Alphonse Capone (1899-1947)
An overview of his life/career.
For a complete outline biography, click on Outline Bio.
Baptized "Alphonsus," Latin for the Italian, "Alfonso," the English equivalent, "Alphonse"
Generally known as Al Capone, and by an alias, "Al Brown"
Nicknames: "Scarface" in newspapers, "Snorky" or "The Big Fellow" to his friends
Al Capone was born in Brooklyn on January 17, 1899, fourth of seven sons and two daughters. His parents, Gabriel and Theresa, had immigrated to the United States six years before from Castellammare di Stabia, sixteen miles from Naples, Italy. He died of cardiac arrest at his estate on Palm Island—in Biscayne Bay, between Miami and Miami Beach, Florida—just eight days after his 48th birthday.
He was entirely obscure when he fled to Chicago in 1919 at age 20, fugitive from a psychopathic killer, the chief lieutenant of an Irish gang whose subordinate Capone had pounded into a hospital case during a bar brawl. No one in the saloon knew the name of the hefty Italian kid, but William Lovett had a useful description: not too long before, Capone's left cheek, jaw and neck had received three scars.
Although by 1922—contrary to myth—he had already attained modest notoriety in Chicago, as late as December 1925 both The New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle got his name and status wrong when, as favor to his old mentor Frankie Yale, Capone briefly returned to Brooklyn and engineered a mini-massacre. The Times misspelled his name and pegged him as doorman of a dive called the Adonis Club, site of the slaughter. The Eagle called him an "alleged former Chicago gunman" and imagined that he was the Adonis's bouncer.
Yet by 1927 he had become a Chicago landmark. Tour buses regularly plied past his headquarters in the Metropole Hotel, south of the Loop. When the four Italian aviators Mussolini had sent on an around-the-world tour to glorify his regime reached Chicago, the police recruited Capone as an official greeter on the sound theory that his presence would forestall a threatened anti-fascist demonstration more surely than would the riot squad's.
It's not surprising that by then he was almost equally well known throughout the country as in Chicago. As The New York Times put it, "Probably no private citizen in American life has ever had so much publicity in so short a period"—this time spelling his name right. When the national Daughters of the Nile convened at the Medinah Temple, one complained, "Why, I haven't seen Al Capone since I've been in Chicago, and I've been here three days. I thought he'd be on the reception committee." The incumbent mayor of Monticello, Iowa, running unopposed for re-election, almost lost anyway to a write-in campaign for Al Capone. A town official explained that "Monticello has never been on big city maps" and the locals figured this might be her chance.
What is surprising is how quickly Capone also became known worldwide. When five Spanish actors, a stage director and two French script writers stopped in Chicago on their way west to MGM, they asked to see just one sight: "Where's Capone?" their spokesman demanded. In tiny Oradea, Romania, Cornel Capovici tacked a picture of Capone to the front of his house and insisted that this was his long-lost son. In Russia, head commissar Vyacheslav Molotov cited Capone as the logical culmination of capitalist rapacity. John Gunther, then a foreign correspondent, reported that the Viennese considered him the real mayor of Chicago.
All this celebrity scandalized the Chicago Daily Times, which groused that Capone had become America's "trademark known in the jungles of Java or the wastes of Lapland," indeed better known, worldwide, than Charles Lindbergh or Henry Ford! In time, Al Capone would transcend "mere" celebrity to become an allusion.
Even today, well over 60 years after his death—thanks to re-run movies and TV specials—most people know at least the highlights (and attendant myths) of Capone's career: at minimum, the murders of Dion O'Banion and Hymie Weiss, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the Palm Island estate, the role of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables (largely myth), perhaps his concealed weapon jail time in Philadelphia, certainly the irony of Capone's final conviction—not for murder or even bootlegging, but for tax evasion!—and his stretch in Alcatraz.
The Outline Bio section of this Website gives an idea of how these better-known elements fit into the context of Capone's life and times. Myths exposes them and gives an idea of what truth (if any) lies behind them. People details those who played significant parts in the story, with an idea of their function and relationship with Capone. Quotes gives you a sampling of things Capone is known to have said (plus one often-cited "quote" that, in fact, Capone almost surely never did say!) and a few of the things said about him by contemporaries. Allusion spells out the extraordinary grip that Capone still has on our national consciousness and imagination. Prohibition details that folly’s origin and effect. St. Val Massacre gives particulars.
You may want to know more about this fascinating, complex and often contradictory man—for instance not only when and how O'Banion was murdered, but also why, the whole story behind what was for Capone a desperate decision. When you know the havoc to his empire that Capone's killing-by-mistake of Assistant State's Attorney Bill McSwiggin caused in 1926, with "only" three killed in all, you may wonder why Capone would risk a real massacre in 1929, killing seven at one time. What impelled Capone to plan and order the St. Valentine's murders? Was that also a mistake? If you do want to know such things, Know More will show how you can get the full story.