By Adam Carter
So You Think You Know Al Capone, eh? Part I
And so the glorification continues…
Al Capone, the big tipping, stogie chomping, machine gun flashing loveable outlaw. He was stronger than Superman, more famous than Charles Lindberg. He sent undead victims to recover with style at Miami Beach. When angry, he dipped his fingers in water with rose petals. He ate cat.
From what I read, there must’ve been eight or nine Al Capones. They all looked the same, but their histories were decidedly different. I was getting suspicious. After all, my teachers taught me if it’s written down, it must be true. So in order to keep from splitting, my brain did something only the most intransigent and worm-like computer could do – it merged stories, reasoned this, concluded that – and slept.
Apparently, Capone was more famous than Lindberg, more famous than anyone at the time. And he often paid for the funerals of his victims. According to Mr. Capone, by Robert J. Schoenberg, he did send one shot-up cop to Miami for six weeks, on full salary, all expenses paid. As for the cat eating, I think I dreamt that.
If you search Al Capone on the web, it shouldn’t take you too long to notice how many different takes there have been; but one thing was indisputable – he ruled Chicago in the late 1920s. Actually, he ruled the south and west sides. The North Side Gang, better known as the Irish, was now led by Hymie Weiss. He and his associates, known as “Weiss guys”, were angry because Capone and Johnny Torrio (see Part I) had killed their former chief, Dion O’Banion, sending the Chicago gangland wars to a head.
Wiess fought back with help from George “Bugs” Moran. They injured Torrio and sent him into retirement. Capone gritted his teeth, ordered bullet-proof everything and put up his dukes. So commenced the Battle of Chicago, the Beer Wars.
It all makes perfect sense now: alcohol was illegal, crime was rampant, the government and police were confused and frustrated (and bought) and then came the Depression. Yeah, so the Great Depression wasn’t exactly caused by Capone, but he was a suitable figure of the times. Especially considering what he pulled eight months prior to the stock market crash.
It’s the most notorious event of Capone’s life, and what we know about it is based largely on speculation The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, two or three Capone guys dressed as cops went into the S.M.C. Cartage building at 2122 North Clark and lined up seven North Siders against the back wall, ostensibly arresting the men for bootlegging. Two other men entered the garage moments later with the newly employed machine gun and sawed the men down. It seemed that Capone had an inside track on where “Bugs” Moran would be that morning, but the timing didn’t work out. Moran saw the phony police car pull up in front of the garage and kept walking.
It’s widely agreed that Jack “Machine-gun” McGurn was responsible for leading the dirty part of the operation, but, like everyone else, he was never convicted. Nothing could be proven. The Gangs of Chicago says, Capone himself had the best alibi of all; at the moment the crime was committed he was talking to the District Attorney of Miami, Florida.
By today’s standards, it might not qualify as a massacre, but at the time it was the deadliest gangland activity of the century and, if it wasn’t already, succeeded in marking Chicago as the center of it all. (If it’s your sort of thing, the spread of glossies in the middle of Helmer and Bilek’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is particularly engrossing.)
With more than 1000 gangsters and 20,000 speakeasies linked to him by 1930, but with no way to get him off the streets, the city of Chicago didn’t know what to do. After all, most people didn’t agree with Prohibition – ergo, Capone was providing a service. Frank J. Loesch of the Chicago Crime Commission decided to release a list of Public Enemies more to stigmatize the criminals than anything, to put Capone and the other gangsters in a bad light in the public’s eye. Capone found that as Public Enemy Number One, he had a hard time doing even the most common of tasks. He went to Florida to try to find some freedom, but the dishonor of his new title followed him, and he was arrested frequently when he left his house.
But still, no one could pin anything on him that would stick. Everyone knew he was the head of the Chicago syndicate, but all paperwork, money transfers, etc. led to others. He seemed to be the perfect criminal.
Ah, but wait – no one’s perfect. No doubt you’ve seen this part of the story in the movie, The Untouchables. Capone’s “soft spot” was the IRS. How do you file taxes when your business is crime? Treasury agent, Eliot Ness was able to finally imprison Scarface on many counts of tax evasion and willful failure to file tax returns in the ’20s.
Capone was sentenced to eleven years in federal pens, of which he served about seven, mostly at Alcatraz. There, his inmates hated him; he was attacked and threatened many times, and even though he would survive his sentence, the syphilis he’d contracted as a teen made him weak, physically and mentally. When he was released in 1939, he spent a little time at a rehab hospital in Baltimore before finishing out his life in Miami Beach on Palm Island, not close to the man he used to be, dying in 1947.
Without going into unnecessary detail and listing speakeasies from other sites, I would suggest, if you want to get that gangland sense in person, to check out The Chicago Bar Project online. They have a giant list of local restaurants and bars that have that Capone/Weiss guy feel. The Green Mill (partially owned in his hay-day by Jack “Machine-gun” McGurn) and Butch McGuire’s are a couple that come to mind. Also, just for the fun of it, visit www.alcaponemuseum.com and play Gangster Jeopardy among other games.