The Real History of Al Capone

You can call him Scarface or you can call him Fonz, but the real Al Capone defied easy labels.

Gangster Al Capone's Hat
Photo: Getty Images

New movie Capone is set in the twilight years of America’s most infamous mobster. The slashes across his cheek which gave him his nickname “Scarface” are still there, but the movie is more concerned with deeper wounds. In spite of the Tommy gun and the Cotton Club from Hell scenes, Josh Trank’s Al Capone biopic is a tearjerker, not a gangster movie. Capone is 47 and his mind is rotting from the dementia caused by years of untreated syphilis. But then there were people in the industry who never thought the man who was the face of the mob had much going on under his thick skull. The statute of limitations on his tax evasion conviction had actually expired. If he hired a tax lawyer instead of a criminal lawyer, he might have gotten off.

Still, the mythology around him only grew. So much so that when Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather in 1969, he had fictional Don Vito Corleone say he “held the Capones in small esteem as stupid, obvious cutthroats” who forfeited whatever political influence they may have amassed in their violent rise to prominence by the “flaunting of his criminal wealth.” But the novel gets a few things wrong. For one, it claims Capone was an associate of Salvatore Maranzano. In reality, Capone sided with his rival Joe Masseria in New York’s Castellammarese War, which was the flash point for the beginning of organized crime and the American Mafia.

Only Capone wasn’t Mafia and he wasn’t Sicilian. He was Napolitani, and like Neapolitan stereotypes, he wanted to be flashier and tougher. As with John Gotti after him, Capone threw neighborhood block parties which got nationwide press. Capone lived big and had fun big. He gave back to the community in a big way and let everyone know it. This is what made him probably the most recognizable name in gangster history, Mafia or not.

Al Capone’s Early Life

The real man, however, was born Alphonse Gabriel Capone in Brooklyn on Jan. 17, 1899. His father, Gabriele Capone, was a barber from Castellammare di Stabia, about 16 miles south of Naples, Italy. His mother Teresina Raiola was a seamstress from Salerno. The Capones had nine kids. Besides Al, there was James “Richard Two-Gun Hart” Capone, Raffaele Ralph “Bottles” Capone, Salvatore “Frank” Capone, John Capone, Albert Capone, Matthew Capone, Rose Capone, and Mafalda Capone. The Capones lived at 95 Navy Street until Al was nine and then moved to 38 Garfield Place in Park Slope.

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Capone went to Catholic school until he hit a female teacher in the face when he was 14. He got expelled and got jobs at a bowling alley and a candy store. He also started hanging out with gangs. Al was part of the Junior Forty Thieves, the Bowery Boys, and the Brooklyn Rippers before he got called up to the big time.

Johnny “The Fox” Torrio, who went on to be the architect for the National Syndicate, was the underboss in the Five Points Gang on the Lower East Side. He put Capone in a crew which included Danny “Big Wang” Glaister, and Jimmy “The Shiv” DeStefano and Frankie Yale, also known as the “Beau Brummell of Brooklyn.”  A funny guy by all accounts, Frankie took the earnings he made by taking over the ice delivery truck trade and bought a club called the Harvard Inn just so people could say “Yale owned the Harvard.” 

Capone got his nickname at that club. He was working the door and insulted a woman. While it may have just been some minor velvet rope drama, her brother, Frank Gallucio, sliced up Capone’s face in response. Yale made Capone apologize to the man who disfigured him. Capone didn’t just apologize; he hired the guy who got through his defenses as his personal bodyguard. Although he may have figured it was easier to pay him than duck him. Before the slashing, Capone was called “Snorky.” In the film Capone, he is called “Fonz,” short for Alphonse.

In early December 1918, Capone and his Irish girlfriend, Mae Josephine Coughlin, had a son. They named him Albert Francis Capone, nicknamed Sonny. Capone and Coughlin got married on Dec. 30. Capone was under 21, so his parents had to sign for him.

The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transport of liquor, was passed in 1919, the year Capone had to lam it out of Brooklyn to avoid a murder charge. Meyer Lansky hid Capone while Yale reached out to Torrio, who at the time was breaking the thumbs of a Black Hand extortionist putting the squeeze on his wife’s cousin in Chicago. Torrio took one look at all the business the Chicago Outfit had going and decided to take over their rackets. The biggest racketeer in town was “Big Jim” (or “Diamond Jim”) Colosimo, who made Torrio second in command.

Torrio refurbished Colosimo’s string of cathouses, cleaning the crabs from the cribs and turning them into classy places. Most accounts say Capone’s first job in Chicago was as a manager of Torrio’s club The Four Deuces, and bouncer and roper at one of Colosimo’s bordellos, where he contracted syphilis. But Capone’s only child developed a serious hearing problem, which has also been attributed to the social disease.

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Al Capone’s Rise to Power in Chicago

The Volstead Act and the Prohibition that came with it was passed on Jan 17, 1920, Capone’s 21st birthday. In Chicago, the Mafia was represented by the Aiello brothers. Torrio asked permission from the Aiello family to bring Yale in from Brooklyn to do the hit on Colosimo. Yale reputedly put a .38 behind Colosimo’s ear in his own cafe on May 11, 1920. The murder was never solved. While prison records show Capone arrived in Chicago in 1921, he is one of the suspects, as well as on two other early retirements.

Capone, who also teamed up with The Purple Gang out of Detroit, tried to take over all of Chicago for himself, making enemies of the Irish and the Sicilian gangs. Yale put a hit out on Capone over some booze hijacking. Capone tried to execute Yale four times. Capone’s men ambushed Yale on his way to a banquet on Feb. 6, 1921, killing his bodyguard. They shot at his car on July 15, 1921, but hit Yale’s brother Angelo. Yale’s chauffeur, Frank Forte, was shot on July 9, 1923 because the gunman thought he was Frankie Yale. The fourth attempt was when one of Capone’s men tried to shoot Yale on July 1, 1927 after Yale found out Capone was hijacking Yale’s whiskey on its way to Chicago.

Capone’s wife and family joined Capone in 1923 and he bought a house in Chicago’s South Side at 7244 South Prairie Avenue. Chicago’s mayor was the incorruptible William E. Dever, so on April Fool’s Day 1924, Capone and his brother delivered the Cicero section to Republican Mayor Joseph Z. Klenha. A couple weeks later, Klenha announced that he was running Capone out of town. Capone personally slapped the shit out of Klenha right on the steps of City Hall. Capone had reason to be upset; the cops gunned down his brother Frank during the election, according to the book After Capone: The Life and World of Chicago Mob Boss Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti by Mars Eghigian and Frank Nitti. Cops said Frank Capone fired first. Witnesses said Frank never even pulled out his gun. Capone was devastated by his brother’s death. He openly cried at the funeral and ordered all the speakeasies in Cicero closed for a day in respect.

Uptown Chicago was called the Gold Coast and it was controlled by Dion O’Banion and his North Side Gang. The Genna crime family, six brothers from Marsala, Sicily, controlled Little Italy and represented Cosa Nostra in Chicago. Torrio brokered a deal splitting the territories. When the Gennas sold booze in O’Banion’s neighborhood, O’Banion turned to Torrio, who was from the Naples area and represented the Camorra to help him with the Mafia. He got the Gennas to pull back. But after O’Banion stole the Gennas’ whiskey and served Torrio up to the feds by selling him the Sieben Brewery, which was raided, Torrio and the Gennas called on Yale. He brought in John Scalise and Albert Anselmi to deliver O’Banion some flowers. They killed him in his own flower shop on Nov. 10, 1924. Mike Genna drove them home.

O’Banion’s hit started an all-out war. On Saturday, Jan. 24, 1925, Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, and Bugs Moran from the North Side Gang went after Torrio when he was coming home from shopping with his wife, Anna. Weiss and Moran shot Torrio and his chauffer with a .45 automatic and a .12 gauge shotgun, and were going to polish Torrio off but ran out bullets. They left Torrio for dead in front of his own apartment, but the wiseguy lived, going on to do a year in prison for the brewery sting after he got out of the hospital. When he got out of jail, Torrio decided he missed Italy. He stepped down as the head of The Outfit, told Capone “It’s all yours Al” and took off for Europe.

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The first year on the job as chief of the Chicago Outfit, Capone’s leadership pulled in more than $108 million. He also had jazz piano prodigy Fats Waller pulled in, at gunpoint, straight from his residency at The Sherman House to play a party for Capone. The party lasted three days. “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone,” Capone once said. 

But life wasn’t all speakeasies and dancing for the bootleggers of the Roaring ‘20s. Capone had to deal with his car being machine gunned and his dinners also being interrupted by the sound of the Chicago Piano Gun’s music. His life was saved by his bodyguard Frankie Rio, who threw himself on top of Capone when his hotel was sprayed by machine gun bullets. Capone paid the medical bills for everyone else injured in the attack, including a kid and his mom who both would have gone blind because of the flying glass. After that he began hanging out in Couderay, Wisconsin, and at Owney “The Killer” Madden’s place in Hot Springs, the place Lucky Luciano was arrested. Capone also got himself a place in Miami Beach.

By this point “Bugs” Moran was running the Northside Gang. He inherited it from Hymie Weiss who was taken out in October 1926. Moran and Capone did not get along. Moran called Capone “The Beast.” Capone and Yale made amends at the Dempsey-Tunney fight in 1927. But on July 1, 1928, Yale was the first casualty in the Castellammarese War back in New York. Capone backed Masseria and did the job on Joe Aiello during that chaos. Yet while Yale was a made man. Capone never got his button. Yale’s killing was the first time a Tommy gun was used in a gang battle. Yale was wearing a gift Capone gave him, a belt buckle with his initials spelled out with 75 diamond chips. Yale was shot by the same guys who did the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Moran and the Aiello family gunned down Pasqualino Lo Lordo, one of Capone’s men, in early 1929. The North Side hijacked Capone’s trucks and assassinated two presidents of Unione Siciliana, angering the Mafia. Capone and his men rented an apartment across the street from Moran’s headquarters.

At about 10:30 am, on St. Valentine’s Day in 1929, four men, two of them in police uniforms, got out of the same kind of black Cadillac cops used, right down to the siren, at 2122 North Clark Street. Moran and one of his men, Ted Newberry, saw cop cars pull up, figured it was a shakedown and decided to grab some coffee. The men burst into the garage at the SMC Cartage Company, and announced it was a raid. They lined up seven of the men who worked there against a wall and mowed them down with machine guns. The word on the street is that the shooters were Albert Anselmi, John Scalise, and “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn. The papers called it “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” and blamed Capone. Capone had an alibi. He was vacationing at his place on Palm Island, Florida. Capone did a stint in a Pennsylvania jail on gun possession to ride out the investigation.

Al Capone’s Downfall and Arrest

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover rolled over laws and regulations to end the careers and lives of criminals like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, but he really had a desperate thirst for Capone. Hoover hated him so much he sic’d Elliot Ness after him in 1929. Ness was an incorruptible U.S. Treasury agent. Well, the mob couldn’t corrupt him. He did his own share of skirting the law to put people away but the untouchable one couldn’t make a case against Capone.

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Still, Capone never filed a federal income tax return. He was too wily to get caught for anything illegal, and illegal business were not taxable income. That all changed after Mabel Walker Willebrandt, America’s first female assistant attorney general, prosecuted Manly Sullivan. She couldn’t make a case against him for his criminal activities, so she nailed him for not paying taxes on his income. On May 16, 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gains “from illicit traffic in liquor are subject to the income tax.” Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson checked Capone’s tax returns. In 1931, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of federal income tax evasion, even though the statute of limitations on the IRS’s claim had already expired.

After being convinced the Treasury Department prosecutors would settle for a lenient sentence, Capone pled guilty to Judge James Herbert Wilkerson. When Capone’s lawyers learned Wilkerson wasn’t going to listen to sentencing recommendations, Capone withdrew the guilty plea and tried to bribe Ness’ agents. The federal cops were so against bribery they were called “The Untouchables.” So Capone bribed members of the trial’s jury pool. So the judge switched the pool to another case. Capone was convicted on Oct. 17 and sentenced to 11 years, the longest sentence for tax evasion ever given at that time. He was also hit with fines and his property was taken. The Feds even took his bulletproof limousine, which President Franklin Roosevelt used after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Capone, who was suffering from extreme cocaine withdrawal, detoxed before joining the prison population. He was first sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary in May 1932, where he enjoyed special privileges. On Aug. 11, 1934, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he didn’t. He couldn’t enjoy anything. Not even a haircut. The barber was doing 30 years for bank robbery and didn’t like to get his scissors greasy. Capone had to pay for everything at Alcatraz. In her book Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family, Deirdre Marie Capone writes that her uncle had money delivered to him while he was in prison from some hidden stash. He even allegedly financed “the only successful escape from Alcatraz,” by Roy Gardener. 

While Capone didn’t join the prison break, going the good behavior route, he did join the prison orchestra on banjo. Though the inmates shunned him and he only did solos, apparently. The other inmates said he was still given some special treatment because he wasn’t routinely beaten. On June 23, 1936, James “Tex” Lucas, who was serving 30 years for bank robbery and auto theft, slashed Capone in the prison shower room with a pair of scissors. Capone survived but sustained wounds to his chest and hands.

Al Capone’s Death and Legacy

Capone was formally diagnosed with syphilis of the brain in February 1938. In 1909, the first effective medicinal treatment for the disease was discovered by German doctor Paul Ehrlich, who was played by Edward G. Robinson in the 1940 biographical film Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. Robinson rose to fame playing a character based on Capone in the 1931 film, Little Caesar. The magic bullet approach was modified by Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin. Capone was the first American ever treated for syphilis with penicillin, but the disease had progressed too far for it to be effective.

Capone floated to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in California before being sent to a mental hospital in 1939, to serve out the remainder of his sentence. He was paroled on Nov. 16, 1939. When Capone got out, he went to his Miami Beach house on Palm Island and raged against the machine. He also raged against Bugs Moran. There have been reports that Capone was haunted by one of the victims, James Clark, starting when Capone was in jail. Witnesses say Moran’s brother-in-law tormented Capone for years. Capone wasn’t the only person to see the ghost. His driver did too.

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Capone’s physical and mental health continued to deteriorate after prison. His doctor said he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. There are persistent rumors Capone spent his last years trying to remember where he stashed all the money he’d earned. “I put it in a bunch of different banks and had the safety deposit box keys and the names I used in a strong box,” Capone is quoted as telling his grandniece and goddaughter in her memoir. “I buried the box, but when I went to dig it up after I got out, I couldn’t find it. Then I thought I had buried it in another place but when I looked, it wasn’t there either.”

Geraldo Rivera tried to dig up Capone’s hidden treasure in his 1986 TV special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. After much hoopla, he opened Capone’s secret vault in the Lexington Hotel live on TV to reveal nothing but debris. Deirdre knew that was all he’d find. In her book, she writes that she tried to help her uncle remember where the money was, even hiring a hypnotist and having people dig up his Florida estates.

Al Capone had a stroke on Jan. 21, 1947. He had a heart attack the next day. He died in his home three days later, on Jan. 25, 1947. He is buried аt Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.

Capone is now available on VOD, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.