everyone knew that Torrio and Capone were behind the murder, but the cops had to let ‘em go because there wasn’t anything connecting the two guys to the crime. In typical fashion, the eyewitnesses had suddenly developed “Chicago amnesia”, as was quite common. As such, Hymie Weiss, Bugs Moran, and their boys took it upon themselves to get revenge on the South Side Gang. That’s why, in January of 1925, Moran and his men ambushed Capone in an attempted murder, and right on the heels of that, less than two weeks later, Bugs shot Johnny several times in an attempt on his life, as well. So, after recovering from the nearly-fatal attack, “Papa” Torrio resigned from the Outfit and handed control over to his young protege, Al Capone. Thus, Scarface became the kingpin of breweries and brothels, when he was just 25 years old.

To make matters worse, in the age of the Tommy gun and the Model T Ford, the most memorable mobster to ever live gave rise to drive-up shootings. Then, his men quickly moved on to killing people in drive-by shootings, including a number of innocent bystanders. The point is that by the mid-1920s, the Outfit had gotten their hands on reasonably portable submachineguns with circular drum magazines that held either 50 or 100 rounds and their cars could drive up to 40 miles-per-hour. With that in mind, at first, gangsters would roll up, get out, line up, and start firing their sawed-off shotguns or submachineguns at their targets. Then, they began to just drive past people and open fire while their cars were still in motion, hence the term “drive-by”. Obviously, this made for a lethal combination, turning the modern town into the new Wild West, transitioning from the rifles and horses of Dodge City to the submachineguns and cars of the Windy City, thereby making history in the process.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Capone’s family was Neapolitan, not Sicilian, so he was no mafioso. That is to say, he was not a well-connected member of the Italian-American Mafia. Instead, Scarface did it all himself. Like in 1927, when “Big Al” Capone spent $250,000 in the mayoral race to get “Big Bill” Thompson back in charge of Chicago. Along with this, at a time when police officers only made ten dollars a week, Capone was paying half the men on the force twenty to look the other way when it came to his crew. The city was deep in the pocket of Scarface, to say the least. Of course, even though Capone had more security than Calvin Coolidge, Scarface still felt it necessary to commission a 7-ton custom-built Cadillac limousine in 1928. The car was the original pimpmobile, with a souped-up V8 engine under the hood and a swanky interior inside the ride. Al Capone spared no expense, paying a grand total of $20,000 to get everything just the way he wanted it. The car came fully equipped with bulletproof glass windows and an armor reinforced body. It was even painted a specific way to make it indistinguishable from a cop car, complete with a siren to cut through traffic. The car was also fitted with a removable rear window so gunmen could fire out the back if they were being pursued.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, on February 14th of 1929, at 10:30 in the morning, while Capone was in Florida with an airtight alibi, meeting with the District Attorney in Miami, five members, as well as two associates, of Chicago’s North Side Gang got whacked in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The men were all lined up against the wall in a fake raid and then shot in the back with a hail of 90 bullets, leading investigators to invent the science of ballistics. The level of violence was so unprecedented that it was sensationalized by the muckrakers in the mainstream media, finally giving gangsters like “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn the reputation they were truly deserving of. Moreover, several months later, when the stock market crashed, Capone tried to clean up his image as the first “Public Enemy Number 1” in US history. Capone was on the cover of Time Magazine in March of 1930. On top of that, during the Great Depression, when he was living high on the hog, Scarface donated to charities and sponsored the first soup kitchen in Chicago, feeding thousands of hungry people three square meals a day. Unfortunately, the fiscal consequences of paying for things on installment plans had created a speculative bubble that was bound to burst, as a result of frozen credit and deflation. So, in the end, the runaway bull market was just too much for the economy to bear. This led to widespread unemployment and mass starvation, thus the need for Capone’s charity.

Of course, Capone’s generosity wasn’t really enough to sway public sentiment against him, now that his brutality was frontpage news. Even though many bootleggers were seen as heroes, and Capone was thought of as a kind of Robin Hood figure prior to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, not everyone could be bought off anymore. From boom to ballyhoo to bust, the Roaring Twenties came to a Great Crash. This changed everything forever, even Al Capone’s rags to riches story. That is to say, once the federal government got involved with Capone’s case, agencies like the FBI and IRS were hot on his trail. They wanted to prove that Capone was a millionaire who never paid taxes on his ill-gotten gain. Of course, George Johnson, Lyle Chapman, and Frank Wilson had much more to do with this than Elliot Ness ever did. The truth is that special agent Frank Wilson spent months following the money until he finally found Frank Nitti’s bank account and tied it to Capone. Nitti was in charge of all the money flowing through the operation, and he kept thorough records. Thus after being indicted on 22 counts of tax evasion, in 1931, Scarface was sentenced to 11 years. He was then sent to prison in May of 1932. Two years later, Al Capone was transferred to Alcatraz and the year after that the ban on alcohol in America came to an end. Simply put, the “noble experiment” had failed.

To make matters worse, in an even crueler twist of fate, having previously contracted syphilis and gonorrhea from the prostitutes he formerly employed, Capone had to be released from the Rock in 1939, due to his rapidly failing physical and mental health. He was ultimately sent to Union Memorial Hospital for the treatment of paresis, which had ravaged his brain beyond repair. So, after that, Capone left Baltimore, Maryland for Palm Island, Florida, in 1940, after a few weeks of inpatient and a few weeks of outpatient care. Then, a couple of years after that, in 1942, Al Capone became one of the first American patients to be treated with penicillin. This quickly slowed the progression of the disease, but it was too late. He had full-blown stage four, tertiary syphilis. The mastermind had lost his mind. Basically, Capone was left with the mentality of a prepubescent boy for the rest of his life. In the end, on January 21st of 1947, Capone had a stroke. Then, he suffered a heart attack on January 22nd, and on January 25th, “Big Al” Capone died of heart failure. A week later, his body was transferred to Chicago for a befitting gangster send-off. Crime bosses from all across the country came to pay their respects, right alongside his family, thus ending the life and crimes of the most memorable mobster of all time.

An Eclectic Autodidact Polymath Essayist

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