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Get Capone

Journalist Jonathan Eig presents a compelling portrait of America’s all-time favorite crime boss.

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Jonathan Eig, a former journalist and author of bestselling books on Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, paints a masterly portrait of America’s all-time favorite crime boss. (They’re still giving “Al Capone tours” in Chicago, much to the dismay of city fathers, and mothers.) Eig’s account is rich in detail and historical context, and as a writer he can turn a phrase with the best of them. Of how Capone and his fellow miscreants exploited Prohibition, he says, “[They] were like explorers, sailing off in uncharted directions; taking wrong turns; and, when necessary, slaughtering the natives who got in their way.”

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Like most people who rise to the top of their profession, Capone was a driven, complex individual, and Eig explores that complexity without undue bias or overt moralizing. When Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s baby was famously kidnapped in 1932, Capone seemed legitimately disturbed by the crime and, although in federal prison, offered to help solve it. He talked about his line of work the way a pipe fitter might, as a means to an end, a way to provide for his family. Of his only son, he told a reporter: “I don’t want him to be a bootlegger or a reformer, either ... and if he’d ever get to be a public official, I’d want him to be the squarest one that ever lived.” The author concludes that Capone either had a human side that was rigidly divorced from his criminal machinations, or the mobster was a superb actor. After his fall from power, he studiously refrained from talking about his life of crime.

All that hobnobbing with the media eventually would help to do Capone in – that and the case of syphilis he contracted in his early 20s. Unlike equally powerful crime figures, such as Lucky Luciano, who toiled in relative anonymity, Capone became the poster mug for lawlessness in America. In the public mind, Chicago, that famously toddling town, was Capone’s fiefdom even though he didn’t control all of it. So every murder – and there were about 50 gangland slayings a year there – was laid at his feet, although the charges could never be proved.

When the mayhem began to occur in wholesale lots, as in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or when it spilled over into the general populace, the federal gang in Washington took notice. What the locals couldn’t manage to do, Washington did, and fairly quickly. President Hoover couldn’t get the economy back on track, but he could and did get Al Capone.

The gangster was released from prison in 1939, washed up and in poor health, and died in 1947. The exceedingly optimistic phrase “My Jesus, Mercy” adorns his gravestone. It refers to a Roman Catholic prayer for souls suffering in purgatory.

David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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