Alphonse "Al" Capone (January 17, 1899-January 25, 1947)
Alphonse "Al" Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 17, 1899 and made his way to Chicago several months after the advent of Prohibition. His wealth, activities and legend made him Chicago's most notorious resident from his violent rise to power until many decades after his death in 1947.
As a teenager, Capone joined New York's Five Points Gang. By the age of 20, he became noticed by former New Yorker Johnny Torrio, who was looking to take over Big Jim Colosimo's gambling, prostitution and brothel empire on the Near South Side just as Prohibition had become law. Colosimo was assassinated in his nightclub on May 11, 1920, shortly after Capone's arrival in Chicago, which allowed Torrio to take over the lucrative brothel trade and expand into illegal liquor. The immense wealth brought in by the alcohol trade allowed Torrio to retire in 1925, leaving his empire to Capone.
Capone made his headquarters in the South Loop from the mid-1920s through 1931, first at the Metropole Hotel at 2300 S. Michigan Avenue, and then one block north at the Lexington Hotel at 2135 S. Michigan. The Lexington Hotel rooms rented by Capone afforded the gangster a commanding view of a busy corner at Michigan and 22nd Street, in the heart of a bustling nightlife and commerce district. Dozens of automobile dealerships lined Michigan Avenue at the time, a strip known as "Motor Row." The popular Four Deuces Club was a block and a half away at 2222 S. Wabash, and the remnants of Chicago's bawdy Levee District was only a few blocks to the north and west. Just south of 26th Street was the northern edge of Chicago's "Black Belt," and the jazz club and nightlife strip known as "The Stroll," that stretched from 26th Street south to 35th Street, between State Street and Michigan Avenue.
Unlike many other gangsters of the time, Capone reveled in publicity. Portraying himself as a mere entrepreneur giving the people what they wanted, he sought to maintain his empire by establishing iron-clad alibis for his whereabouts during outbreaks of violence and maintaining positive public opinion through generousity to the downtrodden. In 1927, it was estimated that his criminal empire brought in approximately $10 million per year, an astronomical sum for the time. Capone's empire provided hundreds of Chicagoans with employment, and when the Great Depression arrived he was among the most generous benefactors to soup kitchens. Nevertheless, Chicagoans and others around the country grew distressed by the growing tide of brutal violence that Capone used to vanquish his rivals. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 at a garage on Chicago's North Side horrified many citizens that once dismissed Capone's tactics as merely sidestepping what was locally an unpopular law.
Unable to pin direct crimes on Capone himself, the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, run out of the Treasury Department, decided to make an end run to send Capone to jail. Seeking to cut a favorable deal, Capone pleaded guilty on June 17, 1931. On October 17, 1931, Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison on five counts of tax evasion. At his sentencing hearing, thousands lined the streets around the courthouse to catch a glimpse of the notorious gangster, most glad to see him go, but some bidding a fonder farewell. Prohibition ended less than two years later, but much of the structure of organized crime gangs survived, providing a new set of vices for profit in Chicago and other cities.
Above: Thousands of Chicagoans line State Street on June 17, 1931 to catch a glimpse of Al Capone as he appears in court to plead guilty on tax evasion.
Capone spent nearly eight years in federal prisons from 1932 to 1939, first in Atlanta, then as one of the first inmates at Alcatraz, and finally at Terminal Island. Throughout his captivity, his health and sanity steadily declined due to his infection with syphillis as a young man. He was released from federal prison on November 16, 1939 due to good behavior and ill health. Capone spent a brief time in the hospital following his release, and then spent his remaining years at his home in Florida.
Suffering from dementia, Capone died on January 25, 1947 at his home in Palm Island, Florida. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery on the far South Side of Chicago. In March 1950, his remains and those of his family members were moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.
As Capone's legend and memories of Chicago's violence and corruption during Prohibition faded, they were revived in public memory and awareness by the publication of Eliot Ness' bestselling (and slightly exaggerated) 1957 book and TV series "The Untouchables." The city once again became synonymous with violence and corruption, even though similar conditions existed in many other cities around the country. Brian de Palma's 1987 film version of "The Untouchables" staring Robert DeNiro as Al Capone brought the legend into the popular consciousness of a new generation.
On April 21, 1986, broadcaster Geraldo Rivera hosted a live syndicated TV special to open Al Capone's "secret vault" in the basement of the abandoned Lexington Hotel. Millions tuned in as the wall to a basement vault was blasted open, but nothing was discovered but a few empty bottles and useless, unrelated debris. After several failed attempts at renovation, The Lexington was finally demolished in 1996.
Sources: Wikipedia, Biography.com, Associated Press. "Capone Dead at 48: Dry Era Gang Chief" New York Times. 26 Jan. 1947:7., Chicago Tribune
Photos: Library of Congress, International Newsreel
The Chicago Hotels of Architect Clinton J. Warren
Chicago’s Transportation Building—Former Headquarters of Eliot Ness and The Untouchables
Al Capone - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia