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Alphonse Gabriel Capone was no choir-boy. When Chicago was his, bodies and bullet holes riddled the streets of the Windy City. Big Al was as serious as cancer when it came down to business, and the word “ruthless” could accurately depict how he moved and operated. He was slapped with the label “Public Enemy Number One,” but was he actually an enemy of the public? The answer to that question is a lot more ambiguous than you may imagine.
A Dry Country
You really have to consider the time period and focus on context to get a better understanding of Capone and how he was perceived. To get a broader sense of the man, it’s important you familiarize yourself with the prohibition of alcohol that was put into effect on January 17th, 1920.
There’s no doubt that temperance groups had their hearts in the right place; unfortunately, people were itching to have a drink during the particularly trying times of the Great Depression. Spirits were down but the need for "spirits" was up. A common misconception that people believe is that it was illegal to consume alcohol during the period of Prohibition. It was only illegal to sell it, transport it, and make it. How could alcohol enthusiasts not love this guy?
Opening the Floodgates
Many of the Prohibition lobbyists were fundamental religious groups that didn’t realize the floodgates they were opening. Their altruism is not to be challenged, but their lack of foresight is open for scrutiny. It must have been known that a massive illicit market would grow out of this.
Whatever the case, the announcement of the ratification of the 18th amendment was a proverbial“Welcome, We’re Open For Business” sign for organized crime members across the country. Lawmakers and lobbyists left the door ajar for opportunists of all stripes to capitalize on this social experiment. The problem is that guys like Al Capone kicked it off the hinges and stepped through with guns blazing.
Chicago . . . I'm Home!
Italians in Chicago wielded very little—if any—political power at the turn of the 20th century, and opportunities were scant. Their social standing was at the bottom of the totem pole because they were the most recent arrivals. Irish immigrants arrived before them and scooped up many jobs, leaving little room and opportunity for Italian newcomers.
Crime paid, especially back then with rampant corruption permeating the police forces around the country. It was a lot easier to be a mobster in those days. Capone and his gangster mentor Johnny Torrio saw serious potential for organized crime in Chicago. The Chicago Outfit was about to receive a shot in the arm in the form of Big Al.
Honor Among Thieves
Al Capone ruled the Chicago criminal underworld with an iron fist. This much is true, but those that felt the wrath of the notorious bootlegger were seedy criminals themselves. Unlike the drug game, innocent people were never targeted and rarely caught in the crossfire of this deliberate and organized violence. In fact, if you look at his list of victims, many of them were men sent to kill him or those who double-crossed him. Capone made no bones about who he was. Al looked the part, played the part, and enjoyed the part. That being said, he did have a Robin-Hood quality that is often overshadowed by the violence.
Capone the Milkman?
Believe it or not, Al Capone is responsible for the expiration or “sell by” dates on the backs of milk bottles! Toward the end of his reign at the helm of the “Outfit,” Capone was growing weary of the attacks on his life. In a moment of candor, he told this to his brother Ralph:
“I’ve got to get out, Ralph, I’ve got enough money. I don’t need this insanity. Weiss, Moran, and [the members of the other gangs] are idiots. You can’t do business with crazy people. I’ve been shot at, almost poisoned with prussic acid, and there is an offer of $50,000 to any gunman who can kill me. They don’t understand that there’s enough for all of us . . . They’re mad because I run a better business. I make more money than they do. I run my outfit like a business. It is a business.”
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After this revelation, Capone bounced around the idea of “going straight” by breaking into the legitimate milk business. After all, the markup of milk was greater than alcohol and the Capones already had the bottling facilities under their control. When one of his relatives became seriously ill after consuming spoiled milk, Capone lobbied the Chicago City Council to stamp expiration dates on the back of these bottles to protect the city’s children from harm. Al Capone: a philanthropist of the highest order!
Al's Soup Kitchens
The pressing issue for many people across the country was the elephant in the room, which was economic depression brought on by the Stock Market crash of 1929. Millions of Americans were out of work and looking for scraps to eat, but one Chicago resident stepped up to the plate to combat this issue . . . Alphonse Capone.
When politicians and government officials failed to act, Al opened up one of the first soup kitchens that served up breakfast, lunch, and dinner to an average of 2,200 Chicagoans daily. He’d even get behind the counter from time to time and personally serve meals to the needy. Every day, the soup kitchen served 350 loaves of bread, 100 dozen rolls, 50 pounds of sugar, and 30 pounds of coffee at a cost of $300.
Second helpings were never denied, and of course, everything was free of charge . . . no questions asked. In fact, on Thanksgiving Day, 1930, Capone’s kitchen fed upwards of 5,000 people with traditional helpings. I think we can all agree this was an altruistic act independent of his crimes. He saved a lot of lives with those kitchens and should be lauded for it.
A Bum Rap
The movie The Untouchables was a good one, but it cemented in people's minds the idea that Capone was a mindless killer with no soul. The truth is that he was highly organized and generally shrewd. He was a family man that left his work at the “office” and moved his brood out of Chicago and harm’s way to Cicero, Illinois. It was at home where he dutifully played the role of husband, uncle, son, brother, and grandfather.
When Bugs Moran, the head of Chicago’s Irish mob and one of Al’s chief rivals, had his men pump more than one thousand rounds of lead into the Capone headquarters at the Hawthorne Hotel in broad daylight, many innocent bystanders were hit and injured as a result; Capone escaped unscathed and paid the medical bills of each and every one of them. This was a guy who could sit front row at Comiskey Park to watch a baseball game and would receive standing ovations by the crowd. He was a noted tipper and had a propensity to give servers and children $100 bills. One hundred dollars went a long way in the time of the Great Depression.
Another interesting anecdote is what happened to the guy that stabbed Capone after he disrespected his sister, leaving him with three prominent scars that earned him his nickname. Capone felt he was in the wrong and never pursued revenge. In fact, Capone ended up giving the guy a job working for his Outfit. A man with Al’s wealth, power, and influence could’ve easily snapped his fingers and had him rubbed out, but he wasn’t the totally evil guy that Deniro portrayed in The Untouchables.
Al Capone was a man who looked after the people in his community and the city of Chicago. You may call me crazy for saying this, but he was beloved and truly a man of the people. His legacy is more than just Tommy guns, fedoras, imported suits, and cigars. This was a guy who graced the cover of Time magazine.
The government did a great job of further sullying his reputation while conveniently ignoring the good that he did as well as the hypocrisy of Prohibition. Like Al said himself, “All I ever did was sell beer and whiskey to our best people. All I ever did was supply a demand that was pretty popular. Why, the very guys that make my trade good are the ones that yell the loudest about me. Some of the leading judges use the stuff.”
Mind you, there was an Al Capone counterpart in basically every major city in America; he was just the best at it. This may not have swayed your opinion on Capone, but I’ll leave you with this question—was he an enemy of the public or an enemy of the government? In my mind, there’s a discernible difference. Cheers, Al!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 16, 2020:
Al is an interesting figure and he did a lot of good when people needed help. Good stuff.