Was Al Capone America's Greatest Criminal?
If gangster lore sparks your imagination, then Al Capone is probably a name you know quite well. Throughout his life of crime, Capone was responsible for many brutal acts of violence, including the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre that took place in Chicago in 1929. His Chicago-based organized crime operation reportedly brought in $100 million annually.
Capone gravitated to the spotlight at a time when most gangsters tried hard to keep their names and their faces off the front page. His fascination with fame could be one reason his legacy endures to this day. He is certainly one of the country’s most famous gangsters, but does he rank as America’s greatest criminal? You be the judge!
Early Life in New York
Al Capone was born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Italian immigrants who made the journey to America in hopes of establishing a better life for themselves and their eight children.
Expelled from School
As a child, Capone was reportedly a very good student when he went to elementary school in Brooklyn. Things took a downturn by the sixth grade, however, when he started skipping school and hanging out by the Brooklyn docks instead.
Meeting Johnny Torrio
The Capone family moved to the outskirts of the Park Slope area of Brooklyn around the time that he got kicked out of school. This was the area they lived in when Capone's future life really started to take shape. It was there that he met Mary "Mae" Coughlin, who eventually became his wife and the mother of his only child.
Running Errands for Johnny Torrio
Torrio was running a gambling and numbers operation at the time, and a young Capone began working for him by running small errands. Torrio left the Brooklyn area for Chicago in 1909, but the two remained close, even after his departure and relocation.
Harvard Inn on Coney Island
From 1909 to 1917, Capone's involvement in the criminal underworld was limited to nothing more than getting into an occasional fight and participating in mild street gang activity. As he was still good friends with Torrio, however, he eventually found himself once again hanging out with underworld gangsters.
Earning the Nickname "Scarface"
It was while he was working for Yale at the Harvard Inn on Coney Island that Capone came to be known by the intimidating nickname he carried with him throughout the remainder of his criminal career. He supposedly made a rude comment to a woman at the Harvard Inn that led to an altercation between her, Capone and her brother.
Married with Children at 19
Al Capone's first and only son, Albert Francis, was born when he was only 19 years old. Capone married Mae Coughlin just weeks after the child was born. Johnny Torrio served as the boy's Godfather, an important Italian tradition.
Although it appeared — at least for a while — that Capone intended to settle into a life of honest employment, something happened in 1920 that sent him right back to a life of crime. That was the year his father died of a heart attack.
Moving to Chicago
When Capone joined Torrio in Chicago, he discovered his mob mentor was running a lucrative criminal business. Torrio was involved in all sorts of underworld enterprises, including gambling and prostitution. It wasn’t long before a new business opportunity opened up for Capone.
Introduction of Prohibition
Prohibition in the United States lasted from 1920 until 1933 and largely came about due to the concerns of citizens who saw alcohol as a societal problem. In fact, by the time Prohibition began nationwide in 1920, many communities and states had already taken it upon themselves to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol in their region.
Partnering in a Lucrative Bootlegging Operation
Prohibition ushered in new and lucrative times for the criminal underworld, as formerly law-abiding citizens turned to the black market to purchase the alcohol they had previously consumed legally. With a whole new crop of customers and money coming in, Capone used his street smarts and his expertise with numbers to run operations in Chicago.
A High-Profile Gangster
In contrast to Torrio and many other gangsters of the era, Capone wasn’t interested in keeping a low profile. Rather than stay under the radar and avoid trouble, he developed a reputation as a drinker and a troublemaker. Other gangsters avoided such behavior out of fear it would attract attention from the authorities — possibly even get them arrested.
Arrested for Drunk Driving
As the 1920s continued, so did Capone's drinking and troublemaking. He was arrested for the first time in his life after he drove intoxicated and hit a parked taxi cab. You weren't allowed to consume alcohol at all in the 1920s, let alone operate a vehicle while drunk, but Capone didn’t face negative consequences as a result of driving while inebriated.
Moving His Family to Chicago
After his arrest for drunk driving, Capone vowed to clean up his act — a promise he had made before and never kept. To support him, he brought his whole family out to Chicago from Brooklyn. This included both his wife and his son as well as his mother, sister and younger brothers.
Election of William Emmett Dever
William Emmett Dever was elected mayor of Chicago in 1923. Capone and Torrio were concerned by his election, primarily because he had campaigned on a promise to rid the city of corruption and criminal activity. Torrio and Capone opted to move just outside of Chicago city limits in response to his election.
The 1924 Cicero Election
Instead of moving the base of their operations outside of Cicero as they had done in Chicago when William Emmett Dever was elected, Torrio and Capone opted to use intimidation tactics on the day of the election to ensure a gangster-friendly candidate was elected. It seemed like a logical plan, right?
Chicago Police Gun Down Frank Capone
Frank Capone was four years older than his brother, Al, and he worked with him in the Chicago division of the mob. On election day in Cicero in 1924, citizens petitioned the Chicago police to send officers to the polls to stop the Chicago outfit from intimidating voters.
Johnny Torrio Returns to Italy
The following year (1925), rival mobsters made an attempt on Torrio’s life. The experience led Torrio to decide to leave the businesses he built behind and return to Italy. He had been Al Capone's mentor in the criminal underworld and had attempted to steer the gangster away from activities that could bring about his downfall.
Living a Luxurious Life in Downtown Chicago
Rather than heed the advice of his mentor, Al Capone began enjoying a very luxurious lifestyle in the public view as soon as Torrio returned to Italy. Once he was in full control of the Chicago bootlegging operations, he felt like he was on top of the criminal underworld.
$100 Million in Revenue Generated Per Year
As both the 1920s and Prohibition continued, Al Capone's bootlegging operations and other criminal enterprises flourished. Newspaper articles at the time claimed that his operations generated $100 million in revenue per year. He was spending lavishly, but he had plenty more coming right back into his bank accounts.
Robin Hood Figure
The media began to report on Capone's every move as he became increasingly entrenched in the public consciousness. The image that was presented through the media often portrayed him as a generous person. He was seen as someone who gave back to the community where he lived, which further added to his public appeal.
Murder of William McSwiggin
In 1926, a mistake was made that cost Capone's operations dearly. He spotted two of his rivals in Cicero and gave the order for his men to shoot them down. What he didn't know was that a local prosecutor was the third man walking with the other two men.
Following the murder of William McSwiggin, the police were even more motivated to go after Capone. The authorities had no evidence to charge him with the murders, but they persistently focused on raiding Capone's businesses to look for evidence.
The Atlantic City Conference
Due to the increased police pressure that Capone's operations experienced in the late 1920s, he facilitated a meeting of organized crime leaders in the United States. The summit was held May 13-16, 1929, in Atlantic City.
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
In 1929, with Capone still dominating the alcohol black market in Chicago, other racketeers were vying for a share of the bootlegging pie. One of the men looking for a bigger share of the black market was Bugs Moran.
Indicted for Tax Evasion
Following the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, President Herbert Hoover had the federal government increase their efforts to go after Capone. As a result of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927, all income gained in the United States from illegal activities still had to be taxed. Because Capone had not been paying taxes, he was therefore guilty of tax evasion.
Sent to Alcatraz
When the courts rejected Capone's plea bargain deal, he withdrew his guilty plea and attempted a new strategy to get off on the charges. He used bribery and intimidation tactics on the jury in hopes that they would ultimately render a decision in his favor.
Living in a Mental Hospital in Baltimore
Capone began to suffer from ill health while he was in prison. It was during his stay in Alcatraz that doctors discovered he had contracted syphilis when he was younger. He had never been treated to slow the disease, so it grew worse and began to cause symptoms of dementia.
Finals Days in Miami and Death
Capone moved to Miami after leaving the hospital in Baltimore. His health had continued to fail as a result of his syphilis and dementia. He suffered a cardiac arrest and died on January 25, 1947, just eight days after his 48th birthday.
Legacy of Al Capone
Al Capone left behind quite a legacy when he died in 1947. He had been a major player in the criminal underworld in Chicago throughout the 1920s, but he was only 33 when he went to prison. His time at the top of the ranks of America's gangsters was only about seven years long, yet most of the country thinks of Al Capone as the face of organized crime during Prohibition.