John William Tuohy
Al Capone would become America’s most famous bootlegger, an odd distinction since Capone was primarily a procurer, a pimp and, despite his fame, Capone would always be more of a legend than an influence on organized crime.
He was widely regarded in his day, on both sides of the law, as a crude buffoon who ended his own career through his desire for fame and notoriety. Capone owed his celebrity to the local and eventually the national media who were desperate to find a central point in Chicago’s extremely disorganized and violent bootlegger business. The press took his garbled words and rearranged them often times into witty insightful messages and commentary on the day.
In 1922, Capone, who was more or less still a procurer and part-time enforcer, was making $2,000 a week, more money then he ever dreamed he could make but it was still a mere fraction compared to the millions that Boss Johnny Torrio was piling away.
Towards the end of 1927 he said he “fooled away about ten million on gambling,” he tipped newsboys $5 for a five newspaper, and $100 for a waiter.
He once bought a round a drinks in a country club speakeasy in New York for 1000 people. He wore a pinky ring imported from South Africa worth $50,000. In 1929 his car cost $30,000, at Christmas he spent $100,000 on miscellaneous gifts. Tourist buses stopped in front of “Capone’s castles,” the otherwise shabby Hawthorne Inn in Cicero and the Metropole hotel in Chicago. When he attended a prizefight it made the sports column, the London Daily Mail sent a reporter to cover “A week in the life of Al Capone” and feature stories of personal glimpses of the gangster sold for a flat $100.
As his fame grew so did his ego. Always vain, he explained the horrible scars on his face and neck (Gotten in a knife fight in a bar room) to heroic actions in the trenches during World War One while fighting with the “Lost battalion” in France. (Capone never served in the military)
He distributed diamond inlet belts and gave away ruby encrusted cigarette lighters. He would outlast four police chiefs; he was credited with killing between 20 and 65 men himself and ordered the killing of at least 400 others and was never charged with one of them. He outlived several dozen investigations, committees and prosecutors. There was nothing about Capone to mark him for fame and fortune. He dropped out of sixth grade
after punching his teacher in the old Williamsburg section of New York; he impressed no one and was known only for being mediocre, a soft-spoken nonentity.
It was commonly accepted in the Underworld that Torrio was the brains in the Chicago outfit and Capone was the muscle. However, after Capone over threw Torrio, he proved to be more than just the gorilla that most gang leaders pegged him to be and for what he lacked in intelligence and education, his underlying provided.
Capone’s criminal empire included the ownership of breweries, distilleries, speakeasies, warehouses, fleets of boats and trucks, nightclubs, gambling houses, horse and dog tracks, brothels, labor unions, hundreds of private businesses, he employed at least 1,000 full-time enforcers, one third of the Chicago police department and several thousand other employees. His gross income was an estimated $105,000,000 for the year, at a time when a middle class American family got by, and very well, on less then $8,000.
That was in 1927. By 1933, it was all gone and Al Capone was nothing more than a number in the federal prison system. He died broke and powerless, twelve years later. In Atlanta prison in 1936, Al Capone told Red Rudensky, a burglar, “Uncle Sam got me on a bookkeeping rap. Ain’t that the best!”?
“He would,” Rudensky wrote, “roar with a choke and cough with laughter but not for long as reality would strangle his humor.” Then Capone would say, “Rusty, if I could just go for a walk. If I could just look at buildings again, and smell that Lake Michigan, I’d give a million.”
Capone was resented, even hated in prison. Kidnapper and bank robber Alvin Karpis wrote: “The majority of the population in any prison is made up of losers from the gutter of society. Most of them aren’t even wanted at their own homes when they are released. They resent anyone who has had prosperity on the outside.”
Jimmy Lucus was one of those inmates. Surly and mean, Lucas worked at the Alcatraz barbershop with Capone and wanted to make a name for himself. One day while Capone was practicing his banjo Lucas slipped up behind him and shoved a pair of shears into Capone’s back. Capone grunted deeply in pain, stood up with the shears still sticking out of his back, turned and picked Lucas up and smashed him face first into the pillar before he collapsed in pain from the superficial wound.
Karpis wrote: “In Alcatraz, he’s a fish out of water. He knows nothing of prison life. For example, he is allowed to subscribe to various magazines, and, like other prisoners, he is permitted to send magazines to other
inmates after he reads them. Ironically, Capone, who gave orders to eliminate hundreds of lives, is now confined to rubbing out names on his magazine list when he becomes displeased or annoyed with fellow cons. It’s kind of sad, I conclude.”
Capone had contracted syphilis in or about 1927, something he knew but failed to treat. When prison doctors finally began to treat Capone’s syphilis, it was too late to correct the damage that was done to his body. With his nervous system infected by the disease, he was slowly losing his kind. But even before then, Capone was, said other inmates, losing his mind, talking about “Connected people in Washington” who would pull strings to get him released. He said that he had paid $20,000 in bribes already. It may not have been all babble. In 1939, the wife of well-connected Chicago gangster Gus Winkler, told the FBI that some of Capone’s friends in the organization were trying to get him released before Frank Nitti, the boss who followed Capone, ended their efforts.
Capone was released to the care of his wife on November 7, 1939, and spent his freedom on his estate in Palm Island, Florida “reading newspapers,” his brother Ralph reported, “and walking the grounds to get some sunshine.” He spent his summers at a retreat in Mercer, Wisconsin, where brother Ralph had retired and opened a bar room. Otherwise, Capone kept out of the limelight and enjoyed his freedom. He made a brief appearance in 1941, when his son, Sonny married a Florida society woman.
The press, perhaps in a moment of nostalgic bliss, wrote one glowing story after another for Capone in January of 1942, when Capone offered his services to the war effort “in any capacity to aid the national defense.” The government never called him back but his famous armored car was helping the British war effort in 1942, being driven around to fairs and carnivals to raise cash for its new owner and the Queen’s government.
In July of 1942 the Treasury Department sued Capone in federal court and demanded payment of back taxes totaling $250,000, which the government claimed Capone made during prohibition selling 19,984 bottles of beer between 1921 and 1922.
They were probably wrong about the dates since at that point Capone was still a low-level operative in the Torrio organization. But the government was relentless anyway. Prosecutors were sure Capone had tucked away at least $25,000,000 of his fortune and they it. But insiders later said that Capone had perhaps $5,000,000 left and before he died most that was spent or given away to his son. In the end, the tax people settled for $30,000.
On January 25, 1947 Capone died in his $8,000,000 heavily mortgaged mansion in Florida. He had suffered an apoplectic seizure and then contacted pneumonia. Remarkably, he was only 52 years old. With him at the last moments were his ever-faithful wife, Mae, his son, his mother and three of his brothers, Ralph, Matt and John.
He was buried in Chicago’s Mount Olivet cemetery on a bitter cold day, his coffin was draped in orchards. Although a dozen of the old time bosses that had known Capone in his prime were allowed to attend the burial, Chicago ruling boss, Tony Accardo, forbade a large mob turn out saying. “I don’t want” he said “this thing turning into a Goddamn circus” Capone’s wife and son, with all of their money gone, spent their last days living off of the good will of Mob boss Paul Ricca.