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Sunday, July 3, 2011

In search of the real Al Capone

The recent arrest of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger after 16 years on the lam got us to thinking about an earlier hoodlum ... and the long shadow he still manages to cast. Dean Reynolds went in search of the real Al Capone, the Chicago mobster whose injuries from youthful brawling earned him the nickname Scarface:

Nine decades ago Americans needed a break. World War I had just ended, and just when people wanted nothing more than to pack up all their cares and woes and maybe have a stiff drink (or three), Prohibition arrived in 1920, like a sobering slap across the face.
There was, however, another arrival that year, in Chicago - one that would come to define Prohibition. It involved a 20-year old named Alphonse Gabriel Capone - a.k.a. Scarface - a tough kid from Brooklyn who saw clarity in the chaos and opportunity in the Windy City.
"Nobody really liked Prohibition, and certainly in Chicago, plenty of people were still drinking," said Jonathan Eig, author of a book called "Get Capone." "his was one of the wettest cities in the country throughout Prohibition."
Corrupt as it was, Chicago was a very good place for a savvy hood to provide what were called the lighter pleasures.
"When Prohibition came along, it was incredibly tempting, if you were working a menial job, to get into this line - and suddenly make more money than you ever dreamed possible," said Eig, "if you were willing to put up with the risks, of course."
Capone was more than willing ... muscling his rivals to the side, and by the mid-1920s gaining the lion's share of Chicago's graft ... the bootlegging ... bookmaking ... and brothels.
British actor Stephen Graham, who plays a young Capone in the hit HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," calls the mobster "an opportunist.
"He saw the moment, and he took it, and he grasped it with both hands," said Graham.
"To be 27 years of age and own Chicago, and run that whole empire, that's one helluva mind, and one helluva desire, do you know what I mean?" said Graham. "And a passion to achieve."
Capone achieved all of it with a splash of style. The best clothes, the biggest cars, and more.
"The big difference is that Capone talked to the media and really welcomed the spotlight, so that people heard more about him," said Eig.
But away from the spotlight ...
"If you had a butcher shop and you weren't paying your contribution to the local protection association, the first thing is you'd get a broke window," said Eig. "The next thing is you might get a pineapple - a homemade bomb, hand grenade equivalent which would cause not only a broken window, but some fire damage."
"So a brick, a hand grenade ..." said Reynolds.
"Maybe a baseball bat to the head, to the knee," said Eig. "And then finally, you know, if you still didn't get the message, somebody might get killed."
While that sort of thing went on, Capone would likely be out on the town. The Green Mill cocktail lounge was a favorite haunt. "I'm guessing he didn't have to pay for his own drinks<' laughed Eig. "But he would certainly consume them in a place like this."
Owner Dave Jemilo tends bar nowadays at the Green Mill - right above a subterranean escape route used by gangsters. He showed us the tunnels: "You went this way, you're under the street. And then it was boarded up. Then you go down this way and there's a whole other set of tunnels."
"So this was pretty elaborate," said Reynolds. "I mean they were serious about escaping."
"Well, wouldn't you be?" replied Jemilo.
Capone's favorite spot, though, was a quiet home on a quiet South Side street that he shared with his wife and son.
Deirdre Capone is Al Capone's grandniece. She remembers the house on Prairie Avenue, and the family that lived there.
"It was just a fun Italian family, with food that, I mean, we'd sit down, four hours later we were still eating food," she said.
And she recalls her uncle as definitely the man in charge.
"When he came into a room, it was like lightning went off," Dierdre Capon said. "And he loved that. He loved to be the center of attention. He loved to be the big shot."
Eventually, though, the limelight he coveted turned against him.
"You know, every time something happened in Chicago, he felt like he was going to be blamed for it," said Eig.
So when several members of rival gangster Bugs Moran's outfit were gunned down against a garage wall in February of 1929, suspicion immediately centered on Capone. And it still does.
"I think it's likely that Capone had something to do with this attack," said John Russick, curator of the Chicago History Museum. "Large scale attack. Lots of people dead."
But Jonathan Eig says because Moran wasn't among the dead, he doesn't think Capone was involved.
"The massacre does not fit Capone's m.o. at all," he said. "He'd eliminated many of his rivals before, and he did it in a certain way. And it was very efficient and very effective - and he almost never missed."
It became known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Shooters in police uniforms lined seven people up against the wall and methodically executed them in a hail of bullets from Thompson submachine guns, or Tommy guns.
And coincidentally, two of the guns used that day were eventually recovered in St. Joseph, Michigan - a place where Capone and his pals would vacation, and where Mike Kline is now a deputy sheriff.
"A couple of priceless pieces of history here, very unique to our department, but also to American history," said Kline. "St. Valentine's Day Massacre happened at 2122 North Clark Street, Chicago, February 14th, 1929. And this machine gun was used there."
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre brought worldwide notoriety to Chicago's violent streets ... and Capone.
"You can go to almost any country outside the United States and say, 'Chicago,' and people start going, 'Al Capone' to you," said Reynolds.
"He's sort of an enigma in some sense," said Russick. "He was not to be stopped."
But soon he was stopped, by the feds. And as television would have many believe, Eliot Ness, the real-life Prohibition agent cast as Capone's nemesis.
"I think over the years his role has been expanded to be seen as the primary crimefighter who brought down Capone when, in fact, it was much more of a legal machinery that brought down Capone," said Russick.
And not for gangland killings or violating Prohibition - but on tax evasion charges.
"I think it was a miscarriage of justice in many ways," said Eig. "Capone was a man who deserved to be punished and deserved to go to jail, but he probably did not deserve to go to jail for as long as he did on these particular charges."
He served eight years, four of them in Alcatraz ... was diagnosed behind bars with syphilis ... and returned to Chicago an enfeebled man who died in 1947. He had just turned 48.
But that was hardly the end of this story.
Al Capone remains a legendary figure in American history, and especially in the Windy City.
"It's Chicago's persona and, but also even the nation," said Russick. "I think that there's something in his attitude and his determination and his wealth and his success that we're sort of attracted to."
Just as long as we don't come too close.



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