Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone (January 17, 1899 – January 25, 1947) was an American gangster who attained fame during the Prohibition era as the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Outfit. His seven-year reign as crime boss ended when he was 33 years old.
Capone was born in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City to Italian immigrants. He was a Five Points Gang member who became a bouncer in organized crime premises such as brothels. In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago and became bodyguard and trusted factotum for Johnny Torrio, head of a criminal syndicate that illegally supplied alcohol – the forerunner of the Outfit – and that was politically protected through the Unione Siciliana. A conflict with the North Side Gang was instrumental in Capone’s rise and fall. Torrio went into retirement after North Side gunmen almost killed him, handing control to Capone. Capone expanded the bootlegging business through increasingly violent means, but his mutually profitable relationships with mayor William Hale Thompson and the city’s police meant that Capone seemed safe from law enforcement.
Capone apparently reveled in attention, such as the cheers from spectators when he appeared at ball games. He made donations to various charities and was viewed by many to be a “modern-day Robin Hood”. However, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of gang rivals from the North Side Gang damaged Chicago’s image, leading influential citizens to demand governmental action.
The federal authorities became intent on jailing Capone, and they prosecuted him for tax evasion in 1931. The case was highly politicized and both prosecutors and judge later received preferment. Capone had made admissions of his income during prior negotiations (which ultimately were abortive) to pay the government any back taxes that he owed. The judge deemed these statements usable as evidence at the trial, and refused to let Capone plead guilty for a lighter sentence. The effect of such decisions by the judge was added to by the incompetence of Capone’s defense attorneys. Capone was convicted and sentenced to a record-breaking 11 years in federal prison. He replaced his old defense team with experts in tax law, and his grounds for appeal were strengthened by a Supreme Court ruling, but Capone again found that his status as a symbol of criminality meant that judges decided in his disfavor.
He was already showing signs of syphilitic dementia early in his sentence, and he became increasingly debilitated before being released after eight years. On January 25, 1947, Capone died of cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke. Capone’s conviction had negligible effect on the prevalence of organized crime in Chicago.