Al Capone: America’s Favorite Gangster

Music by FSM Team featuring ESCP

Al Capone no doubt holds the title for the most famous American gangster of the 20th century. As public enemy number one, he was the poster boy for organized crime during the prohibition years with his personality being the inspiration for the first characters in the gangster movie genre.

Even decades after his fall from the top and death, there were still details about his life that were replicated in movies, such as his depression era soup kitchens being adapted into Nino Brown giving out free turkeys in the film New Jack City.

As the undisputed boss of the Chicago Outfit at the end of the Castellammaresse War, his power and prominence earned him a seat on Lucky Luciano’s original commission. At the time, he was the only American born boss in the Italian mafia, with his contemporaries making the move across the ocean when they were young men or children.

Alphonse Capone was born on January 17, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York to Italian Immigrants Gabriel and Teresa. He spent his early years living in the Navy Yard section and when he was 11 his family moved to Park Slope. His parents had nine children in total. His brothers Ralph and Frank followed him to Chicago and were part of his criminal empire. In contrast his older brother James later changed his name to Richard Hart and worked as a prohibition agent in Nebraska. This was done to hide his heritage and come off as more American as he started working for the government and changed his name before his brother’s rise to fame.

As a student, he displayed intelligence and promise but at the age of fourteen he was expelled after hitting a female teacher. He worked various odd jobs to make ends meet and in 1916 he began to play semi-professional baseball for two years. During this period, he met the gangster Johnny Torrio and the older man became his mentor.

In 1918, when he was just nineteen years old, he married Mae Jospehine Coughlin who was Irish. That same year she gave birth to their first child Albert Francis Capone who would become deaf. He was their only child and as an adult, he tried to distance himself from his father’s legacy.

Capone floated between various small New York gangs before he became a member of the Five Points. In addition to Torrio, another mentor for him was the gangster Frankie Yale. One night Capone was working as a bouncer at one of Yale’s clubs and he insulted a woman. Her upset brother attacked Capone with a knife and slashed his face three times. Following this incident, he was given the nickname ‘scarface’ and he loathed it. When asked about it later in life he would lie and say it was from wounds he earned during World War One, a conflict in which he did not serve.

In 1919, Big Jim Colosimo was a large crime boss in Chicago with his specialization being prostitution and brothels. Big Jim brought Johnny Torrio into his empire to work as an enforcer. Torrio in turn then brought his protégé Capone out west with him and he started working as a bouncer in one of the brothels. It’s during this time that historians believe Capone contracted Syphilis from one of the working girls. Capone also worked as a boxer promoter at this time, most likely fixing the fights.

Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 and small time gangsters all across the country recognized that with Americans still having a demand for booze, there was a large black market just waiting to be served. But Big Jim didn’t want to be any part of this new business and he forbade his men from participating as well. On May 11 of that year he was murdered and Johnny Torrio became the new boss of that Chicago operation.

Al Capone’s position rose with his mentor and he went from being a low level soldier to becoming a trusted lieutenant. During this time, the gangs of Chicago did not strictly discriminate from letting outside ethnic groups into their ranks. Johnny Torrio’s empire was therefore mostly Italian with some Irish, Germans, and other groups while Dean O’Banion’s Northside gang was mostly Irish with some Italian Americans in their ranks as well.

Torrio tried to rule by avoiding violence and making compromises but in 1924, he was faced with a situation where this strategy wasn’t going to work. O’Banion felt that his territory was being invaded by Torrio allies and he sought out Torrio to make a peaceful settlement. But he didn’t like that proposal and made it clear that he was going to take matters into his own hands.

On November 10, O’Banion was murdered in his flower shop with the order being given by Torrio. But rather than scare the Northside gang into submission, this event galvanized them to fight back. In January 1925, Capone survived an attempted hit that left him unhurt but shaken.

Johnny Torrio was not as lucky. Less than two weeks later he was shot and severely wounded. Though he survived, he decided that he was not suited to fight a gang war and chose to retire, naming Capone to be his successor.