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Al Capone: The Man and the Era

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 29, 2023 3:01 am

Al Capone: The Man and the Era

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 29, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, America’s fascination with mob boss Al Capone is a century old. Here to tell the story is the biographer of the definitive work on Al Capone, Laurence Bergreen.

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Let's take a listen. Al Capone supports America's most notorious and famous celebrated outlaw and criminal, not only in the United States, but in many countries around the world. Capone is particularly popular in countries like Japan and Eastern Europe. But his legend is ubiquitous and he's one of these very popular figures who emerged in the 1920s who became iconic.

Charles Lindbergh, the aviator, was another. He was really different because as I got into Capone, I discovered that it was like peeling an onion. And there was a lot to say about him.

He never sought to become a gangster. He came off as a very soft spoken. He seemed to be more like a banker than a gunman. And I think that was part of the reason for his success.

But again, it was all accidental. He was born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. His family was from Naples. His father was a barber. His mother was a seamstress.

He had seven siblings, all brothers except for one sister, Mafalda, whom apparently everybody was terrified of. They were here in Brooklyn like so many other immigrants. Every year, almost 50,000 Italian immigrants arrived in this country in the year of his birth.

That's a huge number. And that's just from Italy. And they encountered a great deal of prejudice. Italians were not very popular for hiring. And it was difficult for them to make their way in this country.

So they were often hard up looking for work. There were various reasons for that. Part of it was the fact that they were Italian. Part of it was the fact that they were Catholic. There was, at that time, a strong anti-Catholic prejudice. So the odds were stacked against them. You may wonder, well, why did people like the Capone family even come here to the United States? It's because of the old story. They came here for opportunity because things were even worse where they came from.

Naples in southern Italy was very poor and the prospects were not great. And here, so the myth ran, the streets were paved with gold. Capone came of age here. The school records show that he was an indifferent student in Brooklyn and left school as soon as he could and had various odd jobs around.

He was known as being diligent. He was not a child robber or anything like that. What changed everything was prohibition. And prohibition, just to remind you, became the law of the land in the early 1920s when it outlawed all the consumption of liquor.

It was an example of the tyranny of the minority, perhaps. Alcoholism was seen to be a big social evil that led to the deterioration of morality, destruction of families, and a lot of crime. And so alcohol was demonized. Well, Congress passed a law and it was outlawed.

However, just passing the law doesn't make it so. And in this case, it had the opposite effect. It backfired. What it did was it put a huge segment of the population, which was used to drinking alcohol, not because they were alcoholics, but because that was part of their daily life, and made them outlaws.

They didn't really think they had done anything wrong. It was normal to drink wine or beer or something similar. Suddenly, they were demonized and could get into very serious trouble. Well, that also gave rise to a whole underground economy of liquor production and consumption and what I call the Trinity of Vice, which was booze, gambling, and then that went along with it, prostitution. And because it was secret or semi-secret, it made it harder to prosecute.

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this turned off the sunlight. Also, Capone, of course, was Catholic and a large part of the country was Catholic. They felt discriminated against because wine was part of the Holy Sacrament and communion.

Suddenly, their wine was illegal and they felt this was discrimination against Catholics. Capone, again, was not really into this kind of crime. However, by accident, some family members and some friends of the family pulled him into small-time criminal activities such as bedding and things like that. Capone himself then began to see an opportunity. He left New York.

He went to Philadelphia. He became the protégé of a more sophisticated criminal named Johnny Torrio, who saw the possibilities of an underground or secret criminal organization based on this prohibition, which had suddenly given the rackets, as it was sometimes called, a gift of making what they were doing illegal. So Capone became involved in the importing of alcohol, often from Canada and from other places in the Caribbean and in rum.

It's seen as now a very colorful activity. It was that, but it was also led to a great deal of danger. Capone was very good at doing this and organizing this. He discovered a gift for arranging deliveries, finding places to conceal alcohol, and to form alliances with other gangs and people who were doing the same sort of thing.

Especially some were Polish, some were Jewish. They also became famous or notorious. And again, this was not his first choice. His first choice was to be an accountant, and I'm not joking. Instead, he found himself married with a child and then several children. And he also became suddenly more successful than anybody ever imagined. Now, he was very young. He was still in his 20s. And by the time he was in his late 20s, he had gone to Chicago where Johnny Torrio had summoned him. And he became the most powerful person in Chicago, which at the time was the second most important city in the United States.

This was incredible. You could say, how could this happen? Well, it happened for two reasons. One was prohibition.

And the other one was that the Chicago infrastructure, law enforcement and government, was extremely corrupt, and prohibition had undermined it even more. So Capone and others like him were able to capitalize on it. And because they were making so much money, they were able to bribe politicians. And that way they were able to control politicians. You may ask, what about the government? What about the federal government? Well, they were very slow to get into the act.

The federal government felt they had nothing to do with this. J. Edgar Hoover eventually became head of the FBI. It was only when the St. Valentine's Day Massacre came to his attention that Hoover and other people began to wonder and worry about it. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which was on February 14, 1927, should have been, in the whole course of things, a minor dust-up in Chicago. Instead, it led to the deaths of several people, and it suddenly made the front page of newspapers all around. And people realized for the first time that there was either a crime problem, or a violence problem, or a gun problem because of the machine guns that were involved. And suddenly, outlaws and gangsters and what they represented became a topic of urgent national concern. And you're listening to Lawrence Burgreen tell one heck of a story about Al Capone, the family's migration from Naples to seek a better life, and finding themselves in Brooklyn, Italian and Catholic, and not loved because they were Italian and because of Catholic discrimination in America at the time. Fifty thousand Italian immigrants arriving annually in this country. And what happens next is just a story of, well, just accident and serendipity. Prohibition driving everything.

And of course, the government thinking they were going to stop a problem, and if anything, probably exacerbating it. And there, in the center of it, was this guy Al Capone with an organizing talent, a distribution talent, and we'll learn about some of his other talents when we come back here on Our American Stories. We get our weekly groceries delivered through Instacart because once football season starts, game time is family time. I can get everything my family needs for the week, from reliable staples to specialty ingredients, all delivered right to my door in as fast as one hour.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue with our American stories and with Lawrence Burgreen, author of Capone, The Man and the Era. Let's pick up where we last left off. The FBI was playing catch up when J. Edgar Hoover first heard about Al Capone. His initial reaction was, who's that?

He had never heard of him. Well, eventually they found out. And it was difficult to prosecute them. It was difficult to get people to testify against Al Capone and other people for two reasons. First of all, in Chicago, he had made himself into sort of a local hero, if that's the way to put it. He was very clever.

He kind of worked both sides of this. On the one hand, he was exploiting prohibition and selling alcohol and related activities. On the other hand, he ran the equivalent of a soup kitchen and gave a lot away to charity. He was a Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. There was no such thing as welfare in those days.

So the state, the federal government, was much, much weaker. That left a vacuum for Capone and others to fill, and so they did. Now, Capone wasn't the only one doing this.

There were Irish gangsters, there were Jewish gangsters, there were Polish gangsters, and on and on, you get the idea. But he became the most visible because he was articulate, he was very well-spoken, he didn't shun the limelight like some others did. Now, when you think of the visual image of Capone, you think of a hulking man.

In fact, the reality was somewhat different. He was always extremely well-dressed. He wore a fedora, he wore a tie, he wanted to be and looked like a banker rather than a gangster. He did not go around with machine guns or pistols. Eventually, he hired some gunmen or guards to do that for him. But he was known as more of a broker and businessman than anything else.

When I was researching this book, I got to know a number of Capone family members who lived in the area and in the Midwest, especially around Lansing, Michigan, where he spent some summers. Two things were striking. First of all, none of them was any kind of outlaw. This was not like the Godfather where they were a generational dynasty. They had all moved on to other things.

They were doctors, they were lawyers, they were in the military, generals, they were homemakers and things like that. And they didn't really want any association with the stigma of the name Capone. So that was very striking. The other thing that was striking was that they all remembered when I asked the inevitable question, what was Al really like?

They all pretty much had the same thing to say. That he was very considerate, soft-spoken, not violent, did not seem like the kind of gangster that you saw on TV, and was a valued family member. Of course, his victims were dead, might have had a different story. And there were other sides to the Al Capone story.

But that was the impression he made on those who spent a lot of time with him. At that time, syphilis venereal disease was a major scourge. I also did a lot of research on syphilis. And it's sort of like the common cold in the sense that it's very common. And it's, as they say, self-healing 90% of the time. So if you get it, 90% of the time, it actually goes away on its own.

10% of the time, it doesn't. Capone was in the unlucky 10%. When he visited some brothels or prostitutes, he acquired it. It went underground, as syphilis can do, became neurosyphilis. He was unaware of the fact that he had it.

For example, one of his brothers, or at least one, had it, but it just went away on its own and didn't affect the brother at all. But it was like a time bomb, if you will, lodged in Capone's nervous system that at one point was going to explode. People noticed a change in Capone's behavior as he was getting into his 30s.

I think you may remember the movie The Untouchables with the very, very explosive, compelling performance showing Capone's temper. What? They got the shipment. What?

They got the whole shipment. I want him dead. I want him dead on the table. What am I, alone in this world? Did I ask you what you're trying to do?

Did I ask you what you're trying to do? I want you to find this Nancy boy, Elliot Ness. I want him dead. I want his family dead. I want his house burnt to the ground.

And the famous scene that sounds like it was made up where he suddenly blew a stack and when two people were threatening him, he took a baseball bat and bashed their heads out. I get nowhere unless the team wins. Team. Team. Team. Team.

Team. This seemed very unlike the Al Capone that anybody ever met. However, that incident really happened. Well, what changed? The answer is neurosyphilis had violently distorted his behavior. By the way, the cure, of course, for syphilis has been for a long time, ever since World War II, penicillin or something related to that. But that did not exist at that point. The cures that were around were things like mercury, which was basically poisoned, or other ineffective cures.

So there was no medicinal cure for it. So people didn't know or understand why Capone had become suddenly out of control, but in fact, he did. Eventually, the government found a way to catch up with him, and that wasn't through his murders or violence. It was through the fact that he didn't pay taxes. If you were a criminal and you had a huge income that was off the books, you were not going to report it.

You know that. You made a million dollars from illegal activities. So the government eventually put together a case that didn't have to do with what people would do with Capone's violence. It was simply the fact that he didn't pay his taxes. That was also an argument that they felt, rightly, that they could get a jury to understand, because everybody had to pay taxes.

They could relate to it. It was sort of simple, in the sense basic, rather, although it didn't seem as horrible as his other indiscretions and activities with which he was linked. This was one that the ordinary potential juror could get a hold of and understand. Now, it was actually tough to get a jury to sit down on a case involving Capone and other gangsters, because in those days, newspapers published the names and addresses and sometimes even the photographs of jurors.

And when I say addresses, I mean home addresses. Well, if this was a dangerous case and you were dealing with dangerous people, you are very reluctant to serve on a jury. So that also, because it was something, it sounded rather mundane, not paying taxes, they were able to find some jurors to do that. So Capone became the kind of test case. Could they convict a gangster for violating prohibition-related activities on this basis? And the answer with Capone was yes. At first, he was sent to Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, and then he was moved to a brand-new federal prison made for so-called super criminals that had just opened called Alcatraz. Notorious Alcatraz. And you're listening to Lawrence Burgreen, author of Capone, The Man and the Era.

What a story he's telling and what an image he's casting. We can almost see Capone. And we also understand why he wanted to be seen as he was seen as a banker, not as a mobster. The fedora, the suit and tie. And then comes syphilis, this scourge that most recovered from, but not Capone, and this led to the change in his behavior.

Neurosyphilis had that ability. And then came, of course, the prosecution for tax evasion and his journey to jail, first in Georgia and then to Alcatraz. When we come back, more of Lawrence Burgreen, more of Alcatone's story here. On Our American Stories.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue with our American stories. And we're telling the story of Al Capone.

Here again is author Lawrence Burgreen. Before Capone, there was no Alcatraz. You didn't have these kinds of, you know, super prisons. There was no federal prison system at that point.

But now there was as the government was becoming more sophisticated and bureaucratized. And he was one of the first people sent there. Now, he was only in his late 30s when he went. And he was already then the most notorious, best-known criminal, not only in the United States, but in the world. There had been tons of news reports about him. There were movies being made about his life. And so he had become famous at a very young age. If Capone hadn't had syphilis, it's really difficult to imagine what would have happened because he probably just would have kept going and going unless somebody actually assassinated him, which was a constant problem.

Anyway, he went to Alcatraz. And that was helpful for people who wanted to know about him because the Bureau of Prisons made an effort to keep detailed medical records about Capone and other prisoners. So that's how we wound up knowing about his medical condition and other facts about his life and family. Also, by the time he got there, the neurosyphilis emerged, which is what happens.

It follows a pattern, and then it becomes more and more predominant. It's like an infection that suddenly breaks out and takes over your body. Again, there was no penicillin. And within the space of not many months, he began to exhibit signs of dementia.

You might want to call it celility. And it was pretty extreme. His mental outbursts kind of faded away, and instead he was reduced to not comprehending what was going on in the world, to seeming that he was walking through a dream, to reverting to almost childlike behavior, which was kind of grotesque. Other prisoners in Alcatraz wanted to take advantage of him, stamp him, pick on him, or something like that.

The guards tried to keep him safe. He eventually died of the effects of neurosyphilis in 1947. By then, he had been sent out of prison. He was living in Miami, and again, in a fog of dementia.

Nobody really knew what to do with him. Once World War II started, he seemed like a relic from another era. The difference between the early 1920s or the whirring 20s, and then the Depression, and then the beginning of World War II, made Capone seem like something from long ago and far away. Also, Prohibition was repealed eventually when FDR was elected. So there were some lingering traces of the illegal economy that Prohibition had given rise to. But in general, it was different now.

It was a different world. So you couldn't really have another Capone. But by then, the idea of gangs, organized gangs of different kinds had become pretty entrenched in American society and has become embedded in our culture and in a kind of a folklore. Capone now has become a symbol of lawlessness and sort of a Robin Hood syndrome. Also, some of the people around him have also become famous. I'm thinking particularly of Eliot Ness, who was in the movie The Untouchables, and also the TV show.

Eliot Ness is popularly portrayed as Al Capone's nemesis, the lawman who finally got Capone. Your Honor, we would like to withdraw our plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty. Never stop. Never stop fighting till the fight is done. What do you say? What do you say? I said never stop fighting till the fight is done. What? You heard me, Capone. It's over.

You get asked. You're nothing but a lot of talk and a bit. Here ended the lesson. You're nothing but a lot of talk and a bit.

You're nothing but a lot of talk and a bit. Well, Eliot Ness, in reality, didn't have much to do with putting Capone in jail or getting him convicted. The real Eliot Ness was charming, loved the limelight, was sort of hapless, ironically enough became an alcoholic in later life, and was not really considered a major player in these events.

So, how did this happen? He had a ghostwriter, a collaborator, who wrote a book about his adventures. This ghostwriter was named Oscar Fraley, F-R-A-L-E-Y. And this book, which actually wasn't even that popular at that time, glorified Eliot Ness and attributed all sorts of daring do and heroic activities to him, which were wild exaggerations. The book itself was fairly popular and seemed to be overdone, to put it mildly. However, when the TV show in the 60s, early 60s came along, it used the name Untouchables and the Oscar Fraley book as the source material, and all the episodes tended to be highly fictionalized.

And Robert Stack, who played the part, you know, was very convincing. So, the folklore wound up supplanting the reality, which sometimes happens. People didn't realize that the real Eliot Ness hadn't had that much to do with Capone. He then got involved in politics. He had run unsuccessfully for mayor in Cleveland.

His political career was derailed there because he was involved in a car accident, because he was drinking too much, ironically enough. And so, the real Eliot Ness was not that particularly admirable or effective. But, you know, that's what happens with myth-making.

It sometimes really takes off from a reality and then goes off into a whole different direction. As for Capone, he died in 1947 at a young age, and then he was buried. And, you know, people were surprised to hear that by that time that Al Capone was still alive, because, as I said, he had belonged to a figure from another era.

So, in a sense, there's two Al Capones. There's the reality of what he did in his life. Then there's the legend, which goes on and on and on and is still influential. Almost any country, if you go and you mention Al Capone, people know who you're talking about.

It's both troubling but understandable, because Robin Hood-type outlaws have an appeal. And his years of fame, which 10 or 12 years, he really, you know, made a huge impression. He liked the limelight.

He gave a lot of interviews. So, he made himself into a celebrity in the 1920s because of that. So, that's why we hear about the name Al Capone. We don't hear about the name Johnny Torrio or Jake Guzik or other lesser-known gangsters who were in some ways more powerful or just as dangerous or menacing as Capone. Anyway, his ability to promote himself left a lasting impression.

Also, the 1920s was a time when publicity and public image and image-making really became an important element of American society, which continues to this day. And if Capone lived in the era of the internet, I can only imagine what would have happened to his reputation. He would have become viral, viral, viral, viral. There's no doubt about it, but he was the equivalent of viral as much as you could be in those days. And yet, he was a pretty private person when he wasn't giving interviews.

As I said, he often retreated to Lansing, Michigan, where he had some friends and some relatives who shielded him from the public and tried to live an ordinary life for as much as he could. The other thing about Capone was that he was very fond of music, especially jazz. And at that point, jazz musicians got their start essentially in nightclubs and because of prohibition, which were more and more popular. So popular music, jazz especially, and gangster culture or the rackets, whatever you want to call it, kind of grew up together. So he inadvertently fostered what's now, of course, a major beloved American art form. So those are a few thoughts about Al Capone and the legend that he gave rise to.

And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Lawrence Burgreen for sharing the story of Al Capone with us. His book, Capone, The Man and the Era, is available at Amazon or the usual suspects. Again, that's Capone, The Man and the Era, a terrific read, a terrific writer and storyteller. And telling a story about an age because without prohibition, there's probably not an Al Capone.

And without Chicago, Chicago's location, as we learn from the great Chicago fire and Chicago's rise to become the second biggest city in America had a lot to do with its location as a distribution point. And then his death and how syphilis just tore apart his mind and his body. By 1947, he's in Miami and in the fog of dementia. And just, well, a shadow of the man he was. A product of the 1920s, of the Jazz Age, of prohibition, and of the beginning of modern famedom.

The story of Al Capone here on Our American Stories. Tis the season of making the perfect wish list and the perfect playlist with Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and headphones. Breakthrough immersive audio uses specialized sound to bring your fave holiday classics to life. And world-class noise cancellation ensures a not-so-typical silent night and an epic holiday party of warmth. It's everything music should make you feel taken to new holiday highs.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-12-29 04:15:33 / 2023-12-29 04:29:01 / 13

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