Typewriters & Ukeleles
Alphonse Capone was born in New York, a son of Italian immigrants from Milan. In the 1920s he became the symbol of the American gangster. Estimates vary, but between 300 and 500 murders were attributed to him as he gained control of the Chicago crime world. However he never was convicted for any murder. Instead, in 1931 he was convicted of income tax evasion and he spent over seven years in jail. (400 lives times an average age of 63 years equals 25,200 years). After he left jail he became a recluse in Florida, his mind ravaged by the syphilis he had contracted earlier in Johnny Torrio's Chicago whorehouses. Eventually he died of complications from the syphilis in 1947.
In the words of one biographer Capone revolutionized "crime and corruption by putting both on an efficiency basis." Capone also represents the perverse side of American democracy and its economic engine, capitalism. But, so too, in the 1960s, it was suggested by political scientists that an understanding of Soviet (communist) politics could be gleaned from studying Capone's management tactics. Capone became a popular, ironically idolized icon of American culture.
Capone arrived in Chicago, following his mentor Torrio, in 1920, the year the Volstead Act was enacted marking the beginning of the Prohibition era. In the next ten years he would come to dominate the organized crime syndicates in the Chicago area. He would become more popular than the president of the United States.
Sociologists have already pointed out that in times of economic contraction or stagnation, the public looks to anti-heroes as it faults the status quo and its representatives. Witness the popular success of the gangster movies in the early 1930s (Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Scarface). These films glorified the mobsters. Sensitive to the international community's perception that the American criminal was a source of shame and counter-productive in the exporting of democracy and capitalism, the Hollywood film censors changed the ending of Howard Hawks' Scarface and gave it a more moralistic ending. Nevertheless the message seemed to be that crime really did pay and Al Capone was a prime icon of proof.
How a hoodlum from Brooklyn, New York came to dominate the Chicago crimeworld is first and foremost a tale about the influence and effectiveness of "typewriters and ukeleles." Might makes right in this subterranean world where the double-cross is the only holy truth. And might is expressed in the simple form of firepower as displayed by the Thompson sub-machine gun, also known as a "typewriter." The drum that holds the fifty or more bullets the Thompson spews out is euphemistically called the "ukelele."
The most well-known "opera" written and played by Capone was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. A one performance gig it occurred on the morning of February 14, 1929. Capone himself was in Florida at the time of the massacre, but he was clearly the orchestrator. The objective was the assassination of the remains of the Dion O'Banion gang now under the leadership of George "Bugs" Moran. The stage was set at 2122 North Clark Street, site of Heyer's Garage and Moran's headquarters. In the garage that morning were Frank and Pete Gusenberg, John May, Al Weinshank, James Clark, Adam Heyer and an optometrist, Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer. At 10:30 am the assassination squad arrived. Nobody knows the exact composition of the hit squad, but apparently there were five members. Two of the assassins were dressed in police uniforms. The scam was to make Moran's men think that this was just a routine police "shakedown". After Moran's men were disarmed and backed against a wall the typewriters came out and the ukeleles were played. In about ten seconds six of the seven men were dead. Frank Gusenberg made it to the hospital before he died. When asked by a policeman who the killers were, Frank, following the inviolable code of the gangster replied, "No one, nobody shot me." (Ironically, Moran himself was not in the garage. In fact Moran escaped gangland's bullets altogether. He eventually wound up in prison and died of cancer in 1957 inside the federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth.)
By the time of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Al Capone had clawed his way to the top of the subterranean crime world. He was worth some $200 million dollars. Crime had paid off very handsomely. He had started out as Johnny Torrio's factotum. After dodging enough bullets to "revolutionize" the bootleg liquor, gambling and prostitution businesses of organized crime, he had become the "Big Shot."
The Chicago criminal underworld in the early 1920s was divided by several rival gangs and numerous "independents" all who vied for a slice of the crime pie. One such interloper, Joe Howard, a burglar and safe-cracker, decided to hijack trucks loaded with Capone-Torrio booze. Stealing the bootleg liquor was easy and profitable. However, one never really gets something for nothing. On the evening of May 7, 1923 after several nights of successful hijackings, Joe was drinking bourbon amidst a group of patrons at Heinie Jacobs' bar on South Wabash Avenue. A few moments later, Joe is dead with six bullet holes delivered from a revolver operated by Tony "Scarface" Capone. At least that's what the next morning's daily newspaper reported. Capone was questioned by the police and released. Despite the several eye witnesses to the deed, the code of silence prevailed. No charges were ever brought in connection with Joe Howard's murder.
Capone was giving notice to the other rivals that he was prepared to defend his territory. Actually the strategy was about to change. Capone was about to begin an offensive which had as its goal the complete control of the Chicago underworld.
The outbreak of the so-called "Bootleg War" was just a few months away and Capone would be a commanding general. The typewriters and their ukeleles would be going wild.
By the fall of 1923 the battlefield alignments were clear. On the South Side was the O'Donnell gang. On the North was the O'Banion gang. On the West the Genna brothers were threatening. It was Johnny Torrio, Capone's mentor who dreamed of a monopoly in the illegal liquor market. But it was Al Capone who brought the dream to fruition, so to speak. With a systematic and methodical passion, Capone eliminated his competitors until he had undisputed control of the Chicago crime world.
The O'Donnell gang was picked off one by one. On September 7, 1923 Jerry O'Connor, a henchman for the O'Donnell brothers was shot by Capone financed gunmen. On September 17, two more O'Donnell henchmen, George Bucher and Georgia Meeghan were assassinated while driving in a car on Laflin Street. Soon another O'Donnell associate, Morris Keane was found dead near the Sag Canal. Walter O'Donnell was knocked off next, shot to death in a suburb south of Chicago.
With his southern flank secured, Capone began the assault on the North by assassinating Dion O'Banion on November 10, 1924. At the time, O'Banion was one of the most powerful bootleggers in town. Capone and Torrio had tried diplomacy, offering O'Banion a cut of the proceeds from Torrio's
whorehouses. The puritan O'Banion rejected the offer. Bootleg liquor was one thing, prostitution was
something else. When no agreement could be reached Capone had O'Banion shot. The O'Banion killing
introduced a new innovation known as the "handshake murder." The actual murderers were probably John Scalise, Albert Anselmi and Frank Yale. It happened in O'Banion's flower shop, for by day O'Banion was a florist. Not realizing the nature of the three men's visit, O'Banion went to shake one of the assassins' hand. As he offered his hand, the other two grabbed O'Banion and held him. Instead of a handshake, O'Banion got six bullets: two in the right breast, two around the throat, a fifth bullet in the right cheek, and a sixth in the left cheek. The remnants of the O'Banion gang regrouped and prepared to mount a counter-offensive. But in the meantime, Capone had to deal with another problem.
The Genna brothers led a gang that was threatening the Capone syndicate practically in its own backyard. Originally the Gennas were allies of Capone but the underworld of crime, despite the premium value of loyalty is a land of often shifting sands. By 1925 the Gennas were in open opposition to the Capone-led forces. There were six Genna brothers. By July there were only three. Sam Samoots Amatuna tried to marshall the remains of the Genna gang but he too was shot dead while sitting in a barber's chair late in the fall of 1925. After defeating the Genna faction, Capone returned to his battle against the O'Banion forces in the North.
Actually the re-grouped O'Banion gang, now led by Heinie Weiss, George Moran, and Vincent Drucci, staged an all-out assault on Capone's life. Capone's syndicate headquarters was the Hawthorne Hotel located in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. On the afternoon of September 20, 1926 eight black sedans rolled into Cicero as Al Capone and one of his bodyguards drank coffee in the Hawthorne Hotel's restaurant. When the motorcade of sedans passed by the hotel, out came the "typewriters" and "ukeleles" and a hellish bullet-laden serendade began. Capone's bodyguard had pinned him to the floor and so he evaded the hundreds of machine-gun fired bullets aimed at him. Remarkably nobody was killed in the assault, but the enemy had struck at home. Capone, of course, would seek revenge.
Heinie Weiss, who had invented the "take him for a ride" innovation in gangland murders was eliminated by a Capone assassination squad on October 11, 1926. Weiss had been the de facto leader of the O'Banion gang and after his removal, neither Moran nor Drucci was able to mount any serious resistance to Capone. (The St. Valentines Day Massacre in 1929 was a continuation of Capone's retaliation for the Cicero attack.) By the end of 1926, Capone was the undisputed master of Chicago's gangland.
With all the dead bodies littering the morgue the question arises why weren't more people arrested and convicted. The relationship between organized crime and the Chicago-area political apparatus has been keenly analyzed. There was an interlocking interconnection, which in the jargon of the day was referred to as the "hook-up." This "hook-up" was between the lords of the underworld and the established bureaucracy which included politicians, police and the press. The "hook-up" was maintained by money which was flowing in fantastic amounts. The bootlegging, prostitution and gambling operations of the "mob" were extraordinarily profitable. Of 135 gang-related murders between 1923 and 1926 only six men were brought to trial and all but one were acquitted. So profound was the "hook-up" that men like Capone and O'Banion were never convicted of the murders they committed or ordered carried out.
Perhaps as a result of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 which focused public attention on the perceived anarchy in Chicago, the Capone-led crime-wave began to crest and fall. Both internal and external factors hastened Capone's decline. Several months after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre Capone caught wind of a plot by three of his most trusted hench-men: Scalise, Anselmi and Joseph Guinta. Apparently the three killers were conspiring to knock Al off. Ironically, Scalise and Anselmi had once worked for the Genna Brothers but had changed loyalties as the sands shifted. Further, several years earlier, when Capone tried to make peace with the O'Banion gang the deal fell through because Capone was unwilling to turn over O'Banion's murderers who happened to be Scalise and Anselmi. Needless to say their betrayal in 1929 flipped Al out.
On May 8, 1929 Al Capone threw a dinner at a roadhouse restaurant outside of Chicago. The three conspirators, Scalise, Anselmi and Guinta were the guests of honor sitting at the head table with Capone. The eating had concluded when Capone got up presumably to offer a toast to the three honorees. Al spoke: "This is how we deal with traitors." Capone then proceeded to bludgeon the three men with a baseball bat. After their skulls were smashed he shot them. The bodies of the traitors were located the next morning in Indiana. Scalise and Guinta were in the backseat of the abandoned car; Anselmi was found twenty feet away.
On May 17, 1929 nine days after the brutal murders of the brutal murderers, Capone was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon. Within hours he was in jail. He was released on St. Patrick's Day in 1930. Capone's star was now in eclipse. The following year on November 24, 1931 he was sentenced to eleven years in a federal prison for income tax evasion. Capone was effectively off the streets. After seven years, six months and fifteen days, Capone was released from jail. His health was failing and he never returned to Chicago. Instead he retired to his Florida estate.
Capone had contracted syphilis in his younger years, most likely in one of Johnny Torrio's whorehouses outside of Chicago. By 1946 it was reported that the infection had affected his mind. The "Big Shot" Al Capone was said to have the mentality of a 12 year old. On January 25, 1947 Capone passed away.
One question Al Capone's life conjures up is this- Which is the more natural state of man: the world of organized society with its rules of order or the world of organized crime with its rules of disorder?
Capone at a Baseball Game