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The Godfather - The Life and Times of Don Al Capone
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An Italian immigrant family
Alphonse Gabriel Capone was from a respectable and professional family. He was the son of Italian immigrants, Gabriel and Teresina Capone. Al Capone's father was a barber, and his mother was a seamstress. They were born in Angri, in the Italian province of Salerno. The father, Gabriele, was among the thousands of Italian immigrants who arrived in New York in 1894. The young family settled at 95 Navy Street, in downtown Brooklyn New York. On January 17, 1899, Alphonse Capone was born. Gabriele and Teresina Capone had nine children. Of these, Ralph and Frank joined Al Capone in his criminal empire. When Al Capone was 11 years old, the Capone family moved to 38 Garfield Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. This move to a more ethnically mixed neighborhood exposed young Al Capone to broader cultural influences which equipped him with the skills to run the notorious criminal empire.
Early years and the mentor
Young Al Capone was a promising student but had problems with school rules at his strict Parochial Catholic School. At the young age of 14, Al Capone was expelled from the school for hitting a female teacher in the face. After leaving school, Al Capone did odd jobs in Brooklyn, including working in a candy store and a bowling alley. Al Capone joined small-time gangs including the junior Forty Thieves, the Bowery Boys, and the Brooklyn Rippers. He was employed and mentored by Racketeer Frankie Yale, a bartender in Coney Island, in a dance hall and saloon known as Harvard Inn. It was during this period that Al Capone met gangster Johnny Torrio, who became his most significant influence and mentor in the underworld. Torrio taught Al Capone the importance of maintaining a respectable front while operating a racketeering business. He represented a new era in criminal undertakings, transforming a violent and crude culture into a corporate empire.
Scarface, marriage and the disease
The young Capone joined Torrio's James street boys' gang and eventually rose to the Five Points gang. In a youthful brawl in a brothel saloon, a young hoodlum cut Al Capone with a razor or knife across his left cheek leading to his later nickname as Scarface. At the age of 19, on December 30, 1918, Al Capone married Mae Josephine Coughlin an Irish Catholic. She had early that month given birth to their son Albert Francis "Sonny "Capone. Being under 21, his parents had to consent to the marriage in writing. Johnny Torrio moved to Chicago to help bootlegger James "Big Jim" Colosimo manage the large brothel business there and in 1919 sent for Al Capone. Al Capone started as a bouncer in a brothel, contracted syphilis there, and never sought treatment. In 1920, Al Capone or Frankie Yale murdered Torrio's Boss, Big Jim, paving the way for Johnny Torrio to ascent to the throne of the criminal enterprise.
The business partner
As prohibition began, new bootlegging avenues opened up and created immense wealth. Torrio was boss of a mainly Italian organized crime group that was the largest in Chicago, and Al Capone was his right-hand man. With his business acumen, Al Capone became Jonny Torrio's partner. He took over the running of the Four Deuces which was Johnny Torrio's headquarters in Chicago's Levee area. A police crackdown on racketeering meant Al Capone had to move operations to Cicero. Al Capone, with the help of his two brothers Salvatore "Frank" Capone and Ralph, infiltrated the police and government departments. They took a leading position within Cicero city government while at the same time running racetracks, brothels and gambling clubs.
Al Capone kidnapped rivals election workers and threatened voters with violence. At last, he won office in Cicero but only after his brother was killed in a shoot out with Chicago Police. After a small-time thug assaulted his friend Jack Guzik, Al Capone tracked down the thug and shot him dead in a bar. Al Capone got away with the murder because of lack of witnesses. However, the publicity surrounding the case gave him the notoriety he had never had before.
In 1925, Johnny Torrio retired after an assassination attempt left him too frail to run the business. Al Capone became the crime King of Chicago. He operated prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging rackets and grew his territories by killing his rivals and competitors. Establishments that refused to buy liquor from him were often blown up. Such blowups killed almost 100 people in the 1920s.
Al the Don
Al Capone moved his headquarters to the luxurious Metropole Hotel as his part of his crusade to be more visible and to court celebrity. He frequented places like the opera and fraternized with the press. Unlike other underworld barons who shied away from publicity, Capone courted it and was always smartly dressed. He wanted people to take him as a respectable businessman and a pillar of the community. Al Capone enjoyed cigars, gourmet food, drink, custom suits, and female company. He was famous for his flamboyant and expensive jewelry. As his reputation grew, and as a sign of status, Al Capone insisted on going about unarmed. However, he never went anywhere without at least two bodyguards and preferred to travel at night. He only risked day time travel when it was necessary. Al Capone became a national celebrity and talking point.
Al Capone next embarked on bootlegging whiskey. Assisted by his old friend from New York Frank Yale, he organized to smuggle vast amounts of whiskey into Chicago. It led to what came to be known as The Adonis Club Massacre in which Al Capone had Frank Yale's rivals brutally attacked during a Christmas party. The bootlegging of whiskey from New York to Chicago was making Al Capone wealthy. However, an event involving Billy McSwiggin, known as the hanging prosecutor, turned out to be a significant setback for Al Capone. McSwiggin was accidentally shot and killed by Al Capone's men during a gunfight with his rivals outside a bar. The blame for the killing went to Al Capone, but because of lack of evidence, he escaped arrest. The murder generated a huge public outcry against gangster violence and public sentiment swung against Al Capone.
After high profile investigation against Capone failed, the Chicago police took their frustrations out by persistently raiding his gambling dens and whorehouses. Al Capone went underground for three months and eventually took the highly risky decision of surrendering himself to the Chicago police. It turned out to have been a wise decision as the police didn't have enough evidence to charge him. Al Capone was a free man again making mockery of the police and justice system.
Al Capone now posed as a peacemaker by appealing to other gangsters to cut down on the violence. He managed to broker an amnesty between rival gangs, and for about two months, the violence stopped. Interestingly, it was the men from the tax office who became the biggest threat to the gangsters bootlegging domains.
In May 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled that a bootlegger was liable to pay income tax on his illegal bootlegging business. This ruling paved the way for the IRS to send a small special Intelligence Unit under Elmer Irey to go after Al Capone. Al Capone left Miami with his family and purchased Palm Island estate and immediately began to renovate it expensively. It allowed Elmer Irey to record Al Capone's income and expenditure. Though Al Capone was smart to ensure all transactions were on a cash basis, the tangible asset of the Palm estate was evidence of a significant source of income. In the meantime, gangster violence escalated, and frequent hijackings of Al Capone's whiskey became a considerable problem. Frank Yale, once an ally of Al Capone now became the main obstacle to Al Capone's whiskey business. Frank Yale met his end with the first use of a Tommy gun on a Sunday afternoon.
The gang wars
Next, Al Capone turned his guns on his rival gangsters North Siders gang and Bug Moran. Moran had once tried to kill Al Capone's friend and business associate Jack McGum. A decision by Al Capone and McGurn to avail themselves of Moran lead to one of the most infamous underworld massacres in history, the St Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, Bugs Moran and his gangsters were lured by a bootlegger into a garage to purchase whiskey. There Mc Gurn's gang were waiting for them dressed in stolen police uniforms. It was arranged to look like a police raid. McGurn and Al Capone made sure they were miles away. McGurn's gangsters imagining they had seen Bugs Moran, got into their police uniforms and drove to the garage in a stolen police car. The bootleggers were caught in the act, disarmed and lined up against the wall disarmed.
McGurn's men opened fire with two machine guns killing all the men except Frank Gusenburg. The plan was brilliant but failed on one score; Bugs Moran was not among the victims. He had noted the police car and darted out not wanting to be caught up in a police raid. Though Al Capone was in Florida, the Newspapers and the Police were sure who the mastermind of the massacre was. St Valentine became a national media event immortalizing Al Capone as the most elegant, smartest, ruthless, and feared of the underworld bosses. And as powerful forces closed in on him, Al Capone enjoyed the last revenge. He killed two Sicilian colleagues he believed had betrayed him. He invited the victims to a sumptuous banquet then brutally pulverized them using a baseball bat.
US President Herbert Hoover
Al Capone's activities caught the attention of US president Herbert Hoover. On March 1929, the president asked Andrew Melon, the secretary of Treasury, to have Al Capone put in jail. Melon began to gather the necessary evidence to prosecute Al Capone for Prohibition successfully. Eliot Ness, a young agent with the Prohibition Bureau, was tasked with collecting evidence of Prohibition violations. He and his team extensively used wiretapping technology, but there was some doubt if Al Capone could be successfully prosecuted for prohibition violations in Chicago.
However, the government was sure they could get Al Capone on tax evasion charges. Elmer Irey had undertaken a cunning plan of using undercover agents to pose as hoods and infiltrate the Capone Organization. The operation took real courage, and though one informer was shot before he could testify, Elmer had gathered enough evidence through his agents to try Al Capone before A jury. Two vital bookkeepers who worked for Al Capone were in police custody. It was only a matter of time before the sunset on public enemy number one, Al Capone!
The arrest and trial
On March 27, 1929, Al Capone was arrested as he came out of a Chicago court after testifying to a grand jury investigating violation of federal prohibition laws. In May 1929, Al Capone was sentenced to jail in Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary for having a gun. On March 1930, he left prison and a week later was listed as "public enemy number one" on the unofficial Chicago Crime Commissions' list. In 1931, Al Capone was charged with income tax evasion and violation of Volstead Act (Prohibition) at the Chicago Federal Building before US Judge James Hebert Wilkerson.
On March 13, 1931, a federal grand jury met secretly to consider the tax allegations leveled against Al Capone. It returned a guilty verdict against Al Capone which was kept secret until the investigation was complete. The grand jury later found Al Capone guilty of 22 counts of tax evasion totaling over $200 000. Al Capone and about 68 members of his organization were charged with 5000 separate violations of prohibition, i.e., the Volstead Act. Income tax cases took precedence over the breaches of prohibition.
It was doubtful that the Supreme Court would uphold the six-year statute of limitations. Also, lingering fears about witness tampering led to a secret deal between Al Capone's lawyers and government prosecutors. Al Capone was to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive a two to five years sentence. However, word of the deal was leaked to press, and there was public outrage. On October 6, 1931, Al Capone was escorted by detectives to the Federal Court Building. When Judge J.H. Wilkerson entered the courtroom, he immediately ordered the exchange of the Jury; Al Capone and his lawyer were dumbstruck. On October 17, 1931, after 9 hours of deliberations, the Jury found Al Capone guilty of several counts of tax evasion. Judge J.H. Wilkerson sentenced him to fines of $50 000, Court costs of $30 000 and 11 years in jail.
In August 1934, Capone was transferred from a prison in Atlanta to the infamous Alcatraz in San Francisco. With this move, his privileges of imprisonment ended, and his contact with the outside world minimized. Al Capone's health deteriorated due to tertiary syphilis, and he became disoriented and confused.
Release and the end
His sentence was reduced to six years and a half, for good behavior. Following his release, Al Capone returned to his Palm Island Palace were his health continued to deteriorate eventually dying of a cardiac arrest at the age of 48 on January 25, 1947. Throughout that time, his wife Mae stuck with him.
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