By Adam Carter
When Theresa first asked me to write about Al Capone and gangland Chicago, a friend of ours who overheard the conversation said, “Yeah, yeah. That’s been done to death in this city.” Theresa came back with something like, “This is no time for jokes. People are interested in the real Capone; they must know the truth.” After I pulled them apart, I assured Theresa that she was right. I would do a piece of work on him.
What is it about the man regarded by many as the epitome of evil that garners so much attention from good folk around Chicago, even the world? He’s cool, sure, try to find a local store that doesn’t sell Al Capone Cigarillos, but why? Is it the nostalgic image his name conjures or something close to a Hollywood regard? In any case, Al Capone is interesting. To me, it’s because his name has always brought back memories of Warner Bros. cartoons, little guys with fedoras and cigars saying, Nnnick! to big, dumb guys with fedoras and Tommy guns saying, Yeah, boss?
Not even a face. Just guns, hats and smokes.
That was the extent of my understanding of Scarface and the syndicate until I started studying the topic and discovered why the image I had was the image I had. In the opening chapter of one of the best sources, Laurence Bergreen’s 1994/96 biography, Capone: The Man and the Era, we’re told how much of popular culture’s idea of the man can be traced to false obituaries written in ’47 aimed at portraying him as the “dirty Italian”, someone for whom America couldn’t be held responsible. For example, according to Bergreen, most of these (including the NY Times obit, available online and full of errors) had him born in Naples, Italy. In actuality, at the turn of the 20th century, Naples was overrun with a nasty group called Camorristi, a secularized Mafia that treated many innocent Neapolitans like bad dogs. Gabriele and T(h)eresa Capone, a barber and his wife, immigrated to Brooklyn, NY to escape whatever hell awaited them had they stayed in Italy; it was in Brooklyn on January 17, 1899 that Alphonse Capone was born.
And so I read many different articles/books/editorials on Capone and found several other discrepancies: two scars (instead of three) on his left cheek, six or eight victims (instead of seven) at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, how he was a mindless murderer (in no credible source did I find him to be even close to mindless). Even my usually reliable Oxford Encyclopedia had Capone born in Naples.
Considering the corrupt nature of his life, and the fact that these obituaries were generally written in one night at a time before computers, these false records weren’t too surprising. After all, everybody in Chicago at the time was on his payroll. (One book said the chief of police received $100,000 a month – in the ’20s! – to keep cop hands in pockets.) I was beginning to understand how Al Capone had become the ultimate gangster cliche, a cartoon of the Chicago underworld.
“Hey, Harry – I got a deadline in two hours. What else should I say about Capone?”
“My neighbor is Italian. He’s cocky and likes to shoot people. Write it.”
The question naturally became, How do I know if any sources are trustworthy? Am I just wasting everyone’s time? Should I have gone into elementary ed? God, help me!
Well, after studying what I’d consider a large amount of material, here’s the consensus on Al Capone. Trust it at your discretion:
THE CONSENSUS ON AL CAPONE
Like many Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, Al spent much of his youth on the Brooklyn streets, running errands for gangsters for money to help his family. The headstrongness he’d learned in the neighborhoods got him into a fight – yes, a fist fight, with fists – with his female, 6th grade teacher. After the principal proceeded to beat him some more, Capone quit school for good. He was 14.
One of the fellas he worked for on the streets was Johnny Torrio, a soft-spoken “businessman” who didn’t smoke, drink or swear, but, as you’ll see, was able to kill people and still sleep. Under Torrio, Al became more familiar with the predominant gang wars going on in the city- that is, between Italians and Irish.
Despite the unwritten laws, Capone (probably influenced by Torrio, who was married to an Irish woman) courted a young Irish girl named Mary (Mae) Coughlin. According to Bergreen, by the standards of the day, theirs was virtually an interracial romance. It is unknown whether Al told his new wife of the syphilis he’d contracted as an adolescent from a hooker, but the disease had major consequences in their lives. Syphilis, in its third stage, causes fits of outrage and eventually dementia. Capone, a man who once kicked the mayor of Cicero, IL down the city hall steps, was clearly prone to fits of rage. Bergreen even goes on to say, syphilis made Al Capone larger than life.
So, which was it?
In retrospect, Capone was a little of both the little guy and the big guy.
When he was about 18, Al was introduced by Torrio to Frankie Yale, the owner of the Harvard Inn, amongst many NY hot spots. Most people found Capone to be likeable, so Yale employed him as a bouncer and bartender. One evening when Capone was working the door, he frivolously told a patron that she had a “nice ass”. His exact words, according to a few sources, were, “Excuse me, miss, but you have a nice ass, and I mean that as a compliment.” Her brother, Frank Gallucio, took out a knife and sliced Capone’s left cheek three times. It is reported that Torrio, Yale, Gallucio and Scarface Al had a sit-down after hours a few days later at the Harvard Inn, where the two elders decided Capone should apologize to Gallucio, and drop it. Capone was warned never to touch Gallucio in revenge. He didn’t. In fact, Capone hired him as an errand-runner later in his career.
A couple years later, Capone took his wife and son (Albert Francis Capone, or Sonny) to Baltimore, where big Al learned bookkeeping for a Construction Firm, a skill that would greatly aid him in the future. His boss loved him so much he gave him $500 as a going away gift when Capone finally moved to Chicago.
In the town that’s associated with his name, Capone went back to organized crime under Torrio, who’d moved from NY, and Big Jim Colosimo, the head of the Chicago racket. However, with Prohibition in effect, Colosimo refused to get into bootlegging, claiming he was doing well enough in whores and gambling. He was killed (purportedly by Frankie Yale, ordered purportedly by Torrio – didnâ€™t see that coming), leaving Torrio in charge with Capone his right-hand man.
Torrio and Capone ruled Chicago somewhat peacefully in their first few years. There were few murders, but pineapple bombs caused havoc in local ‘hoods and small-time crime was gradually increasing. Big Bill Thompson, the corrupt mayor, withdrew from the 1923 election because he knew people hated him. He was succeeded by William E. Dever. Dever’s determination to enforce Prohibition in Chicago led Torrio and Capone to move their operation’s base to Cicero. Ironically, though, it was Dever’s boldness and claims of stamping out crime that challenged the gangsters and brought about the huge uproar of violence in the mid to late 1920s. The North Side vs. the South Side. Not baseball, but Irish vs. Italians.
Soon came the time when Herbert Asbury, author of The Gangs of Chicago, says, banks all over Chicago were robbed in broad daylight by bandits who scorned to wear masks – from one hundred to two hundred (holdups) were reported every night…payroll robberies were a weekly occurrence and necessitated the introduction of armored cars and armed guards – automobiles were stolen by the thousands.
So, with Torrio and Capone making upwards of $100,000,000 a year racketeering and waging war with the Irish up north, why didn’t someone from the North Side Gang just do piece of work on them? Well, they tried. In January of 1925, Capone barely escaped being shot in front of a restaurant on State and 55th. Two weeks later, Torrio was shot five times while shopping with his wife in the Loop.
Though the assassination attempt didn’t succeed, Torrio was in pain, and he’d had enough. He signed over all his brothels, gambling houses, distilleries, etc. to Scarface, making Capone Public Enemy Number – at this point? Oh, I don’t know. Number twenty-eight, twenty-nine?
(So how did Capone become Public Enemy Number ONE? Did he turn on his boys and join the North Side? Murder Henry Ford in a steakhouse? Take the blue pill? Tune in next week to find out.)