Society - People
By: - at January 30, 2014

15 Fascinating Facts about Al Capone

Al Capone is one of the most infamous characters from American history. Al Capone's career as a crime boss in Prohibition-Era Chicago is very well known. His participation in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and other violent "gangland" Chicago activities during the 20s and 30s lands him squarely in the "Who's Who of American Criminals."

Nevertheless for all his violent crimes, either committed by himself or by members of his gang, he really is, in certain respects, no different than many successful businessmen. While parts of his life were surprisingly ordinary, his racketeering enterprises were far from the norm.

al capone mugshot

So, while it’s easy to think of Capone as a villain or antihero, it’s the details of his life that cause people to regard the gangster with interest. Here are 15 facts you may not know about Al Capone that make his life a continual interest to the public.

Also known as “Scarface,” Capone, unlike similar gangsters of his era, did not come from an impoverished background. He infamously rose to fame as the boss of the Chicago Mafia during the period, known as Prohibition. The nefarious earnings he made rose to $100 million before he was sentenced for tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz in 1931.

15)  An Ordinary Kid
For a man who became a hardened career criminal with multiple murders credited to his name, Capone’s early life was remarkably ordinary, if not uneventful. Born in Brooklyn, New York to Italian immigrant parents, Capone was raised by his mother who was a seamstress, and his father who made a living as a barber. Al, whose actual name was Alphonse, was one of eight children living a typical immigrant lifestyle in the heart of New York City.

Borough Hall and Subway Entrance, Brooklyn, NY 1908:
Borough Hall and Subway Entrance, Brooklyn, NY 1908

Al was a smart kid and a good student in elementary school, but he started falling behind in the sixth grade. Forced to repeat sixth grade, Capone’s faltering studies had less to do with his intelligence or abilities and more to do with his involvement with trouble-making gangs. As a result, Capone started skipping school and spending time at the Brooklyn docks.

Capone stopped attending school when a teacher struck him for being insolent in class. Capone hit the teacher back and was given a beating from the principal as punishment for the offense. After that time, Capone walked away from school and never looked back. It's clear that his early success as a student showed his potential to realize success in a legitimate career field. However, his willingness to use his fists and defy authority foreshadowed the man that he eventually came to be.

14)  Fundamental Relationships
After Capone’s departure from school, his family moved out of their first home in a Brooklyn tenement and relocated to similar housing in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. While living in the community, Capone met the woman he would one day marry. Mary Coughlin, usually called Mae. He married Mae shortly after she gave birth to their son and remained married to her for the rest of his life.

The ever-loyal wife even remained by Capone’s side when he spent time in prison. Very little is known about Mae because, unlike her husband, she preferred to live a quiet life rather than be flamboyant. Mobsters during the 20s and 30s kept their illegal activities separate from their family lives. So, if little has been written about Capone’s wife, it’s really not all that surprising, given the nature of the gangster lifestyle during the period.

June 1931 - Capone is Sent to Prison - This is the U.S. Department of Justice Photo:
 al capone gangster June 1931 - Capone is Sent to Prison - This is the U.S. Department of Justice Photo:

Mae wasn't the only person Capone met in Park Slope. The future mobster also first crossed paths with racketeer Johnny Torrio in the Brooklyn community. Torrio, who, at the time, was running an illicit gambling operation, had Capone working for him running small errands. In a small matter of time, the two became fast friends and continued their association later in Chicago.

13)  Straight Man
So, Capone didn't start out in life as a criminal. While he was a member of Brooklyn gangs as a young man, he really didn’t get into any significant trouble. In his younger years then, Capone maintained a record of legitimate employment, especially in jobs that made use of his size and strength.

Capone worked in a munitions factory and then as a paper cutter. He held jobs in a candy store and in a bowling alley.

Also, after marrying Mae Coughlin, Capone was determined to do the right thing for his family. As a result, the couple moved to Baltimore, away from Capone’s former gang contacts in New York, where the future mob boss took a job as bookkeeper with a construction company.

Johnny "Papa Johnny" Torrio:
Johnny "Papa Johnny" Torrio

During this time, Capone remained good friends with Johnny Torrio, who was also the godfather to Capone’s son, Albert. As indicated though, it was that relationship that drew Capone into the life of a criminal. After Al’s father died of a heart attack in 1920, Torrio invited the legitimate businessman to work with him in Chicago.

12)  Bookkeeper for the Mob
While Capone was busy working as a legit clerk for a legit company, Torrio was king of an illicit, but lucrative, business empire in Chicago, running gambling rings and brothels. When the 18th Amendment became law in 1920, it ushered in the era of Prohibition. In turn, Torrio smelled profits, and lots of them. Bootlegging was the new game in town, and Torrio was ready and able to take advantage of this new activity.

Orange County Sheriff's Dumping Illegal Booze 1932:
Orange County Sheriff's Dumping Illegal Booze 1932 al capone
 By Orange County Archives via Wikimedia Commons

When Capone joined Torrio, his blend of gang experience and a legitimate work history made him especially valuable to Torrio’s bootlegging and illicit activities. Therefore, Capone brought both street smarts and bookkeeping skills to Torrio's operations in Chicago, helping the organization prosper and become even more profitable. In addition to their long-time relationship, Torrio appreciated Capone's skills. It wasn't long until the illicit businessman promoted Capone to partner of the operation.

Later on, when Capone was top dog, he still considered himself primarily a businessman. This is the real reason he was so successful. He took his business very seriously, regardless of the fact that it was primarily made up of illegal activities.

chicago al capone

Even when he was ordering violent hits on competitors, the mobster totally focused on the business at hand. The violence he provoked then was intended to protect his concerns and interests, first and foremost above all else. Therefore, Capone saw the corruption and violence as just being part of the job.

11)  Celebrity Days
Celebrity culture is no recent development. In the Roaring Twenties, being a celebrity was as highly touted as it is today. For example, during the time period, Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth were two of the day's top celebrities. Al Capone was another one of these stars.

The media followed the criminal with abandon and Capone loved it. Businessmen of the period believed that having a degree of celebrity was an essential part of real success. So, to be a real entrepreneur, it was vital to have a strong personality, and to be a character the press could follow with a great deal of verve. It was all a part of being a success.

Al Capone's Car:
Al Capone's Car scarface
 By Al Pavangkanan via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Capone entertained the press, even hiring his own press agent. In fact, Capone was very deliberate about creating his public image. He even asked photographers to take pictures of him from the right so they would capture his “good” side.

Capone also wore expensive, finely tailored suits, and always looked comfortable - dressed to the nines. His style was a careful combination of respectable businessman and flamboyant, devil-may-care, media personality.

Capone wore gorgeously tailored suits in bright colors such as lime and purple, combining the business magnate with the showman in a way that only enhanced his celebrity status and public acclaim.

10)  What's In a Nickname
There was a good reason Al Capone wanted to be photographed from the right. His best-known nickname, "Scarface," came because of severe scarring on the left side of his face.

In his earlier years, before he moved to Chicago, Capone was employed by gangster Frankie Yale, an acquaintance he by way of Johnny Torrio. Frankie hired him as a bartender and bouncer for a Coney Island inn. One evening, Capone made an improper comment to a woman at the bar, and her brother took exception to the uncomplimentary remark. In turn, the brother punched and slashed Capone’s face, leaving the scars that gave him his famous nickname.

al capone scarface
By MAV Villagrasa via Wikimedia Commons

“Scarface” himself, hated the name. It didn't suit the image he wanted to create. Among friends and associates, he was known as "Snorky," which was a slang term denoting elegance.

9)  Family Business
Of all the ironic careers possible, this one takes the cake. Capone's brother James was seven years his elder, but didn't take to city life like Al did. Feeling that the city just wasn't the place for him, he set out on his own at age 16, heading west. He traveled all over the Midwest, using the name Richard Hart to avoid the prejudice that typically ensued by having an Italian background. Therefore, James would claim to be Mexican or Native American instead.

Oldest Brother James Capone:
Oldest Brother James Capone

James was fascinated with guns and became an expert marksman, spending hours shooting at bottles and cans to hone his skills. Following World War I, he claimed that he had gained his skill with a gun while serving in France, though no record of his military service was ever produced. Nonetheless, he embroidered his "military service" heavily, claiming he had attained a lieutenant's rank and received a medal for sharpshooting.

Settling down in Nebraska, James became a town marshal and then a state sheriff, before becoming a Prohibition officer in the state. So, while his brother Al was gaining power and fame as a bootlegger in Chicago, James was busy running raids and making arrests for illegal alcohol production and possession, just a couple of states away.

Capone's Entrance Photo at Alcatraz 1931:
Capone's Entrance Photo at Alcatraz 1931

"Richard Hart" became locally famous for the success of his efforts, often donning disguises and going undercover to catch people in their bootlegging crimes. He earned his own nickname, "Two Gun Hart," for his skill as a marksman and the pair of pearl-handled pistols that were his preferred weaponry.

8)  Philanthropist
It wasn't all booze-running and machine-gunning for Capone. He also was, in surprising ways, a philanthropist. When the stock market crashed and the Depression struck in 1929, Capone was the first person to open soup kitchens for workers who were down on their luck. He also instituted a program that provided free milk to school children throughout the Windy City. In addition, he ordered shopkeepers to give food and clothing to the poor, at their own expense.

With all of the violence and corruption that he instigated, which followed him everywhere, Capone could also be a fair and generous man. He required loyalty from his gangs, but he was also devoted himself, remaining loyal to friends and colleagues.

Al Capone in 1935:
Al Capone in 1935

While he was known for having a terrible temper and a deeply set sense of honor, his public image as a philanthropist was still noted, even if his cynics scoffed at the gangster’s beneficence.

7)  Golfer
golf and al capone golfingCapone acted like an ordinary businessman in another way: he loved golf. Generally, the mobsters of his day loved sports. Capone, who managed the careers of some fighters, enjoy baseball as well. In addition to these two pursuits, Capone and his cronies took to the links too.

Capone's regular course was the Burnham Woods golf course south of Chicago. He and several of his associates met there regularly to play several rounds. However, the frequency in which they played didn't have an appreciable effect on the development of their skills. Capone didn't seem to be very interested in improving his game. On the course, the gangsters drank heavily, gambled on every hole, and carried loaded weapons in their golf bags—just in case.

One of his caddies was an eight-year-old named Tim Sullivan, who later recalled his experiences hauling clubs around for the notorious mobster. He described bets of $500 being made per hole among gangsters with names as lurid as Scarface's. "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Fred "The Killer" Burke were some of Capone’s golfing buddies.

One time, when Capone hooked a shot far off the course into a clump of trees, Sullivan scrambled for ten minutes trying to find the ball, afraid of Capone's wrath if he failed. However, Capone just laughed it off, patted Sullivan patronizingly on the head, and asked for a new ball instead.

6)  Shot by a Gangster … Namely, Himself
Being a gangster meant running the risk of injury or brutal death. But in one instance when Capone was injured, no one was to blame but himself. After one of his wild golf games at the Burnham Woods course, Capone was getting into a car to go back to Chicago. The .38 revolver pistol he carried in his pocket went off by accident, hitting both of his legs and narrowly missing his abdomen.

Al Capone's .38 Revolver When it Was Recently Auctioned for $110,000:
Al Capone's .38 Revolver When it Was Recently Auctioned for $110,000

The bullet finally became lodged in the left leg of the mobster. Johnny Patton, the friend who was playing golf with Capone that day, rushed the gangster to St. Margaret's Hospital in Hammond for treatment.

al capone smiling

Registering at the hospital under a fake name, Capone was treated for his wounds – none of which were surprisingly too serious. To make sure that no one took advantage of his momentary discomfiture, a group of his associates and bodyguards effectively moved into the hospital with him, taking up five separate rooms until the gangster was discharged.

5)  Civilized Shootings
In recent years, America has become sadly familiar with various instances of gun violence and mass shootings. In imagining the violent nature of Chicago's Gangland past, then, it's easy to guess that any number of innocents were swept up in the chaos. Very few innocent people were killed during the gang wars of Prohibition-era Chicago.

Saint Valentine's Day Massacre:
Saint Valentine's Day Massacre

Yes, it’s true - there was terrible violence, but it was primarily targeted at rival gang members or bosses, any of whom were out to gain a business advantage. Even the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre, which Al Capone was blamed for ordering, only targeted rival gang members. The loss of human life was terrible, but nonetheless limited in this respect.

While the machine guns sported by the mobsters may have had some impact, the idea of being run by mobsters caused more concern, especially when it came to the damage the activity could cause to a city’s reputation.

The police, at that time did so little to control the gangsters, there was seldom little sympathy among the general public when some of them were killed. But the citizens of Chicago, especially businessmen, grew increasingly concerned and fed up with the image the city had developed. All that corruption and violence was just plain bad for business. Ultimately, business people were more responsible for ending mob violence than the police.

4)  A Little White-Collar Crime
Despite years of bootlegging, murder, bribery, and all forms of racketeering Capone was never indicted for any of these illegal actions -- except one. While the police never managed to catch him, the IRS finally did.

It was commonly believed in the 1920s and ‘30s that earnings from illegal gambling or other such activities were not taxable. If profits were earned via illicit businesses then, it was just an extra amenity if the government didn't get a cut. A court ruling in 1927 claimed that illegal profits were actually taxable.

The mandate, which was part of a federal strategy to indict Capone for tax evasion, worked. During his time as a businessman, Capone never filed a tax return or made any declaration of income or assets. He also was careful to keep his identity separate from his business dealings, running everything through front men and owning nothing in his own name.

Capone Escorted by the Law Enforcement of the IRS - the CID:
Capone Escorted by the Law Enforcement of the IRS - the CID

The IRS assigned an investigator from their Special Intelligence Unit, Frank Wilson, to focus on Capone. In turn, Wilson found a ledger showing net profits for a gambling house, which included Capone's name.

Later on, Capone's tax lawyer wrote a letter to the government admitting that Capone had an income. These two documents were instrumental in the court case that convicted Capone of the tax evasion charge. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the offense.

3)  Ordinary Prison, Extraordinary Prisoner
Al Capone is one of the criminals who put Alcatraz on the map, giving it a public reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in U.S. history. However, Capone didn't begin his sentence there.

The offender began serving his prison sentence in Atlanta, at what was then the most stringent Federal prison in the U.S. However, he quickly put his charm and connections to good use. As a result, Capone managed to take control of his prison experience, garnering special privileges from the authorities. Capone’s cell was furnished with rugs and a mirror, and he acquired a typewriter and a set of encyclopedias too.

Word got out, though, that Capone was living large even in prison. To remedy the situation, he was sent to the newly-opened Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. The US government wanted to demonstrate that it was serious about taking on the crime bred by Prohibition's limits.

Al Capone's Lavishly Furnished Jail Cell - Eastern State Penitentiary, PA:
Al Capone's Lavishly Furnished and Appointed Jail Cell - Eastern State Penitentiary, PA
By Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons

The facility's primary purpose then was to take on the prisoners that no other prison could handle or wanted to manage. As a result, the prison facility ended up housing many of the era's worst mobsters, including Al Capone and several of his associates and competitors. Capone was unable to gain any special privileges, and eventually settled into being a model prisoner in an attempt to have his sentence reduced for good behavior.

2)  Presidential Service
Part of Capone's business success depended on keeping himself safe from rival gangsters. So, to protect himself on the road, Capone ordered a special bullet-proof Cadillac town car, with inch-thick glass and several thousand pounds of steel armor. When he went to prison in 1931, the car was seized by the U.S. Treasury Department and stored.

Eleven years later, America was shocked by the Pearl Harbor attack. With much of the world already at war, it seemed clear that the U.S. was about to join the fight. Citizens from coast to coast waited for President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. However, there was a small snag.

The Secret Service decided that President Roosevelt needed a bullet-proof car to protect the President from assassination attempts by German or Japanese sympathizers. Federal law, however, prohibited purchasing any car that cost more than $750, which was much less than the cost of an armored car.

Roosevelt's Capone Cadillac was Similar to a 1928 V-16 Madam X:
Roosevelt's Capone Cadillac was Similar to a 1928 V-16 Madam X

Fortunately, one of the Secret Service agents discovered that there was such a car already in the possession of the U.S. government - Al Capone's Cadillac. Government mechanics and other employees worked through the night to prepare the car, and on December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt made the trip to address Congress in the gangster's former car.

1)  Unglamorous End
Al Capone's charmed life fell apart after his conviction for tax evasion. Also, while the gangster was in prison, Prohibition was repealed, pulling the rug out from under much of his business. His gang fell apart, and his business was no longer prospering.

Even worse, his health failed. Capone had contracted syphilis early in life, which progressed into its late stages while he was serving his prison term. In addition, he began to show signs of dementia resulting from the disease, and spent the end of his sentence in a prison hospital. After his release, Capone moved to Florida.

Al Capone's Grave:
Al Capone's Grave
By JOE M500 via Wikimedia Commons

At the end, the former gangster celebrity's mental faculties were reduced to those of a child - his long-term memories erased by the disease. The gangster finally succumbed to his illness and died in 1947.

In some ways, Al Capone is full of contradictions. Notorious gangster and noted philanthropist; brutal murderer and sensible businessman; a criminal who considered himself a family man and loyal friend. His crimes are stark, but like any human, he was a complex character. No matter how he is remembered—a celebrity and icon of the Roaring Twenties or a despicable gangster who promoted vice and profited from it—he left a strong mark in American history.





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