Capone's temper stayed under control for about five weeks. But then, Joe Howard, a small-time thug, assaulted Capone's friend Jack Guzik when Guzik turned him down for a loan. Guzik told Capone and Capone tracked Howard down in a bar. Howard had the poor judgment to call Capone a dago pimp and Capone shot Howard dead.
William H. McSwiggin, called "the hanging prosecutor," decided to get Capone, but in spite of his diligence he wasn't able to win a conviction, mostly because eyewitnesses suddenly developed faulty memories. Capone got away with murder, but the publicity surrounding the case gave him a notoriety that he never had before. He had broken out of the Torrio model of discreet anonymity once and for all.
At the age of twenty five after only four years in Chicago, Capone was a force to be reckoned with. Wealthy, powerful, master of the city of Cicero, he became a target for lawmen and rival gangsters alike. He was keenly aware that the next lavish gangster funeral he attended could be his own. The fragile peace that Torrio had constructed with other gangs was blown apart by Prohibition. Gangland murders were reaching epidemic proportions.
While Capone's name was often linked with these murders, the fact was that there were many other gangsters responsible that Capone and Torrio had tried to keep in line. One flamboyant example was Dion O'Banion who had a burgeoning bootlegging and florist business. Schoenberg describes him as having a perennial-boy likability. Dion "never acted tough. His habit of calling even enemies 'swell fellow' mirrored an ingrained cheeriness and courtesy. He chronically beamed at the world; it amounted to a fixed grin, belied only by unblinkingly cold blue eyes. He was an indefatigable handshaker and backslapper, though never at the same time: at least one hand stayed free to go for one of the three gun pockets tailored into his clothes."
O'Banion was known for bizarre behavior which included gunning down a man in front of crowds of people for the flimsiest of reasons and then killing a man after meeting him at Capone's Four Deuces, which dragged Capone into a murder investigation needlessly. There was a growing sense of realization that something was going to have to be done about Dion O'Banion's irresponsible and childishly impulsive behavior.
The worst problem was the antagonism between two Torrio-Capone allies --Dion and the Genna brothers, who were close friends of Torrio. The dispute arose when the Gennas started selling cheap rotgut booze to O'Banion's customers. While it didn't really hurt O'Banion's vast beer income, it was the principle that mattered to Dion. Then Dion hijacked a truckload of the Genna's liquor and Torrio wondered how he was going to keep the peace this time.
O'Banion offered Torrio an out. Dion offered to retire to Colorado if Torrio bought out his interest in the Sieben Brewery. Knowing full well that there was going to be a raid, O'Banion arranged to close the deal with Torrio at the brewery. Not only did Torrio end up in jail, but O'Banion refused to return the money for a now padlocked brewery. Even worse, he bragged about how he had tricked Torrio. His fate was sealed.
Mike Merlo, the head of the Unione Sicilana in Chicago, a group that provided national cover to gangsters of that era, died of cancer. A huge funeral was planned in which Dion, florist to the gangs, naturally had a large role. Frankie Yale, head of the powerful New York branch, agreed with Torrio and Capone that Angelo Genna, who Dion had just humiliated over a gambling IOU, would take over the Chicago branch.
2 days after Merlo's death on November 10, 1924, Dion was in his flower shop fixing flowers for the Merlo funeral when 3 gangsters came into the shop. Dion's employee left the men alone to their business. O'Banion had expected the visit to pick up a wreath. He greeted the men and prepared to shake hands. One of the men pulled O'Banion's arm and knocked him off balance.
Dion's employee heard six gun shots and ran to help his boss who was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. The three men had vanished. It seems certain that two of the men were the vicious Silician assassins John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. There is some confusion as to whether the third man was Frankie Yale, who was in town for Merlo's funeral, or Mike Genna. None of the likely murderers ever came to trial.
Dion's funeral was stupendous. The Chicago Tribune loved every gaudy detail of it: "At the corners of the casket are solid silver posts, carved in wonderful designs. Modest is the dignified silver gray of the casket, content with the austere glory of the carved silver post at its corners....Silver angels stood at the head and feet with their heads bowed in the light of the ten candles that burned in the solid golden candlesticks they held in their hands...And over it all the perfume of flowers.
But vying with that perfume was the fragrance of the perfumed women, wrapped in furs from ears to ankles, who tiptoed down the aisle, escorted by soft stepping, tailored gentlemen with black, shining pompadours."
Some 10,000 people fell in before and after the funeral cortege, while another 5,000 people waited at the cemetery. Twenty-six cars and trucks carried the funeral flowers, three bands and the police escort.
Dion's funeral was a celebration for Torrio and Capone because they took over Dion's excellent bootlegging territory and they had finally rid themselves of a dangerously unpredictable colleague. What they didn't appreciate at the time was the aftermath of Dion's death and what it meant to them personally. While the police scratched their heads over who killed O'Banion, Dion's friend "Hymie" Weiss knew exactly who was responsible and he vowed revenge.
From that moment on, Capone and Torrio looked over their shoulders constantly for "Hymie" Weiss and another Dion associate, Bugs Moran. "Hymie" Weiss's real name was Earl Wajciechowski, which he shortened to Weiss. The nickname "Hymie" stuck somehow and everyone assumed he was a Jewish gangster, when he was in fact a very devout Catholic. George Moran was a violent and unstable man who got the nickname "Bugs" because everyone thought he was nuts or "buggy".
Torrio was so concerned for his life that he decided to leave Chicago for awhile and went to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Capone was just as worried and took every possible security measure. Still, over the next 2 years, the former colleagues of Dion O'Banion would make a dozen attempts to assassinate Capone
Bergreen details the profound effect that the threats had on the way Capone did his business. "Although he himself was unarmed as a mark of his status, he never went anywhere without at least two bodyguards, one on either side. With the exception of his home on South Prairie Avenue, he was never alone. He traveled only by car, sandwiched between bodyguards, with a trusted, armed chauffeur named Sylvester Barton...he preferred to travel under cover of night, risking travel by day only when absolutely necessary."
In January of 1925, twelve days after the Weiss-Moran gang tried to assassinate Capone, Johnny Torrio came back to Chicago. He and his wife Ann were just returned from a shopping trip and got out of their car to walk to the door of their apartment building.
Torrio walked behind her carrying packages. Weiss and Bugs Moran jumped out of a car and, thinking that Torrio was still in his automobile, fired wildly, wounding the chauffeur. When they finally saw Torrio, they shot him in the chest and neck, then his right arm and his groin. Moran held a gun to Torrio's temple and pulled the trigger, but the firing chamber was empty and poor Johnny Torrio, the peacemaker, heard only a faint click.
At the hospital, Capone took over while surgeons removed the bullets in Torrio's raw body. The hospital was a dangerous place for a gangster. The security was rotten, so Capone arranged for Torrio's security on his own, which included Al sleeping in his room on a cot making sure that his beloved mentor was safe.
Four weeks later, Torrio shocked everyone by appearing in court to face the charges on the Sieben Brewery raid. The frail, shaken man pleaded guilty and was given a sentence of nine months. Things could have been much worse. He became close friends with the sheriff, who made sure that there were no more assassination attempts while he was in jail, and was treated like a privileged gentleman.
But things would never be the same for Torrio. He wanted out of this life of violence. He wanted to retire and live quietly on his substantial earnings. He called Al to the jail in Waukegan in March of 1925 and told him that he was retiring from the Chicago rackets and going to live abroad. Torrio was turning over his vast assets to Al and the rest of the Capone brothers. It was an amazing legacy: nightclubs, whorehouses, gambling joints, breweries and speakeasies. Capone's power increased immensely.
Shortly after he took over Johnny Torrio's empire, it was clear that his new status had changed Al Capone. He was a major force now in the Chicago underworld. To underscore his rise in the world, he moved his headquarters to the Metropole Hotel. His luxurious suite of five rooms cost $1,500 per day. He went from near obscurity to cultivated visibility.
His friendship with newspaper editor Harry Read convinced Capone that he should behave like the prominent figure he was. "Quit hiding," Read told him. "Be nice to people." Capone became visible at the opera, at sporting events and charitable functions. He was an important member of the community: friendly, generous, successful, supplying a throng of thirsty customers. In an era where most of the adult population drank bootleg alcohol, the bootlegger seemed almost respectable.
According to Bergreen, "buying favorable publicity was only half the game. Political influence was the other...Almost every day he drove to the complex that served as both City Hall and the county building. He did all he could to make himself seem available, a man with nothing to fear. Always beautifully dressed, quiet, another political fixer going about his daily rounds. Capone's political flair, his urge to be seen in public, was unique among racketeers, who as a rule abhorred publicity."
In December of 1925, Al took his son to New York for surgery to relieve his chronic ear infections. Al was devoted to his only child and the boy's poor health constantly preyed on his mind. Capone used the visit to New York to transact some business with his old boss Frankie Yale. The subject was imported whiskey which was always in short supply since it had to be smuggled over the Canadian border. It was easier for Yale to get whiskey into New York than it was for Capone to get whiskey into Chicago, so Yale had an oversupply. They worked out a deal and Capone would figure out how to get the whiskey from New York to Chicago.
Yale invited Al to a Christmas Day party at the Adonis Social and Athletic Club, a fancy name for a Brooklyn speakeasy. Yale was tipped off that rival gangster Richard "Peg-Leg" Lonergan was going to crash the party with a bunch of his thugs. Yale wanted to cancel the party, but Capone insisted the celebration go forward.
Capone planned a surprise of his own. When Lonergan's men came to the club around 3 A.M. they were insulting and obnoxious. Capone gave the signal and all hell broke loose. Lonergan and his men didn't even have time to draw their guns they were so surprised at the well-orchestrated attack.
The Adonis Club Massacre was Al flexing his muscle in his old stamping ground. It was also a way of displaying Chicago's gangland superiority over New York. "Chicago is the imperial city of the gang world, and New York a remote provincial place," wrote Alva Johnston in the New Yorker. In Chicago," beer has lifted the gangster from a local leader of roughs and gunmen to a great executive controlling a big interstate and international organization. Beer, real beer, like water supply or the telephone, is a natural monopoly." He then created a written portrait of Al Capone, the "greatest gang leader in history."
Back in Chicago at the beginning of 1926, Capone was in excellent spirits. Not only had he made his mark in New York, but his whiskey deal would change the face of interstate transportation. Young men with a thirst for adventure and the need for money made a good living working as one of Capone's truckers.
In the spring of 1926, Capone's run of good luck hit a snag. On April 27, Billy McSwiggin, the young "hanging prosecutor" who had tried to pin the 1924 death of Joe Howard on Capone, met with an accident. He left the home of his father, a veteran Chicago police detective, and went with "Red" Duffy to play cards at one of Capone's gambling joints. A bootlegger named Jim Doherty picked them up in his car.
Doherty's car broke down and they hitched a ride with bootlegger "Klondike" O'Donnell, a bitter enemy of Capone. The four Irish lads went on a drinking binge in Cicero with O'Donnell and his brother Myles and ended up at a bar close to the Hawthorne Inn where Capone was having dinner. O'Donnell's cruising around in Cicero was a territorial insult.
Capone and his henchmen, not realizing that McSwiggin was in the bar with Myles O'Donnell, waited outside in a convoy of cars until the drunken men staggered out. Then out came the machine guns and McSwiggin and Doherty were dead.
Capone was blamed. Despite the blot on McSwiggin's integrity for keeping company with bootleggers, sympathy was with the dead young prosecutor. There was a big outcry against gangster violence and public sentiment went against Capone.
While everyone in Chicago just knew that Al Capone was responsible, there was not a shred of proof and the failure of this high-profile investigation to return an indictment was an embarrassment to local officials. Police took out their frustrations on Capone's whorehouses and speakeasies which endured a series of raids and fires.
Capone went into hiding for three months in the summer. Reputedly some 300 detectives looked for him all over the country, in Canada and even Italy. In fact, he initially found refuge in the home of a friend in Chicago Heights and then, for most of the time, with friends in Lansing, Michigan.
Those three months in hiding made an indelible mark on Al. He began to see himself as much more than a successful rackeeter. He started to think of himself as a source of pride to the Italian immigrant community, a generous benefactor and important fixer who could help people. His bootlegging operations employed thousands of people, many of whom were poor Italian immigrants. His generosity was becoming legendary in Lansing. While much of this was just his ego getting larger, Capone had real leadership abilities and was very capable of extending those talents into areas that were beneficial to the community. He seriously thought of retiring from his life of crime and violence.
He couldn't spend the rest of his life in hiding so he decided upon a calculated but risky course. He negotiated his surrender to the Chicago police. It was the first step in the new direction in which he wanted to take his life: exoneration in the death of McSwiggin, using his vast wealth to finance legitimate enterprises and set himself up as a hero to the Italian immigrant community.
On July 28, 1926, he returned to Chicago to face the accusations of murder. It turned out to be the right decision because the authorities did not have sufficient evidence to bring him to trial. For all the public uproar and efforts of the law enforcement groups, Al Capone was a free man. The authorities looked impotent.
Capone in his new role as the expansive peacemaker made a last ditch attempt to create an alliance with Hymie Weiss despite a recent attempt on his life. He offered Hymie a very profitable business deal in exchange for peace. Hymie turned him down. The next day, Hymie was gunned down at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
The people of Chicago were tired of reading about gang violence and the newspapers fanned their anger. Capone held a highly publicized "peace conference" in which he appealed to the other bootleggers assembled there to tone down the violence. "There is enough business for all of us without killing each other like animals in the streets. I don't want to die in the street punctured by machine-gun fire." He made his point. At the end of the meeting, an "amnesty" had been negotiated which accomplished two key things: first, there would be no more murders or beatings and second, past murders would not be avenged. For more than two months thereafter, nobody connected with the bootlegging business was killed.
In January of 1927, one of Al's closest friends, Theodore Anton, known as "Tony the Greek," was found murdered. Capone was in tears over the loss of his friend and started to think more seriously about retirement. He invited a group of reporters over to his house and cooked them a spaghetti dinner, all to announce his retirement. Was he serious or just play acting? He probably was serious about retiring before someone put a bullet in his skull, but Al's need for power and excitement kept pushing real retirement into the future.
With the failure of Mayor Dever's reform program, the rise of Chicago as the imperial gangster city became the most significant campaign issue in the 1927 election. "Big Bill" Thompson, assisted by a small fortune in campaign funds from organized crime, came back into power. It looked as if the bad guys would have the city in their grip forever.
However, a few tiny blips on the radar screen showed some promise to eventually make a major impact on the city of Chicago, the bootlegging business and Al Capone. In May of 1927, the Supreme Court made a decision that Manny Sullivan, a bootlegger, had to report and pay income tax on his illegal bootlegging business. Just because reporting and paying tax on illegally-derived revenues was self-incrimination, it was not unconstitutional. With the Sullivan ruling, the small Special Intelligence Unit of the IRS under Elmer Irey was able to go after Al Capone.
Unaware and uninterested in Manny Sullivan or Elmer Irey, Capone became more compulsively extroverted and expansive. He indulged heavily in his two big passions, music and boxing. He became close pals with Jack Dempsey, but given the concern over fixed fights, the friendship had to be very discreet. Always an opera lover, Capone expanded his patronage to the jazz world. With the opening of the Cotton Club in Cicero, Al became a jazz impresario, attracting and cultivating some of the best black jazz musicians of the day. Unlike so many other Italian gangsters, Al did not seem to have the deep-seated racial prejudice and he gained the trust and respect of many of his musicians. Al extended his generosity and personal concerns to everybody who worked for him, black or white.
Bergreen describes the way Capone inserted himself into the lives of those he knew: "He came to dominate them not by shouting, overwhelming, or bullying, although the threat of physical violence always loomed, but by appealing to the inner man, his wants, his aspirations...by making them feel valued, they gave unstintingly of their loyalty, and loyalty was what Capone needed and demanded; in the volatile circles through which he moved it was the only protection he had from sudden death. The highest compliment other men could pay Capone was to call him a friend, which meant they were willing to overlook his scandalous reputation, that he had never been a pimp or a murderer."
"Public service is my motto," Al told reporters around Christmas. "Ninety percent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I've tried to serve them decent liquor and square games. But I'm not appreciated. I'm known all over the world as a millionaire gorilla." The exposure was becoming a real nuisance. When he left for a trip to the West Coast, he had police surrounding him at every station. Los Angeles' toughest detective said "We have no room here for Capone or any other visiting gangsters whether they are here on pleasure tours or not."
When Capone came back from the West Coast, he found himself surrounded by six Joliet policemen with their shotguns aimed at him. "Well, I'll be damned. You'd think I was Jesse James. What's the artillery for?" In Chicago, the police made things as uncomfortable as possible by surrounding his house and arresting him at the slightest provocation.
Capone left for Miami where the weather was much better than the Chicago winter, but the reception by the local community was chilly. He and Mae and Sonny rented a huge house for the season and started to look for a permanent residence. Through a middleman, he bought the 14-room Spanish style estate at 93 Palm Island which had been built by brewer Clarence Busch. Over the coming months, he would invest a small fortune in redecorating his new palace in Miami, securing it like a small fortress with concrete walls and heavy wooden doors.
The Palm Island estate came to the attention of IRS Intelligence Unit watchdog Elmer Irey. He chose Frank J. Wilson to head up the job of documenting Capone's income and spending. The job was monumental: despite Capone's lavish spending, everything was transacted through third parties; despite Capone's incredible wealth, every transaction was on a cash basis. The major exception was the very tangible assets of the Palm Island estate, which was evidence of a major source of income.
In parallel government move, George Emmerson Q. Johnson, a member of the Scandinavian "old boy's network" in the Midwest, was appointed U.S. attorney for Chicago. Johnson targeted Capone with unbridled passion. In the spring of 1928, the violence preceding the April primary election began to escalate out of control. Johnson himself was the target of bomb threats. It was not clear who was orchestrating all of this violence, but this time the targets were not gangsters but U.S. Senator Charles Deneen, a reformer, and a judge. The unabashedly corrupt Mayor Bill Thompson was presumed responsible since the victims were people who opposed him, but Al Capone, still in Florida, was the scapegoat.
While Mae Capone spent the spring of 1928 on an extravagant decorating spree, Al dedicated himself to establishing himself as a legitimate citizen of Miami. In spite of the outward show of respectability, Al quietly made plans to solve pressing problems caused by his old boss Frankie Yale. The liquor supply deal that Capone and Yale had negotiated was experiencing too many hijackings, which Capone believed Yale had initiated.
Al called six of his Chicago partners to Florida to figure out how to handle the problem with the powerful Yale:
"Toward midafternoon on July 1, a Sunday, Frank Yale, his jet-black hair and dark skin set off by a Panama hat and light-gray summer suit, was drinking in a Borough Park speakeasy when the bartender called him to the phone. What he heard sent him hurrying out to his car parked nearby. A few minutes later on Forty-fourth Street a black sedan crowded him to the curb; bullets from a variety of weapons -- revolvers, sawed-off shotguns, a tommy gun --nailed him to the seat. The tommy gun was the first ever used to kill a New York gangster." (Kobler)
In the summer of 1928, Capone made his headquarters in the once highly respected Lexington Hotel, occupying two floors of the large and imposing structure. He lived like a potentate in his six-room suite with a special kitchen for his catered meals. Secret doors were installed so that Capone could escape undetected if the need arose.
It was clear to Capone that Prohibition would not last forever, so he began to diversify into the rackets. A Chicago business newspaper explained that a "'racketeer' may be the boss of a supposedly legitimate business association...Whether he is a gunman who has imposed himself upon some union as its leader, or whether he is a business association organizer, his methods are the same; by throwing a few bricks into a few windows, an incidental and perhaps accidental murder, he succeeds in organizing a group of small businessmen into what he calls a protective association. He then proceeds to collect what fees and dues he likes, to impose what fines suit him, regulates prices and hours of work...Any merchant who doesn't come in or doesn't continue to pay tribute, is bombed, slugged or otherwise intimidated."