Capone: Looking for a legend, finding the man BY JONATHAN EIG |
I LIVE IN Chicago, which means I’ve heard a lot of stories about Al Capone.
Al Capone had a hideout in the apartment building on Surf Street, around the corner from my house. Al Capone and his brother Ralph ran a casino on Broadway, where the eyeglass shop sits today. Al Capone used to get his hats from my friend Jim’s grandfather. The Green Mill jazz club has secret tunnels that Al Capone used to escape enemies. Al Capone was the first person to suggest putting expiration dates on milk.
I could go on.
I spent years researching Capone’s life, and while I would never call my friend Jim a liar, I have no idea if any of the above claims are true. That’s the trouble with Capone: He was so big, so famous, and he mingled so thoroughly and so casually with the people of Chicago during his 10-year run as the city’s leading bootlegger that it’s difficult if not impossible to disprove claims such as these. Capone really did get around.
Capone represented a special kind of challenge to me as a biographer. On the one hand, everybody has a story about him. On the other hand, many of those stories were patently false.
When I began researching the life of this notorious criminal, I applied the same techniques and standards I’d used throughout my career as a newspaper reporter. I would write only what I could confirm from primary sources. And if primary sources were not good enough, I would admit my gaps in knowledge, present whatever information I could and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
I discovered quickly that Capone had become an almost mythological figure in American lore. We picture him with cigar stuck in his mouth and a Tommy gun in his hand, spraying bullets into his enemy. In truth, Capone was almost never seen holding a gun. After a violent incident early in his career, he was always careful to delegate his dirty work.
We also blame Capone for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, when seven men were brutally gunned town in 1929 in a parking garage on Chicago’s North Side. It turns out Capone was out of town when the attack occurred. Moreover, my research suggests he probably had nothing to do with it.
One more example: Most people think Eliot Ness was responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of Capone. In fact, he had almost nothing to do with it. My hunch is that Capone never heard of Eliot Ness. It was a mild-mannered attorney and a bunch of accountants who put Capone behind bars.
Just a businessman
I was disappointed at times while writing this book that I couldn’t describe some of the brutal scenes depicted in movies like “The Untouchables,” starring Kevin Costner. But once I got over that disappointment, I discovered that the true story of Capone’s career was more interesting than the film version. In “The Untouchables,” Robert DeNiro portrays Capone as a snarling psychopath. He was no such thing. Capone was capable of brutality, but he saw himself as a businessman first, and so did many of the people with whom he worked. It just so happened that his business involved the murder of rivals from time to time, but Capone believed that he was worthy of respect. He believed that the ban on booze was a flawed law and that he was merely providing a commodity that the vast majority of Americans continued to crave. He traveled safely throughout the city and mingled with ordinary citizens because he was a friendly, gregarious man, not a sneering monster.
To understand how Capone could have been both a criminal and a part of the Chicago community, one must understand American culture in the 1920s, when lawlessness became sexy and when everyone—even criminals—craved celebrity.
After the Valentine’s Day Massacre, President Herbert Hoover told members of his Cabinet that he wanted to send a message to Americans that even unpopular laws would be enforced. To make the point most forcefully, he wanted Capone jailed. When it became clear that there was no way to build a strong case against Capone for murder or bootlegging, the U.S. Attorney for Chicago, George E.Q. Johnson, made the difficult decision to pursue charges of income-tax evasion.
Some government officials didn’t care much for Johnson’s approach. They worried that going after Capone on something as mundane as an income-tax charge would be to admit their own failure. It was not the way to make Hoover look tough on crime.
But Johnson argued that the most important thing was getting Capone off the streets. Once he was gone, his organization would fall apart. It would send the message that no one was above the law in the United States, and that criminals weren’t the only ones capable of cunning.
In the course of my research, I found thousands of pages of George Johnson’s original working papers, including his memos to the White House, wiretaps of the Capone gang recorded by Eliot Ness and Johnson’s handwritten notes on Capone’s trial.
Was all of it thrilling? No, in fact, most of it was duller than U.S. tax code. Come to think of it, some of it was U.S. tax code.
But I loved getting my hands on it, touching and smelling the same pieces of paper that Johnson scattered across his desk as he prepared for Capone’s trial. I may never know where Capone bought his hats or whether he sneaked through tunnels at the Green Mill. But that’s fine. I don’t need the myths. The real Capone is good enough for me.
Jonathan Eig is the author of “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.” He’ll be speaking about Capone this Tuesday at UMW.