“Scarface” Alphonse Capone: The Worst of the Worst Brought Down by the Best of the Rest

“Scarface” Al Capone, known as one of the most ruthless and violent Chicago gangsters, controlled one of the largest criminal organizations in Chicago, Illinois during the 1920’s and ’30’s. But he always remained elusive to prosecution for his network of illegal businesses by paying off the police from the top of the department to the street patrolman. But equally imperative to his efforts to control his business was fattening the pockets of numerous politicians from the small town mayors and city councils all the way to the White House and federal politicians. But his downfall didn’t come in a hail of gunfire or in a police trap while exiting his favorite restaurant but as a result of income tax evasion and finally tertiary or end-stage syphilis.

Al Capone grew up in Brooklyn, New York and displayed a violent temper from an early age earning for himself his nickname “Scarface” after a particularly brutal fight in which his face was slashed. Capone’s uncle in Chicago was considered one of the most powerful bosses in the prostitution business but wanted to expand into the bootlegging business. Despite only having a sixth grade education, Capone helped build his uncle’s business into a huge racket with over 1,000 employees and a $300,000 weekly income. That’s right – $15.6 million a year – give or take a million. Remember this is the 1920’s and ’30’s when the average patrolman in New York City was only making about $10.00 a week. Monetarily it was easy to buy off law enforcement as well as politicians who made minute fractions of income compared to gangsters. Bootlegging was big business whether it was a big city or a small town.

Anyone who got in Al’s way was quickly removed, literally. He’s credited with contracting 500 deaths and over 1,000 people died during the course of his war to take over the bootlegging network in Chicago and the surrounding area. One of the most well-known killing sprees conducted by Capone’s gang was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The massacre occurred in Chicago in 1929 with Capone’s men dressed as policemen assigned to take down “Bugs” Moran in retaliation for Moran’s gang attempting to kill Capone in his headquarters.

It was Frank Knox, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News, who went to President Herbert Hoover to ask for aid in bringing down Capone. Hoover’s response, after a no confidence vote for J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, was by sending the Treasury Department after Capone. Special Agent Frank J. Wilson assigned Special Agent Michael F. Malone to go undercover to gather all the information he could to prosecute Capone for income tax evasion and violations of the Volstead Act, or bootlegging. President Hoover was relentless in his efforts to bring down Capone. Witnesses would be hard to produce but Malone was able to find one, Jake Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Not surprisingly, Jake Lingle was murdered on his way to a secret meeting with federal agents, once again proving the long arm of Capone’s gang.

By 1931, the Treasury Department was ready to go to court, with Frank J. Wilson set to testify with all of the information gathered. Capone had found out about Wilson and placed a contract on his life but Wilson was under constant guard and was ready to talk to the Grand Jury. Eliot Ness, also with the Treasury Department, had accrued information about thousands of violations of the Volstead Act.

At trial Capone was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison with fines and court costs added to his penalty. Capone was ultimately sent to Alcatraz in California which was a new maximum security prison. No special privileges were granted to Capone at Alcatraz as opposed to other prisons he had been in.

Hospitalization for advanced syphilis in 1938 was the beginning of a downward spiral for Capone. Treatment at the time for this venereal disease could slow its progress but not stop its eventual toll. Capone was released in 1939 but was partially paralyzed from the disease progression. He settled in Miami Beach, Florida with his wife and son where he died in 1947.

References: Great American Trials, Edward W. Knappman, Editor. Bernard Ryan, Jr., Contributor. 2004
The Mafia Encyclopedia, Carl Sifakis. Checkmark Books. 2005

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