Famous Criminals: Al Capone

No mobster is more infamous in American history than Al Capone. With a keen business sense and a ruthless demeanor, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Italian crime underworld to become a boss of bosses. For several years into his lucrative career, he remained untouchable by law enforcement due to his intellect and his drive to stay in control of the underworld that he loved. New laws regarding taxes eventually paved the way to a conviction of this criminal mastermind. Shortly thereafter, health problems took over much of Capone’s concern and led to his ultimate demise.

“Al Capone is America’s best known gangster and the single greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order in the United States during the 1920s Prohibition era.” – Chicago Historical Society 

On January 17, 1899, one of the most notorious and dangerous gangsters in American history, Al Capone, was born in Brooklyn, New York. His Italian immigrant parents brought with them the customs and traditions of the old world, which would later influence how Capone carried himself in public. Surprisingly, Capone’s family was of the professional sort, abhorrent of the type of seedy criminal that Al Capone would become known for. It’s been reported that Capone even attended Catholic school, though he was expelled after displaying an uncontrollable temper and physically assaulting a teacher.

“This amazing crime czar was strictly domestic — taking the feudal Italian criminal society and fashioning it into a modern American criminal enterprise.” – Crime Library 

It didn’t take long for Al Capone to find his own place in an underworld rife with ruthless crime. In 1920, he became an associate of Chicago mobster Johnny Torrio by joining his youth gangs. When Torrio retired, Capone quickly moved in to take over the older gangster’s territories and interests. In 1927 alone, all of his dubious enterprises earned him more than a sum of $1.2 billion in modern day dollars. By 1930, he had skyrocketed in Chicago’s underworld, and was declared Public Enemy #1 on the Chicago Crime Commission’s infamous list.

“His brutality was legendary even during his lifetime.” – PBS 

While Al Capone’s bread and butter were Prohibition-era vices, such as gambling, prostitution and bootlegging, his reign as a king of Chicago crime was bolstered by his penchant for murder. Capone was never afraid to shed blood to solidify his ascension to power or to protect his position. It’s been said that Capone was even responsible for murdering Torrio’s boss, Big Jim Colosimo, so that Torrio could take over Big Jim’s business interests. Arguably, the most legendary act of violence associated with Capone was the St. Valentine’s Massacre.

Capone’s nickname, “Scarface,” only added to his personal mythology and seemed to underscore his reputation for violence. He reportedly acquired the scar after tussling as a youth with a razor-wielding rival gang member. Interestingly, some scholars believe that Capone’s recurrent bouts with syphilis may have contributed to his extreme violent nature, as the disease is known to affect the brain.

“In 1931, the Internal Revenue Service’s Intelligence Unit completed an investigation of Alphonse Capone which led to his conviction for tax evasion for which he served 11 years in prison.” – The Internal Revenue Service 

Despite a federal stronghold on a series of popular vices, investigators and prosecutors had a difficult time gathering evidence and convicting Capone of these violations. Advances in technology, like wire-tapping, and even the inquisitive mind of Eliot Ness seem to have met their match with Capone. The secrecy surrounding the mob, their resources, and Capone’s inherent cleverness made Capone virtually untouchable — even after voluntarily surrendering to police. A new law in 1927 that allowed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to hold bootleggers accountable for income tax finally led to Capone being indicted for tax evasion in 1931.

A tip to the presiding judge in the trial gave him cause to believe that the initial jurors may have been bribed by Capone. This resulted in a replacement of the jury. Perhaps ironically, the charges that finally brought down Al Capone were those associated with tax evasion: he was found guilty on October 18, 1931 of three felony counts of tax evasion and two misdemeanor counts, the latter of which were associated with failing to file a tax return. Capone was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison, and was made to pay fines, court costs and interest on his taxes.

While serving time in Alcatraz, Capone was no ordinary prisoner. His personal cell was full of luxury items like oriental rugs, expensive furniture and a radio, intended to make his stay comfortable. Despite his reputation and his status among prisoners, he was not universally respected or even liked. At least one man, James “Tex” Lucas, was documented as having attempted to murder Capone while incarcerated. Capone was paroled in 1939, but was immediately admitted into a hospital due to complications of late-term syphilis. His health would continue to decline in this manner for the rest of his life.

“Suffering from paresis derived from syphilis, he had deteriorated greatly during his confinement.” – The Federal Bureau of Investigation 

On January 25, 1947, Al Capone succumbed to a heart attack. Capone’s role in American culture is indisputable. Opinions of him, however, can vary between individuals and a great divide can exist between generations, professionals and other specific groups. Countless books and character studies have been devoted to understanding the mind and business methods of Capone. Even today, Al Capone’s life can teach us lessons about the nature of crime, the fluidity of laws, and the cult of personality.

Diana Weiss Aizman

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