Although most of the original buildings are gone, the addresses connected to one of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters are well documented and can still be visited.
Born January 17, 1899, Alphonse Capone was the fourth son born to Italian Immigrants Gabriele and Teresa in Brooklyn, New York. Like many boys in his neighbourhood, Capone was soon running errands for a local gangster, and he began to see the wealth available to those who operated outside the law. Although he worked in conventional employment when he was older, he eventually became a bartender for another high-level gangster, Johnny Torrio, who “ran” Coney Island.
After his child was born and he married his girlfriend, Capone tried his hand at a legitimate career tending the books for a construction firm. Capone stayed in this position for about a year, until his previous gangster boss invited him to Chicago to once again work for him.
Chicago of 1920 was incredibly corrupt, being run by mob bosses – and Johnny Torrio was a top man for the biggest one. Capone was brought in from New York to manage the brothels, a position he found distasteful. Using his intellect and charm, Capone eventually took over managing a speakeasy (the Four Deuces at 2,222 South Wabash) and became Torrio’s partner rather than just an employee. Capone bought a house at 7,244 Prairie Avenue, a respectable neighbourhood. To his family and friends, Al Capone was a dealer in second-hand furniture.
For several years, Chicago was relatively quiet as the gangs accepted their chosen fields of profit. When Torrio left to return to Italy – and left Capone in charge – the peace soon ended, as Capone sought to increase his empire. Capone’s brother, Frank, had been installed into the city council, and was instrumental in opening a new brothel, taking control of the race track and taking over a new gambling joint. When Capone’s forces kidnapped opponent’s election workers, police were called in. Frank Capone was recognized while walking down the street and was riddled with bullets from 79 police officers.
Furious, Capone held his temper for five weeks, but eventually shot a small-time thug who insulted his friend. Capone was tried, but many eyewitnesses could somehow not remember the details of the event and Capone was free. The incident catapulted Capone from relatively safe anonymity into notoriety. At 25 he was powerful and feared, the master of the suburb of Cicero.
The coming of Prohibition ended all peace among the gangs as the factions warred to gain control over the lucrative bootleg liquor trade. Murders were frequent and although they were often overlooked by the police, revenge killings were common.
Torrio had returned to Chicago, but was badly injured during an attempt on his life. When he recovered he decided he was done with the violence, handed all of his assets over to Capone and left the country. Capone was now a major force in the underworld and he moved his headquarters to the Metropole Hotel (2,300 South Michigan Avenue) and the nearby Lexington Hotel (2,135 South Michigan Avenue). He became visible, charitable and almost respectable. Despite the fact that there were murders that were known to have been committed by Capone, there was never any proof.
An example of how bars functioned during Prohibition can be found at Schaller’s Pump. The Schaller family has run the business since the early 1920s.
With his new stature in the community, Capone began to view himself as a benefactor and a source of pride and inspiration to the Italian community. He employed thousands of people and his generosity was legendary.
Capone then attempted to make peace with his biggest rival, Hymie Weiss. Weiss refused the deal and was gunned down the next day. As Chicago wearied of violence, Capone again attempted to arrange peace among the bosses. For several months the peace held, and then the Supreme Court ruled that illegal income – such as that derived from bootlegging – was subject to taxes. A Special Intelligence Unit of the IRS was sent after Capone. To escape constant harassment from law enforcement, Capone moved to Miami, bought a home and began to refurbish his new home. The IRS started documenting the purchases, most of which were made in cash.
A key member of Capone’s gang, Jack McGunn, was a stakeholder in the Green Mill nightclub. Still open today, the club is a favourite of jazz musicians, and few of the patrons know that a maze of Prohibition tunnels can still be reached through an innocuous trap door in the bar. The décor is modern, but the fascination is still there at 4,802 North Broadway, Chicago.
With problems continuing in Chicago, Capone left his family and returned to manage his business. He began to diversify his interests, expanding into offering a “protective association” for which appropriate fees would have to be paid. Rival boss Bugs Moran was interfering in Capone’s plans for expansion, and the decision was made to have him assassinated. On St Valentine’s Day, Capone’s men dressed as police officers and lured men from the rival faction into an abandoned garage. Seven died that night, but Bugs Moran was not among them. Capone was now national news.
The original building is long gone, but the site can be visited at 2,122 North Clark Street, Chicago.
The publicity that followed the St Valentine’s Day massacre catalyzed the government into action. The plan was to gather enough evidence to prove tax evasion and later try to prosecute him for gang activities. Eliot Ness was put in charge of the operation and he began assembling his agents.
Capone was sent to jail for carrying a concealed weapon and left the running of the business to his brother Ralph. With less concern for concealment, Ralph flaunted his wealth and was soon indicted on tax evasion charges. Ness and his Untouchables tapped Ralph’s phones and began the process of shutting down the Capone Breweries.
While Capone worked to rebuild his reputation by opening a soup kitchen (935 South State Street), Ness and his agents documented thousands of Prohibition violations that could be used in the event the tax evasion case was unsuccessful. Raids on breweries took place openly and millions of dollars worth of brewing equipment was destroyed or seized. Ness’s actions were both embarrassing and costly for Capone, and served as an excellent distraction from the tax evidence that Ness was acquiring.
In 1931, an indictment was returned against Capone citing 22 counts of tax evasion. The trial lasted eleven days and the jury deliberated for nine hours before finding Capone guilty of some of the counts of tax evasion. The IRS put liens on his property to cover unpaid taxes, and Capone spent some time in Cook County Jail before being taken to prison. He spent the first years of his sentence in Atlanta but was eventually transferred to Alcatraz where prisoners had almost no contact with the outside world.
Capone’s sentence was reduced for good behavior and he was released in 1939, suffering from tertiary syphilis. Despite being treated, Capone’s health declined and he died of cardiac arrest in 1947 at the age of 48. He is buried along with other notorious gangsters in the Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.