Al Capone was a gangster who ran an organized crime syndicate back in the 1920s in the Chicago area during the Prohibition era. Despite his role in various crimes, Capone was a charming gangster who was both charitable and amiable to others. His demeanor was opposite the power and viciousness of his personality, which is why he became an iconic image of the successful American gangster. He was even dubbed as the modern-day Robinhood for his knack in helping the poor people.
Born in 1899, Capone was the fourth of nine children born to Gabriele and Teresina, both Italian immigrants. Unlike other gangsters, Capone’s family was not poor. He comes from a His father was a barber while his mother stayed at home with the children. As an Italian family living and trying to succeed in a foreign country, the Capone family was tight-knit. Capone’s childhood was relatively a normal one as he played with other children his own age in Brooklyn, New York. During that period, many immigrant families were forced to work hard, thus, even children were tasked to help in earning for the family. Like other children, Capone worked odd jobs to help add to the family’s meager income. At an early age, Capone was exposed to various types of vices considering that they lived in a tenement near the Navy Yard. The Capone family was a law-abiding and regular family. They are the typical immigrant family coming from an Italian lineage that followed the doctrines of the Catholic faith and worked their way up in the American society.
The Capone’s belong to the group of migrants who came from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe. Their move meant bringing with them influences of their ancestry including long-held values, beliefs, and religion. Most of them are uneducated and belong to the unskilled laborers sector, which is why most parents want their children to complete their education, that is, to equip them with life skills and a shot at a good future.
The influx of migrants in the 1920s pushed people to live in cities populated by more than 2,500 citizens. Cities such as Chicago experienced a boom in population where about 70 percent of inhabitants were first or second generation immigrants. The America of the 1920s was changing into an industrialized country as the country experienced increase in productivity in terms of industrial output. Factories, buildings, and other forms of construction attracted all kinds of workers from nearby cities and countries, thus, contributing to the increasing number of people living in Chicago. Urban living meant living in a mixed area where a wider cultural gap and influences manipulated people’s way of thinking, values, and belief system. In time, values pertaining to the importance of family decreased and attitudes about sex and promiscuity increased. The spirituality of the once religious and pious individuals soon declined as people became more focused on increasing their riches. Religion soon lost influence over the people.
Because of the changing times as influenced by the dwindling moral values and increasing number of migrants in Chicago and in America in general, the National Prohibition was introduced in 1920. The campaign to prohibit selling of alcohol became even more pronounced as various states implemented the rule as people reinforced the negative effects of alcohol on an individual’s health, the wickedness of drinking, and most importantly, the anticipation that prohibiting the sale of alcohol would help in lowering crime rate in the city.
Like other migrant families that time, the Capone siblings had to drop out of school as they had to ensure they earned money for the family. In school, Capone showed signs of being a promising student until he was kicked out for hitting a female teacher. He never came back after that incident. It was during this period when Capone joined various youth gangs who roamed the streets such as the South Brooklyn Rippers and the Five Points Junior (Rosenberg). Capone soon met Johnny Torrio, a gangland-boss who taught Capone the ins and outs of gang hood. Torrio would prove that he was the greatest influence in Capone’s life as a gangster. Torrio educated Capone on what and how it was like to be in a gang and the “importance of maintaining a respectable front, while running a racketeering business” (“Al Capone Biography”).
What changed the course of Capone’s life is his move from New York to Chicago. Although Capone met Torrio in New York, it was in Chicago when Capone helped run Torrio’s brothel. Capone was called to New York in 1919 and was a big influence in drawing enormous wealth for Torrio. When Torrio retired in 1925, Capone became the ringleader or “crime czar of Chicago, running gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging rackets and expanding his territories by the gunning down of rivals and rival gangs” (“Al Capone Biography”).
As Capone became famous, the press loved him to the point of always writing about him in newspapers. He earned titles including king of the gangsters and the crime czar, which were apt descriptions of him considering that he was the modern mafia leader that people either hated or loved, depending on whether they became recipients of his kindness or not. Because of this, Capone himself observes that he was blamed for a lot of crimes and written about in newspapers and magazines, although a lot of the information written about himself were untrue. Some write-ups were negative and against Capone and because the press cannot openly show their admiration to a criminal lest they, the journalists, be accused of condoning or espousing negative behavior. Thus, they restricted their actions and admiration by privately admiring him instead.
Despite the negative publicities he received, he took everything in positively as he considered them as part of free promotion for his businesses. Additionally, he was an enigma to a lot of the journalists who wanted to be associated with his name. Capone, on his part, basked in the attention and to ensure that the journalists will continue to write about him, he bought them expensive cigars or other gifts. The irony of it all was how everyone wanted to know more about him despite his involvement in crimes. Politicians were no exemption because foreign dignitaries approach Capone even for a short conversation. Capone continued to be an enigma to some. People were also afraid to openly criticize him, but the reality still remains that despite knowing his involvement in various crimes and use of violence against his competitors, a lot of people still considered him as helpful and their benefactor. As a leader of an organized crime syndicate, he provided jobs to about 7000 Chicagoans. His involvement in soup kitchen projects, especially during the Depression, and his efforts to actually visit the places where the poor converged in order to motivate and leave words of encouragement left a deep mark on the poor people. He brought gifts to poor children during Christmas, donated huge amounts of money to the Church, and offered huge tips to newsboys and errand boys (RHP).
Although Capone was a gangster, he opposed violence inflicted on innocent people as a result of gangster fights. He insists on footing the bill upon learning of situations where people are hurt due to gangster shootings. At a time when color segregation was widespread, Capone offered employment to blacks and supported talented black musicians. Thus, despite his involvement in gangster activities, Capone was still able to gain respect and earn the love of Chicagoans (RHP).
Apart from his innate generosity, Capone’s image was also closely associated with the Prohibition, which was a law banning the production, sale, and importation of alcoholic beverages. During this period, apart from his gangster activities, Capone was already involved in the production and trade of alcoholic beverages. With the ratification of the Prohibition, the United States went dry for a year beginning in 1920. Many people did not support the law as they did not see anything wrong in having a drink or two. For them, the ban was more of a punishment. Chicagoans were also asked about their opinions about the law and it appeared that 5:1 citizen are opposed to the ban and would rather that the law be amended or modified.
In an era when being called a businessman was a compliment, Capone was also able to establish himself as a businessman with both his legal and illegal bootlegged whiskeys. Soon, his image of a gangster was slowly being forgotten and replaced by the image of a respectable business person. This is the very same reason why Torrio took Capone under his wings as he recognized the latter’s business sense and acumen. His strong business intellect could somehow be attributed to his familial background as immigrants who had to work they way up from the underside of society. While Italians were discriminated upon as lazy, stupid, slow learners, and emotionally unstable individuals, Capone was able to prove himself otherwise (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica).
While he was not born to privileged life, in the end, he was able to buy rows of houses, build his own mansions, and earn millions of dollars. Those people who often felt discriminated against found Capone a worthy inspiration to imitate. When he became the most prominent businessman in Chicago, Capone unintentionally inspired other Italian migrants to emulate his life, he openly dissuaded those people to follow his life path. But due to his popularity, some of the poor people in Chicago, and even in greater America, found themselves joining the underworld for easy money and for employment. In time, the Irish and Italians conquered the underworld.
Both Capone and the city of Chicago benefited from each other during this period in terms of providing jobs to thousands of Chicagoans although through the means of syndicated crimes. Capone served as inspiration to thousands of immigrants who saw that the American Dream could be achieved. Expectedly, not everyone shared Capone’s experience with enthusiasm, especially the native Americans who would not accept that a non-native could achieve extreme wealth and popularity in their own land through violence, prostitution, sale of alcoholic beverages, and gambling, among others. Despite efforts to contain the underworld, Chicago still struggled because of the widespread presence of warring or rival gangs (TEEB). Additionally, a number of politicians and policemen were under his payroll, making it more difficult to end the reign of Capone. Since the government was having difficulties in restraining Capone, the citizenry began to stand up against the mob boss of Chicago. These are the people who saw Capone as evil personified that threatened the very traditions and beliefs of America. To this day, people are still divided when it comes to identifying and characterizing Al Capone considering all the help and generosity he has extended to Chicagoans at a time when cultural clashes, political corruption, and economic hardship were existent. Some are positive, most are negative insights. But in the end, it cannot be denied that Al Capone has greatly shaped, marked, and placed Chicago to where it is now in American history.
“Al Capone Biography.” N.d. Web. 19 April 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/al-capone-9237536>.
RHP. “Al Capone’s Soup Kitchen during the Great Depression, Chicago, 1931.” Rare Historical Photos. 2014. Web. 20 April 2015. <http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/al-capones-soup-kitchen-great-depression-chicago-1931/>.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Al Capone – A Biography of the Iconic American Gangster.” About.com. n.d. Web. 19 April 2015. <http://history1900s.about.com/od/people/a/Al-Capone.htm>.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica [TEEB]. “Al Capone – American Gangster.” 2014. Web. 20 April 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/94065/Al-Capone>.