Public Enemy Number 1: The Rise and Fall of Al Capone

Mugshot of Al Capone

During the 1920s in Chicago, one man would single-handedly spread a reign of terror and lawlessness unprecedented in America’s history.

Alphonsus Capone was born on January 17, 1899 in a deprived area of Brooklyn, New York to an Italian-American family. At a relatively young age he was indoctrinated into a life of criminal activity, as a child he was an active member of various small-time gangs, including; ‘The Brooklyn Rippers’ and ‘Forty Thieves’. Capone’s interest and involvement in gangs remained in his early 20s when he joined the notorious ‘Five Points’ gang in Manhattan which was led by James Calisimo with Johnny Torrio as his right-hand man, Lucky Luciano was also a member and would later become infamous in his own right.

Al Capone’s Early Crime Career

Capone moved to Chicago and joined Calisimo’s gang where he was assigned the job of managing a nightclub, the Four Deuces; this would provide him with an ideal front for his illegal activities which included; bootlegging beer and liquor, prostitution and illegal gambling activities. Capone somehow did not fit the personae of a gangster, his public appearances and regular trips to City Hall ensured a steady following of supporters who admired his bravado and smugness on issues affecting the people of Chicago. The public support had been overwhelming, but eventually as the truth emerged they began to resent Capone for his involvement in the death of a respected and much liked attorney – Billy McSwiggin who sought to connect Capone with the murder of a rival gang member.

Fearing that the authorities were about to prosecute him for his involvement in McSwiggin’s murder he went into hiding. After three-months on the run, he eventually surrendered to the authorities after negotiating an agreement on a lenient sentence. But no sooner had he been arrested, he was released due to insufficient evidence, amid opposition from the public and politicians.

Capone’s Rise to the Top

The passing of the Prohibition Act in 1920 forbidding the sale of alcohol and liquor did not deter Capone and the Calisimo mob, who sought to take advantage of the restrictions by supplying bootlegged liquor at inflated prices. Even though Capone’s activities were closely monitored by the authorities he still found new ways of evading them, he seemed untouchable. Bootlegging was just a small part of his illegitimate enterprise which also included extortion and blackmail with a number of people in high profile positions in government, and law enforcement working for the mob.

The rise to the top was inevitable for Capone with the violent nature of the gang, Jim Calisimo was fatally shot, Johnny Torrio who was second in command, became leader of the gang, but his leadership was short-lived after a violent shoot-out which led to him retiring and transferring the leadership to Capone.

Capone had already gained a formidable reputation as an enforcer for the mob under Torrio. The demise of other gangs in Chicago, during turf-wars and arrests, allowed Capone to effectively take control and expand his racketeering enterprise. However, he had a formidable opponent; Bugsy Moran a well respected and established Chicago gangster already controlled a vast majority of the territory and even had the manpower and weaponry to rival that of Capone’s gang. The violent confrontations would ultimately culminate in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, where several members of the Moran gang where summarily executed by gang members posing as police officers led by Machine Gun McGurn a colleague of Capone’s. Capone’s connection to the shooting propelled him to notoriety and culminated in the authorities investigating his finances.

Capone as Public Enemy Number 1

Powerful politicians where exerting pressure on the police to successfully bring Capone to justice; he increasingly seemed immune to prosecution. By April 23, 1930, after pressure from politicians, the Chicago Crime Commission issued its first ‘Public Enemies List’ with Capone’s name number one on the list. Finally, after years of investigations the FBI were able to successfully prosecute Capone in 1931 for tax evasion. It took a jury nine hours of deliberation to reach a guilty verdict which meant that he would be incarcerated for 11 years and was ordered to pay ‘$80, 000’ in costs. He appealed against the decision and remained imprisoned at Cook County jail until he received the results of his appeals.

The evidence against him was overwhelming and it resulted in his appeals against his sentence being rejected. Capone was led away in handcuffs and transferred to serve his conviction and a six-month Contempt of Court sentence at the US Penitentiary in Atlanta and Alcatraz. On November 16, 1939, Capone was released. His time in prison had been comfortable compared to other prisoners, but as a result of his incarceration he developed syphilis which affected him throughout the remainder of his life. Capone’s former glory remained glamorised in cinematic portrays of him in a succession of Hollywood gangster films. But because of bad health he remained in relative obscurity in a house he owned in Palm Island with his wife, Mary Coughlin until his death in 1947.


  1. American Originals, National Archives and Records Administration, (1997)
  2. Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI History: Famous Cases, Alphonse Capone
  3. G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture, Richard Gid Powers, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1983
  4. Chicago Historical Society, Al Capone (1999)