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Quite a lot has been written and said about Al Capone in newspaper and magazine articles, books, and movies that is completely false. One of the most common fictions is that like many gangsters of that era, he was born in Italy. Absolutely not true. This amazing crime czar was strictly domestic -- taking the feudal Italian criminal society and fashioning it into a modern American criminal enterprise.

Certainly many Italian immigrants, like immigrants of all nationalities, frequently came to the New World with very few assets. Many of them were peasants escaping the lack of opportunity in rural Italy. When they came to the large American port cities they often ended up as laborers because of the inability to speak and write English and lack of professional skills. This was not the case with Al Capone's family.

Gabriele Capone (not Caponi as often claimed) was one of 43,000 Italians who arrived in the U.S. in 1894. He was a barber by trade and could read and write his native language. He was from the village of Castellmarre di Stabia, sixteen miles south of Naples.

Gabriele, who was thirty years old, brought with him his pregnant twenty-seven-year-old wife Teresina (called Teresa), his two-year-old son Vincenzo and his infant son Raffaele. Unlike many Italian immigrants he did not owe anyone for his passage over. His plan was to do whatever work was necessary until he could open his own barber shop.

Along with thousands of other Italians, the Capone family moved to Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a stark beginning in the New World. 95 Navy Street was a cold-water tenement flat that had no indoor toilet or furnishings. The neighborhood was virtually a slum, given its proximity to the noisy Navy Yard, its many sailors and the vices that sailors seek when they're off duty.

Gabriele's ability to read and write allowed him to get a job in a grocery store until he was able to open his barber shop. Teresina, in spite of her duties as a mother of a growing brood of boys, took in sewing piecework to add to the family coffers. Her third child, Salvatore Capone was born in 1895. Her fourth son and the first to be born and conceived in the New World was born January 17, 1899. His name was Alphonse Capone.

What kind of people were these two, giving birth to one of the world's most notorious criminals? Did they pass on to him some virulent genetic strain of violence? Some subtly mutated chromosomes? Was Al Capone abused as a child? Did he spend his tender years in the company of murderers and thieves?

Definitely not. The Capones were a quiet, conventional family. Laurence Bergreen in his excellent biography Capone: The Man and the Era says "The mother...kept to herself. Her husband, Don Gabriele, made more of an impression, since he was, in the words of one family friend, 'tall and handsome -- very good-looking.' Like his wife, he was subdued, even when it came to discipline. He never hit the kids. He used to talk to them. He used to preach to them, and they listened to their father.

"...nothing about the Capone family was inherently disturbed, violent, or dishonest. The children and the parents were close; there was no apparent mental disability, no traumatic event that sent the boys hurtling into a life of crime. They did not display sociopathic or psychotic personalities; they were not crazy. Nor did they inherit a predilection for a criminal career or belong to a criminal society... They were a law-abiding, unremarkable Italian-American family with conventional patterns of behavior and frustrations; they displayed no special genius for crime, or anything else, for that matter."

In May of 1906, Gabriele became an American citizen. Within the family, his children would be always known by their Italian names, but in the outside world, the boys would be known by the American names they adopted. Vincenzo became James; Raffaele became Ralph; Salvatore became Frank; Alphonse became Al. Later children were Amadeo Ermino (later John and nicknamed Mimi), Umberto (later Albert John), Matthew Nicholas, Rose and Malfalda.

Shortly after Al was born, Gabriele moved the family to better lodgings in an apartment over his barber shop at 69 Park Avenue in Brooklyn (not to be confused with the posh Park Avenue of Manhattan). This move would expose Al to cultural influences well beyond what was supplied by the Italian immigrant community. Most of the people living around Park Avenue were Irish, although Germans, Swedes and Chinese were also in the neighborhood.

Moving into a broader ethnic universe allowed Al to escape the insularity of the solidly Italian neighborhood. There is no question that this exposure would help him in his future role as the head of a criminal empire.

block from Al's home was the parish church, St Michael's, where the Reverend Garofalo baptized him several months after his birth. John Kobler captures the atmosphere of the neighborhood in The Life and World of Al Capone:

"Life in the sector where Al lived his first ten years was harsh, but never drab, never stagnant. Hordes of ragged children gave the streets an explosive vitality as they played stickball, dodged traffic, brawled and bawled, while their mothers, dark heavy-thighed women, bustled to and fro balancing on their heads baskets laden with supplies for the day's meals. Fruit and vegetable carts, standing wheel to wheel, made a bright, fragrant clutter along the curb. The fire escapes that formed an iron lacework across the faces of the squat tenements shook and shuddered as the El trains roared by close behind on Myrtle Avenue."

At the age of five in 1904, he went to Public School 7 on Adams Street. Educational prospects for Italian children were very poor. The school system was deeply prejudiced against them and did little to encourage any interest in higher education, while the immigrant parents expected their children to leave school as soon as they were old enough to work.

Bergreen describes the poor learning conditions for the children of Italian immigrants:

"Schools such as Capone's P.S. 7 offered nothing in the way of assistance to children from Italian backgrounds to enter the mainstream of American life; they were rigid, dogmatic, strict institutions, where physical force often prevailed over reason in maintaining discipline. The teachers -- usually female, Irish Catholic, and trained by nuns -- were extremely young. A sixteen-year-old, earning $600 a year, would often teach boys and girls only a few years younger than she...Fistfights between students and teachers were common, even between male students and female teachers...Al Capone found school a place of constant discipline relieved by sudden outbreaks of violence..."

Al did quite well in school until the sixth grade when his steady record of B's deteriorated rapidly. At fourteen, he lost his temper at the teacher, she hit him and he hit her back. He was expelled and never went to school again.

About this time, his family moved from their house on Navy Street to 21 Garfield Place. This move would have a lasting impact on Al because in this new neighborhood he would meet the people who would have the most influence on his future: his wife Mae and the gangster Johnny Torrio.

A few blocks away from the Capone house on Garfield Place was a small unobtrusive building that was the headquarters of one of the most successful gangsters on the East Coast. Johnny Torrio was a new breed of gangster, a pioneer in the development of a modern criminal enterprise. Torrio's administrative and organizational talents transformed crude racketeering into a kind of corporate structure, allowing his businesses to expand as opportunities emerged. From Torrio, a young Capone learned invaluable lessons that were the foundation of the criminal empire he built later in Chicago.

Torrio was physically small, learning early in life on the street that brains, ingenuity and the ability to make alliances were critical to survival. Torrio was a gentleman gangster who was very visible as a numbers racketeer and almost invisible as a keeper of whores and brothels.
He was a role model for many boys in the community. Capone, like many other boys his age, earned pocket money by running errands for Johnny Torrio. Over time, Torrio came to trust the young Capone and gave him more to do. Meantime, young Al learned by observing the wealthy successful respected racketeer and the people in his organization. Bergreen explains that Al learned from Torrio "the importance of leading an outwardly respectable life, to segregate his career from his home life, as if maintaining a peaceful, conventional domestic setting somehow excused or legitimized the venality of working in the rackets. It was a form of hypocrisy that was second nature to Johnny Torrio and that he taught Capone to honor." In 1909, Torrio moved to Chicago and young Al fell under other influences.

Kids growing up in immigrant Brooklyn ran in gangs -- Italian gangs, Jewish gangs and Irish gangs. They were not the vicious urban street gangs of today, but rather groups of territorial neighborhood boys who hung out together. Capone was a tough, scrappy kid and belonged to the South Brooklyn Rippers and then later to the Forty Thieves Juniors and the Five Point Juniors. As John Kobler wrote, "the street gang was escape. The street gang was freedom. The street gang offered outlets for stifled young energies. The agencies that might have kept boys off the street, the schools and churches, lacked the means to do so. Few slum schools had a gym or playground or any kind of after-class recreation program...They formed their own street society, independent of the adult world and antagonistic to it. Led by some older, forceful boy, they pursued the thrills of shared adventure, of horseplay, exploration, gambling, pilfering, vandalism, sneaking a smoke or alcohol, secret ritual, smut sessions, fighting rival gangs."

Despite Al's relationship with the street gangs and Johnny Torrio, there was no indication that Al would choose someday to lead a life of crime. He still lived at home and did what he as expected to do when he quit school: go to work and help support the family. The family was actually doing quite well under Gabriele's guidance. He now owned his own barbershop. Teresa continued to produce children --several boys and then two girls, one of whom died in infancy. The only significant disruption in Al's tranquil family life was in 1908 when his oldest brother Vincenzo (James) left the family and went out west.

At this point in his life, nobody would ever have believed that Al would go on to be the criminal czar that he ultimately became. For approximately six years he worked faithfully at exceptionally boring jobs, first at a munitions factory and then as a paper cutter. He was a good boy, well behaved and sociable. Bergreen writes, "You didn't hear stories about Al Capone practicing with guns; you heard that he went home each night to his mother. Al was something of a nonentity, affable, soft of speech and even mediocre in everything but dancing."


How did the soft-spoken dutiful Al Capone metamorphose into the spectacularly successful and violent super gangster? One clear catalyst was the menacing presence of Frankie Yale. Originally from Calabria, Francesco Ioele (called "Yale") was a both feared and respected. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the peace-loving, "respectable" Johnny Torrio, Frankie Yale built his turf on muscle and aggression. Yale opened a bar on Coney Island called the Harvard Inn and hired, at the recommendation of Johnny Torrio, the eighteen-year-old Al Capone to be his bartender.

Capone's job at the Harvard Inn was to be the bartender and bouncer and, when necessary, to wait on tables.  In his first year, Capone became popular with his boss and the customers.  Then his luck turned suddenly when he waited on the table of a young couple.  The girl was beautiful and the young Capone was entranced.  He leaned over her and said, "Honey, you have a nice ass and I mean that as a compliment."

The man with her was her brother Frank Gallucio.  He jumped to his feet and punched the man who insulted his sister.  Capone flew into a rage and Gallucio pulled out a knife to defend himself.  He cut Capone's face three times before he grabbed his sister and ran out of the place.  While the wounds healed well, the long ugly scars would haunt him forever.

Capone's insult caused a bit of an uproar.  Gallucio went to Lucky Luciano with his grievance and Luciano went to Frankie Yale.  When it came to Yale's attention, all four men came together and dispensed justice.  Capone was forced to apologize to Gallucio.   Capone learned something from the experience --to restrain his temper when it was necessary.

Yale took Capone under his wing and impressed upon the younger man how business can be built up through brutality.  Yale was resourceful and violent man who prospered by strong-arm tactics.  Schoenberg characterized  Yale as specializing in extortion; loansharking, exacting tribute from pimps and bookmakers, and offering "protection" to local businesses.  "Yale needed a stable of strongarms who could not only break arms and heads but would kill."

As powerful as Yale's influence would be on Capone's eventual development, other influences had a very moderating effect on Al.  At the age of nineteen, he met a pretty blond Irish girl named Mae Coughlin, who was two years older than he was.  Her family was comfortable and solidly middle class.   It's hard to imagine that Mae's family embraced her relationship with Capone and it was not until after their baby was born that they married.

Albert Francis Capone was born December 4, 1918.  His godfather was Johnny Torrio.  While Sonny, as he was known all his life, seemed okay at birth, he was in fact a victim of congenital syphilis.  Years later, Al confessed to doctors that he had been infected before he was married, but he believed that the infection had gone away.

With a beautiful respectable wife and a baby to support, Al focused on a legitimate career.  He stopped working for Frankie Yale and moved to Baltimore where he worked as capable bookkeeper for Peter Aiello's construction firm.  Al did very well.   He was smart, had a good head for figures and was very reliable.

Quite suddenly, Al did another about face when his father died November 14, 1920, of heart disease at the age of fifty-five.  Bergreen saw the event as marking the end of Capone's legitimate career.  "It is possible that the sudden absence of parental authority made the young Capone feel free to abandon his bookkeeping job and his carefully acquired aura of respectability....

He resumed his relationship with Johnny Torrio, who had during the intervening years expanded his racketeering empire with the quiet cunning of a visionary.  Torrio had abandoned the hotly contested streets of Brookyn for the comparatively open spaces of Chicago.  The opportunities were enormous: gambling, brothels, and...illegal alcohol."

Torrio beckoned from Chicago and early in 1921 Al accepted.  Armed with his knowledge of business and his experience with the brutal Frankie Yale, Capone had a good resume for a career in crime.

Chicago was a perfect place to build a criminal empire. It was a rowdy, pugnacious, hard-drinking town that was open to anyone with enough money to buy it. In the words of one of her top journalists, "She was vibrant and violent, stimulating and ruthless, intolerant of smugness, impatient with those either physically or intellectually timid." It was a bloody and brutal city where tens of millions of cows, hogs and sheep were slaughtered by men wading through blood on the killing floor. It was strictly a commercial town with no appetite for snobbery or "old money."

Political corruption was a tradition in that vast prairie city, creating an atmosphere of two-fisted lawlessness in which crime flourished. The city became known for its wealth and sexual promiscuity. When Al Capone came to the city in 1920, the flesh trade was becoming the province of organized crime. The kingpin of this business was "Big Jim" Colosimo along with his wife and partner, Victoria Moresco, a highly successful madam. Together their brothels were earning an estimated $50,000 per month.

Big Jim owned the Colosimo Cafe, one of the most popular nightclubs in the city. Nobody cared that he was a pimp. It never stopped him from hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Enrico Caruso was a regular, as well as the distinguished lawyer Clarence Darrow. Big Jim, with huge diamonds glittering on every one of his fat fingers and diamond-studded belts and buckles, was a true product a Chicago society --handsome, generous, gaudy, larger than life.

Big Jim owned the Colosimo Cafe, one of the most popular nightclubs in the city. Nobody cared that he was a pimp. It never stopped him from hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Enrico Caruso was a regular, as well as the distinguished lawyer Clarence Darrow. Big Jim, with huge diamonds glittering on every one of his fat fingers and diamond-studded belts and buckles, was a true product a Chicago society --handsome, generous, gaudy, larger than life.

As his family vice business grew, Big Jim brought in the discreet Johnny Torrio from Brooklyn to operate and grow their empire. It was the best decision he could have made because Torrio expanded their business without attracting attention. Torrio was a serious businessman with no interest in hanky-panky. In stark contrast to Big Jim, Torrio didn't drink, smoke, swear or cheat on his devoted wife Ann.


The downfall of Big Jim was Dale Winter, a pretty young singer who stole his heart. He foolishly divorced Victoria and married the young singer immediately afterward. Word of Colosimo's folly got back to Brooklyn where Frankie Yale took notice of opportunity and decided to muscle in on Colosimo's huge empire. On May 11, 1920, Yale assassinated Big Jim in his nightclub.

Bergreen describes the first of Chicago's great gangster funerals: "the last rites became a gaudy demonstration more appropriate to...a powerful political figure or popular entertainer...an event that priests and police captains alike attended to pay their last respects to the sort of man they were supposed to condemn. Colosimo was universally recognized as Chicago's premier pimp, yet his honorary pallbearers included three judges, a congressman, an assistant state attorney, and no less than nine Chicago aldermen."

Eventually the police figured out who the murderer was and they arrested him in New York. However, the only witness to the murder was a waiter, who refused to testify against Frankie Yale. While Yale was able to avoid prosecution, his attempt to take over Colosimo's empire failed. Torrio was able to maintain his grip on the vast multimillion-dollar-a-year business he had built for Big Jim. With a big boost to business from Prohibition, Torrio oversaw thousands of whorehouses, gambling joints and speakeasies.

It was into this vast criminal enterprise that Torrio brought twenty-two-year-old Al Capone from his honest bookkeeping job in Baltimore. The money and opportunity for advancement was an order of magnitude greater, but the disgrace of managing brothels bothered Al. It was 1921 and Capone had turned his back on respectability forever. With his business acumen, soon Al became Torrio's partner instead of his employee. Al took over as manager of the Four Deuces, Torrio's headquarters in the Levee area. The Four Deuces was a speakeasy, gambling joint and whorehouse all in one. Soon his brother Ralph would come to join him in Torrio's business.

At this time, Al became associated with a man that would be his friend for life, Jack Guzik. Incredibly enough, Guzik's large Jewish Orthodox family made their living through prostitution. Closer in lifestyle to Torrio, Guzik was a devoted family man who acted like an older brother to Al. Once again, Capone showed his ability to step outside the Italian community as he had in marrying his Irish wife. Now his closest friend was Jewish. Capone's lack of prejudice and ability to create alliances outside of the Italian gangster community would be invaluable in creating his destiny
Al was doing quite well financially and bought a house for his family in a respectable neighborhood. To this modest home at 7244 Prairie Avenue, he brought not only Mae and Sonny, but his mother and other siblings. Al posed to his neighbors as a dealer in second-hand furniture and went out of his way to maintain a facade of respectability. Bergreen was convinced that the house on Prairie Avenue, Mae and Sonny represented Capone's striving for redemption. "Although he preyed on other people's weaknesses for a living, his reputation and standing in the community mattered deeply to him. The deeper he went into racketeering and all its associated sins, the more he idealized his family, as though they, in their innocence, were living proof that he was not the monster that the newspapers later insisted he was."
For several years after Capone arrived in Chicago, things were comparatively quiet among the various gangs that had carved up Chicago's rackets. Nonetheless, reform-minded William E. Dever succeeded the spectacularly corrupt Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson. With city government nominally in the hands of an earnest reformer, the daily process of payoffs and corruption became more complicated. Torrio and Capone decided to put many operations out of the city into the suburb of Cicero, where they could purchase the entire city government and police department.
Shortly after opening up a brothel in Cicero, Torrio took his elderly mother back to live in Italy, leaving Capone in charge of the business in Cicero. Capone made it clear that he wanted an all-out conquest of the town. He installed his older brother Frank (Salvatore), a handsome and respectable-looking man of twenty-nine, as the front man with the Cicero city government. Ralph was tasked with opening up a working-class brothel called the Stockade for Cicero's heavily blue-collar population. Al focused on gambling and took an interest in a new gambling joint called the Ship. He also took control of the Hawthorne Race Track.

For the most part, the Capone conquest of Cicero was unopposed, with the exception of Robert St. John, the crusading young journalist at the Cicero Tribune. Every issue contained an expose on the Capone rackets in the city. The editorials were effective enough to threaten Capone-backed candidates in the 1924 primary election.

On election day, things got ugly as Capone's forces kidnapped opponents' election workers and threatened voters with violence. As reports of the violence spread, the Chicago chief of police rounded up seventy nine cops and provided them with shotguns. The cops, dressed in plain clothes, rode in unmarked cars to Cicero under the guise of protecting workers at the Western Electric plant there.

Frank Capone, who had just finished negotiating a lease, was walking down the street when the convoy of Chicago policemen approached him. Someone recognized him and the cars emptied out in front of him. In seconds, Frank's body was riddled with bullets. Technically, the police called it self defense, since Frank, seeing the police coming at him with guns drawn, had drawn his own revolver.

Al was enraged and escalated the violence by kidnapping officials and stealing ballot boxes. One official was murdered. When it was all over, Capone had won his victory for Cicero, but at a price that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Capone threw his brother a funeral unmatched in opulence. The flowers alone, provided by racketeer florist Dion O'Banion, cost $20,000. Lavish though it was, Frank's funeral was different than Big Jim Colosimo's. Bergreen says that "the perfume of crushed blossoms, however sweet, did little to soothe the raw and sullen mood. There had been a festive air about "Big Jim's funeral, but Frank Capone's youth ensured that the tone of this last rites was entirely tragic; instead of singing, there was wailing...Chicago Police Chief Collins dispatched the same cops who had shot Frank to death to observe his funeral. Capone restrained himself from mounting a full-scale war against the Chicago Police Department."

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