Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Al Capone the Gangster

No gangster in the world is better known than Al Capone (1899-1947). Although his criminal career ended more than 70 years ago, his image as a brutal, ruthless yet intelligent and stunningly successful gangster has never diminished. His grip over the Chicago underworld never slackened, his rule being enforced by clever diplomacy, bribery and lethal violence. Helped by movies and books, Al Capone’s career has acted as an inspiration to generations of criminals and a stark warning to the forces of law and order. For many he is the ultimate gangster.

Capone was born in New York in 1899 to parents who had immigrated from Italy a few years before. As a teenager Capone engaged in petty theft, but he entered organised crime when he got a job as a bartender at the Harvard Inn, a rundown bar owned by gangster Frankie Yale. Capone’s talents quickly led to his rise in Yale’s gang and by the age of 20 he is thought to have carried out at least 2 murders for Yale.

In 1919, Yale sent Capone to Chicago to help his friend Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio, who ran much of the windy city’s vice business. When Prohibition arrived, Torrio promoted the cunning Capone to run his illegal alcohol business. By 1923, Capone was heading his own mini empire of criminality in Cicero. He gained total control over Cicero’s underworld and got a henchman elected as the town’s mayor.

Meanwhile, Torrio was engaged in a war with the North Side Gang. In 1925 Torrio was badly injured in a gun battle and retired to Italy, naming Capone as his successor. Capone moved quickly to establish control over Torrio’s gang. He then established a firm grip on the city’s government through bribery and blackmail. Politicians and senior police officers were in his control, and Capone’s empire of vice, gambling and alcohol operated virtually unhindered by the law. Capone quickly became the richest man in the city, indulging his tastes for fine clothes, fine living and loose women to the full.

But if Capone and his gang were beyond the law, they were not beyond the reach of other gangsters. The North Side Gang – led by Bugs Moran – was continually trying to encroach on Capone’s territory and activities. There were frequent outbreaks of violence and in 1928 Bugs Moran tried to have Capone murdered. The attempt failed only because Capone’s bodyguard threw his boss to the ground.

Capone plotted revenge, and gave the job of carrying it out to his chief executioner Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn. McGurn hired gunmen from New York, Detroit and Tennessee. Then he began studying the North Side Gang’s movements and activities. He discovered that on 14 February 1929 the entire gang leadership was due to be at a garage at 2122 North Clark Street to receive a large consignment of illegal drink.

McGurn had his hired guns dress as policemen and drive a stolen police car. They arrived just a few minutes after the illegal drink and burst into the garage as if making arrests. The gangsters lined up as instructed. The fake policemen then opened up with machineguns and shotguns with such savagery that several of the victims were almost cut in two. Moran himself had been late arriving and, seeing the police car, had not entered the garage. The Valentine Day’s Massacre, as the mass killing became known, destroyed the North Side Gang.

Indirectly, the massacre also destroyed Capone. The killings were so brutal and so open that they prompted a backlash by the honest citizens of Chicago, and caused the federal government to take an interest. At first the forces of law and order were unable to link any crimes directly to Capone, who always acted through middlemen and used cash rather than traceable bank accounts.

Then the famous Elliot Ness of the US Treasury came across a book that detailed payments made to Capone. In 1931 Capone was convicted on five charges of tax evasion. The judge, knowing full well of Capone’s other crimes, imposed the harshest sentence possible: 11 years in a federal prison and one year in the county jail, as well as an earlier six-months contempt of court sentence plus fines and court costs totalling $80,000.

While Capone was in prison, his grip on his criminal empire slackened. By 1938 the onset of tertiary syphilis had begun and Capone entered a steep decline in his health. He was released in 1939, but with his health broken he retired from crime. He died on 24 January 1947.

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