Get the Biography of Notorious Gangster Al Capone
12.27.13 by BJSprecher
"They've hung everything on me except the Chicago fire." — Al Capone
One of the most infamous gangsters in American history, Al Capone continues to capture the public imagination more than 60 years after his death. Capone’s life and likeness have been chronicled and copied dozens of times on both the big and the small screen, in movies like Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables and on HBO’s award-winning dramatic series Boardwalk Empire. Though his exploits may belong to another, more violent era, his legacy continues in the ReelzChannel reality docuseries The Capones, debuting Tuesday, January 28th. The show offers a peek inside the lives of Al’s modern day legacy, a dysfunctional family of larger-than-life personalities carrying the weight of the gangster's notorious last name.
Get to know the family
Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899, the son of Gabriele and Teresina Capone, recent Italian immigrants who struggled to make the American dream a reality for their family. Initially a promising student, Capone began skipping class to hang out at the Brooklyn docks. He eventually dropped out at the age of 14 after being beaten by the principal of the strict parochial Catholic school he attended for striking a female teacher.
After his family moved to a nicer home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, Capone began running with small-time gangs, eventually becoming an errand boy for John “Papa Johnny” Torrio, a local mobster who ran a numbers and gambling operation. Torrio mentored Capone in the ways of being a gangster and the two remained close even after Torrio moved his operation to Chicago in 1909.
Capone sought legitimate employment in the years following Torrio’s departure, working in a factory and as a bouncer and bartender at the Harvard Inn in Coney Island. It was there that Capone earned the nickname “Scarface” when his face was slashed by the angry brother of a young woman he insulted. At 19, Capone married Mary "Mae" Coughlin shortly after the birth of their son, Albert Francis. To support his family, Capone moved them to Baltimore where he earned honest money as a bookkeeper. However, the death of his father in 1920 saw Capone abandoning the straight life for a chance to work for Torrio in Chicago.
Torrio already had a successful gambling and prostitution business in Chicago, but the enactment in 1920 of the 18th Amendment and the beginning of prohibition prompted him to expand his operation into bootlegging. In short order, Capone proved himself to be as cunning as he was ruthless and Torrio made him his partner. After a botched assassination attempt in 1925 left Torrio seriously injured, he retired to Brooklyn, leaving his entire operation to Capone. Capone relished his new status and began to live a very lavish public lifestyle, even moving his headquarters into the luxurious Metropole Hotel in downtown Chicago.
The press chronicled Capone’s every move and the public ate it up. For a time, he enjoyed the public’s favor, with many anti-Prohibitionists viewing him as a hero of the people and others believing him to be a Robin Hood-esque figure. However, public favor quickly turned against Capone as his tactics became ever more ruthless. When in 1926 Capone’s men gunned down the “Hanging Prosecutor” William McSwiggin during a shootout with rival gangsters, public disapproval of Capone’s tactics turned to outrage.
The police had no evidence of Capone’s involvement in the murders so he was able to walk away free and clear, which further enraged the public. In response, the police began raiding Capone’s businesses with renewed fervor. The increased pressure from the police did little to slow the growth of Capone’s operation, however, and by 1929 he all but controlled the illegal liquor trade in Chicago.
Capone’s success landed him in the crosshairs of not only the Chicago police but other gangsters, most notably George Clarence “Bugs” Moran and his North Siders gang. Moran had been a threat to Capone for years, but when he tried to have Capone’s top trigger man “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn killed, Capone and McGurn decided to kill Moran. While Capone was away in Miami, McGurn’s men staged a fake raid on one of Moran’s bootlegging operations. Dressed as police, McGurn’s men lined up Moran’s bootleggers and gunned them down with machine guns. Seven bootleggers were murdered in cold blood, but Capone and McGurn missed their mark, as Moran was not counted among the dead. The incident, dubbed The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, rocked Chicago and sent ripples of fear and outrage throughout the country.
Public calls to action to put an end to gangland violence reached all of the way to the White House. In March, 1929, President Herbert Hoover tasked Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon with bringing down Capone, whether by providing evidence of Prohibition violations or proof of income tax evasion. A daring young Prohibition agent named Eliot Ness was put to the task of acquiring evidence against Capone for bootlegging, while Treasury Department official Elmer Irey led the federal tax evasion investigation against Capone.
Ness and his now-famous “Untouchables” caused no end of trouble for Capone by disrupting his distribution routes and destroying product and equipment in raids, but his investigation had no success in directly linking Capone to any violations. Irey, on the other hand, built a solid case of tax evasion against Capone by using information about the gangsters finances gathered from undercover agents within Capone’s organization, as well as with the cooperation of two bookkeepers who used to work for the gangster. Despite his attempt to rig the trial by bribing the jury, Capone was found guilty of several counts of tax evasion on October 18, 1931, and sentenced a month later to eleven years in federal prison. He was also fined $50,000, and required to pay court costs amounting to $7,692, in addition to the $215,000 plus interest he owned in back taxes. He was denied bail.
To prevent Capone from exerting his considerable influence from behind bars, he was sent to the infamous Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, where he would have few privileges and little contact with the outside world. While in prison, Capone’s health deteriorated due to a case of paresis brought on by tertiary syphilis. In November 16, 1939, after having served seven-and-a-half years of his sentence and having paid all fines and back taxes, Capone was released from prison. He received brain treatment at a Baltimore hospital and then retired to his Palm Island estate in Florida. He would never publicly return to gangland Chicago. He died of a stroke on January 25, 1947.
Gage, Nicholas. Mafia, USA. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1972.
Corey, Herbert. Farewell, Mr. Gangster!. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1936
Kobler, John. Capone,. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.
Messick, Hank and Goldblatt, Burt. The Mobs And The Mafia. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.
Murray, George. The Legacy of Al Capone: Portraits and Annals of Chicago's Public Enemies. New York: Putnam, 1975.
Ness, Eliot. The Untouchables. New York: Messner, 1957; 1987 reprint.
Tyler, Gus. Organized Crime in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962.
Al Capone’s criminal record and fingerprint card image courtesy the Federal Bureau of Investigation