During America’s Prohibition era, Al Capone headed a Chicago-based crime empire that raked in millions of dollars each year through bootlegging, gambling and other illicit activities. Check out eight surprising facts about the notorious mob boss.
Born on January 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York, Alphonse Capone was the fourth of nine children. His parents, Gabriele, a barber, and Teresa Capone, were immigrants from Angri, Italy. Capone belonged to a street gang as a boy and dropped out of school in sixth grade, later joining the Five Points Gang in Manhattan and working as a bouncer and bartender at the Harvard Inn, a Coney Island bar owned by mobster Frankie Yale. In 1918, he married Mae Coughlin; the couple remained together until Capone’s death and had one child, Sonny. By 1920, Capone had moved to Chicago. Some stories claim he went there out of a need to lay low after severely injuring a rival gang member in a fight, while other accounts say Capone was recruited to come to Chicago by Johnny Torrio, a former Brooklyn mobster then making his mark on organized crime in the Windy City.
In 1917, Capone’s face was slashed during a fight at the Harvard Inn, after he insulted a female patron and her brother retaliated, leaving him with three indelible scars. Capone would attempt to shield the scarred side of his face in photographs, and tried to write them off as war wounds—although he never served in the military. After achieving prominence as a gangster, Capone was dubbed Scarface by the press, a nickname he intensely disliked. Criminal associates referred to the mob boss as the Big Fellow, while friends knew him as Snorky, a slang term that meant spiffy.
After arriving in Chicago, Capone worked for Torrio, who was part of a criminal network headed by a man named Big Jim Colosimo. When Colosimo was killed (possibly as a hit ordered by Torrio and carried out by Capone’s former boss Frankie Yale), Torrio took over as boss and made Capone one of his key aides. In January 1925, Torrio was gunned down outside his Illinois home. He survived the attack but left Chicago later that year, choosing 26-year-old Capone as his replacement. Capone expanded “the outfit,” as he referred to his underworld organization, and went on to become one of America’s leading mobsters. By some estimates, his crime syndicate pulled in around $100 million a year, the largest portion from bootlegging, followed by gambling, prostitution, racketeering and other illicit activities. A flashy dresser who liked chatting with reporters and became an international celebrity, Capone didn’t apologize for the way he made his living. He claimed to be doing a “public service” for Chicagoans, stating: “Ninety percent of the people of Cook County drink and gamble and my offense has been to furnish them with those amusements.”
On the morning of February 14, 1929, seven men affiliated with the George “Bugs” Moran gang were shot to death while lined up against a wall inside a garage in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The victims included five of Moran’s criminal associates along with a mechanic who worked for him and an optometrist who hung around the group; Moran himself wasn’t there. The group of attackers consisted of at least four men, two of them dressed as police officers. The crime became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and stunned the nation. Authorities investigated a variety of theories and suspects to little avail. There eventually was ample public speculation that Capone, a Moran rival, had masterminded the murders (he was in Florida when they took place); however, he was never charged in the case, which went unsolved.
Thanks to federal agent Ness’s best-selling memoir “The Untouchables,” which spawned a TV series and movie, he has been credited as the man who took down Capone. In fact, much of the memoir was embellished by its co-author, Oscar Fraley. As a Prohibition agent, Ness and a small team of men raided illegal breweries and other places linked to Capone’s bootlegging operations around Chicago. Because the agents supposedly refused to accept bribes, they were dubbed the Untouchables by the press. Although Ness’s work helped lead to Capone’s indictment for Prohibition violations, the government instead focused on prosecuting the mobster for tax evasion and his 1931 conviction on those charges is what sent him to prison. Ness went on to serve as Cleveland’s director of public safety and made an unsuccessful bid for mayor there in 1947. His later years were marred by heavy drinking and he died at his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, in 1957, the year “The Untouchables” was published.
Although he controlled a criminal empire and ordered hits on a multitude of his enemies, Capone managed to avoid prosecution for years by paying off police and public officials and threatening witnesses. The mob boss finally was slapped with his first criminal conviction in May 1929, after he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in Philadelphia—at the time, he was on his way back to Chicago following a summit of organized-crime honchos in Atlantic City, New Jersey—and swiftly sentenced to a year in jail. He was freed in March 1930 and a month later the Chicago Crime Commission released its first-ever list of the city’s worst criminals; Capone was named Public Enemy No. 1.
Meanwhile, on orders from President Herbert Hoover to nail Capone, the federal government built a case against the crime boss for income-tax fraud, and in June 1931, he was indicted on charges of tax evasion. Capone agreed to a plea deal that included a recommended prison sentence of two-and-a-half years; however, the judge in the case refused to accept the deal. Capone withdrew his guilty plea and the case went to trial. At the start of the highly publicized proceedings, the judge switched out the pool of prospective jurors after learning bribes had been offered in an effort to seat a Capone-friendly jury. In October 1931, the all-male jury (Illinois didn’t allow female jurors until 1939) found the gangster guilty of five charges (three felonies and two misdemeanors) of the more than 20 counts against him. He was sentenced to 11 years behind bars and fined $50,000; it was the harshest sentence delivered for tax fraud up to that point.
In May 1932, 33-year-old Capone began his sentence for tax evasion at the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta. Two years later, in August 1934, he and a group of fellow inmates were sent by train to California then transported to the recently opened federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The maximum-security prison, intended to hold criminals who were especially violent or had other disciplinary problems, had received its first contingent of federal inmates earlier that August. Because Capone wasn’t a troublemaker while locked up in Atlanta, he likely was sent to Alcatraz as a way for the government to generate publicity for its tough, new facility.
While at Alcatraz, Capone, who’d been diagnosed with syphilis during a medical exam at the Atlanta penitentiary, started showing signs of the disease, including dementia. As his condition worsened, prison doctors treated him with malaria injections in the hope that the fevers caused by malaria would wipe out the syphilis. Instead, the treatment nearly proved fatal for Capone. In January 1939, he was released from Alcatraz and transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island, near Los Angeles, to serve his one-year misdemeanor sentence.
Capone was released from prison in November 1939 then underwent several months of treatment for syphilis at a Baltimore hospital. Afterward, the famous gangster spent much of his time out of the public spotlight, fishing and playing cards at the Palm Island, Florida, mansion he’d owned since 1928. In the 1940s, he became one of the first civilians to receive penicillin for syphilis, although it was too late to cure him. In January 1947, the 48-year-old Capone suffered a stroke then came down with pneumonia; he died at his Florida home on January 25. Capone was buried at Chicago’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, near the graves of his father and one of his brothers. In 1950, the Capone family had the remains of the three men moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.