Al Capone, Public Enemy Number One

Al Capone began his life of crime after attacking a school teacher
Al Capone began his life of crime after attacking a school teacher

by Ray Setterfield

January 25, 1947Al Capone, America’s most notorious gangster, died on this day in history, eight days after his 48th birthday. It was no gangland killing, as might have been expected, but the result of an apoplectic stroke complicated by pneumonia.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in New York in 1899. His father was a barber and his mother a seamstress. They came to America from Italy with their eight children seeking a better life, but as a poor family they followed a typical immigrant lifestyle in a tenement.

After receiving a beating at the age of 12 for hitting a teacher Capone never returned to his Brooklyn school and quickly turned to crime.

In 1917, while working as a bouncer and bartender at a Coney Island bar, he insulted a female customer and her brother retaliated by slashing Capone’s face with a razor. He then gained the nickname “Scarface”, which he always hated, but which stayed with him for life.

By 1920 he had moved to Chicago where he was soon to take control of gambling houses, brothels and racetracks and became the city’s most formidable gangster. That put him in a position to reap the benefits of the newly introduced Prohibition laws forbidding the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor.

Soon, Capone was running a string of illegal nightclubs, “speakeasies” and distilleries. It has been estimated that his criminal organisation, which he referred to as “the outfit”, pulled in around $100 million a year (the equivalent of $1.4 billion in 2020).

But it was, he insisted, just a matter of “public service”. He said: “Ninety per cent of the people drink and gamble and my offence has been to furnish them with those amusements.”

To ensure that he could carry on doing so Capone ordered hits on many of his enemies and had no hesitation in eliminating those who threatened his empire. The most notable retaliation attributed to him was the infamous St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

Six members of a gang run by rival bootlegger George “Bugs” Moran, along with a garage attendant, were lined up against a wall and executed by men carrying shotguns and machine guns. Two of the gunmen were dressed as police officers.

Capone was in Florida at the time and although there was wide speculation that he had ordered the murders he was never charged and the case officially went unsolved.

However, in 1930 the Chicago Crime Commission released its first-ever list of the city’s worst criminals. Capone was named Public Enemy Number One but in a city where both the civic administration and the police had reputations for bribery and corruption, he seemed immune from prosecution.

It was all too much for President Herbert Hoover who gave orders that Capone must be brought to justice.

But how? The answer came when the authorities realised that the gangster had never filed a tax return. Leaving aside murder, extortion and other crimes, a case was built against Capone for tax evasion.

As his trial neared its end the judge ordered a change of jury when he learnt that bribes had been offered to many of those already selected. On October 17, 1931, the gangster was convicted on five of the 23 counts against him – enough for an eleven-year jail sentence and a fine of $50,000 (equivalent to $780,000 in 2020). At the time it was the harshest sentence for tax evasion ever delivered in the US.

In May 1932, 33-year-old Capone began his sentence at a jail in Atlanta, Georgia, but two years later, after trying to bribe guards, he was transferred to the maximum security prison at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.

As well as facing the harsh conditions of Alcatraz, Capone was suffering from ill-health. He had contracted syphilis in his younger days and now suffered from neurosyphilis, causing dementia.

After serving six-and-a-half years he was released in 1939 to a mental hospital in Baltimore, where he remained for three years. His health rapidly declining, Capone spent the rest of his days at his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, where a stroke and pneumonia ended his short life.

Published: January 13, 2021
Updated: February 13, 2023

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