Al Capone: Lord of The Chicago Underworld

From the lecture series: The American Identity

By Patrick N. Allitt, PhD, Emory University

Throughout American history, the names of certain criminals have taken on romantic associations. Al Capone is perhaps, the most famous case in point.

Al Capone's criminal record from U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia
(Image: By FBI/United States Bureau of Prisons/Public domain)

“Scarface” Comes to Chicago

A young Capone with his mother taken between 1904 and 1910
Al Capone grew up in Brooklyn in poverty, and was drawn into the crime world. (Image: By Unknown – domain)

Al Capone came from a family of Neapolitans who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1893. He grew up in Brooklyn in poverty, drawn early on into the crime world. At various times he was a barman, a bouncer, and a strong-arm man for Frankie Yale, head of the Sicilian Union, which was a mixture between an ethnic-friendly society and a criminal gang.

At the age of 18, Capone got the scars that gave him one of his nicknames, “Scarface,” during a fight with another Italian whose sister he had insulted. He was hot-tempered. He then got into a fight with an Irish gangster who had influential friends. For the sake of protecting his life, his friends moved him to Chicago in 1919.

This is a transcript from the video series American Identity. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

In those days, Chicago was a highly ethnically divided city. Dozens and dozens of different ethnic groups from all over Europe had come and created strong regional areas: a Hungarian area, a Polish area, several German areas, an African American section, and so on. Crime tended to follow these ethnic divisions of the city. There was also a large Italian community.

It was also the scene of violent race riots in 1919, partly because a large African American community had migrated north out of the sharecropping South, in response to industrial opportunities during World War I.

police mug shot of Johnny Torrio
In 1920, Al Capone collaborated with Johnny Torrio. The two of them collaborated on assassinating the local crime boss Colosimo and taking control of his vice and alcohol business. (Image: By New York Police Department – Eugene Canevari collectionalt source/Public domain)

Al Capone’s first job in Chicago was running a brothel called the Four Deuces—so-called because the address was 2222 South Wabash Avenue—for John Torrio, who was a lieutenant of the local crime boss, Jim Colosimo. He ran the brothel effectively. He was a practical businessman, and he befriended Torrio, who was also a former Brooklyn man who had come out to Chicago.

The two of them collaborated in 1920 on assassinating Colosimo and taking control of his vice and alcohol business. This was right at the beginning of Prohibition; neither thought Colosimo had a sufficient eye for the business opportunities that were presented.

Learn more about the continuous interplay between forensic advances and larger societal changes

Profiting From Prohibition

Most of the violence perpetrated by the Chicago gangs then, and in the next 10 years, revolved around the rights to supply illegal liquor to illegal bars known as speakeasies. There were very high profit margins in this business. Throughout Illinois and Indiana, in the countryside and the suburbs, literally hundreds of Italians—many of whom had immigrated with winemaking traditions at home—were making alcohol in small quantities in their own houses. The gangs would then gather it up and ship it in large quantities into the city itself. They were also importing a lot of rum from the Caribbean, and whiskey, which had come from Europe, through Canada.

In 1921, the next year, the Supreme Court upheld the Harrison Narcotics Act, which outlawed cocaine, opium, and morphine. It said that these are illegal drugs. This also became a very lucrative trade by supplying drug addicts.

Torrio and Capone paid steady bribes to city politicians and to the police to look the other way and not interfere with this trade. Torrio was an orderly businessman who understood that the business—criminal or otherwise—would work smoothest if there was the least possible interference. Policemen were not well paid, and for them, it was a boon to supplement their income in return for looking the other way. Politicians who needed the support of people like this to get the vote out often went along with it. There was a high degree of complicity in various sections of the city government.

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photograph of Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson taken between between 1911 and 1917
“Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago (Image: By Harris & Ewing, photographer/United States Library of Congress)

Torrio and Capone thrived as long as the mayor of Chicago, “Big Bill” Thompson, was also willing to turn a blind eye. But they found that his “reform” successor, William Dever, who was elected in 1923, was far less amenable. Dever said he was going to clean up the criminal gangs in the city, which were becoming notorious. It was then that Capone moved his operations to the suburb of Cicero, Illinois. He chose a group of bribed and servile politicians and made sure to safeguard his position in the town in return for winning all the elections.

Capone Takes Command

Weiss’s men fired more than 1,000 rounds of machine gun bullets into the Hawthorne Inn—Capone’s headquarters in Cicero.

In 1925, Torrio, his boss, was severely injured in a shooting and retired. Capone took command of a large part of the Chicago underworld from then on. Torrio was shot by Hymie Weiss in retaliation for an earlier murder. A year of bloodshed and shifting alliances between the various gangs ensued.

Capone had learned from Torrio that there was a lot to be said for making peace within the various criminal groups. So he proposed to Weiss, the near-killer of Torrio, a peace treaty in 1926. Weiss, even more volatile than Capone, refused to attend and instead sent a group of his gunmen to try to have Capone killed. Weiss’s men fired more than 1,000 rounds of machine-gun bullets into the Hawthorne Inn—Capone’s headquarters in Cicero—but they didn’t kill either Capone or any of his leading associates. In retaliation, Capone murdered Weiss.

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During the mid- and late 1920s, Capone was at the height of his powers. He dominated the Chicago underworld, but he was also a major figure in the city’s public life. His businesses amassed him tens of millions of dollars every year, and he loved spending money and living a grand life. He ordered from Detroit an armor-plated Cadillac that cost more than $30,000. He displayed himself prominently at clubs, he’d go to watch the ball game when the Cubs were playing, and he attended all sorts of other public events. He was surrounded, when he appeared, by bodyguards, and he enjoyed being photographed and interviewed by the press, dressed in fine suits with a flower in his lapel.

Of himself, he said, “Don’t think of me as a criminal. Think of me as a man in the service industries.” Here is one of his famous quotations:

I make my money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference between us is that I sell and they buy.

Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman. When I sell liquor, it’s “bootlegging.” When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it’s “hospitality.”

A shrewd form of self-justification.

Common Questions About Al Capone

Q: Why did Al Capone go to Alcatraz?

Surprisingly, tax evasion is what landed Al Capone in Alcatraz.

Q: How did Al Capone get out of Alcatraz?

It was actually syphilis that freed Al Capone from Alcatraz. His deteriorating physical and mental health got him transferred to Terminal Island and eventually put in the care of his wife.

Q: Who finally caught Al Capone?

Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness and his gang of “untouchables” was responsible for destroying much of Capone’s organization and eventually bringing him to trial for thousands of violations of the Volstead Act; however, it was tax evasion that sent Capone to Alcatraz.

Q: When was Al Capone killed?

Al Capone died of cardiac arrest on January 25, 1947.

This article was updated on September 4, 2020

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