DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
The gang wars and drug violence that have afflicted some urban communities have taken a frightful toll, but this isn't the first time American cities have seen such violence. Writer Jonathan Eig's new book takes us back to the Roaring '20s in Chicago, when cops and judges were on the take, and unsolved murders piled up by the dozens every year.
Eig's new book chronicles the rise and fall of legendary gangster Al Capone. It's based on newly acquired documents and interviews with some of Capone's descendants. There's a lot you probably didn't know about Capone, like how freely he spoke to reporters of his exploits, the time he shot himself in the groin, how little Eliot Ness actually had to do with putting him away, and how venereal disease eventually robbed him of his health and sanity.
Jonathan Eig is a former writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, whos written bestsellers about Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. He lives in Chicago, a half a mile from the site of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre. His new book is called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster."
Jonathan Eig, welcome to FRESH AIR. Al Capone comes to Chicago from New York in the early '20s. Give us a sense of the Chicago he arrived in.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author, "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster"): It's a wild town. It's a rip-roaring town by almost any stretch of the imagination. And Chicago, for many, many years has been a fairly lawless town, a place where the police have a hard time keeping up with the bad guys just because they are so horribly outnumbered.
But by the 1920s, 1920 in particular, when Prohibition becomes the law, the city gets a lot crazier, and the Prohibition really just amplifies everything, and it makes incredible opportunities available to men like Capone, who are willing to continue breaking the law. Suddenly, there's a lot more money to be made than they ever dreamed possible.
DAVIES: And who was Capone? Tell us a little bit about his life in New York and what drove him to Chicago.
Mr. EIG: Capone was born 1899 in Brooklyn, part of a big family, one of eight children, and he was married just before coming to Chicago. He was working as a bouncer in a bar in Coney Island, a place called the Harvard Inn, and it was not Ivy League at all. It was a very tough place. And that's where he met a lot of the underworld figures who would become really key to his career going forward.
And once he got to Chicago, he was able to really grow in terms of his stature, in terms of his prominence. I suspect if he'd stayed in New York, he wouldve remained a small-time guy. There was just too much competition for mugs like him.
But Chicago was a different story. Chicago, he was fortunate to latch on with a good organization, where he really learned and was able to move through the ranks quickly and became the man that we now today, you know, the ultimate symbol of the 1920s, lawlessness, the ultimate gangster.
DAVIES: Talking a little bit about what was going on in Chicago and reading the book, I'm really stuck by the level of violence, including political violence, battles over alderman elections.
Mr. EIG: That's right. You had candidates for alderman throwing bombs through each other's windows or at least using their representatives, their campaign workers, to do some of this violence.
You had gangsters shooting each other over turf, you know, over beer sales and on an average of about 50, 75 a year. And there were no convictions. That was really the key. And that's why this violence was allowed to flourish.
There were very few arrests and literally no convictions in these gang wars throughout the 1920s, and that's because the whole system had been purchased at a great discount by these gangsters. They were able to bribe everyone in sight so that the law simply wasn't functioning, and that made almost anything possible for these guys.
DAVIES: I'm interested in how violent a man Capone himself was. Clearly, he spent a lot of his career directing others, but there is a murder that you describe of a man named Joe Howard. Tell us what we know about that murder and what we know about Capone's role.
Mr. EIG: I think early in his career, Capone was a violent man and did carry out many of these hits himself. And in this case, this is really the murder that put him on the map and I think signaled to the gang in Chicago that Capone was a man they could count on when the going got tough.
So what happened was one of Capone's men, an accountant, got picked on in a bar by Joe Howard. And Joe Howard was one of Capone's rivals, but he was a two-bit thug, really. Capone didn't know much of him. But you didn't go after Capone's men, and that was the point.
So in broad daylight, with one of his bodyguards, Capone walks right up to Joe Howard, says hello, puts the gun to his cheek, fires six times and holds him on the bar stool as he keeps firing so that Joe Howard cannot get away, cannot fall, even.
When he's finally sure that Howard's been completely obliterated, he lets go, watches him fall to the floor. Everybody in the bar watches Capone walk out. And this is amazing because you've got the police swarming the place, and they know that it's Capone.
They've got eyewitnesses saying we know it was Capone. People saw him come in and out. But suddenly, no one will testify because nobody wants to be on the wrong side of Al Capone. Nobody wants Capone to be coming after them next.
So he walks away from this crime. He answers the police questions, and there's no arrest. There's no conviction. He walks away a free man. And that sort of cements his reputation in the city, at least among gangsters, and it's one of the first times that he gets his name prominently displayed in the newspapers in Chicago.
DAVIES: By 1925, Capone is really the leading organized crime figure in Chicago. And he is, what, a man in his mid-20s, right?
Mr. EIG: That's right. He's 26 years old.
DAVIES: And tell us a little bit about what his business was.
Mr. EIG: Well, he's making a lot of money. It's all cash. And it's mostly in the beer and whiskey business. He's bringing the stuff in from many, many different sources. It's a very complicated business. And that's really the key to Capone's success: He's able to keep a lot of balls in the air.
He's able to run bars, brothels, casinos. He's bringing in some booze from Canada; he's bringing in some booze from New York. He's bringing in some whiskey from Iowa. It's a very complicated arrangement with a lot of people who have to be paid off, a lot of police officers, judges, politicians all have to be bribed. There's a lot of overhead involved. There's just it's a complicated business.
Now, I don't think Capone is taking in every penny from this operation. I think he's wise enough to share it with the people who he needs to keep happy in order to maintain such a complicated organization.
But nevertheless, the amount of money coming in is staggering. By the government estimates, it's, you know, millions of dollars a year, which I think was probably exaggerated, as the government later tried to build a case against him for income tax evasion. But I'm certain, at the very least, Capone was dealing in hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash every year.
And for a young man in his 20s with not much education, a sixth-grade education, and not much really in the way of school smarts, he does a terrific job, really, of running this organization. And I think that's really the key to his success is his charisma, his sort of intuition as a businessman. It carries him a long way, that, of course, and the threat of violence.
DAVIES: Now, you also write in this book that the Tommy gun changed the nature of crime. How?
Mr. EIG: Well, the Thompson submachine gun was invented during World War I. It was meant to put an end to World War I but it arrived too late. So the general who designed the gun looked for other outlets, tried to sell it to police departments, but police departments didn't have the budget and weren't really sure what to do with such a powerful weapon.
Enter the gangster, who can easily purchase the machine gun in a sporting goods catalog or at a local gun shop. And there happened to be one just a couple blocks from where I live now in Chicago, a place where you could walk in and buy a machine gun if you had the cash.
And this became the weapon of choice for the gangster because they could shoot on the run. They could shoot from their car windows and fire hundreds of rounds within seconds.
This, along with fast automobiles, really gave the gangsters an advantage over the police because the cops had slower, older cars. They had much lighter weapons. And this enabled them to commit their crimes and escape as if bribing the police officers wasn't already enough of an advantage for these guys.
DAVIES: You know, mob hits are in some ways sort of a part of life in many cities at many particular times, and citizens don't worry so much about them because, you know, it's gangsters settling scores with one another.
It seems a little different if you have a car driving up and a submachine gun splattering bullets all over a sidewalk. Did Chicago's population feel terrorized?
Mr. EIG: You know, I think at times Chicago's population felt terrorized but it wasn't so much the machine guns that did it. I think because there really was very little collateral damage. There were hardly any incidents in which innocent civilians were killed in these gang wars.
It was really the gangsters being killed. And I think given that the police weren't doing anything to stop these guys, the fact that some of them died didn't stir a lot of sympathy among most Chicagoans.
The real issue, I think, for most Chicagoans was the damage it did to the city's reputation. We already had, you know, an image of corrupt politics. We had a mayor who was widely perceived as being one of the most venal in the country's history, Big Bill Thompson. And then you've got these gangsters walking down the street with machine guns shooting it out on Michigan Avenue in broad daylight.
And this is, as you can imagine, not good for business. So the city's business leaders are really the first ones who start to raise a ruckus and say something must be done about this.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that made Capone unique was his public profile. And that's something that he fed in ways that modern gangsters I just don't think did. I mean, it's remarkable to read some of the quotes in your book that he gave newspaper reporters.
And I thought, you know, just for a little flavor here, I thought we would listen to Robert De Niro as Al Capone in the movie "The Untouchables." This is a moment where I think he's getting a shave and having an exchange with some reporters. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of film, "The Untouchables")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) An article which I believe appeared in a newspaper asked why, since you are or would seem that you are, in effect, the mayor of Chicago, you've not simply been appointed to that position.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): (As Al Capone) Well, I'll tell you, you know, it's touching. Like a lot of things in life, we laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true. Some people say, reformers here say, put that man in jail. What does he think he is doing? Well, what I hope I'm doing, and here's where your English paper's got a point, is I'm responding to the will of the people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) People are going to drink. You know that, I know that. We all know that. And all I do is act on that, and all this talk of bootlegging, what is bootlegging? On a boat, it's bootlegging. On Lakeshore Drive, it's hospitality.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: I'm a businessman.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) And what of your reputation that you control your business through violence, that those that don't purchase your products are dealt with violently?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and we used to say, you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: And in that neighborhood, it might have been true. Sometimes a reputation follows you. There is violence in Chicago, of course, but not by me and not by anybody I employ, and I'll tell you why, because it's not good business.
DAVIES: And that is the fictional Al Capone, portrayed by Robert De Niro in the movie "The Untouchables." We're speaking with Jonathan Eig, who has written a new book about Al Capone called "Get Capone."
Jonathan, Eig, how close is that to the real thing?
Mr. EIG: It was pretty close, actually, because Capone did talk to the reporters a lot, and he always defended himself as a businessman. He always said people want to drink and all I'm doing is giving them the pleasures that they desire.
The irony is that De Niro actually understated Capone's tolerance for violence because in interviews, Capone would often say violence was part of the job, that he didn't see it necessarily as something God would consider a sin because he was protecting himself. He was protecting his family. He was protecting the business that he needed in order to take care of his family.
And maybe he had a broader view of this thing than the law has it. That's how he explained it, but he did acknowledge that he was a bootlegger. He acknowledged that sometimes violence was necessary in order to do his job.
DAVIES: How did his associates in organized crime feel about him being such a media hog? I can't imagine they thought this was a good idea.
Mr. EIG: No, it didn't go over very well with his peers. Now, you have to remember that in the 1920s, everybody wanted to be a celebrity. Everybody wanted to be like Babe Ruth or Lucky Lindbergh or at least, you know, like these guys who were sitting on flagpoles.
And businessmen in particular in the '20s really believed that to be a success, to be an entrepreneur meant to have a personality, to cultivate a sense that you were a success and to - that's why I think Capone dressed the way he did.
And that's why I think he entertained the press, because he wanted to be perceived as a successful American, you know, sort of - Dale Carnegie later, when he wrote his famous book on success in business, would cite Capone actually as a model for creating the public image. Obviously, it went bad in many ways with Capone, but nevertheless, that's what he was going for. And I think that you have to understand that cult of celebrity and that desire for the spotlight that really was so strong during the 1920s.
DAVIES: On the other hand, he clearly cared about his public image. How did the public feel about Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: I'd say the feelings were mixed. Clearly, Capone was a villain, and clearly he was a criminal. And the fact that he discussed his criminality didn't absolve him of those crimes in any way.
At the same time, he was breaking a law that was wildly unpopular. Prohibition was a mistake by almost any definition. And by the 1920s, when the war was over, and people were coming out of these hard times and looking to celebrate and the economy was booming, it was really, just, it just was a terrible fit. And Capone became really the symbol of that era in many ways.
And certainly, when it came to people's willingness to break that law, Capone became a very powerful icon. And he stood up for a lot of people who were willing to say they didn't like it.
So he becomes the icon for the '20s because everyone is breaking this law, and he's just breaking it in a much bigger way than anyone else.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonathan Eig. His new book about Al Capone is called "Get Capone." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He's written a new book about the life of Al Capone. It's called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster."
Now, he had a house on Chicago's South Side, where his family lived, his wife and other relatives. And he spent a lot of time kind of occupying a suite in downtown hotels. Was he seen on the street? Did the public come up to him and fawn over him and seek autographs or photos?
Mr. EIG: Yes, Capone really was a very public person, and he went to ballgames. He attended opera. He was seen around town, and it became a joke, really, among tourists when they visited Chicago, you know, when you came back from your trip, people would say: Did you see Capone? Did you get any pictures of Capone? Do you have any bullet holes in your car?
And some of it was a joke, but much of it was actually inspired by the fact that Capone was seen around town. There were pictures of him in the newspaper when he went to the races. He did not sneak about. He felt like he was a businessman, and he wanted to be seen that way.
DAVIES: And, you know, we haven't talked about what he looked like, but just give us a sense of the physical presence he struck.
Mr. EIG: Capone was a big man. You know, he was 5'10", 210 pounds, roughly, in his prime. He got a little heavier late in his career. But I think that was the key to his early success is that he was big enough and strong enough to scare people when he stood over them in a bar.
But he always wanted to be perceived more elegantly, and he liked actually, you know, his nickname was Scarface, of course, in the newspapers because of the three hideous scars on the left side of his cheek.
But the nickname he preferred was Snorky, which at the time meant elegant, ritzy. And he dressed in, you know, incredibly fashionable ways, with gleaming diamond belt buckles but also, you know, very tasteful three-piece suits. It was a real mix of elegance and show, and I think that that's how he preferred to be perceived, and that was very important.
So you had this big, hulking guy who wanted to dress like Fred Astaire. He wanted to be seen as a symbol of wealth and elegance.
DAVIES: You know, eventually gangsters like Capone appeared in the movies. And I guess it was in 1931 that the film "Little Caesar" was made, which did not have a character named Capone, but Edward G. Robinson played a guy named Rico Bandello, right?
Mr. EIG: That's right.
DAVIES: I thought we'd hear just a little bit of this. This is a moment in the film where he's basically ousting one of the local crime bosses, taking over from a guy whose character's name is Sam Vatoni(ph). He's played by Stanley Fields. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of film, "Little Caesar")
Mr. STANLEY FIELDS (Actor): (As Sam Vettori) I see the color of that...
Mr. EDWARD G. ROBINSON (Actor): (As Rico Bandello) Just a minute, Sam. I got my own idea of a split this time, and you can take it my way or leave it. We ain't begging you.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) Yeah? Well, I boss this job, and I'm going to get my split in the regular way or else.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) How do you boss this job, by sitting here in your office cheating yourself at solitaire? Well, that dont go no more, not with me it don't. We're done. I've been taking orders from you too long.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) And you'll keep on taking orders, too, or you'll get out of here so fast.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, well, maybe it won't be me that gets out.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) No? Well, maybe the boys, they got something to say about that. What about it? So, that's it, huh?
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, that's it, all right. Sam, you can dish it out, but you're getting so you can't take it no more. You're through.
DAVIES: And that's Edward G. Robinson from the film "Little Caesar" from 1931. Jonathan Eig, you know, it's interesting that Al Capone was such a public figure in his day. Do we know if actors like Robinson or Cagney actually drew their performances from Capone?
Mr. EIG: We think that they did and, you know, these movies were made while Capone was still in operation. That's the amazing thing, while even before Capone went to jail, before he was convicted by the federal government, these movies and books were in the works.
And some reports say that Edward G. Robinson attended the Capone trial to sort of get a sense for Capone's body language and his mannerisms. I think there's more Edward G. Robinson than Capone in Rico Bandello, but there's it's clear that many of the elements of these characters in the movies were based on Capone. And it's fascinating to think that even in his lifetime, even before he got sent away to federal prison, that he's watching these books and movies emerge based on his life story.
And I think what fascinated the American public was not just the violence but the fact that these were immigrant stories. And if you watch these movies today, really that's the key to their drama, to their psychological power. It's the fact that these are, you know, Horatio Alger stories in many ways.
These are immigrants or immigrants' children trying to make it in this country and finding a way that may not be the best way and is a dark, evil way in many ways, but nevertheless, it's their way of getting up and getting a step up in this country.
DAVIES: Did these films affect the public perception of Capone?
Mr. EIG: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, I think this is what cemented the public perception of Capone and really began to turn it from a human being, which, you know, Capone was. Capone was really not the psychopath that he was eventually made to be in the movies. He was not this killing machine.
He was, you know, a product of his times and a product of Prohibition. And, you know, his rise to power is certainly attributable to his violence, but it's also attributable to his ambition. But I think these movies really began to turn the picture into something much more stereotypical.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's new book is called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is Jonathan Eig, whose new book chronicles the rise and fall of the legendary gangster Al Capone, based on newly acquired documents and interviews with some of Capones descendants. Eig wrote that Capone ruled the Chicago mob in the 1920s and often spoke candidly about his underworld clout to reporters.
Its interesting to read the story of his cat and mouse battle with law enforcement. And there's a period of years where he seems to be practically, openly, running this huge bootlegging and gambling and prostitution operation and probably connected to multiple murders. Authorities can't seem to get him on anything. But hes so harassed that he eventually fleas Chicago for long periods, tries to set up in L.A., that doesnt work, ends up in Miami. What was going on?
Mr. EIG: Well, it really was harassment. When the police came after him, ultimately, he got away each time. You know, they might charge him with some small crime and hed spend a night or two in jail, but he would bribe his way out every time and the justice system just wasnt capable of putting him away for any stretch. The irony is that he paid a brief visit to Philadelphia and got picked up there for possession of a handgun and was jailed for a year in Philadelphia, after a decade in which the Chicago judicial system was unable was incapable of doing anything with the guy.
But finally, by the late 1920s, he does start to feel like the harassment is getting to be too much and he sort of flits about, from Los Angeles back to Chicago, Chicago down to Miami, Miami back to Chicago really getting harassed everywhere he goes. And this is, by now, is when the net is beginning to tighten on him and the federal government is really getting involved and there are FBI agents following him everywhere. There are wiretaps on his phones, prohibition agents keeping an eye on him and trying to shut down his operation and limit his cash flow.
And the Chicago police are still fairly ineffective at this point, but there are enough forces coming after Capone by now, that hes starting to really feel the pressure.
DAVIES: Right. And one thing that stepped up the pressure was the events of St. Valentines Day, 1929. What happened?
Mr. EIG: That was a huge moment for Al Capone. This is, of course, the St. Valentines Day massacre. Everybody knows this as one the most famous unsolved crimes in American history. Seven men in a parking garage on the North Side of Chicago, most of them members of the Bugs Moran gang. And they are accosted by three or four men, two of them wearing police uniforms. They're line up against the wall and gunned down with machineguns and shotguns. And everybody assumes, at first, that it must've been Capone who did this because these were rival gang members. But there are many competing theories, including that it may have been done by a gang from Detroit, a gang from St. Louis. Some people say it may have been the cops who did it.
And over time, these theories just come and go. And Capone was not in town at the time. Given how much pressure he was under from the federal government, I find it hard to believe that he would've been so daring, to go after the Bugs Moran gang in this way, and then also not to get Bugs Moran, you know, the leader of the gang, wasnt in the garage that day. So, to me it doesnt have the hallmarks of an Al Capone crime. But, nevertheless, it becomes just associated with him. And this puts more pressure than ever on the federal government to do something about this man.
DAVIES: Right. And so, youve got the federal government; the president, Herbert Hoover is making a big issue of the lawlessness in the cities and hes pressuring the IRS and the then brand new predecessor really, of the FBI, right? Everyone is trying to find a way to get Capone. And one of the things thats interesting is the role of Chicago business leaders. I mean there are people who obviously who - corporate and civic leaders who have some interest in reform in the town. What assistance, if any, did they give to authorities in putting Capone away?
Mr. EIG: The Chicago business community was a great help, first of all, in getting the federal government of its back, getting them to do something about this, because the business leaders were tired of this man destroying the citys image. And they went to Washington and they met with Herbert Hoover almost immediately after his inauguration and said that we need your help, 'cause we can't count on the local police, the local courts, to do anything about this. And Herbert Hoover responded. He was really the perfect man for this at the time because he came to office promising to clean up Americas broken justice system and promising to enforce the laws of prohibition. And he really made this a priority of his administration. Of course, this is before the Depression hits.
And right now, you know, if you look at the spring of 1929, the economy is booming, the stock market is going up and up, and Hoover can really gain a lot of points by going after these criminals. And so he makes this a priority and he orders his administration, not only to reform the justice system, but to go after Capone, to make a symbol of this man. He understands the public relations value in taking out the man that Chicago business leaders have dubbed, public enemy number one, and thats really a phrase that the marketing team in Chicago has come up with to try to put more pressure on the government to come after Capone.
DAVIES: Right. And there are various points in the story, at which the business leaders will do things like come up with money to relocate a witness who might be willing to give the government evidence against Capone.
Mr. EIG: Thats right. Chicago's business community did things that the government couldnt do, things that were either unethical or the federal government just didnt have the money for. There was no such thing as a witness protection program at the time, so these men would take witnesses who were willing to testify against Capone and ship them off to South America for some months so that Capone couldnt find them.
They were willing to fund ballistic experts to come in and do work on some of the guns and some of the bullets recovered after the Valentine's Day massacre. So they were really pushing this thing forward and it was a really interesting mix of private and public officials going to battle against Al Capone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He has a new book about Al Capone called Get Capone.
Well talk some more right after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He's written a new biography of the gangster Al Capone. Its called Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangsters.
Now, in the legend as it has come down, its Eliot Ness that was leading the charge against Al Capone. And I couldnt resist playing a little bit of the opening of The Untouchables, the TV series in which Eliot Ness is played by Robert Stack. This is the opening to the show with Walter Winchell narrating.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of The Untouchables)
Mr. WALTER WINCHELL (Newspaper, radio commentator): In the last weeks of March 1931, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables were hitting hard at the Capone empire. Every day gunshots rattled the concrete as Ness led his men in raid after raid. While prosperity stayed around the corner for most of us, it came out and licked the hands of mobsters, bootleggers and bookies. For them, it had been Rome at its height under emperor Al Capone, until Eliot Ness moved in to clean up.
DAVIES: And that's from the TV series The Untouchables.
Jonathan Eig, you tell us that the Eliot Ness story contains a fair amount of mythology. How did he get to be the legendary crusader against Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: Ness was a prohibition agent during the 20s. He got the job because of nepotism. He was really not qualified for it, particularly, and he wasnt very good at it either. Early in his career, he did some undercover work that just ended disastrously and he was completely, easily identified by these gangsters and was never able to go undercover again. So he spent his years in the Capone case really, just as a sort of a nuisance to Al Capone, busting down doors and breweries, breaking up distilleries and trying to disrupt Capones cash flow.
He never came up with any evidence that was useful to the prosecutors who were trying to build their case against Scarface Capone. And as a result of that, I think Capone really had very little to do with Eliot Ness. I dont even know if he knew that Eliot Ness existed, to be honest. He was much more concerned with the lawyers who were building this case, and he was much more concerned with Revenue Bureau agents, the tax men, who were coming after him about his income taxes. These were the real pressures that were making Al Capone sweat.
Eliot Ness really only became famous later at the end of his career. After Chicago, he went to work as a public servant in Cleveland. His career did not end well. He ran for mayor and lost. He had some problems with the law himself, a drunk driving case, some affairs with women that became public. But he was fortunate enough to run into a man who rewrote his story for him. And this ghost-written story of Eliot Ness became a very successful book and was turned into the TV show and then, of course, the movie later, with Kevin Costner. But these stories were really only very, very loosely based on the truth, and Eliot Ness was the beneficiary, really, of just a great marketing team that went to work for him late in his life. And he never actually lived to see the fame that would come his way.
DAVIES: So who were the key figures in taking Al Capone down?
Mr. EIG: Well, after Herbert Hoover, Hoover really is the man the engineer whos making all this happen. But the key person in Chicago is someone your listeners have probably never heard of and thats George E.Q. Johnson. He was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. And I was fortunate in my research to find his personal papers, to find all of his government work papers. None of this had been cataloged, none of it was in the National Archives where it should have been.
And what this stuff showed, I mean this was thousands of pages of government memos on the Capone case, transcripts of wire taps - it showed that he was really a very nervous man who had a very weak case against Capone and he was afraid to bring it to trial, in fact, and really had to do so only after getting sort of kicked in the tail by President Hoover and his top men in the Justice Department, wondering why it was taking so long to put together any kind of a case against Al Capone.
DAVIES: Right. Now, and it was tricky, because although clearly, Al Capone had a lot of money and spent a lot of money. There weren't really records that showed he got any money from his illegal activities. They did put together some witnesses and put together and case and indict him; but it had some holes, right?
Mr. EIG: Yes. The case against Capone had a lot of holes. And the federal government knew it. First of all, they were dealing, almost entirely, with circumstantial evidence. They had no proof of income. They were not able to find any checks. They were not able to find any bank accounts. They really could find very little property with Capones name on it. So, they built this case basically on his expenses. They showed the court, they showed the jury, that he was a lavish spender. And they asked the jury to believe that if he was spending lavishly he must've been getting the money from somewhere. But, in fact, there was no way to really tie Capone to this bootlegging business, except for the fact that he went around telling everybody that he was a bootlegger.
DAVIES: Right. And he had attorneys who, at times, approached the government and said look, we want to make a deal. We want to settle our tax debt. And, in fact, one of the memos that they gave on - one of the attorneys gave to the government on Capones behalf, was then used against him to show, a-ha, see he does have all this illegitimate income, right?
Mr. EIG: Thats right. And this is one of the very suspect moments in the Capone trial. They take this letter that was written in an attempt to settle the case, and they say okay, heres what well agree to, if youre willing to make a deal, well agree to pay this much money and well, theoretically, say that Capone had, you know, $100,000 of income this year and $100,000 that year and $90,000 the following year. The government says well, thats, thanks very much. We dont accept your offer, but we will use this letter to prove that Capone had income in those years. Now that probably should have been thrown out, should not have been admissible in court, but Capones lawyers were not able to stop it from being entered into the record.
DAVIES: And the fascinating thing, as I read the development of this, I mean everybody wanted to get Al Capone. They had this somewhat shaky indictment on tax evasion. And the government, including George E. Johnson, the U.S. attorney, agreed to a deal in which Capone was going to plead guilty and get what, two and a half years. Is that right?
Mr. EIG: Thats right, two and a half years.
DAVIES: And the judge refused to approve it. What happened?
Mr. EIG: This is one the most intriguing moments. And these documents that I discovered, in the George Johnson files, really went into this in great detail. Because Johnson thought he had a deal, Capones lawyers thought they had a deal, everybody up to the U.S. attorney general had signed off on this deal. And the judge himself had told the U.S. attorney that he would go along with this. And then they walk into court, Capone enters his plea of guilty, and the judge says I'm taking it off the table, I do not accept, and he insists on a trial. Now some...
DAVIES: And why did he do that?
Mr. EIG: Well, thats the really interesting question. Some people think that it may have been because the judge was irate that Capone had already been going around bragging to his pals at the newspapers that he was going to get two and a half years and he could do two and a half years standing on his head. Hed be out. Hed only be 33-34 years old. Hed be back in business. But theres also a school of thought that says that Herbert Hoover himself, the president, intervened here, and may have sent one of his emissaries to visit the judge the night before Capone entered his guilty plea and insisted that the judge should take this to trial - that the president was not happy with the two and a half year plea bargain.
DAVIES: And in the end, he is convicted by - not every charge, but enough - so that the judge puts him away for 11 years. What was his reaction?
Mr. EIG: He was stunned. Nobody saw this coming, especially after he was thinking, you know, we're talking two and a half three years, based on what kind of an offer the government had made and based on other income tax cases. You know, he had already seen some of his gang members go to jail for income tax invasion. Hed seen his brother convicted and the typical sentence was two-three years. So he was not prepared at all for this. And one of the keys, really, is that Capone was not tried by a jury of his peers. The jury was really hand-chosen, specially selected by this judge. And they were not only it was difficult in the 20s to find men who were willing to convict bootleggers, because everybody drank, but this was a jury that was not only willing to convict, it was eager to convict. And to say they threw the book at Capone is a massive understatement.
DAVIES: And then hes sentenced to serve time in Atlanta. And theres this train trip where the marshals are escorting him from Chicago to Atlanta, and this is hard to believe, but he actually he actually has sort of mini press conferences at every whistle stop.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EIG: Yeah. Youve got hundreds of people lining the railroads, lining the train tracks to see this guy. It kind of reminded me Babe Ruth every year when he would go down to spring training and you'd have people just gather at the train station, sometimes just hoping to see the train, even if not to see the main himself.
But Capone would stop at every train station and get out and wave to his adoring public, and he would give press releases and he was dressed immaculately. There was no, you know, prison attire for this guy. He was allowed to play cards on the train with the U.S. marshals who were escorting him down there. You know, he was conferred celebrity status. And its amazing to me that the government let him get away with it, but he loved every minute of it.
DAVIES: So, when Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1931, hes still a young man. And, you know, he might have gotten out in 10 with good behavior and resumed his career, but he didnt. What became of him in prison?
Mr. EIG: When Capone got to the penitentiary in Atlanta, they ran a series of standard tests. They interviewed him about his life. They took an IQ test, found that he had a 95 IQ. They completed a very detailed record of his life and his health. And in doing the health examination, they found that he had tertiary syphilis, which meant that it was already affecting his nervous system and affecting his brain. And he told the doctors that he had first noticed the symptoms of syphilis when he was a very young man, at about 19 or 20, and had ignored them and not treated them.
Had he treated them at that point, he probably would've made a complete recovery. There was a very good treatment at the time. But in letting it go, the disease spread, and by then it was affecting his neurological system and there was no turning back. There was nothing anyone could do about it at that point. And as a result of that, his remaining years would be just brutal, really. His mind began to melt away. He would enjoy some moments of clarity and some moments where he was a capable of writing letters to his family and visiting with them in peace, but there were also times when he suffered seizures, when he was delusional. And by the end, as one of his fellow gang members put it, he was nutty as a fruitcake.
DAVIES: Did some time at Alcatraz, which was new, but eventually was released and died in 1947 - never was an active criminal again, as far as we knew?
Mr. EIG: No. He really was not capable of it even if he had wanted to get back into the life.
DAVIES: And he lived in Miami, right, with his wife, May and his son, Sonny, is that right?
Mr. EIG: Yeah.
DAVIES: Was there enough money left over from the enterprise to make them comfortable?
Mr. EIG: I think the family lived comfortably in those last years. And I think the Outfit, as it continued on without him - obviously, prohibition came to an end and they found other ways of making their money - I think the Outfit continued to take care of Capone and his family members. I think they would receive regular supplies of cash for whatever they needed. But once Capone died, those envelopes stopped coming and the family had to fend for itself.
And there was never any great treasure chest that discovered. A lot of Capone family members thought that Capone must have hidden the money away somewhere. And in those late years when his mind was going and he really behaved in a childlike way, they would ask him again and again, you know, where did you put the money? Where is it? And its possible he spent it all, but he always said that he couldnt remember. And if hed hidden any away, he couldnt remember where it was.
DAVIES: And irony of ironies, he never paid the tax debt that sent him to prison.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EIG: That is true. He died owing the government all this money. They never seized the house in Florida. They never seized his mothers house in Chicago. But they took every other asset they could find, and he still left quite a considerable debt.
DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Eig, its been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. EIG: Thank you.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eigs book is called Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster. You can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on the Swedish crime fiction you probably dont know about.
This is FRESH AIR.
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