How Al Capone became one of the world’s most notorious gangsters

Nicknames: Scarface, Fonzo, Snorky, Big Al
Born: Brooklyn, New York, 17 January 1899
Died: Palm Island, Florida, 25 January 1947
Cause of Death: Syphilis, Paralytic Dementia
Specialist Area(s): Bootlegging, racketeering, prostitution, extortion


When you think gangster, you think Al Capone. The man is widely recognised as one of the most notorious crime bosses that has ever existed throughout history. Capone’s rise to power and infamy came, mainly, as a direct result of Prohibition in the United States – a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Prohibition in America created the perfect opportunity for established criminal enterprises to capitalise on the void left in the market for alcohol. Several gangs, including Capone’s ‘Chicago Outfit’, were involved in the process of illegally smuggling alcohol into the country and selling it in the numerous ‘speakeasies’ (illicit establishments that sold alcohol) set up across America.

Al Capone in 1930. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Bootlegging was a logistically challenging operation, but it was also extremely lucrative. At the peak of his career as a kingpin, Capone was raking in as much as $100,000,000 a year ($1,400,000,000 in 2018).

In Chicago, Capone was able to create a vast criminal network that enabled him to obtain absurd amounts of wealth. Cooperation with other institutions was key to the success of his rum-running operation. Protection was needed from rival gangs, for speakeasies and from nosey cops and politicians.

Instilling fear was also vital and became a trademark of Capone’s gang. The crime boss was a notoriously violent individual and his employees were renowned for their ruthless nature. Yet despite this infamous reputation, Capone became somewhat of an idol in the late 1920s.

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Capone was born in New York to a family of Italian American immigrants. His family, having initially migrated to the Croatian port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) in 1893, boarded a vessel in the same year headed for the United States. He came from humble beginnings; his father was a barber and his mother was a seamstress.

A photo of young Al Capone with his mother, (c. 1904-1910). (Image Credit: Public Domain).

At the same time that he became involved with petty criminal outfits, Capone worked as a sweet store clerk, a bowling alley pin boy, an ammunition plant labourer, and a book bindery cutter. Once his schooling career ended at age 14 after he hit his female teacher in the face, Capone began to associate with more serious, criminal organisations and leaders, such as the notorious gangster Johnny Torrio.

While working as a bouncer at a dancehall and saloon in Coney Island owned by a fellow racketeer, Frankie Yale, Capone was slashed with a knife across his face by the brother of a woman that he had insulted. The incident left two scars across the left side of his face, and the wounds led to his nickname “Scarface”, which he famously hated.

Al Capone’s scars on the left side of his face. He attempted to conceal them publically whenever he could. (Image Credit: Public Domain).


Capone’s quick rise to power commenced upon his arrival in Chicago in 1919, at the invitation of his mentor, Johnny Torrio. Torrio had worked for the syndicate crime boss “Big Jim” Colosimo who operated hundreds of brothels and gambling rackets in the Windy City. Capone was employed as a bouncer in various brothels where he contracted syphilis – an infection that would later kill him.

Mugshots of Johnny Torrio, Capone’s mentor. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Despite being a hugely successful Mafia boss, Colosimo had refused to enter into the business of bootlegging, which, with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, was viewed as a huge growth opportunity for organized crime groups. Torrio had pushed tirelessly for the gang to expand into this enterprise but “Big Jim” had stood firm.

It is believed by many that Capone was heavily involved in subsequent murder of Colosimo, who was shot multiple times whilst waiting for a “shipment” Torrio had claimed was waiting for him at his restaurant. It is very likely that Torrio had ordered the hit, quickly filling his former boss’ shoes and quickly capitalizing on the illegal alcohol industry. Capone became his right-hand man.

Law enforcement officials tried to crack down on the illegal trafficking of alcohol during Prohibition. However, the scale of bootlegging operations made their job virtually impossible. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Capone spent five years in this position, becoming heavily involved in the smuggling of alcohol across the border from Canada, although he always denied any involvement.

“Why, I don’t even know what street Canada is on.” – Al Capone

The Boss

Twelve days after he and his gang were ambushed, Capone learnt that his mentor Torrio had been shot several times in an assassination attempt. After a long recovery from his injuries, Torrio handed over control of the Chicago Outfit to his apprentice. At the age of 26, Al Capone was in charge of one the largest and most powerful crime units in America.

One of the most significant distinctions between Torrio’s tenure and Capone’s, was the use of violence. Capone rapidly expanded his criminal network and the organisation’s profits by instilling fear into his competitors and law enforcement officials. Establishments that refused to cooperate with the Chicago Outfit or buy their alcohol were often blown up.

Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, 1929. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Rival gangs rarely dared interfere with Capone’s operation, instead choosing to cooperate and collaborate. One outfit that refused to do so was George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side Gang, leading Capone to (allegedly) order the killing of seven of Moran’s associates in what became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

The infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago made Al Capone number one on the Chicago PD’s “Most Wanted” list. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Fame and Idolisation

Capone’s ruthless reputation was nonetheless accompanied and often overshadowed by his bravado and idolised public image. Through his political and music industry connections, Capone was able to become somewhat of a celebrity in his own right by the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was demonstrated by his appearance on the front cover of TIME Magazine on 24 March, 1930.

Al Capone on the front cover of TIME Magazine, 24 March, 1930. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The man who came from humble beginnings in Brooklyn was able to cultivate an image of a pragmatic businessman, concerned with the welfare of his fellow Chicagoans. He opened local soup kitchens in Chicago during the Great Depression and was often viewed as the “modern-day Robin Hood.”

“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want” – Al Capone

People were happy to turn a blind eye to his involvement in the bootlegging industry. Prohibition was extremely unpopular, and many Americans were actually grateful for the services Capone provided.

Food kitchen opened by Al Capone during the Great Depression. (Image Credit: Public Domain).


While he managed to maintain this image for some time, Capone was also making headlines for all the wrong reasons. While many newspapers accused him of being responsible for the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone was also being investigated by the FBI for tax evasion.

At the same time that he was facing numerous charges for various different offences, Prohibition Bureau agents were clamping down on his business. These lawmen were incorruptible and were termed ‘The Untouchables’.

Al Capone’s FBI Criminal Record in 1932. The record shows that most of the charges against him had been dismissed. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

On 18 October 1931, Capone was eventually convicted of tax evasion and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. Investigators and lawyers did not have to prove that Capone was orchestrating gambling, protection, prostitution and bootlegging rackets, simply that he wasn’t paying taxes on his income.

Capone essentially retired as leader of the Chicago Outfit after his imprisonment.

Illness and Death

Capone served his long sentence in several different penitentiaries including Alcatraz. By the late 1930s he was struggling with his failing health, caused by the sexually transmitted disease that he had failed to seek treatment for earlier in his life.

The Italian mafia boss was relocated from Alcatraz, and referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for the treatment of paresis, a severe neuropsychiatric disorder caused by late-stage syphilis.

In 1946, his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist concluded that Capone had the mentality of a 12-year-old child. He spent the last few years of his life living in his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, where he eventually died of heart failure on 25 January 1947.

Countless myths have swirled around Capone&rsquos final years. One of them is that he stocked his entire swimming pool with fish so that he could spend his days catching them to pass time. Though the legend is false, few know that if he had wanted to do so, he would have been unable to because he was broke.

The man who had once earned $40 million a year now struggled to support his family on an income of $600 a week, which was provided by former associates of the Chicago &ldquoOutfit.&rdquo The days of living a life of luxury were gone, yet he found enjoyment walking the grounds of his property searching for butterflies with his granddaughters.

His fall from the top was evident even in death, with few of his friends attending his modest funeral in winter 1947. His wife, Mae, remained in their Palm Island home for only five more years after he died.

Then she was forced to sell due to financial constraints. Prior to her passing in 1986, Mae set ablaze every letter that Al had written her while imprisoned, forever erasing another side to a man we have come to know as Scarface.

Al Capone Facts: From Bouncer To Boss

Born in Brooklyn to working-class Italian immigrant parents, Capone eventually rose to the rarified air of American wealth and power. But before "Scarface" (a nickname he hated) became the leader of the Chicago Outfit, the young man had a relatively normal childhood.

Capone came into the world on Jan. 17, 1899. His father, Gabriel, was part of the massive influx of Italian immigrants who arrived in New York just five years earlier. The resourceful barber and his wife, Teresa, had already been raising two sons — Vincenzo and Raffaele — when Frank Capone was born. Ultimately, Al would be the fourth out of nine children total.

Though they had a rather respectable, hardworking, and professional family, Capone was eager to make something more of himself than his father. Of course, the fact that he would one day become the FBI's "Public Enemy No. 1" was likely not the initial goal — but it certainly came to that soon enough.

Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images Al Capone smiling as he exits one of many courthouses. 1931.

After being kicked out of school at age 14 for hitting a teacher, Capone never went back to finish a formal education. He instead began slowly but surely rising in the ranks of the mob — but only after getting his face cut open by a young hoodlum at a brothel-saloon.

After accepting an invitation from fellow gangster Johnny Torrio to work for him in Chicago, Capone began making a name for himself in the Windy City. It was there that he took advantage of the public demand for alcohol during Prohibition — and built a reputation as a sharply-dressed Robin Hood of sorts.

"I'm just a businessman, giving the people what they want," he'd say. "All I do is satisfy a public demand."

As for the mob hits orchestrated by Al Capone, perhaps the most infamous of all was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. It was this ruthless elimination of rival gang members that truly cemented the mobster as a force to be reckoned with. All but one of the unsuspecting 1920s gangsters were killed.

How 'Scarface' Al Capone Became the Original Gangster

It was almost 10:30 a.m. Feb. 14, 1929, and Bugs Moran, bootlegger and gang leader, had overslept and was late for a meeting. He hurried along the sidewalks of Chicago's North Side with one of his henchmen, but as he neared the rendezvous spot — a brick garage at 2122 North Clark St. — he saw a cop car pull up. Retreating to a nearby café with his buddy, Moran decided that oversleeping might have been a very smart move, all things considered. He had no idea yet just how right he was.

Inside the garage, seven of Moran's men were waiting for their boss to show up when two beat cops and two plainclothesmen burst in announcing a raid. Armed with submachine guns, shotguns and a revolver, they ordered the gangsters up against the wall. Then, shockingly, they opened fire.

Ninety bullets later, Moran's men lay in a blood-soaked heap, and the gunmen were jumping into their black Cadillac for a clean getaway. But despite sporting a siren, gong and rifle rack, it wasn't a cop car after all, and its occupants definitely weren't cops.

To this day the gunmen have never been identified, and nobody ever took responsibility. But in the wake of this, the most infamous gangland slaughter of the Prohibition era, all fingers pointed at one man: Al Capone.

Who Was Al Capone?

Al Capone is one of those rare figures in American history who has, through the strange machinery of celebrity culture, arrived at the status of a synonym. His name means gangster. Or vice versa. But he was, in fact, a real person, with a real family and a real childhood and all the other things real people endure.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899, fourth son of Gabriele and Teresa Capone, who had immigrated a few years earlier from a small village outside Naples, Italy. Five more children followed and Capone grew up in the midst of a big, boisterous Italian family in a big, boisterous Italian neighborhood.

His father, a skilled baker specializing in artisanal pasta, found little American interest in his profession, and so he remade himself as a moderately successful barber. Within a few years, the Capones were established as respectable members of their community.

Young Capone was a quick study, smart and capable at school, especially when it came to numbers, but he had an inborn anti-authoritarian streak that got him into frequent trouble with his teachers. And back then, teachers had no time for difficult Italian kids. Italians had replaced the Irish at the bottom of the immigrant heap and were expected to be delinquent dropouts headed for low-skilled labor and/or criminal activity.

It's in the nature of such expectations to be met, and young Capone duly did so. He was expelled from school at the age of 14 for hitting a teacher, and he never went back. Meanwhile, he'd been cultivating a reputation as a street brawler and loyal partisan of Italian versus Irish kid-gang territorial disputes.

How Capone Became Scarface

Capone had more than a few nicknames, but the one that stuck fast was, of course, Scarface. In later life, he liked to claim that he'd acquired his wounds while battling in Europe during World War I. But the truth is that he never served a day in the military.

Instead, he harassed a young woman named Lena Galluccio in a bar when he was 18, and her brother, Frank Galluccio, went after him with a knife and sent him to the hospital where he required 80 stitches.

Before departing his teens, he'd attached himself to the notorious Five Points Gang and acquired a mentor in the form of a tough guy named Johnny Torrio. In 1919, Torrio was called to Chicago to work as an enforcer for James "Big Jim" Colosimo, and he took young Capone with him. They landed in the middle of a gang war and Colosimo was gunned down. Nobody was ever arrested for his murder, but many believe Torrio and Capone were both involved.

After Colosimo's murder, Torrio took over his position. But not for long. He retired immediately and handed the reins to his protégé, Capone who, at 26, became one of the youngest gang leaders in the country.

Capone the Original Gangster

Young Capone's subsequent success had to do with a potent combination of managerial skills and ruthlessness, with a special emphasis on ruthlessness. There's a story that he invited a group of gang leaders to dinner and then personally bashed them to death with a baseball bat. The jury's still out on the veracity of this tale, but whether it's actually true, it's emblematic of Capone's reputation for deploying unbridled violence in his pursuit of power.

And it worked. While the St. Valentine's Day Massacre might not have eliminated Capone's Northside rival Bugs Moran, the slaughter effectively put the Irish gang leader out of business.

From 1925 to 1931, Capone reigned supreme over Chicago's underworld. He became quite popular, sponsoring soup kitchens and lobbying for safer health standards. But his fast-growing CV of horrors put him in the crosshairs of law enforcement. Local, municipal, state and federal authorities went after him from several different angles, but although they managed to jail him briefly and intermittently, they couldn't seem to dent his grip on power.

In the end, Capone's doom came from an unexpected direction. And it was all due to a brilliant lawyer named Mabel Walker Willebrandt. As America's first female assistant attorney general, she was tasked with enforcing Prohibition, the constitutional amendment that outlawed alcohol. This was a tricky business, as bootleggers often had politicians and law enforcement in their pockets, but Willebrandt came up with an ingenious, and ultimately far-reaching strategy.

Going after a crook named Manly Sullivan, Willebrandt decided to set aside his obvious criminal activity and instead prosecute him for not paying taxes on his income. Sullivan's defense that his income was illegal put him in a legal pickle, since he was admitting to wrongdoing in his effort to avoid conviction. Willebrandt shrugged this nonsense aside and pointed out that tax law required individuals to report and pay taxes on any and all income, regardless of its source. Check and mate.

Tax Evasion Takes Down Capone

Law enforcement officials realized that they could use Willebrandt's method to go after any number of gangland figures, including, or maybe especially, Capone. In the end, that's what took him down when the Federal Treasury got him sentenced to jail for 11 years for tax evasion. He also had to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Jailed, at first, in Atlanta, he ended up being transferred to the infamous island dungeon of Alcatraz. The reason being that in Atlanta, Capone had been able to manipulate, con and bribe his way to a luxurious and privileged lifestyle. Alcatraz was an entirely different experience and, according to his warden there, Capone eventually admitted, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked."

Capone was released in 1939, but by that time he was a vastly diminished figure, having been debilitated by syphilis for years, a condition he'd contracted decades earlier. It would kill him in 1947, after a long decline at his Palm Island mansion in Florida.

Al Capone wasn't a mafia boss like Don Corleone or Tony Soprano with their strictly Italian underlings. In fact, his gang was quite ethnically diverse, a fact reflective of the cultural hurly-burly of his hometown. When called Italian, Capone would angrily respond, "I'm no Italian, I was born in Brooklyn!"

Al Capone: a Biography of a Notorious Gangster

With his record of bloodshed and death, Al Capone may be considered to be the most notorious gangster in American history. His crimes–which include murder, illegal gambling, and bootlegging–will never be ignored and his death will surely leave a lasting legacy(pbs). Arriving as a child to the United States in 1894, his family and him made resident in Brooklyn, New York.(umich). As a teenager, he did errands for the gangster Johnny Torrio(umich). He was eventually in a bar fight and received three slashes across the face(umich). These eventually led to his nickname “Scarface”(umich). Eventually when Capone was older, he moved to Chicago and then to Cicero to continue working with Torrio(umich). After Torrio was arrested, Capone became in charge of his territory, and began his history of crimes(umich). One of his most infamous crimes is the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, in which several rival gangsters were murdered brutally by his henchmen who were dressed up as policemen and made it seem like it was a raid.(pbs). However the murder was never officially pinned on Al because he was not in the city where the murder took, as it was in Chicago and he was currently in Miami(pbs). He went to jail several times for multiple of reasons but on October 1931, he was sentenced 11 years in prison for tax evasion(pbs). Capone only served six of those years,as his sentence was shortened for good behavior(pbs). After he was freed, Capone went and stayed in Miami(pbs). His health up to that point was in a steep decline because of a case of Syphilis he had received in his teenage years(pbs). On January 25,1947, Al Capone died of a cardiac arrest at age 48(pbs).

Even after his death, it’s sure that Al Capone will leave a lasting legacy in the history of the United States. His murders and his crimes will never be ignored. He could potentially be the deadliest gangster to live in the United States,and he could potentially be the most infamous bootlegger. The 18th amendment that place a ban on alcohol only led to more business opportunities for Capone(American History).This ban caused many bars and saloons to close. Thus, any location or person that sold alcohol to become very profitable. Al saw this as a business opportunity and had opened up multiple speakeasies,which were essentially secret bars(American History). Plus, his location at Chicago only gave him more of an advantage than other bootleggers(American History). His organization was one of the largest organization and one that held a lot of influence on bootlegging(American History). However, Al Capone did do things that could be considered unexpected. Capone had opened up a soup kitchen in Chicago, which was one of the first soup kitchen there(American History). And according to those who had ate there, he had done more for them than any other relief effort(American History). In all, Al capone is sure to leave a lasting legacy that won’t be diminishing anytime soon and his presence in the 20’s will sure to be remembered.

Societies of organised crime

After the 1930s, organised crime went from being represented by the activities of small itinerant gangs to a business run by bosses that were notorious for their cruelty. The iconic Bonnie and Clyde were replaced by criminals with little chance of being homicidal, but very willing to call for murders. Bank robbery was replaced by the theft of citizens through loans, gambling, drugs, prostitution, corporate and trade union corruption.

These are the most notorious mobsters, the sinister royalty, a collective brotherhood of infamy an exclusive club formed by anti-heroes of pop culture, physical incarnations of contempt for law, order, morality or even human life.

The characters on this list are from different countries, from American mobsters to notorious gangsters from Italy, but what they all have in common is how they are all recognised: drug traffickers and crime lords, infamous people who have influenced the best biographies of mobsters and the best gangster movies of the 1990s.

05 – Eliot Ness didn’t have a major role in bringing him to justice

Al Capone at Cuba – By State Library and Archives of Florida [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Through the book and film ‘The Untouchables’, we all think we knew the story of how Ness’s gang of special agents refused bribes to bring Capone down. While it is true they were incorruptible and did cause problems for Capone, this was around the illegal bootlegging operations he ran and prohibition. Capone was eventually sent down for tax evasion which was not the main thrust of Ness’s operation.

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Known as ‘Big Tuna’, Accardo turned to crime in his early teens and quickly gained prominence working for one of the most notorious gangsters of all time, Al Capone, in his Chicago crime syndicate. His main role was performing hits for Capone, and he was allegedly an active participant in the Valentine’s Day Massacre in which seven men of Capone’s rival Irish-American gang were shot dead with sub-machine guns inside a garage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Accardo was allegedly involved in other murders, including beating two men to death with a baseball bat. With all this under his belt, it might surprise you to know that the only crime Accardo was ever convicted of was tax evasion. He spent six years in prison in 1960. Accardo always denied any involvement with the mob, and died of natural causes in 1992.

A Notorious Gangster Started One of the First Soup Kitchens in America During the Great Depression

The famed boss of the New England mafia, Raymond Patriarca, conducted his business from outside of a money changing shop in the centre of Federal Hill, one of the Italian American neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island. The cops knew who he was, what he did and who he did it with. So did everyone else on Federal Hill. He extorted, ran rackets, sharked loans and caused untold violence to the region over the two and a half decades that he sat atop organized crime in New England. Yet when he died, hundreds of people attended his funeral, lining the sidewalks as his casket moved through the streets of Providence.

How could a man with such a fearsome reputation and such little regard for human life be so feted by those most affected by his crimes? After all, the whims of gangsters such as Patriarca were most regularly meted out upon the citizens of Federal Hill, the small business owners who paid protection money and the struggling folk forced to take out loans to pay their bills. He was certainly no Robin Hood.

Al Capone (black suit, center right) in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The truth is that the mob have often filled a hole in the welfare state, forming a state within a state and providing the services that the regular government is unable or unwilling to offer the people. The dichotomy of organized crime lies between the aims of the Mafia &ndash to make as much money as possible for themselves and their associates &ndash and the public relations campaign required to achieve those goals. Those most likely to have dirt on the activities of the mob are those most affected by it, the average joes trying to make ends meet, the residents of the low income neighbourhoods and immigrant communities on which they have traditionally fed. It pays to keep these people on your side. Organized crime ensures their loyalty via a combination of threats and PR exercises that remind people both of the danger of crossing the mob but also of their benevolence. They need to steal and extort from their own communities, but also make that community feel like the mob is on their side.

Al Capone. Notable Biographies

Nobody knew this better than the most famous mobster of them all, Al Capone. He was a pioneer of organized crime in the United States and one of the pillars of his organization was the soup kitchens that they ran on the depressed South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression and for a long time afterwards.

At one of the most economically perilous times in the history of the United States, when almost a fifth of men were unemployed and millions were on the breadline, Capone stepped in and did his bit for the people of Chicago. That he had caused untold violence and deprivation to the neighborhoods that his soup kitchen served was almost completely forgotten and as PR campaigns go, it was a total success.

Watch the video: History Brief: Al Capone u0026 Organized Crime (January 2022).