His mother, Theresa, attended daily Mass. His father, Gabriel, was a successful barber. His family and friends called him “Al.” His detractors labeled him “Scarface,” but never ever directly to him. He was the Brooklyn, New York-born Alfonse Capone – one of the most notorious and ruthless gangsters in American history.
In Al Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, author Deirdre Bair recounts the story of this larger than life figure. He was to the world of the tough, violence-prone mobsters what Baltimore-born Babe Ruth was to the making of major league baseball. They both craved publicity, gained great success in their chosen fields, and went on to become legends in their own lifetimes.
It’s all here: the machine guns, the bloody gang wars in Chicago, the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre, the prohibition era, the roaring Twenties, prostitution galore, the Northside Gang, crooked politicos, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, hit men, the Outfit, Federal Court, the Income Tax evasion case, along with the multi-million dollar a year gambling, booze & vice empires.
Bair also does something different than most biographers of Capone have done in the past. What sets her biography apart is that she delves deeply into the private man who was a syphilis-ridden sociopath. Bair also reveals that Capone, born in 1899, was a loving family man behind the mystique of the “slick monster.”
Capone was one of nine children. His parents were Italian immigrants from the “village of Castellammare di Stabia, just outside of Naples.” By the time the Italian influx landed in America in the 1890s, the author said, “they had replaced the Irish at the bottom of the ethnic” ladder. When the city officials wanted someone to do the dirty work, “they gave it to the Italians.”
Schooling for Capone ended “in the sixth grade.” He then got a job in a candy store and later in a bowling alley setting up pins. At the age of 14, Capone worked as a “box cutter” along side his brother Ralph. Know as a “brawler” by then, and big for his age, Capone organized some of his cronies, known as the “South Brooklyn Rippers,” to shake down small business owners.
All of this brought Capone to the attention of his first crime boss, and later mentor, Johnny Torrio, who was operating then out of lower Manhattan. He was an organizing genius, and Capone learned a lot from him. Torrio also never got his hands dirty. He knew how to delegate. The author suspects Capone, on Torrio’s behalf, was involved in a “half dozen killing before he was eighteen.”
Enter a pretty Irish girl — Mary Josephine Coughlin. She had “startling green eyes.” Her nickname was “Mae.” In late 1917, they began courting. Mae was “lace curtain Irish” and two years older than him. Capone got her pregnant. Their son was nicknamed “Sonny.” They got married on December 30, 1919, in a Catholic ceremony. It was a “love affair” that lasted a lifetime. The author said he was truly “enchanted with her.”
It was around this time in Brooklyn, when Capone began working as a bouncer for Frankie Yale (whom he later had murdered). Capone got his face gashed in a fight. The moniker “scarface” followed. Since he was hanging out in the brothels, he also contracted syphilis, which for some dumb reason, he declined to get treated. Whether this condition contributed to his homicidal tendencies is open to debate.
Capone soon left, at age 20, for Chicago, taking his young family with him. He was “an enforcer” for Torrio and knocked off crime boss “Big Jim” Colosimo at his request. He became Torrio’s right hand man. He quickly began making some big bucks and bought a large house in the Park Manor Neighborhood of the city, where his mother and one of his sisters soon joined them.
Torrio survived an assassination attempt and soon retired from the rackets. Incredibly, at age 26, Capone became the boss of the outfit. From 1925 to 1932, when he went to federal prison for tax evasion, Capone was the kingpin of the Chicago gangland, hauling in multi-million dollars in illegal revenue a year.
Capone’s family life was centered around his Chicago home. When the gang warfare got too intense in 1927, he bought an estate in Palm Island, Miami Beach, Florida. It was a smart move, which gained him some measure of personal safety and gave his family a chance to breath freely as a unit.
His wife Mae and boy Sonny thrived in Florida. He bought his waterfront property for $40,000. Capone soon purchased a yacht and built himself a swimming pool. He had a wall built around the property. Sonny was enrolled in a “private Catholic school.” Later on after his prison stint, and Sony’s marriage, Capone also enjoyed the company of his four young granddaughters at his estate.
Capone, Bair insisted, didn’t take the tax invasion case against him “seriously enough.” Whatever could go wrong – did. He was found guilty and got 11 years in the slammer. Two of those years he served at Atlanta federal prison and five at the dreaded Alcatraz hell hole before being released for medical reasons. It was all hard time. The author covers the trial and his incarceration in great detail.
After Capone’s release, in 1939, he was treated briefly at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital for “neurosyphilis.” He then went to Florida, where he spent the rest of his days as “a blubbering invalid, who had deteriorated to the mental age of fourteen.” In 1947, he died of cardiac arrest. He was forty-eight years old.
Finally, Bair’s biography of the gangster Capone covers the waterfront. Her detailed portrait shows him warts and all. Nevertheless, in the end, the great Law of Karma caught up with Capone. It was a grim fate for his life of crime.
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Editor’s Note: Bill Hughes is a Baltimore-based author, actor and photojournalist.
Top photo: Al Capone photographed at the Chicago Police Department Detectives Bureau in 1930 (Wikipedia)