Al Capone and Prohibition both arrived in Chicago in 1920. For more than a decade, Capone would ride this gangster stimulus package to fame and fortune by providing the Windy (and Thirsty) City with the things it required: the occasional wager, the odd prostitute, and, most of all, a regular supply of booze.
As author Jonathan Eig writes in Get Capone: The Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, in the wild wild Midwest of the Roaring ’20s, “Getting a nip of the sauce in Chicago was as easy as getting a book from the Library.”
Capone was just 20 when he arrived, with an Irish Catholic wife and young son in tow, but within the decade he would have truly arrived, his mug gracing the cover of Time magazine. He was as famous as he was infamous.
Nonetheless, he studiously courted the media as if he were running for high office. He candidly told Cosmopolitan magazine that he was a bootlegger who in the course of his daily rounds needed to bribe public officials and, now and again, deal forcefully with rivals who got “chesty.” He made it sound like his racket was public service. He would have made a crackerjack salesman – or politician.
And while Capone got into his share of trouble during the Roaring ’20s, he studiously avoided the one thing that would give the whole country a decade-long hangover. He never played the stock market. “Those stock market guys are crooked,” he averred presciently before the 1929 crash.
Still, he didn’t do badly, financially speaking. He went from earning $9 a week as a cloth cutter to almost certainly being a millionaire by age 25, when being a millionaire still meant something. The government guesstimated his crew grossed $95 million annually at its peak, the equivalent of $1.2 billion today.
As difficult as it was to gauge Capone’s personal income (he never filed a tax return), it was just as hard to figure out how he spent all that loot. For while he lived well – his silk underwear, as an example, cost $12 a pair ($150 in today’s currency) – the author insists there is no evidence that the gangster tried to amass a traditional fortune. His holdings did not include too many cars, obscene houses hither and yon (he owned just two, one of which was quite modest, and mortgaged), savings accounts, or legitimate investments. The money came in and the money went out: there were family (eight siblings) and fellow mugs to feed, ponies to bet on, $100 tips to dispense, politicians and police to bribe, and plenty of food (the weekly meat bill alone was $250).
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.”
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.