25th January 1947 was the day on which Al Capone died at the age of 48, from a stroke complicated by pneumonia and syphilis.
He started his criminal career in New York, where an encounter with the brother of a woman he had insulted led to the facial injury that earned him the nickname of Scarface, but at the age of 20 he moved to Chicago where he soon became the leading mobster in the city, with earnings coming from gambling, prostitution and fixing horse races, although the era of Prohibition was what really propelled him to the top.
It is believed that Capone’s industrial-scale activities involving the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol earned him around $100 million a year, and he took every step he could to protect that income by eliminating his rivals.
The most notorious event in his catalogue of crime occurred on 14th February 1929 (St Valentine’s Day) when four members of his gang turned up at a Chicago garage that was the headquarters of a rival bootlegger named Bugs Moran. Fortunately for Moran he was across the street when Capone’s men arrived, but six of Moran’s men, plus a garage attendant who had the misfortune to be there at the time, were not so lucky as they were lined up against a wall and shot dead.
Capone’s ability to intimidate and bribe his way to wherever he wanted meant that pinning any sort of criminal charge against him was virtually impossible until somebody pointed out that he had never filed an income tax return. The master criminal of Chicago therefore went to jail for tax evasion.
Capone spent more than eight years in jail, firstly at Atlanta where he bought special privileges for himself, but then at the much tougher fortress prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
He was a broken man when he was finally released in 1939 and was able to retire to his estate in Florida. The effect of syphilis and his time in jail was to bring on mid-life dementia, which meant that he was no threat to anyone during his final years.
© John Welford