Over the last 200 years the Sicilian Mafia have grown from strength to strength, branching out their criminal activities throughout the world, nowhere more so than in America.
Known as the La Cosa Nostra (Our Thing), the Mafia’s first recorded activities in the United States came in the spring of 1869, when the New Orleans Times reported that the city’s Second District had become overrun by “Well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars”.
It wasn’t until the start of the Prohibition era, on 17 January 1920, that the American Mafia became more prominent in the media.
It was then that Italian Mafia families began waging war for absolute control over lucrative bootlegging rackets.
One of these families was run by a little known gangster named Al Capone.
He was born Alphonse Gabriel Capone on 17 January 1899, in Brooklyn, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, Gabriele and Teresina Capone. His father Gabriele had worked as a barber in Castellammare di Stabia, a town about 16 miles south of Naples, and his mother worked as a seamstress and was from a small town in the Province of Salerno called Angri.
The Capone family first emigrated from Italy to Hungary in 1893, that same year they arrived in America by ship, finally settling down at 95 Navy Street, which was situated in a downtown part of Brooklyn. At the age of eleven Capone, his mother, his father and eight siblings moved to 38 Garfield Place, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
As a child Capone showed promise as a student, but had trouble coping with rules and discipline.
This led to him being expelled from school at 14, after he hit a teacher in the face.
When he was in his teens, Capone tried his hand working a few menial jobs, such as serving in a candy store and working in a bowling alley. It was around this time that he started to hang out with street gangs, and at first joined he a few small ones like the Junior Forty Thieves, the Bowery Boys and then the Brooklyn Rippers.
It was not long before an eager Capone found himself in one of the largest and most feared gangs in all of New York, The Five Points Gang, which was based in Lower Manhattan. These gangs would later be made famous in the 2002 Martin Scorsese movie ‘Gangs of New York’.
Capone was soon noticed by a mobster Frankie Yale, and it was Yale who took him under his wing and became his mentor.
One night as Capone worked the door at a Brooklyn nightclub, he made sexual remarks to a young woman. He was attacked by her brother, Frank Gallucio, and slashed three times on the left side of his face. These were the source of the nickname “Scarface”, a nickname he despised.
Whenever he was photographed he would try and hide them with a handkerchief, telling people they were old war wounds.
Frankie Yale insisted that Capone apologise to Gallucio, which he did.
Capone later hired him as his bodyguard.
On 30 December 1918, at age 19, Capone married Mae Josephine Coughlin, an Irish Catholic girl who had given birth to their first and only son, Albert Francis “Sonny” Capone, earlier that month.
In 1920, Capone decided to up sticks and move to Chicago, leaving behind his wife and child temporarily.
They would join him later, in 1923.
It was Capone’s, Five Point Gang mentor, Johnny Torrio, who recruited him into what would later be known as the Chicago Mafia.
Johnny Torrio had left New York some time before Capone, to resolve some problems with the Black Hand, and whilst Torrio was in Chicago he realised it was a prime location to set up rackets. With the onset of Prohibition, starting in January 1920, he saw a great opportunity to set up a bootlegging racket.
He took over from gang boss James “Big Jim” Colosimo after Big Jim had been assassinated.
Torrio had been pushing for the gang to get into bootlegging, but Colosimo had refused.
In May 1920, Colosimo went out of town. When he returned a week later, Torrio called him to let him know about a shipment arriving at his cafe. When Colosimo arrived at the cafe he was shot and killed. No one was ever arrested for the murder, but it was widely believed that Torrio ordered the killing.
It’s said he brought in New York colleagues Frankie Yale and Al Capone to carry out the hit.
It is said that around this time Capone murdered two others on the orders of his new boss.
In 1924, the corrupt Chicago mayor, William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson, won one of the most crooked elections in the city’s history, with the help of Torrio and Capone. It’s even said that voters were threatened at polling stations. A few weeks after the win, Big Bill announced he would run Al Capone and his boys out of town. Meeting Big Bill outside City Hall, Capone attacked him, sending him flying down the steps and leaving the new Mayor in a bloody heap at the bottom.
Shortly afterwards, tragedy hit Capone when his older brother Frank was killed by the police.
Frank’s funeral was an extravagant one; the flowers alone were estimated to have cost $20,000.
He was buried in a silver-plated casket and there were more than 150 cars in the motorcade.
It was one of the biggest funerals Chicago had ever witnessed.
Out of respect for his brother, Capone closed all the speakeasies and gambling dens in town.
Sometime in 1924, a small time thug called Joe Howard assaulted one of Capone’s friends. After hearing the news, Capone became furious and wanted revenge. On 8 May he went looking for Howard and found him in a bar. Howard insulted him and Capone shot him six times.
Prosecutor William H. McSwiggin immediately began developing a case against him, but although there were several witnesses in the bar when it happened, they all developed amnesia. Capone was arrested on 11 July, but later released due to lack of evidence and witnesses.
At the time, Torrio and Capone’s fiercest rivals were the North Side Gang, headed by Dion O’Banion. They maintained a steady relationship for a while, but during that same year, O’Banion discovered that one of his brewery’s was about to be raided by the FBI, and he decided to sell his share to Torrio. After the raid, O’Banion and Torrio were arrested and the fragile alliance between The Chicago Outfit and The North Side Gang crumbled.
Tensions boiled over completely when O’Banion cheated Torrio out of $500,000 in another brewery acquisition deal.
On 10 November 1924, Torrio took revenge when his men John Scalise and Albert Anselmi murdered O’Banion in a flower shop.
This led to a bloody and brutal gangland war between the North Side Gang and The Chicago Outfit.
On Saturday 24 January, 1925, in retaliation for the O’Banion assassination, Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and Bugs Moran attacked Torrio as he was returning to his apartment in South Clyde Avenue. As Torrio pulled up in his car, he was met with a hail of gunfire from Weiss and Moran, shattering the cars windows. Torrio was struck in the jaw, lungs, groin, legs, and abdomen. Moran attempted to deliver a final shot into his skull, but he had run out of ammunition.
The three North Siders left the scene and a severely wounded Torrio.
They did expect him to survive.
He did, and after having emergency surgery he slowly recovered from the assassination attempt.
Capone had men guarding him around the clock, to make sure his mentor was safe.
Throughout his ordeal Torrio held true to the gangland principle of “omertà” (total silence), never mentioning the names of his would-be assassins. After his release from hospital, Torrio served a year in jail for Prohibition violations.
The near-death experience frightened him so badly that he decided it was time for him to retire.
In late 1925 Torrio moved to Italy with his wife and mother, giving total control of the Chicago Outfit to Al Capone, saying to him: “It’s all yours, Al. Me? I’m quitting. It’s Europe for me”.
Now Capone was boss of the Chicago Outfit, with control throughout the Prohibition Era.
As such, he ran large sections of the Chicago underworld.
He’s estimated to have earned over US$100 million per year in revenue, made possible through numerous illegal rackets, like gambling, prostitution and loan sharking. The highest revenue, though, was generated by the sale of liquor.
In the spring of 1926, Capone and his men killed the Prosecutor, William McSwiggin outside of a bar. This created a major stir in Chicago, which led to Capone leaving the city to go into hiding for three months, yet he finally decided to come back to Chicago and face the accusations of murder rather than stay out on the run.
Once again though, the authorities did not have enough evidence to bring Capone to trial, and he escaped criminal charges.
His grip on the underworld, and on the city’s politics, tightened as he became increasingly powerful.
He smuggled liquor from the rum-runners off the East Coast, and with the help of The Purple Gang in Detroit he brought more in from Canada. This made Capone’s empire one of the biggest in America, and he was now working daily from his headquarters at Chicago’s Lexington Hotel.
He was also operating casinos and speakeasies throughout the city.
As a result, he and his gang were virtually untouchable and he had nearly every major police officer and politician in his pocket, including the Mayor, William Hale Thompson.
Capone wore all the best custom suits, smoked the best cigars, ate the best gourmet food and wore the most expensive jewellery. He was constantly attracting media attention, and he said, amongst his most famous favourite quotes: “I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want”, and “All I do is satisfy a public demand”.
Capone become a big celebrity, and he was admired by all those who drank alcohol.
Yet his enemies were never far behind.
Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran of the North Side Gang wanted to bring him down, and more than once his car was riddled with bullets.
On 20 September 1926, The North Side gang shot into Capone’s entourage as he was eating lunch in the Hawthorne Hotel Restaurant. A motorcade of ten vehicles, using Thompson submachine guns and shotguns, riddled the outside of the Hotel and the restaurant on the first floor.
Capone’s bodyguard, Frankie Rio, threw him to the ground when the first shots were fired.
Several people were injured, and Capone paid for their medical care, including all the expenses for a young boy and his mother.
She would otherwise have lost her eyesight.
This event prompted Capone to call for a truce, but the negotiations fell through.
In 1928, increasingly worried about his family’s safety, Capone bought a 14-room retreat on Palm Island, Florida, close to Miami Beach. This 10,000-square-foot waterfront mansion would be Capone’s home for the rest of his life.
With the attempt on his life and the bold hijacking of the Outfit’s booze trucks, The North Side Gang increasingly became a thorn in Capone’s side.
Further to that, they assassinated two of Capone’s top men, Pasqualino “Patsy” Lolordo and Antonio “The Scourge” Lombardo, and there were three attempts on Jack McGurn, one of his top enforcers.
Capone decided enough was enough.
He gave the orders to hit back at Bugs Moran and his North Side Gang in what were to become the most infamous assassinations in gangland history.
On 14 February 1929, five members of The North Side Gang, Frank and Peter Gusenberg; Albert Weinshank; Adam Heyer, James Clark and two collaborators, Reinhardt H. Schwimmer and John May, were lined up against the rear inside wall of the garage at 2122 North Clark Street, in the Lincoln Park, on Chicago’s North Side, and executed.
Two of the four shooters were dressed as police officers, while the others wore suits, with overcoats and hats.
Before the massacre, which happened at around 10:30 AM., the seven men were waiting for Moran and other members of his gang to show, but they didn’t know he had left his Parkway Hotel apartment late. Moran and one of his men, Ted Newberry, approached the rear of the warehouse from a side street when they saw a police car pull up, and they immediately turned and went to a nearby coffee shop.
On the way, they ran into another gang member, Henry Gusenberg, and warned him not to go anywhere near the garage as the police were there.
Another Moran gang member, Willie Marks, was also on his way to the garage when he spotted the police car.
He ducked into a doorway, and managed to slip away.
The main goal of the hit had been to take out Moran.
It is thought that Capone’s lookout mistakenly believed he had entered the garage.
When the bodies were discovered it seemed at first glance that all the men were dead, but Frank Gusenberg, lying amongst the bloody corpses with fourteen bullets holes in him was amazingly still breathing, but choking on his own blood.
He was immediately taken to hospital, where investigators waited with anticipation for their only lead to wake up and finger the men who were responsible.
Eventually Frank regained consciousness, but when asked the identity of the killers, he simply said: “I’m not gonna talk”, before he laid his head back and died. Frank just happened to be one of the men who attempted to assassinate Jack McGurn.
What had just happened became known as ‘The St Valentine’s Day Massacre’.
Police arrested Fred ‘Killer’ Burke; Burke and a close companion, James Ray, were known to wear police uniforms during robberies.
Burke was pursued for the murder of Patrolman Charles Skelly instead of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as there was more chance of getting a conviction. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for this killing and he died there in 1940.
Police made an announcement that they suspected four of Capone’s men; John Scalise, Albert Anselmi, Jack McGurn and Frank Rio, Capone’s bodyguard. Police eventually charged McGurn and Scalise with the massacre.
The charges against Jack McGurn were finally dropped because lack of evidence, and was charged with a single violation of the Mann Act.
Early in the morning of 8 May 1929, the bodies of John Scalise, Albert Anselmi, and Joseph Giunta were discovered on a lonely road near Hammond, Indiana. All three had been severely beaten and shot to death. One of the shots that hit Scalise had torn off the little finger of his left hand.
The coroner said he had never seen such disfigured bodies.
For years people believed The North Side Gang had killed the trio in retaliation for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It later emerged that they were murdered by Al Capone himself, as he had discovered they were conspiring with rival mobster Joe Aiello to assassinate him.
Capone staged a party for them, and not long after the celebrations started, he engaged in an argument with his bodyguard Frankie Rio, in front of Scalise and Anselmi. He then slapped Frankie, who ran from the room. The men tracked Rio down and offered to bring him in on their plans.
At the climax of the party, Capone produced a baseball bat and beat the three men to death.
He then fired bullets into their bodies.
Although Capone never admitted to being involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he did allude to his future plans for it in 1929. A few months prior to the murders, he told a fellow associate of his plan to take down Bugs Moran.
His associate said he would have to kill a lot of people in order to get to his target. Capone said: “I’ll send flowers”.
In 1929, the Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness began an investigation into Al Capone and his businesses, but he was unable to get any kind of conviction. The government decided that success was more likely if they tried convicting Capone on income tax violation.
In 1931 Capone was indicted for income tax evasion and various other violations of the Volstead Act (Prohibition).
Capone’s attorneys made a plea deal, but the presiding judge warned he might not follow the sentencing recommendation from the prosecution, so Capone withdrew his plea of guilty. Capone attempted to bribe and intimidate potential jurors, but this was discovered by Ness’s men, The Untouchables.
Following a long trial, on 17 October 1931, the jury returned a mixed verdict, finding Capone guilty of three counts of tax evasion (for the years 1925, 1926 and 1927), and two counts of failing to file tax returns (for the years 1928 and 1929), but the Volstead Act violations were dropped.
He was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment, which at the time was the longest tax evasion sentence ever given.
He also incurred heavy fines.
He appealed the convictions, but was unsuccessful.
One of his many items to be seized by the federal government was an armoured limousine, and this would later be used to protect President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
In 1929, when he was first being investigated, Capone had named the people who were to succeed him.
He thought so much of his cousin Francesco Nitto (Frank Nitti) that he named him as one of a triumvirate (a political regime dominated by three powerful individuals) along with Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik and Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo.
In May of 1932, Capone was sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary, and from there he was transferred to the Lincoln Heights Jail. There, he managed to obtain special privileges. On 11 August 1934 he was sent to the infamous ‘Alcatraz’, as punishment for bribing both his fellow inmates and guards.
Alcatraz was one of the strictest prisons in the world.
There was even a ‘No Talk’ rule.
The only time prisoners were allowed to interact was during meal times.
The tight security severely limited Capone’s contact with the outside world, and when Prohibition was abolished in 1933 it diminished his waning power even further. In 1935, newspapers began carrying stories that he was continuing his illegal activities in the prison, and was even receiving special privileges.
The U.S. Attorney General issued a statement categorically and emphatically denying the truth of the stories.
He added that Capone wore the same clothing as every other inmate, he did not receive packages from outside, and he did not wear silk underwear.
Capone’s first job in Alcatraz was in the laundry. Then he worked as a library delivery boy, and then he worked in the recreation yard as a sweeper. Whilst he was working as a clean-up man in the showers he had his first altercation with another inmate. He got into a fight with a prisoner called Jimmy Lucas, and he was stabbed with a pair of shears. On another occasion, he had a fight with another inmate called William E. Coyler, and it cost him eight days in isolation.
Finally, Capone was diagnosed with syphilis, which he had contracted years earlier before he was married.
He refused to have treatment and it affected his life immensely.
By 1938 the syphilis had caused paresis and Capone was very sick, and constantly confused.
He was admitted to the prison hospital where he stayed until January 1939.
Capone was then transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, near Los Angeles, to serve one year for a misdemeanour.
After serving the sentence, he was taken to Lewisburg Pennsylvania, for final release.
Al Capone was let out on 16 November 1939.
His physical and mental health had deteriorated because of the disease.
In 1946, his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist performed examinations on him which concluded that, due to brain damage caused by the syphilis, he had the mental capability of a 12-year-old child. Capone was unable to resume his criminal activities, and spent the last years of his life at his mansion in Florida.
On 21 January 1947, Al Capone suffered a stroke.
He regained consciousness and started to improve, but he contracted pneumonia and the very next day he suffered a fatal cardiac arrest.
He died on 25 January 1947, at only 48.
He was buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery, Illinois.
Once the overlord of Chicago, Al Capone is now forever etched in our memories as the world’s most notorious gangster.
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