Capone Dead At 48; Dry Era Gang Chief
January 18, 2008
MIAMI BEACH, FLA., Jan. 25 --Al Capone, ex-Chicago gangster and prohibition era crime leader, died in his home here tonight.
"Death came very suddenly," said Dr. Kenneth S. Phillips, who has been attending Capone since he was stricken with apoplexy Tuesday.
"All the family was present. His wife, Mae, collapsed and is in very serious condition."
Dr. Phillips said death was caused by heart failure.
Six Years of Power
Alphonse (Scarface) Capone, the fat boy from Brooklyn, was a Horatio Alger hero--underworld version. More than any other one man he represented, at the height of his power from 1925 through 1931, the debauchery of the "dry" era. He seized and held in thrall during that period the great city of Chicago and its suburbs.
Head of the cruelest cutthroats in American history, he inspired gang wars in which more than 300 men died by the knife, the shotgun, the tommy gun and the pineapple, the gangster adaptation of the World War I hand grenade.
His infamy made international legend. In France, for example, he was "The One Who Is Scarred." He was the symbol of the ultimate in American lawlessness.
Capone won great wealth; how much, no one will ever know, except that the figure was fantastic. He remained immune from prosecution for his multitudinous murders (including the St. Valentine Day Massacre in 1929 when his gunners, dressed as policemen, trapped and killed eight of the Bugs Moran bootleg outfit in a Chicago garage), but was brought to book, finally, on the comparatively sissy charge of evasion of income taxes amounting to around $215,000.
For this, he was sentenced to eleven years in Federal prison--serving first at Atlanta, then on The Rock, at Alcatraz--and was fined $50,000, with $20,000 additional for costs. With time out for good conduct, he finished this sentence in mid-January of 1939; but by then he was a slack- jawed paretic overcome by social disease, and paralytic to boot.
Native of Naples
Capone was born in Naples on Jan. 17, 1899, the son of an impoverished barber. The family moved to New York and settled in the Mulberry Bend district near Brooklyn Bridge. Here, after he quit school in the fourth grade to knock about the streets, he met Johnny Torrio whom he was to succeed, many years later, as head of the bootleg and vice syndicate in Chicago.
The parents, devout people, moved to South Brooklyn and Al, barely out of his teens, one day bullied one of the neighbors, an undersized, quick tempered Sicilian, in a Fourth Avenue barber shop. His victim backed Capone into a corner and slashed him twice with a razor. He and Capone never crossed trails again, nor did Capone, on his infrequent visits to the old neighborhood after he reached great power, ever seek him out or order his destruction.
In 1910 John Torrio left the Five Points and Mulberry Bend to try his evil genius in Chicago. The advent of prohibition in 1920 saw great expansion of the Torrio interests. He took to bootlegging in a big way.
Torrio needed more men, tough men. He sent for the fat boy and Capone took the next train for Chicago to join Torrio at $75 a week. This was big money for him at the time. He had managed to stay out of the World War because he didn't like that type of fighting. Later he encouraged the legend that he had been a machine gunner in the AEF, but this was Capone poppycock.
Served as "Rod" in Chicago
For three or four years after Capone's arrival in Chicago he served as a "rod," or professional killer, for Torrio and at the same time proved himself unusually good at organizing the vice and bootleg phases of the Torrio chain.
Greed begets greater greed. Torrio wanted a hog's share of the "take" and short-changed his men. This resulted in a split, the opposition taking form under the leadership of Dion O'Banion, a murderous fellow who, paradoxically, had an inordinate love for flowers.
Most of his men were Irish; most of Torrio's Italian, and the war took on a bitter racial angle. On Nov. 10, 1924, three Capone men walked into the florist shop opened by O'Banion more for a hobby than for profit. They riddled him with shot and he fell back among his roses and carnations. Capone and Torrio attended the burial, sent loads of wreaths as a sentimental gesture and tried to look innocent.
Later in 1925 a gang caught up with Torrio and fired five shots into him. He decided, at this juncture, that he had had enough. He pulled out and Capone was left in command.
Immediately Capone began a campaign of expansion. He established agents along the east coast to handle his rum cargoes, he had men in Florida and in the Bahamas; he had men along the Canadian border. Capone caravans crisscrossed the nation with valuable loads of contraband to slake the thirst of the Middle West.
By the end of 1925 Capone was riding high. He had a magnificent home on Prairie Avenue, where he lived with his wife, Mae, and their Sonny, six years old. His brother, Ralph (Bottles) Capone, was on his staff. Another brother, Frank, had died in a brawl in Cicero. Matthew, his youngest brother, kept out of it entirely.
Word came to Chicago at this time that Peg-Leg Lonergan, head of the downtown Brooklyn waterfront bad men, was plaguing some of Capone's old friends. Peg-Leg's idea of sport was to lead a handful of longshoremen into the Adonis Social Club in Twentieth Street, near Fourth Avenue, and badger the Italian customers, all old neighbors of Capone's.
The Adonis Club had sentimental attachments for Capone. In the cellar of the club, in his 'teens, he had perfected his pistol work by shooting at beer bottles. He was in the place on Christmas night, 1925, with five furtive-looking men-at-arms from Chicago, when Peg-Leg and his boisterous crew came in awhooping, to take down the regular patrons.
At 3 o'clock next morning police of the Fifth Avenue station reached the club on the run, attracted by a fusillade of gunfire. Peg-Leg lay dead near the door, Aaron Harms and Needles Ferry, two of his pals, lay dead under the piano, staring with unseeing eyes at the orange, red and green paper twists that bedecked the ceilings and fixtures. A fourth Lonergan man crawled on the sidewalk, badly wounded.
Capone and eight other men, together with a couple of girl patrons of the Adonis Club were rounded up and questioned by the Fifth Avenue detectives. The fat man from Chicago, blazing with diamonds, assumed an air of injured innocence. He insisted he had come all the way from the Windy City to pay a Christmas call on his mother and that he had merely happened to be in the night club when the shooting started.
He was turned out with the rest because all the other witnesses, like himself, related that they did not happen to be looking at the particular moment when the guns opened fire. Without witnesses the police had no case. Capone, having paid his Christmas call and having delivered three neat homicides as gifts, returned to Chicago.
Emboldened by frequent success, Capone came out in the open to support Big Bill Thompson in 1929 in what was known as the "pineapple" primary. Opposition candidates were subject to all the little violent tricks in the Capone bag, including the tossing of this iron fruit. His men had shot and killed William McSwiggin, State's Attorney for Cook County, and if they could get away with that (as they did) he felt he could get away with anything.
Before the pineapple primary he had also staged the cruelest murder in the annals of American gangster crime.
He had hired Fred (Killer) Burke of the Egan's Rats, a St. Louis gang, to perform this particular job. The Killer dressed three of his men in police uniforms, walked in on seven Moran men in the SMC Cartage Company Garage on St. Valentine's Day, 1929, and sprayed them with Thompson sub-machine guns and sawed-off shotguns until the last of the seven stopped twitching.
The Capone crowd lost the pineapple primary, in spite of terroristic tactics. Dissension, subsurface but sinister, got to work in the organization. The fat boy tried to stem it with a brutal show of power at a hotel banquet where he brained the guests of honor--two defecting brothers who thought their plotting had been secret--with a baseball bat. He had also been warned of a double-cross by Frankie Uale, his Brooklyn agent, and Uale had been shot to death by Killer Burke and his crowd.
In May, 1929, Capone surrendered to the police in Philadelphia to get a year's peace from the increasing threat of the Moran guns. The charge in the Philadelphia case was carrying concealed weapons.
In October, 1931, he went on trial for income tax evasion, guarded in the Federal court chamber by one of his own men. A court attendant spotted the bodyguard's shoulder holster and the thug was sentenced for contempt.
His highly paid counsel tried to persuade a grim-lipped jury that their client was a persecuted man. The plea fell on deaf ears. When Judge Wilkerson pronounced sentence the fat man's face went dark and the ugly scar went white.
Capone entered Atlanta penitentiary on May 5, 1932, to work in the prison overall shop. In August 1934, he was chained and fettered and taken, with other felons, to forbidding Alcatraz. This was the beginning of the end for America's "Public Enemy Number One," a title in which he had gloried.
In February, 1938, he became violent. Word came out of Alcatraz that the prison doctors had decided that the great Capone was done; "subject to intermittent mental disturbances."
In November, 1939, Capone was released from prison and was admitted to the Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore to take treatment for paresis. Later he settled at Miami Beach.