- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010


By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster, $28, 468 pages

Chances are very good, dear reader, that you weren’t alive in the 1920s, but if you were, chances are also very good you would remember three names: Babe Ruth, Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh and Al Capone. All three were heroes, Ruth in sports, Lindy in adventure and Capone in crime.

Wait a minute, criminals aren’t heroes, right? Wrong. At least wrong in the 1920s, when Americans were living through the 14-year failure known as Prohibition and about to get hit with the (first) Great Depression. The government’s ill-advised and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to put everyone on the wagon resulted in a degree of anti-government feeling not seen again until perhaps today.

Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, born in Brooklyn, transported himself to Chicago in 1920, just in time for the Roaring decade. A bouncer back home, Capone came to Chicago to work for Johnny Torrio, a rising figure in the underworld.

Had it not been for the 18th Amendment, Capone and others of his ilk might have remained small-time hoods. However, as Jonathan Eig (author of “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season” and “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig”) writes, “Every city had its share of bootlegging, but Chicago seemed to have more. Alcohol soaked the city through, which is why the 1922 song ‘Chicago’ called it ‘that toddlin’ town.’ No one believed for a minute that the city would sober up under Prohibition. Lake Michigan would dry up first.

“Once it became clear that Chicagoans, and in fact much of the rest of the American population, had no intention of giving up drinking, the government would face a decision: How much money and effort would it invest in fighting this new wave of crime? The answer turned out to be, not much. Torrio and Capone, among others, stood ready to take advantage.”

After his mentor Torrio, having been shot and almost killed in broad daylight, wisely decided to take early retirement, Capone rose to the top very quickly. Somehow, even though he had his hand in seemingly everything that produced cash income, he never left any fingerprints. And while law enforcement and the city fathers strongly suspected Capone of being behind everything from mayhem to murder, they were never able to make a case against him stick.

Newspapers, then as now eager for “good copy,” found the garrulous Capone always ready with a quip. It didn’t hurt that he favored expensive clothing decades before the world had heard of the Dapper Don back East. As Capone’s legend grew, so did his wealth and the viciousness of his retaliatory attacks, usually featuring drive-by shootings with Thompson machine guns.

Soon Chicago was getting world-class bad press. Mr. Eig writes, “Violent crime in Chicago really was worse than in most other large cities. In fact, the city’s murder rate was roughly double that of New York’s.” And both law enforcement and the criminal justice system were woefully inept. “In Chicago,” Mr. Eig writes, “an astonishing 48 percent of all felony charges were dropped during preliminary hearings, according to a 1926 hearing.”

When the horrifically brutal St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place, many Chicagoans finally said too much is enough - it’s time to draw a line in the blood. Along with national leaders, they finally wanted the cops and political leaders to get Capone. The problem was, Capone had already gotten the cops and the politicians.

The new president, Herbert Hoover, wanted to enforce Prohibition and get Capone. The new U.S. attorney in Chicago, George E.Q. Johnson (whose papers Mr. Eig discovered), was also determined to get Capone, but as a resident of Chicago, he knew far better than Hoover just how hard that would be. Nonetheless, he was no defeatist. So these two men, a duo devoid of color in a most colorful era, with the eventual help of a federal judge, engineered a scheme that brought down the first man named Public Enemy No. 1.

They wouldn’t get him for murder or highjacking or theft or gambling or protection or any of the other illegal activities in which they knew - but could not prove - he was actively engaged. They got him for tax evasion.

Up until this point, Mr. Eig’s prose is often as colorful as the characters he’s describing - too colorful for my taste, as is his relentless desire to show the gangster’s “human side” (Hitler liked kids, so what?) - but when he gets into how the government plotted and plotted until it had Capone where it wanted him, the book gets more interesting.

For example, the trial judge unfairly tricked the defense by giving it another judge’s jury-pool list, only producing the correct one on the first day of jury selection. As a result, Capone’s jury was made up of older men from small towns downstate, solid citizens unlikely to find anything to admire in Capone.

If that weren’t sufficiently underhanded, the judge, reneging on a plea deal with the mobster’s lawyer, sentenced Capone to a term far longer than the norm for tax evasion. In something like rough justice, in prison, Capone suffered a recurrence of syphilis that had been dormant for decades. When he was released in 1939, having served his term, Capone was only 40 but had but eight more years to live.

“The remainder of his life was not all madness,” Mr. Eig tells us. “He enjoyed long periods of lucidity and decent health. After his release from the hospital, he spent most of his time in the house at Palm Island [Florida], lying about in his pajamas, smoking cigars, casting a fishing line into Biscayne Bay, and playing cards.” Surrounded by his family - wife, son, mother, sister and two of his bothers - he died on Jan. 25, 1947.

If the adjective iconic also has a negative connotation, then the life of Alphonse Capone was certainly that.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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