Prohibition era Chicago was good to Al Capone, and his crime empire had no equal. But, two things are certain in life, and it took both to bring him down.
Alphonsus Capone was born to the mean streets of Brooklyn, NY on January 17, 1899, and he began breaking the law shortly thereafter. Al dropped out of school at age 14, and worked at several odd jobs while running with various street gangs in his neighborhood. Capone caught the eye of local gangster Frankie Yale, who hired him to work as a bouncer and bartender at his seedy establishment, the Harvard Inn.
It was while working at the Inn that Capone would acquire the nickname, Scarface. He got the moniker by insulting a female patron, and meeting up with the business end of her brother’s knife.
Capone rose quickly in the world of organized crime. He killed a couple guys in New York, but he never went to trial, since “nobody saw nothing.” However, after he beat up a rival gang member, Yale sent him out of town until things cooled off. He would have a profound effect on his new town: Chicago.
Capone and a Life of Crime in Chicago
Not yet 21 years old, Capone hooked up with Johnny Torrio, an old friend of Yale’s. Torrio took Capone under his wing, and Al was soon helping run the local bootlegging business. Capone would quickly become Torrio’s #2 man, and become a partner in his saloons, brothels and gambling houses.
Not all was Camelot, however. Torrio had a little problem, namely the North Side Gang, led by Bugs Moran and Hymie Weiss. These rival gangsters would put a contract on Torrio’s head, and he would survive a assassination attempt in 1925. Severely rattled by this close call, Torrio made like the Chicago wind, and set off for the safety of Italy. This left Capone as the boss of the “outfit”, and things would never be the same.
A natural businessman, Capone was more organized than Torrio, and by 1930, the Chicago vice industry was earning him a cool nine-figure income.
Nothing could stop Capone. He had the mayor of Chicago in his pocket, his enforcers had the fastest Tommy Guns in town, and whenever a body or two was found in the street, Capone always had an alibi.
Even his public image was positive. His business card told the world that he was a “used furniture salesman,” and his soup kitchens fed many Chicago residents during the Great Depression.
Capone’s success and ruthless nature wasn’t lost on the North Side Gang, and there were attempts on his life. This inspired Capone to have his V-16 Cadillac equipped with bullet proof glass and armor plating. Inside the Caddy, Capone was as safe as a King in his castle.
Law Closes in on Capone’s Crime Empire
The public image of Capone began to change on Feb. 14, 1929. Capone’s goons gunned down seven unarmed men, six of which were in the North Side Gang. The cold blooded killing, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre hurt Capone in two ways. First, his ‘good guy’ public image was forever tarnished, even though he was in Florida at the time. Second, this act of savagery called unwanted attention to the lawless city that Chicago had become. Capone had to be stopped.
Capone had been to trial several times, but witnesses always developed amnesia, and jurors always had a price. But, when Capone faced charges of tax evasion, the charges finally stuck. In 1932, Capone was sent to a federal prison in Atlanta to serve an 11 year sentence. In 1934, Capone was transferred to the toughest prison in the world, Alcatraz. After doing his stretch in Alcatraz, and a subsequent stint in a Terminal Island, CA prison, Al Capone would become a free man on November 16, 1939.
Capone would return to his Florida home, where an untreated case of syphilis ruined his health. He would suffer a stroke in 1947, and a case of pneumonia would claim his life on January 25, 1947.