Interview with Al Capone
Interview with Al Capone – Public Enemy #1
You may have noticed that I have been using my phenomenal, supernatural interviewing skills to communicate with infamous dead people who could be viewed as “celebrity criminals” – Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Dracula (Vlad the Impaler), Cleopatra, Bonnie and Clyde, Jack the Ripper. It is more than morbid curiosity. It is a desire to learn more about their behavioral motivations and extraordinary lifestyles. Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? It IS morbid curiosity
Now I would like to introduce you to the celebrity criminal who led a crime syndicate during the Prohibition era – the man who made Chicago and Cicero, Illinois famous in the 1920s and 30s – “Scarface Al” Capone.
me – I appreciate your taking the time to give this interview, Mr. Capone.
Al Capone – No problem. I don’t do much else these days besides push-ups – pushing up daisies. Get it? Push ups? Pushing up daisies?
And forget the “Mr. Capone.” Just call me Al. But lose the “Scarface.”
me – Whatever you say, Al. Thank you. Would you tell us a little about your early background?
Early Years in Brooklyn
Al – Yeah. my father, Gabriele Capone came to America in 1894 with my mother, Teresina, from Castellammare di Stabia, on the bay of Naples, Italy. They settled in Brooklyn, NY where I was born in 1899. My father had a barbershop. My mother had babies. I had six brothers and two sisters. My real name is Alphonse Gabriel Capone.
me – I understand you were a good student in grade school, Al.
Al – Yeah, I had all ‘Bs’ until I got to the sixth grade. Then I didn’t do so well in school; I began to have a lot of outside interests, if you know what I mean. When I was 14, the teacher hit me so I hit her back – hard. I was expelled and never went back.
me – Were your parents upset?
Al – Naw, many parents in those days expected their kids to leave school as soon as they were old enough to earn a living. I had some really boring jobs: in a candy store (although there were fringe benefits); in a bowling alley; as a paper cutter, and at a munitions factory – that could have been an omen of my future.
me – Do you have any special talents?
Al –I’m a pretty good fighter and I’ve always been a great dancer. And I was a good son. I went home every night to my family.
me – I heard from your gang of siblings, Al, that you always had a big heart. Speaking of gangs, were you ever a gang member?
Al – As a kid, I belonged to a small-time street gang called The Junior Forty Thieves. Then we became The Bowery Boys. My closest friends called me “Snorky.” Keep that to yourself.
Finally as a teen, I became a member of the notorious Five Points Gang. The leader was Johnny Torrio, an already famous tough gangster. He was seventeen years older but took a liking to me and became my friend and mentor. Another member was Lucky Luciano. You may have heard of him.
When I was 18, I began working as a waiter, and then a bartender and bouncer for a big racketeer named Frankie Yale in a classy dance hall/saloon in Coney Island. It was called the Harvard Inn. The name was the classy part. Yale was the owner of the Harvard – get it?
Fascinating Al Capone Books
Me – Got it. Is that where you got your, er, your . . .
Al – Yeah, I got the scars that gave me the nickname, “Scarface.” I inadvertently insulted a female customer and provoked a fight with her brother, Frank Gallucio.
Me – What did you do that upset her brother so?
Al – This girl was absolutely beautiful. I just had to tell her that. I leaned over her and all I said was, maybe a little too loudly, “Honey, you have a nice ass and I mean that as a compliment.”
Her brother took that as an insult and punched me. I flew into a rage and he took out a knife to defend himself and cut the left side of my face – three deep long slashes.
Frankie Yale made me apologize and funny thing, later on I hired Gallucio, the brother, as a bodyguard. He was good with a knife. (Laughs) I did learn something from this though – to hold my temper . . . sometimes.
Note: When photographed later in life, Capone hid the scarred left side of his face and would often misrepresent his injuries as war wounds.
me – How did you meet your future wife, Al?
Al – When I was nineteen I met the love of my life, a very pretty, blond Irish girl who lived in the neighborhood, Mae Josephine Coughlin. Mae was two years older than me; I always had a thing for older women. We had a baby boy and were married the same month – December 1918.
We named the kid Albert Francis Capone. His nickname was Sonny. Know who his godfather was? My best friend, the racketeer, Johnny Torrio.
Note: Sonny seemed okay at birth but he was a victim of congenital syphilis. Years later, Al confessed to doctors that he had been infected before he was married but believed the infection was cured.
Bye Bye Brooklyn
me – How did you happen to move from Brooklyn to Chicago, Al?
Al – In 1920, Johnny Torrio invited me to join him in Chicago. I was happy to leave Brooklyn – I was a suspect in two murders there even though I was innocent of course.
me – Of course.
Al – Do you wanna know the whole story how I came to hook up with Johnny in Chi?
me – Does a bear use Charmin tissue in the woods? Of course.
Al – Well, the “capo di capos” (boss) in Chicago was a guy named “Big Jim” Colosimo. Together with his wife, Victoria Moresco, a very successful madam, their brothels were earning about $50,000 a month, a large amount of money in the 1920s.
Big Jim also owned the Colosimo Cafe, one of the most popular nightclubs in the city. Nobody cared that he was a pimp. He threw extravagant parties for the rich and famous in Chicago society. Enrico Caruso, the famous tenor, was a regular. So was the distinguished lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Big Jim was a large man – you wouldn’t call him fat to his face – who wore diamond-studded belts and buckles and huge diamond rings on every one of his fingers.
As his flesh trade business (prostitution) grew, Big Jim brought in Johnny Torrio from Brooklyn to operate and enlarge the family operations. Johnny was a discreet guy who knew how to manage the business without attracting attention – just the opposite of Big Jim. He was a serious businessman who didn’t smoke, drink, swear or cheat on his wife, Ann.
me – What were your responsibilities, Al, when you joined Torrio in Chicago?
Al – Johnny needed me to help him take advantage of all the new rackets that sprung up when the Prohibition Amendment was enacted – the illegal brewing, distilling and distribution of liquor and beer. We either manufactured booze or stole it and sold it at tremendous profit. We had an endless supply of customers. There was big money to be made by bootlegging (smuggling alcohol). Warren Buffet would have called it a growth industry.
Most people don’t know that we also had many interests in businesses that were legit – like the cleaning and dyeing field. I was good at “shmoosing” – you know, cultivating alliances with public officials and labor unions – like Obumma.
me – You mean Obama?
Al – Yeah. We had a real crime syndicate going with money rolling in from bootlegging and other illegal activities like prostitution. In those days I had the pleasure of "interviewing" all the new prostitutes for the club myself.
For the first time, I was able to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle I had always dreamed of: expensive custom-made suits, diamond jewelry, hand-rolled cigars, gourmet food and drink – I preferred Templeton Rye imported from Iowa – and beautiful female companionship. I attracted media attention to which my favorite response was, "I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want."
But I’m the one who started some charitable stuff, too using some of our profits. I established the first soup kitchens in Chicago offering food to the homeless and people who had lost their jobs because of the Depression. Some guys used to stand on street corners selling apples to make a buck. We called them "Apple Annies." We served three free meals a day to those folks. This made me very visible and some people saw me as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Fascinating Al Capone Films
Bye Bye Big Jim
me – What happened to Big Jim Colosimo?
Al – Well, you remember Frankie Yale, the violent gangster who took me under his wing and taught me to use strong-arm tactics to succeed?
Frankie decided to take over Colosimo’s huge empire. On May 11, 1920, Big Jim was assassinated in his own nightclub. Frankie was arrested when he went back to New York but a waiter, the only witness, refused to testify against him. No surprise, yeah? So legal proceedings against him had to be dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Funny thing. Big Jim’s secretary, Frank Camilla, described the fleeing killer as a heavyset man with scars on the left side of his face. I know what you’re thinking but I was never arrested.
Frankie’s takeover attempt failed and Johnny Torrio kept his hold on the multimillion dollar business he had built for Big Jim. We oversaw literally thousands of whorehouses, speakeasies (bars and clubs where liquor was sold), and gambling parlors. I was Frankie’s strong right arm.
“When I sell liquor, it's called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it's called hospitality.” – Al Capone
Note: Capone purchased a modest house at 7244 South Prairie Avenue in the Park Manor neighborhood on the city's south side in 1923 for the magnificent sum of $5,500.
Neighbors believed that Al was a respectable dealer in second-hand furniture.
Bye Bye Johnny
me - What happened to Johnny Torrio?
Al – Johnny wasn’t killed but he was shot four times and seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in 1925 by the North Side Gang, and decided to retire (for the sake of his health) and return to Italy. I became the boss of the Capone Outfit. I have to admit I had already acquired a certain reputation for ruthlessness in Chicago. Rival gangs were generally eliminated and the suburb of Cicero practically belonged to us. We put many of our operations there because we were able to buy just about the entire city government and police department.
The Capone Outfit
me – I read, Al, that the mob, I mean “outfit” as you called it, was taking in about $100 million a year. Is that accurate?
Al – Yeah, gambling and prostitution brought in lots of dough but the biggest moneymaker was the sale of liquor. Prohibition was the greatest thing that ever happened for us.
“I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand.” – Al Capone
me – Who was your biggest rival when you took over?
Al – The North Side Gang which tried to assassinate Johnny Torrio wanted to control all of Chicago. Dion O’Bannion, their leader, was assassinated in 1924 and Bugs Moran took over. Do you know how he got that name?
me – No. How?
Al – He called himself George Clarence Moran but he was Polish and his real name was Adelard Cunin. He had a fierce temper – worse than me – and his friends (?) started calling him. “Bugs,” which was gang slang for completely crazy. Bugs was the first guy who drove by a rival gang’s headquarters and had his men spray it with gunfire. He invented the drive-by shooting.
And I heard that one time he ordered a suit from a tailor shop and when he came to pick it up and was told the cost, he became so enraged he broke the tailor’s arms and legs.
me – That sounds a little drastic.
Al – Yeah. I think he only broke the tailor’s arms.
Saint Valentine’s Day massacre
me – Tell me about the famous Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.
Al – More than once my car was riddled with bullets. One time the North Side gang used submachine guns and shotguns to shoot up my restaurant in the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero in broad daylight while I was having lunch inside. I put bullet-proof glass and run-while-flat tires on my car – even a police siren. Every attempt on my life by Bugs Moran left me shaken. The guy was really crazy. He refused to negotiate.
Bugs kept hijacking our booze trucks and his gang tried several times to kill my top enforcer, Jake McGurn. I had to put fifteen armed bodyguards around the clock at my headquarters at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago.
me – I understand. But what about the massacre?
Al - In 1928, I had bought a 14-room mansion retreat on Palm Island, an island in Biscayne Bay between Miami and Miami Beach, Florida. I was there when the massacre took place on February 14, 1929. So what I am telling you is all hearsay. You understand?
me – Yes, I understand. Hearsay!
Al – Okay. The way I heard it, Jake “Machine-Gun” McGurn was in charge of the whole operation to assassinate Bugs Moran. He put together a squad of four trusted henchmen (like the guys in the Jack the Ripper case). He paid a bootlegger to lure Moran and his gang to a garage to buy some whiskey at a very good price.
The delivery of the booze was to be made at 10:30 a.m. on Valentine’s Day. McGurn’s four killers were wearing stolen police uniforms as though they were coppers staging a raid. McGurn wanted to have an airtight alibi so he checked into a hotel with his girlfriend.
The assassination squad in their police uniforms drove to the garage in a stolen police car. Seven men were there. The killers, who looked like genuine policemen, took away the gang’s guns, lined them up against a wall and opened fire with two machine guns, a sawed-off shotgun and a .45. Then they drove away. Easy as pie.
It was a nifty plan if I have to say so myself. The only problem was that Bugs Moran was late for the meeting and when he saw the police car pull up, he took off, not wanting to be caught in what he thought was a raid.
me – That was a nifty plan but as the poet, Robert Burns wrote, “… the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley”. He meant “often go wrong.”
Al – Yeah, you ain't just whistling "Dixie". Even though I was in Florida and McGurn had an airtight alibi, everyone in Chicago knew who was responsible. McGurn even married his girlfriend, Louise Rolfe, so she couldn’t testify against her new husband. No one was ever charged with those seven killings.
Note: Photos of the notorious massacre outraged the public and greatly harmed Capone since federal law enforcement now began to focus more closely on investigating his criminal activities.
Beginning of the End
me – What happened next?
Al – That negative publicity about the massacre never really died down. Get it? Massacre? Died down? J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. named me “Public Enemy Number One.” I was humiliated and insulted. I was mad as hell. But I had become a national celebrity and writers all over the U.S. were writing articles and books about me and all the gangland murders.
The federal government was determined to put me in jail. They planned a two-prong approach to get evidence for both Prohibition violations and income tax evasion. Eliot Ness was the agent in charge. He had all the phones tapped and he and his “untouchable” agents kept shutting down our breweries.
In 1931, I was indicted for income tax evasion and some violations of the Volstead (Prohibition) Act.
me – Were you worried you would have to serve time in prison?
Al – Nah. The fix was in and the jurors were all taken care of. But that %@%&$#+ Ness discovered my plan and told the judge. My jury pool was then switched with one from another case. Some other lucky sucker got my paid-off jurors and I got his.
me – That was tough luck, Al.
Al – You can say that again. On November 24, 1931, I was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison, fined $50,000 and charged $7,692 for court costs, in addition to $215,000 plus interest due on back taxes. I went from Robin Hood to Public Enemy #1 in just a few years.
They put me in the Cook County, Illinois jail while I was waiting for the results of my appeals. Saw a lot of my old buddies there. When my appeals were denied, I was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta which was a tough federal prison.
me – Who was running the store, your criminal syndicate, while you were gone?
Al – I put three guys in charge: my brother Ralph “Bottles” Capone, my long-time buddy, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, and my main man, Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. All three were also facing tax evasion charges.
Robert De Niro as Capone 1987
me - Did you get special privileges while you were in the Atlanta penitentiary?
Al - Yeah, the newspapers said that I was living “like a king.” That ain’t true. But I was living like a prince! (Laughs)
I had more socks, underwear, and clean sheets than any other prisoner in the joint. And I had my own soft bed and furniture. I kept several thousand dollars in the handle of my tennis racket to pay for all the extras. But that all ended in August 1934 when I was transferred to Alcatraz.
me – I have heard that Alcatraz had very tight security and a rigid warden. Is that true?
Al – Yeah, It was no picnic. I had very little contact with the outside world. All letters were censored; no newspapers were allowed; magazines had to be more than seven months old. Only immediate family could visit, two of them each month, and they had to write the warden for permission each time.
And to make matters even worse, Prohibition had been repealed in December 1933 and there went the “speakos” (speakeasies) business.
me – Was your eleven-year prison sentence reduced?
Al – Yeah – for good behavior. Ain’t that a laugh? I was released on November 16, 1939 after serving seven years, six months and fifteen days – but who’s counting?
I had paid all the fines and back taxes but there was one very large problem.
me – What was the problem, Al?
Al – My health had deteriorated due to the syphilis I caught when I was young. I became easily confused and disoriented. I couldn’t go back to running the crime syndicate in Chicago and had to retire at my Florida estate. The docs told my wife I had the mental capacity of a 12-year old child.
Note: Al Capone did not return publicly to Chicago and lived quietly in his Palm Island, Florida home with his wife, Mae, until he died from cardiac arrest on January 25, 1947. He was 48 years old.
“This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you will, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.: - Al Capone
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Note: A week before Al died, Andrew Volstead, author of the Volstead Act that ushered in Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, died at the age of 87.
Note: Bugs Moran died of lung cancer on February 25, 1957. He was estimated to be worth about $100 at his death, and received a pauper's burial in a prison cemetery.
Note: Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn who orchestrated the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was murdered on February 17, 1936, seven years and one day after the massacre. A valentine was left in the bowling alley where he was murdered.
© Copyright BJ Rakow 2011. All rights reserved.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1994 ... Kobler, John. Capone. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1971 ... Schoenberg, Robert L. Mr. Capone. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1992
Seven Best of 14 "Capone" Films
The George Raft Story
St. Valentine's Day Massacre
Robert De Niro
The Revenge of Al Capone
The Lost Capone
If you like to watch television programs about these good old bad days, watch "Boardwalk Empire" and especially, Stephen Graham, the British actor, as a younger Capone. Thanks, Docmo, for reminding me.