America's Most Wanted: The Hunt For Al Capone

Al Capone. AP i i

Al Capone was a huge man, author Jonathan Eig says. "He was on the level with Babe Ruth [and] Charles Lindbergh." AP hide caption

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Al Capone. AP

Al Capone was a huge man, author Jonathan Eig says. "He was on the level with Babe Ruth [and] Charles Lindbergh."

AP
Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster
By Jonathan Eig
Hardcover, 480 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $28

Read An Excerpt

Chicago can claim its share of celebrities with global recognition — Michael Jordan and Barack Obama are international brands — but the city's most famous son might be the gangster who gets the two-fisted Tommy-gun salute. More than 60 years after his squalid, inglorious death, Alphonse Capone, a powerfully built man with two long scars on his left cheek, is still perhaps the most famous criminal who ever lived.

Jonathan Eig, a former writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of best-selling books on Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, has written a book about Al Capone's life and crimes, and the federal effort that brought him down, titled Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster.

Eig tells NPR's Scott Simon that Capone persists in our memory because during his time, the criminal was as famous as anyone in the country.

"He was huge," Eig says. "He was on the level with Babe Ruth [and] Charles Lindbergh and it was because he came along in the '20s when celebrities were just in love with the spotlight, and Capone was the first and really the only criminal that decided that he wanted to be famous, too, and he embraced celebrity."

Capone knew how to play to the people. He called his criminal organization "The Outfit," even though, according to Eig, it was "very loosely organized."

"We have this image now of him as this overlord who was in control of every bar, every casino, every speakeasy and brothel in Chicago." But Capone had a lighter business touch, and Eig says that made a difference. "He didn't try to micromanage. He let the bar owners [and] the gambling house operators do their thing, and collected his portion. And his big job was to make sure everybody stayed happy." He paid off the courts and the cops, Eig says, to keep his crew out of jail.

A People Person

How did Capone rise to such heights? Eig doesn't credit the gangster's smarts — Capone "was of average intelligence," with an IQ of 95. "But he had a real gift for organization," Eig says, "and he was a terrific people person, very gregarious, very well liked. This is not the popular image we have of him, but in fact he was a lot of fun to be around. I think that was really more the key to his success than his intellect."

A crime boss and murderer who was fun to be around? Eig says Capone could be violent, but he used his charm to "build a fraternity around him."

"That's how he survived in this business," Eig says. "He really did try to keep the rival gangsters at peace. And of course when he couldn't, then he took care of business, and that's part of being a good businessman, too, when you're in Capone's racket."

The St. Valentine's Day massacre, in which seven people were slaughtered in a Chicago garage in 1929, is a crime long hung around Capone's neck. It is supposed to have been his strike against the gang of rival crime boss George "Bugs" Moran and is often credited as being the event that raised public outrage against Capone enough to make him a target of federal prosecutors.

"I've always been suspicious," Eig says. "It doesn't make sense for Capone to have done this. In fact, the feds were already breathing down his neck. It also doesn't make sense that he would have gone after Moran in such a dramatic way and missed Moran."

In the aftermath, Moran told reporters, "Only Capone kills like that." But Eig says Moran would have had incentive to set investigators on his rival.

"What better way to take out Capone than let the feds do it? Moran would have been able to expand his turf dramatically," Eig says. "But even the cops and even the feds knew that Capone didn't do it." There was even a suspicion that the cops may have even been in on the hit, which may be "why the investigation didn't go anywhere, and why eventually, we came to blame Capone just by force of his sheer reputation."

But in researching Get Capone, Eig found new information about the massacre.

"I came across a letter in the FBI archives that offers a completely new theory," Eig says. "This letter suggested that one gangster got knocked off, his cousin came after the guy who did it, and in his rage, he killed everybody on the scene. I think everything about [the letter] that I was able to check out is supported by the facts."

'The Inactives'

The hunt for Capone also made a star out of the lawman Eliot Ness, the Chicago-based federal agent whose team of "Untouchables" went after Capone's illegal breweries. But according to Eig, Ness gets too much credit for Capone's downfall, and a better nickname for his crew would have been "The Inactives."

"He broke up a few stills and raided a few brothels," but never contributed any real evidence to the case, Eig says. "Ness was really more of a nuisance to Capone than a serious threat."

In Get Capone, the real hero of the investigation is U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson, who was tasked by President Herbert Hoover with bringing Capone to justice.

Johnson may have lost out on the popular celebration for Capone's downfall because his influence brought the criminal to famously prosaic justice: Instead of focusing on Capone's most dramatic crimes, like murder and bootlegging, Johnson went after him on tax evasion.

"He tried it out on some of the other gangsters in Chicago," Eig says. These included Capone's brother, Ralph, who went to prison for three years. "It was really the only chance they had against Capone, and they had real mixed feelings about it. They were worried that they'd be laughed at, that the government would be mocked for taking down this notorious criminal — this obvious killer — and getting him on nothing more than a tax charge.

"So it was a very interesting decision, a very important decision to go after him, and the Justice Department still refers to it as 'the Capone method.'"

Never Saw It Coming

Eig says when he was finally brought to trial on the tax evasion charges, Capone, who should have been able to afford the best legal assistance money could buy, might have been misserved by his attorneys.

"I think they were suckered by the government, and I think that Capone never saw it coming," Eig says. "He hired the guys that he usually hired for his criminal defense work. These guys knew the courts, they knew Chicago, they knew how to play the game, they knew who to bribe and how to take care of juries."

But their legal expertise didn't extend to tax law, and their gangster client didn't realize how much trouble he was in.

"I think Capone did not see the severity of this tax case and did not imagine that he could possibly go away for so long," Eig says. "He ended up being sentenced for 11 years. And Capone figured, 'These guys will make a deal for me, that's what they're good at.' And when it turned out that you couldn't deal with the government in this case, Capone was in big trouble."

In 1932, Capone was sent to prison in Atlanta. He also served time in Alcatraz and California's Terminal Island prison before winning his parole in 1939. By the time he got out, he was already a huge star. But Capone had always had a complicated relationship with the media. He didn't like his nickname, "Scarface," and Eig says he pleaded with newspaper editors to airbrush scars out of his photos.

"The media certainly made him famous — made him infamous," Eig says. Capone loved giving interviews, and the reporters loved him right back. They weren't alone. Even in his lifetime, Eig says, movies were made that were clearly based on the gangster's life, and Capone — the charming gangster — was the star of the show. "So very quickly, he could see that the public was becoming obsessed with him."

But as he was elevated to an icon, Eig says, some of the nuance of Capone's character disappeared from our understanding of him.

"I think that Capone was a complex man. I think that he was a two-bit thug who almost accidentally found himself in this position of power and extraordinary power and wealth," Eig says. "[He] made the decision that he would try to do it in a businesslike way and would try to go public with his activities, and that was a terrible mistake. He should have, like the other two-bit thugs, remained quiet about his illegal activities. But he was human."

Excerpt: 'Get Capone'

'Get Capone'
Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster
By Jonathan Eig
Hardcover, 480 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $28

Chapter 1: The Getting Of It

Al Capone stood on the sidewalk in front of a run-down saloon called the Four Deuces, the wind whipping at his face. He shoved his hands in his pockets and pulled his jacket collar high to protect against the cold, or maybe to cover the scars on his left cheek.

"Got some nice-looking girls inside," he said.

Capone was twenty-one years old and new in town. He worked in Chicago's Levee District, south of downtown, a neighborhood of sleazy bars and bordellos, where a man, if he cared about his health, tried not to stay long and tried not to touch anything. Automobiles with bug-eyed headlamps rumbled up and down the block. It was January 1920, the dawn of a rip-roaring decade, not that you'd know it from looking around this neighborhood.

The Great War was over. Men were back home, maybe a little shellshocked, maybe a little bored, certainly thirsty. They put on jackets and ties and snap-brimmed hats and went to places such as the Four Deuces, which was named not for the winning poker hand but for its address: 2222 South Wabash. It was a four-story, brick, turn-of-the-century building with a massive arched door that looked like the mouth of a cave. Inside, cigarette and cigar smoke clung to the ceiling. Some customers came for the drinks. Others climbed the stairwell at the back and went upstairs, where the smoke faded slightly but the aromas became more complex. There, on the second floor, high-heeled women paraded in varying states of undress, their movements lit by a bare bulb on the ceiling. A madam urged the customers to hurry up and choose.

When the place got busy, Capone would head inside to warm himself and to make sure the customers behaved. He was a dark-haired fellow, not quite big enough or ugly enough to scare anybody at first glance. He stood five feet ten and a half and weighed about two hundred pounds, with a powerful chest and hands as big as a grizzly's. His hairline was already beginning to recede. His eyebrows were thick and wide, and the two horizontal scars on his cheek were light purple and still raw-looking. His eyes were a changeable greenish gray. He charmed people with his broad smile.

Capone cared deeply about his image. He asked photographers to capture his portrait from the right, avoiding his scarred cheek. He wore the finest clothes and, despite his girth, looked comfortable in them. It is nearly impossible to find a photograph in which he is not the best-dressed man in the room, even when he was young and poor. He had style, but he walked a fine line. He would wear suits in bright colors such as purple and lime that other hoodlums would never dare, and pinkie rings with fat, glittering stones that would put to shame many of Chicago's wealthiest society women. But he would never be seen in an ascot.

At the Four Deuces, he slid his body through the crowd with grace. He was a good host: vivacious, quick with a joke, flashing that smile. The men in the bar enjoyed his company. When he finished his shift, he would walk back to the dumpy little apartment he shared with his wife, Mae, and their one-year-old son, Albert Francis. The place wasn't much, but it was better than anything he'd ever had growing up.

Capone was born and raised in Brooklyn, part of a big Italian family. His parents were immigrants. Capone grew up poor, one of nine children, and dropped out of school in sixth grade. He ran with street gangs as a boy and young man, and worked a series of menial jobs as a teenager that made good use of his size, strength, and bravado. He found his true calling as a bouncer at a dive bar on Coney Island, where he mixed with some of New York's toughest thugs.

He had come to Chicago to work for Johnny Torrio, once one of the legends on the Brooklyn gang scene and now a rising force in the Chicago underworld. Some accounts suggest that Torrio recruited Capone to join his organization because he spotted talent in the young man. Others suggest that Capone fled Brooklyn after a bar fight in which he nearly killed a man with his fists.

Capone took to Chicago, which the poet Carl Sandburg described this way:

Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,
   for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer:
   Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

Chicago city hugged the lower edge of Lake Michigan, spreading in every direction it could. In 1850, the city had been home to only thirty thousand hardy souls. By 1870 the population had shot up to three hundred thousand. Without the watery boundaries of New York, people felt no need to jam themselves into cramped, unforgiving spaces. Neighborhoods lined up one after another along the crescent-shaped coast, wooden shanties and muddy streets stretching on into the prairie. The city grew quickly and uncontrollably. Immigrants came in search of work: building, forging steel, slaughtering cattle, loading boxcars. Criminals came, too: pimps and prostitutes, pickpockets and safecrackers, con men, dope dealers, burglars and racket men. The police department—a mere afterthought in the city's earliest days of development—could never catch up.

The city burned to the ground in 1871. The Great Fire burned for days and left seventy-three miles of streets a wreck of embers and soot. Nearly a third of the city's residents were rendered homeless. But Chicago rose again, with even more speed and vigor. This time, buildings of iron, granite, and steel filled the landscape. And of course, the vice world came back stronger than ever, too. In the first eight months of 1872, the city issued an astonishing 2,218 licenses for saloons.

If anything, the fire proved a great boost to the economy, setting off a kind of Gold Rush. The opportunities were limitless, and men of energy and ambition sought to take advantage. Great architects, great salesmen, great lawyers, great artists, and great criminals would forge the city's new identity.

In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition brought another spurt of population growth, and with it, more vice. By 1910, a special commission reported that five thousand full-time prostitutes and ten thousand part-timers worked the city, and that, combined, they were responsible for more than 27 million sex acts a year. Clean up Chicago? If anyone even mentioned it, they were either dreaming or joking.

                                                                        ————-

By the time of Al Capone's arrival in 1920, the population had climbed to 2.7 million, making it the second-largest city in the nation, after New York. And still it felt uncrowded and untamed. As more immigrants arrived from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Germany, China, Russia, and Greece, everyone shoved aside and made room. New neighborhoods attached themselves to old. The city just kept stretching: twenty-six miles long and fourteen miles wide, more jigsaw puzzle than melting pot. The sprawling geography allowed ethnic groups to cling to their old languages and customs to a greater extent than they ever could in New York.

The wealthy lived mostly on the city's near West and near North sides. The working class lived mostly on the South and the far West sides. New arrivals could tell in an instant from the odors if they were in one of the city's poorer sections. Small steel mills coughed soot, and tanneries leached chemicals. But the strongest and foulest stench came from the Union Stockyard: five hundred acres of livestock, living and dead. The smell buckled legs. The work was worse. Millions of cattle, sheep, and hogs moved through the stockyards, their throats slashed, their carcasses split and sliced, their entrails washed into the Chicago River. An army of seventy-five thousand men and women did the work. This was the work of Chicago.

At the hub of the city sat the Loop, the city's central business district, where elevated trains screeched on metal tracks, and trolleys and trucks jammed the streets. Here, the city felt like a city: noisy, crowded, and dangerous. Chicago was the nation's first city of skyscrapers. Buildings rose higher here than anywhere else, stabbing at the clouds in handsome shades of green, gray, brown, and blue.

Yet it wasn't everyone's idea of paradise.

"Having seen it," Rudyard Kipling wrote of Chicago, "I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its ... air is dirt."

Chicago welcomed the strong and spat out the weak. If you couldn't hack it, there was always a train leaving for Des Moines. That's why it attracted men such as the scorching jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong; the crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow; and the meatpacking titan Philip Armour, who treated his workers shabbily but gave generously to charity and once said, "I do not love the money, what I love is the getting of it."

The getting of it: That's what this city was all about.

                                                                        ————-

When he wasn't working the door or tending bar at the Four Deuces, Capone decorated. In an empty storefront adjoining the saloon, he arranged some bookshelves, a broken-down piano, and some old tables and chairs to make the place look like an antiques store. It was Johnny Torrio's idea. Torrio wanted Capone to learn to carry himself with the air of a legitimate businessman. Capone printed cards that read:

    ALPHONSE CAPONE
    Second Hand Furniture Dealer
    2220 South Wabash Avenue

The Levee District had always been home to entrepreneurs. Though it was only two miles from the elegant hotels and skyscrapers of the Loop, the district operated within its own special universe, with its own special rules.

Movie stars and titans of industry had visited the parlors of the neighborhood's elegant whorehouses, including the famous Everleigh Club, where they spent great fortunes on wine, food, and women. Politicians had not only put up with the debauchery, they also had participated in it. But things began to turn during the years of World War I. A wave of temperance swept the country. Americans were expected to sober up and sacrifice for their nation. Even Chicago cleaned itself up a little. Saloons were raided. Licenses were revoked. The high-end whores and drug dealers, fearing arrest, quit working in bordellos and dance halls and moved to hotel lobbies, where they could be more discreet. In time, the Levee District became the exclusive domain of ripened prostitutes, customers who couldn't afford better, and the low-level pickpockets and jackrollers who preyed on anyone dumb enough to wander the streets alone and unarmed. This was where Capone got his start. His timing was perfect.

In 1917, Congress asked every state in the union to vote on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale, manufacture, and transportation of intoxicating liquor nationwide. The measure passed with no great opposition, and most people believed the law would be quickly and easily implemented, that Americans on a massive scale would voluntarily give up drinking. The evangelist Billy Sunday bade good-bye to demon alcohol with flourish, saying, "You were God's worst enemy. You were hell's best friend. I hate you with a perfect hatred." He went on to predict a new age of prosperity and clean living, saying "slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

Torrio and Capone had other ideas.

The Prohibition law took effect at midnight on January 16, 1920, a day before Capone's twenty-first birthday. But by then the war was over and the mood of the country had already shifted. Sacrifice? That was for saps.

"Like an overworked businessman beginning his vacation," wrote the journalist and historian Frederick Lewis Allen, "the country was finally learning how to relax and amuse itself once more." Americans wanted to dance and drive fast and spend money. They wanted to shock their parents with their sharp clothes and impress their neighbors with handy new gadgets such as electric irons and vacuum cleaners. And they wanted to drink. By making booze illegal, the government unwittingly glamorized it. The bubbles in a glass of champagne seemed more scintillating, the foam on a mug of beer more refreshing. Homemade alcohol had a tendency to taste like battery acid, which led to the invention of cocktails; the addition of sweet flavors and herbs made the drinks even more alluring, especially to women. Irving Berlin summed up the state of affairs and put it to a snappy tune when he wrote, "You Can Not Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea."

Congress passed the Volstead Act to provide for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment, and at least in the early years under the new set of laws, alcohol consumption in America dropped dramatically. But the Volstead Act failed to anticipate the massive criminal operations that would go to work creating an underground network for the manufacture and sale of alcohol.

A man didn't have to be a genius to recognize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Overnight, general miscreants such as Capone became bootleggers (the phrase has roots in America's colonial days, probably deriving from "boot-leg," the upper part of a tall boot where bottles could be hidden). Their experience running bars, brothels, and gambling joints suddenly came in handy. They already knew how to move money, how to sell booze, how to subdue competition, and how to service multiple businesses across the city. The trick now was learning to think big. A massive legitimate business had just been declared illicit. If they moved quickly, they could take over operations. Just for starters, bootleggers needed trucks and confederates in other cities to help them with supplies. In New York, there was Meyer Lansky; in Philadelphia, Boo Boo Hoff; in Detroit, the Purple Gang; in Cleveland, Moe Dalitz. They patched together a network that would eventually become a loosely organized national crime syndicate.

As bootleggers, their position in society actually improved. Small-time reprobates no longer had time for safecracking, pickpocketing, and mugging. Those lines of work were too dangerous, too risky, and didn't pay well enough.

Bootlegging also offered a certain kind of dignity. As bootleggers, they provided a useful service and catered to a respectable class of customer. Flush with cash, they dressed with panache and consorted with a higher class of friends. They became romantic figures, celebrated by journalists who liked their style, their slang, and their nicknames—not to mention their booze.

Every city had its share of bootlegging, but Chicago seemed to have more. Alcohol soaked the city through, which is why the 1922 song "Chicago" called it "that toddlin' town." No one believed for a moment that the city would sober up under Prohibition. Lake Michigan would dry up first.

Once it became clear that Chicagoans, and in fact much of the rest of the American population, had no intention of giving up drinking, the government would face a decision: How much money and effort would it invest in fighting this new wave of crime? The answer turned out to be, not much. Torrio and Capone, among others, stood ready to take advantage.

From Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Eig. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

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