In this brilliant history of Prohibition and its most notorious gangster, acclaimed biographer Laurence Bergreen takes us to the gritty streets of Chicago where Al Capone forged his sinister empire.
Bergreen shows the seedy and glamorous sides of the age, the rise of Prohibition, the illicit liquor trade, the battlefield that was Chicago. Delving beyond the Capone mythology. Bergreen finds a paradox: a coldblooded killer, thief, pimp, and racketeer who was also a devoted son and father; a self-styled Robin Hood who rose to the top of organized crime. Capone is a masterful portrait of an extraordinary time and of the one man who reigned supreme over it all, Al Capone.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer and historian. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages worldwide. Among his books are biographies of Christopher Columbus, Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and Irving Berlin. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
He was atavistic, flamboyant, impossible to ignore. A big fat man with a cigar and a $50,000 pinkie ring. A jowly smiling Satan nearly six feet tall, with two scars across his left cheek. He weighed over two-fifty, yet despite his bulk and the sloppy grin, he could move with lethal speed and force. Not an articulate man, he was nonetheless charismatic: warm, charming, generous. A big tipper. He attempted elegance with an outrageous wardrobe custom-tailored suits of purple, electric blue, or yellow; pearl-gray fedoras accented by a black band; and diamond-encrusted stickpins. He liked people, wanted them to adore him, and people gravitated toward him, they applauded him, sought his autograph, and as he excused himself as a businessman or a rogue, he submitted to their hero worship and condemnation.
His name was Al Capone, and he was, according to the New York Times on the occasion of his death, January 25, 1947, "the symbol of a shameful era, the monstrous symptom of a disease which was eating into the conscience of America. Looking back on it now, this period of Prohibition in full, ugly flower seems fantastically incredible. Capone himself was incredible, the creation of an evil dream."
Incredible. Fantastic. Ugly. Evil. In harsh, censorious language the obituaries attempted to explain, condemn, and, perversely, revel in his life and career. They informed the public that "Alfonso Caponi" had been born in Naples in 1895, as if no American lad could ever grow up to be so evil. They evoked his apprenticeship to crime in Manhattan's Little Italy, in particular, a neighborhood known as the Mulberry Street Bend; reproduced his draft card; mentioned his service during the Great War as part of the French "Lost Battalion" and described the duel though some accounts referred to shrapnel which gave him the two famous scars across his left cheek. They confided that his nickname was "Scarface"; explained that the young Capone fled a murder rap in New York and arrived in Chicago one step ahead of the police to work for his cousin Johnny Torrio, vice lord of that city. They portrayed him as the mastermind behind the notorious St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929; in some accounts he even wielded a machine gun himself. They gave as the cause of his death pneumonia or a stroke, or a combination of the two; and, finally, they unanimously claimed his death marked the end of an era of gangsters and murder in Chicago and around the country. Thus his life became a paradigm of the gangster's progress in America.
However, nearly all of this endlessly repeated and generally accepted information was erroneous, beginning with the time and place of his birth. So, too, was the story of his military service in the Great War; the often-reproduced draft card actually belonged to another Al Capone, a butcher who resided in New Jersey. The manner in which he received his scar was similarly falsified and romanticized, as was his real nickname ("Scarface" was strictly for the movies and newspapers), the true cause of his death, even the correct spelling of his name. Nor did his demise mark the end of gang-land, as his moralizing obituaries predicted; powerful racketeers followed Capone as surely as they had preceded him. "You who only know him from newspaper stories will never realize the real man he is," his younger sister, Mafalda, publicly stated, but her words fell on deaf ears or met with outright derision; was she not blinded by family loyalty? And then there were the movies and later the television programs inspired by his career, which served to increase the confusion surrounding his deeds and reputation, since these dramatizations endowed characters engaged in largely fictional exploits with the names of real people. Ultimately, the Al Capone who became familiar to Americans is a myth: a poisonous but intoxicating blend of the shrill yellow journalism of the 1920s, Hollywood sensationalism, and pervasive anti-Italian prejudice. These multiple distortions transformed Capone into a larger-than-life symbol of evil.
For decades American politicians and writers had been warning the populace about Al Capone or someone very much like him as an example of the alien element contaminating clean native shores with disease, throwing the nation's economy into turmoil with cheap labor, and corrupting Anglo-American institutions with rapacious feudal codes. The Capone phenomenon, according to such voices, was the natural and inevitable outcome of the nation's permitting millions of immigrants from around the world to flow into the country during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Among the most influential critics of unrestricted immigration was a Republican member of Congress from Massachusetts, the Honorable Henry Cabot Lodge. The scion of a wealthy family, a historian, and a former editor of the respected North American Review, Lodge personified the political, economic, and financial establishments of his day; well could he presume to decide whom to admit to the United States and whom to exclude. In 1891, three years before Capone's parents arrived in New York, this flower of New England warned that during the previous fifteen years alone, almost 6.5 million immigrants had poured into the country, a number "equal to one-tenth of the entire population of the country," a sum, he warned, that contained "enough voters to decide a presidential election." Lodge wanted them to stay away for precisely the reasons they wished to come, because they were impoverished, uneducated, without a secure place in the world. "We have the right to exclude illiterate persons from our immigration," he insisted, and he proposed screening the millions of undesirables washing up on American shores with a literacy test, a notoriously elastic gauge. "And this test," he concluded, "combined with others of a more general character, would in all probability shake out a large part of the undesirable portion of the present immigration. It would reduce in a discriminating manner the number of immigrants, and would thereby benefit the labor market." Later in the year, Lodge warned that the United States had become a haven for the "paupers and criminals" of Europe. "It is certainly madness to permit this stream to pour in without discrimination or selection, or the exclusion of dangerous and undesirable elements," by which he meant, specifically, Italians, who, he noted, simply came to this country to earn money and then returned home to spend it, enriching their countrymen at the expense of Americans. Despite Lodge's warning and an 1882 federal law excluding paupers and criminals, immigration continued almost unchecked, inhibited only by the Great War. "We are overwhelmed, submerged and almost drowned out by great flood-tide of European riff-raff, the refuse of almost every nation on the continent, paupers, criminals, beggars and the muddy residuum of foreign civilizations," complained the New York Herald. "We don't wonder that they want to come to this country, but the country is not a philanthropic institution or an asylum for the crippled and depraved of the globe....The sooner we take a decided stand and shut down the gates the better." Not until 1924 did Congress finally establish a quota system for immigrants.
Each immigrant group suffered from this intense bias in its own way, but one of the cruelest stereotypes to gain currency and beyond that, intellectual respectability was that of Southern Italians like the Capones, who were invariably portrayed as lazy, lusty, stupid, and criminal. Writing in the Century Magazine as late as 1914, Edward Alsworth Ross, a prominent sociologist, gave voice to the beliefs of America's ruling class concerning the disreputable new arrivals, especially those who came, like Al Capone's parents, from Naples. "Steerage passengers from Naples," Ross observed, "show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves; hence their death-rate in New York is twice the general death-rate." Too unintelligent to survive, or so Ross believed, Southern Italians also displayed a want of"mechanical aptitude." In addition, "their emotional instability stands out in sharpest contrast to the self-control of the Hebrew and the stolidity of the Slav." As for their children, their exasperated American teachers agreed that they "hate study, make slow progress, and quit school at the first opportunity....They are very weak in abstract mathematics." Coming to the New World only worsened these problems, Ross believed. They were far better off in their own country, among their own kind, he insisted. "Who can forget the joyous, shameless gregariousness of Naples?" Ross asked, where "the streets are lively with chatter and stir and folks sitting out in front and calling one another." They like it there in the slums of Naples, he supposed, where the illiterate peasants "covet the intimacies of the tenement-house." (Even that observation, intended as a compliment, held sinister implications.) In contrast to the typical Southern Italian, Ross described those national character traits he admired: "The man who 'sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not' is likely to be a German..., an Englishman with his ideal of truth, or an American with his ideal of squareness."
Even the champions of the impoverished immigrants despaired at the inability of Italian arrivals to improve themselves, find employment, become educated, in short, to assimilate. Among the most influential was Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant who had abandoned a comfortable background in Denmark to venture to the United States. In his career as a crusading journalist with the New York Evening Sun and a social reformer, he displayed righteous anger at the disgraceful living conditions imposed on the newest Americans, especially children, but when he came to Italians, he portrayed them not as casualties of the appalling social conditions afflicting all immigrants, but as victims of their own flawed natures. Unlike Lodge, whose xenophobia was largely an intellectual proposition, Riis based his impressions of Italian immigrants on direct personal observation. In his otherwise progressive book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), Riis wrote that the Italian who comes to New York "promptly reproduces conditions of destitution and disorder which, set in the framework of Mediterran exuberance, are the delight of the artist, but in a matter-of-fact American community become its danger and reproach....The Italian comes in at the bottom...and stays there."
The harsh view shared by respected politicians and journalists had as its street equivalent a single word summing up what so many Americans thought of Italians: dago. A corruption of Diego (Spanish for James), the derisive epithet originated in the American West and worked its way back East, where it extended to the new Italian arrivals, who were often pitifully unaware of the climate of hatred and resentment awaiting them in America.
As Southern Italians, they had been accustomed to prejudice from the Northern provinces of their own country; indeed Northern Italians could be just as contemptuous of their Southern compatriots as Henry Cabot Lodge and Jacob Riis were. For Northerners, Italy consisted of two countries, the North and the South, or perhaps even three: the North, the South, and Sicily the latter province being so alien, backward, corrupt, and feudal that the Northerners referred to the Sicilians as Africans, a term that had little to do with the Sicilians' appearance but much to do with fears about their character. (As an adult trying to survive in the fiercely contested rackets, Capone came to share the non-Sicilians' fear of the "Black Italians" who dominated the business; "those crazy Sicilians" became his common complaint.) In addition to the virulent prejudice they faced at home, Southern Italians were also plagued by natural disasters; there were earthquakes, there were droughts, there were even volcanic eruptions all of which suggested that farmers and other peasants who made their living from the land had best flee for their lives. As a result, they kept on coming despite the extreme hostility they faced in America, and their numbers shot past the levels that had so concerned Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1880, approximately 12,300 Italians came to the United States; only eight years later, the number reached over 51,000, more than a fourfold increase. During the 1890s, Italian immigration averaged about 50,000 souls a year; and in the following decade, the first of the new century, the numbers exploded: 100,000 in 1900, 230,000 in 1903, 286,000 in 1907. The figures remained at these tremendous levels until the Great War impeded civilian transatlantic travel. Nothing not the threat of war between the United States and Italy or the hovels awaiting them in "Little Italys" around the nation deterred the Italians from coming to a land bristling with transplanted historical hatred for them. Their willingness to brave these hardships was testament to their desperation, their courage, their naïveté, and their great hopes for life in America hopes that, more often than not, were to lead to conflict and bitter disappointment.
The youth of Al Capone, as with many other sons and daughters of Italian immigrants, was largely a response to this climate of anti-Italian prejudice. He and his brothers would all devise different responses; some of the strategies would prove more admirable than others, but none of them would escape it.
Al Capone always insisted he was an American, born and bred, and so he was, but his Italian heritage formed and informed every aspect of his life and career. He belonged both to the Old World with its fatalism, corruption of flesh and spirit, and charm and to the New with its striving, materialism, and violence.
His mother, a seamstress named Teresina Raiola, and his father, a barber named Gabriele Capone, grew to maturity, married, and started their family in Naples. Italy's third-largest city, located on the western coast approximately halfway between Rome and the boot's toe, Naples sprawls down to the ocean like a brightly colored, tattered and soiled dishrag. Neapolitans are renowned for their ability to improvise and adapt; they have to, living in a city hemmed in by Mount Vesuvius on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other, a capital that had been changing hands for over two thousand years. At one time or another, Greeks, Romans, Austrians, Spaniards, and the French (in the person of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother) ruled the city; for a time during the eighteenth century, it had served as the seat of an improvised nation, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As a result of this ceaseless upheaval, the city had the air of an abandoned capital that had fallen into chaos; where kings once walked, herds of sheep later grazed. "There is nothing...quite like Naples in its sordid and yet tremendous vitality," wrote Edward Hutton, an English visitor, of the city in 1915. The noise, dirt, and overcrowding appalled the fastidious Hutton; Naples seemed more "a pen of animals than a city of men, a place amazing if you will, but disgusting in its amazement, whose life is...without dignity, beauty or reticence."
However, Neapolitans enjoyed a reputation for being singularly accepting and relaxed in the midst of the dirt and chaos of their city. They had seen too much of history's folly to heed the Catholic Church; resentful of the North, or at least mindful of the North's resentment of them, Neapolitans tended to be antipapist, antimonarchist, antiauthoritarian. The centuries of rulers coming and going, cynically exploiting the region and then carelessly abandoning it, had a profound effect on the Neapolitan and Southern Italian consciousness. Proverbs dear to the peasantry expressed rage at the scarcity of social justice and the abundance of hypocrisy: "The gallows is for the poor man, the law courts for the fool," "He who steals from the king commits no crime," and most tellingly, "The fat pig pays no taxes."
In this richly cynical atmosphere, organized crime flourished openly. Criminal societies were a prominent feature of Neapolitan life and commerce not in the form of the Mafia, a clannish, dosed society with mystical, overtones specific to Sicily but rather the Camorra, a far more open assemblage of racketeers, extortionists, pimps, and gamblers. The Camorra was a secularized Mafia, all business and unencumbered by ritual, operating on the principle of exacting tribute from the populace. A 1912 inquiry into the workings of the Camorra discovered that it "levied blackmail upon all gambling enterprises, brothels, drivers of public vehicles, boatmen, beggars, prostitutes, thieves, waiters, porters, marketmen, fruitsellers, small tradesmen, lottery winners, pawnbrokers, controlled all the smuggling and coined bogus money." The various forms of blackmail, some large, some trivial, were so widespread that Camorristi became synonymous with extortionists of any type. The Camorra played a larger role than mere extortion, however; the people got something in return for their money. In the absence of a respected government, it functioned as a subterranean political organization as well; Camorristi offered their services as political fixers, and they could work minor miracles in obtaining permits, eliminating unwanted competition, and bringing obstinate public officials to heel.
Attaining this powerful role was an extraordinary accomplishment for an organization that had begun life early in the nineteenth century in the jails of Naples, where it functioned as a force for order rather than a destructive conspiracy. The Camorra succeeded in levying tribute or taxes, depending on one's point of view, on prisoners, for whom it obtained all manner of services and privileges in return. By 1830, the Camorra had moved beyond the prison walls to embrace the remnants of local government, and Camorristi were readily identified by their dashing "uniform," which consisted of a red kerchief, sash, and rings adorning every finger. The Camorra assisted the police with keeping order in Naples because it addressed working-class unrest, sometimes blunting it by making vice easily available, and sometimes righting blatant wrongs and offering a rough justice that could not be found in the courts. Anyone who defied the Camorra wound up with a huge scar running along the neck from ear to ear. Naples was said to be filled with people disfigured for this reason, each of them a warning to others not to disobey the Camorrists. However, the real key to the Camorra's effectiveness was its organization. Naples was divided into twelve sections, and the Camorra assigned a capo'ntrine, a sectional captain, to cover each one, and the sectional chiefs in turn reported to the capo in testa, the head captain. Within each of these sections, various local gangs, or paranze, held sway, their powers sharply circumscribed by the Camorrist hierarchy. By 1860, the Gamorrist influence was so great that the political establishment entrusted the organization with the task of ensuring public safety.
Despite their quasi-legitimate status, Camorristi knew full well they had chosen a dangerous way of life, ruled by the shotgun and the whims of local bosses who jealously guarded their profitable, illicit fiefdoms. A Camorrist knowingly chose la mala vita, the evil life: the general term for a life of crime, the underworld. Camorristi added to the hazards they faced by their use of prostitutes. Many suffered from venereal disease, and many Neapolitans came to think of Camorrists as ravaged in mind and body by the malady. Though fraught with risks, la mala vita was also glamorous, and if a follower survived, he could be assured of becoming a fixture in the community, for the Camorra clung parasitically to the political establishment and offered a measure of social stability.
When Al Capone reached Chicago in 1921, he encountered a city that was in many ways an American version of Naples, for Chicago also had a large working-class population that supported semilegitimate criminal societies working hand in glove with a corrupt local government. Capone did not consciously model the organization he built in Chicago on the Camorra of Naples, and he certainly never called it by that name (or any other name, for that matter); nonetheless, the intricate, hierarchical, civic-minded Camorra served as his prototype.
A thousand years of history demonstrated the futility of life in Naples, but in America anything was possible. Yet before most would-be immigrants set foot on a boat bound for the New World they had already committed themselves to a form of indentured servitude known as the padrone system, an adaptation of the Camorrist way of doing business; even the means of reaching America became an extension of Neapolitan corruption. Under this system, Italian emigrants found themselves instantly reduced to the status of a commodity, and that commodity was labor, sciabola work done with the shovel. The boss or the extortionist who organized the laborers and exploited them was known as the padrone, and life for the Italian immigrant under his regime was extremely harsh. Adult men earned an average of only $40 a year, and children worked as well, hawking newspapers, shining shoes, begging, and then giving the pennies they earned to their padrone. Women often became prostitutes. Writing in the Bulletin of the Department of Labor in 1897, three years after the Capones' arrival in New York, John Koren labeled the padrune system a "species of semislavery" exploiting at least two-thirds of all Italians in America.
Italians endured the cruel system because their sojourns in the United States were generally brief. During the mid-1890s, far more Italians returned to their native land from the United States than immigrated; the returnees consisted largely of laborers who had worked in America for slave wages under the padrone system and then limped home, exhausted and disillusioned, to the hamlets from which they had come. But that situation was slowly changing. Through exposés such as Koren's, the American public perceived the padrone system as an evil to be wiped out. Under pressure of government scrutiny, the monopoly abated. Now entire families came from Italy, not just individual males to earn illusory "princely wages" and flee home. These families came to seek a new way of life, to settle permanently, to become Americans.
Among the 42,977 Italians who arrived in the United States during 1894 was an unremarkable young family from Naples. Their name, as they themselves wrote it on their immigration and naturalization papers, was a fairly common one in their region: Capone (not Caponi, as many published accounts later claimed). The Capones would soon expand into a large, closely knit family, but at the time they arrived in New York, they consisted of only four members: the head of family, Gabriele Capone, then thirty years old; his wife, Teresina (or Teresa, as she was often called), who was three years his junior; and their two small children: Vincenzo, who was born two years earlier, in 1892; and his infant brother, Raffaele, who, having been born on January 12, 1894, came ashore in his mother's arms. They came to stay, not to return to Italy in a year or two, as so many other immigrants had. The timing of their arrival in America meant that they missed the peak of the padrone system; Gabriele arrived on his own recognizance. He was a barber, a humble occupation to be sure, but a trade nonetheless. He was beholden to no boss, and he was still young enough to make a fresh start.
Gabriele had married Teresina Raiola just three years earlier in Naples, and their first priority was starting a family; at the time of their transatlantic crossing, she was pregnant with their third child, Salvatore, who was born in January 1895, a year after Raffaele. Within the family, all the children would always be called by their Italian names, but they acquired and were known to the world by the American names they adopted. Vincenzo became James, Raffaele became Ralph, and Salvatore became Frank. As for their parents, neither of them altered their names to suit American custom. In time, Gabriele learned to read, write, and speak English, while Teresa, who lived a more circumscribed life in the home, never troubled to memorize more than a few simple English phrases.
Once they had passed through Ellis Island and arrived in New York, the Capone family, like other Italian immigrants, gravitated toward neighborhoods sheltering people who had fled the same region, if not the same town. This powerful sense of place was known as campanilismo. The word derived from campanile, a church bell tower, and it signified the region within the sound of the tolling of the village bell. The pull of campanilismo caused Southern Italians to pass their daily lives within their village: to work, marry, live, and die within tightly circumscribed borders. In America, by extension, campanilismo came to mean the immediate neighborhood. More than religion, perhaps even more than language, campanilismo reinforced the Italian immigrant's alienation from American life, for every neighbor, coworker, or merchant with whom an Italian immigrant dealt came from the same region of Italy. The sameness buttressed the immigrants' identity, but at the same time it cut off the immigrants from a world of American possibilities.
Most Americans were oblivious to the nuances of settlement patterns of Italian immigrants; the mere mention of that ill-favored class conjured one neighborhood in particular: the Mulberry Street Bend, near the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area notorious as a breeding ground of human degradation in all its gaudy variety. Although it was widely assumed in the press that Al Capone grew up in Mulberry Bend and first learned the rudiments of his trade, there as a street urchin (he must have, master criminal that he was), neither he nor his family lived there.
The more prosaic truth is that the Capone family followed the path of least resistance, settling in Brooklyn, a borough that had rapidly become home to tens of thousands of Italian immigrants. No mere appendage to New York City, Brooklyn was a world unto itself. In fact, Brooklyn was a separate city. until as late as 1898 (four years after the Capone family first moved there), when it finally joined New York City in law if not in spirit. Although it was connected to Manhattan by two immense bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge and the newer Williamsburg Bridge, it was a million miles away. None of the Capones would ever have much to cio with Manhattan; nor would Manhattan and its racketeers have much to do with them, except to condescend to them. Manhattan was a noisy, compact environment, frantic, abrasive, and vertical. Brooklyn remained a succession of congenial, low-profile neighborhoods, provincial and insular, as much a state of mind as a borough of New York City.
In Al Capone's Brooklyn, the presence of the Atlantic Ocean was felt everywhere. Sea gulls wheeled, screeching, above empty, sun-splashed streets lined with row houses and gaunt trees. The tang of brackish seawater permeated the air, mingling with the acrid odors of oil, exhaust, and rotting vegetation. The docks a source of employment for thousands of local inhabitants were located but a few minutes' walk from the streets of his youth. The presence of shipping and shipbuilding introduced a large transient population of sailors, who in turn attracted gambling houses, bars, and brothels catering to them. Prostitutes were common in the area, especially on Sands Street, which featured the full array of honky-tonk attractions designed to separate sailors from their hard-won pay: tattoo parlors, saloons serving cheap whiskey and the occasional Mickey Finn, dance halls, gambling joints, and whorehouses to suit every taste.
On a hot day in Brooklyn, the stink off the Gowanus Canal the local River Lethe, a man-made waterway for barges brought tears to the eyes. Though it was the only unusual topographical feature of the neighborhood, it wasn't much of a canal, just a jagged slash zig-zagging through the marshy Brooklyn terrain, its water now brownish, now unnaturally green, opaque, gnawing at the hulls of rusty barges, its banks overhung with dense, tangled weeds from which protruded discarded machinery. A short walk from the street where Capone grew up, the Gowanus Canal had long been a magnet for criminal activities of all types. It was not unusual for corpses to turn up in the canal, often mangled, with signs of having been dead for several days before they had been dumped.
The Capones' first apartment was located at 95 Navy Street, in the Red Hook section, "a slum that faces the bay/Seaward from Brooklyn Bridge," wrote Arthur Miller, another product of Brooklyn, in his drama A View from the Bridge. Their housing was primitive, an unfurnished flat in a block of four-story tenements next to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and its cacophony. The Capone family was poor and had no furniture or decorations to soften and domesticate the surroundings. Heat was provided by a potbellied stove in the parlor and an oven in the kitchen. Cold water was available from a sink in the hallway. Indoor plumbing was unknown. To reach the bathroom, they went down the steps to the yard, where a small shack offered scant privacy. Rents in the district, which was heavily Italian, fluctuated between $3 and $4 a month; even though the figure was low, the prices of food and other necessities such as coal for heating were relatively high and placed a huge financial burden on immigrants like Gabriele Capone. At the time, men in his position were lucky to make ten dollars a week considerably less, incidentally, than their counterparts were earning back in Italy. From the front of his tenement, Gabriele could see the Brooklyn Navy Yard's black-and-white sign arching over the entrance, but if he thought he might find work within, he was soon disappointed, for at the time Italian immigrants had no foothold there; the Irish, Germans, and other, better-established ethnic groups had made it their preserve. Gabriele had no alternative but to resume his trade of barbering, while Teresina took care of the children and, when she had time, took in piecework to supplement their meager income.
Their new neighbors, virtually all of whom were recent Italian immigrants, recalled the Capones as a quiet, conventional family. The mother, Donna Teresina as she was known, 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." Since no photograph of Gabriele survives, the most complete portrait of this man comes from his second son, Raffaele, who more than thirty years later found himself serving a sentence at the U.S. penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington, for federal income tax evasion. There he talked about his father and what it was like growing up in the newly transplanted Capone household with a pride and affection that survives even the routine notes from the interview.
The subject states that his father received a very good education in Italy. Thinks it must have been at least equal to a high school education. States that his father belonged to several Italian Societies of various kinds and spent considerable of his working time in them. Also gave considerable to duties in the Catholic church. States that his father worked as a barber throughout his entire life, having learned the trade at an early age. The subject thinks his home was equal to if not better than the average American home. States that his parents took great interest in their children and that they always had plenty to eat, good clothes to wear, and a good house to live in.
When it came to Teresa, her second son noted for the record that she "was very devoted to her children and did all for them that any mother could do."
As Ralph's reminiscences of his parents suggest, 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. Criminal dynasties did exist among some Italian immigrants, especially in New York, but the Capones were too modest, too unsuccessful, to belong to that particular elite. 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.
However, the Capones certainly feared crime. During their early years in New York, the most notorious type of Italian villainy was the Black Hand, La Mano Nera. This was a distinctly Old World version of extortion, courtly but deadly. It began with the victim receiving an anonymous, elaborately worded letter that began, often as not, with the greeting "Honored Sir," and went on to demand ransom in exchange for the life of the recipient or members of his family. Illustrations of daggers and skulls accompanied the text. Black Hand threats to murder or kidnap helpless children were carried out just often enough to make victims sure to pay. Although American law enforcement agencies often referred to it as a society, the Black Hand consisted of freelancers. Furthermore, La Mano Nera preyed exclusively on Italians, who unanimously feared and despised this vestige of another era. As the Capone children were growing up, the Black Hand symbolized criminal behavior to them. Years later, when a Senate investigation committee asked Ralph Capone, Al's older brother, if he had ever heard of the Mafia as a child in Brooklyn, he shook his head and replied, "No. I heard 'Black Hand.' I never heard the word 'Mafia.'"
Although they lived a conventional life, and Gabriele practiced his harmless, legitimate trade, the Capone family was several layers removed from the mainstream of American society. First, their religion, Roman Catholicism, set them apart from most Americans; anti-Catholic prejudice ran high and would only increase until the time of the Great War. Their language isolated them culturally and economically from the hoped-for rewards that had lured them to America, and even among other Italian immigrants their Neapolitan dialect presented still another barrier. Perhaps it was better that they were so isolated, for at least they were shielded from their adopted country's dislike and fear of immigrants like themselves.
Responding to the strain of relocating in a foreign land, Gabriel and Teresa Capone had no more children until 1899, five years after their arrival. When they did bring another child into the world, they prayed that God would grant them a daughter after three sons, but their fourth child proved to be another boy. He was born on January 17, 1899. To him, their first child conceived and born in America, they gave the name Alphonse Capone.
From the moment of his birth, the child was exposed to hazard. Italian immigrant communities were notorious for their high infant mortality rate. According to one survey, it was nearly double the amount in other areas of New York. Fatal cases of pneumonia, diarrhea, and diphtheria abounded. The incidence of polio was also the highest in the region, and the foul Gowanus Canal was suspected as the source of the disease.
The infant managed to survive these early perils, and twenty days later, on February 7, the Capone family appeared in St. Michael and St. Edward's Church at 108 St. Edward's Street in Brooklyn for a baptismal ceremony. In the lore that has grown up around Al Capone over the years, several sinister names have been put forward as Capone's godfather, names of other, older Brooklyn gangsters, as if the child were being baptized into a life of crime, but in fact there was no godfather present that chilly day. Instead, a family friend named Sophia Milo assumed the role of the child's godmother.
The ceremony began as the priest, Father Garofalo, met the family at the entrance of the church and asked for the name of the child. After murmuring an introductory prayer, the priest breathed softly three times on the child's face, saying, "Depart from him, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate." He then traced the sign of the cross on the child, to symbolize Christ's taking possession of him. "Sever all snares of Satan which heretofore bound him," the priest intoned over the infant, who was not yet three weeks old. The priest placed a pinch of salt in the child's mouth, saying, "I cast out the demon from you, in the name of God the Father almighty." As the godmother held the child, the priest drew water from the baptismal font with a ladle and poured a few drops on him, declaring, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
In the years that followed, St. Michael and St. Edward's Church served as the principal place of worship for the Capone family especially Teresa, who attended Mass as regularly as Gabriele and his sons avoided it. A modest place, this church offered one of the few legitimate refuges available to the Capones and other Italian immigrants from the dreary routine of their lives. Every year, on May 8, church members organized an extravagant street festival to glorify their patron saints. As many as 200 people marched in a parade through the neighborhood. An immense banner in honor of St. Michael, adorned with an archangel bearing a flaming sword standing above a cowering Spirit of Darkness, led the way, offering one of the few splashes of color and fantasy in the otherwise dismal neighborhood. The parade came to a halt in front of the church, where Attanasio's Brass Band played beloved overtures and arias from the dark, magical operas by Verdi: Aïda, Rigoletto, and I Vespri Siciliani, with its romantic tale of a thirteenth-century rebellion leading to the creation of the secret society known as the Mafia. Opera was often an addiction for the Italians (as it would be for Capone), at once an escape from and a celebration of life, a portal into another, more exalted realm.
In June 1900, when Alphonse was about eighteen months old, a U.S. census taker found the entire Capone family living at 69 Park Avenue in Brooklyn, in the building that housed Gabriele's barbershop: a decided improvement over their previous apartment on Navy Street. The information Gabriele gave the census taker provided a concise portrait of the Capone family at the turn of the century:
Capone, Gabriele: head of household; male; 34 years old; married for 9 years. Born in Italy; immigrated in 1894; in US 6 years; citizenship status: Declaration of Intention. Occupation: barber (shop); no unemployment in the previous year. Can read, write, and speak English. Rents home.
Capone, Terresa [sic]: wife; female; 30 years old; married 9 years; mother of 4 children; 4 now living. Born in Italy, immigrated in 1894, in US for 6 years. Can read and write, unable to speak English.
The census also revealed that Gabriele had already taken the crucial step toward becoming an American citizen and attaining his goal to remain permanently in his new home. "Declaration of Intention" meant that he had filed for citizenship, usually known as taking "first papers." He would finally complete this protracted process, formally renouncing his allegiance to the king of Italy and becoming a full-fledged American, six years later, on May 25, 1906.
The crowded Capone household eventually included two boarders, both Italian immigrants. One was a middle-aged musician named Andrea Callabrea, who had recently arrived in the United States, and the other was a young barber by the name of Michael Martino; he was, in all probability, Gabriele's apprentice, working in the barbershop in return for room and board. There was nothing, on the face of it, to suggest that this household was nurturing the most notorious criminal in American history; it was utterly typical of other Italian immigrant families throughout the neighborhood: the men working at trades or crafts, usually self-employed or in small businesses, the women tending the children who swarmed through apartments and would soon choke the schools and streets of Brooklyn.
In 1904, when he was five years old, Al began attending Public School 7, located on Adams Street, close to the cramped Capone apartment. P.S. 7 was an old, dreary place, assaulted by the constant rumbling of the nearby elevated railroad, and its student body consisted largely of children from families as poor as his. For many children of immigrants, the public school system became a rite of passage from the old, confining ways into the mainstream of American life. It was in the public schools that many of the children first heard English spoken constantly and met other boys and girls of different backgrounds. It was where they first began to learn about America, to pledge allegiance to the flag, and to eat strange American foods they had never tasted at home. The children in turn passed on some of the knowledge of American customs they had acquired in school to their parents, who, if they did not speak English and had no cause to travel, would not have learned of them. Thus education trickled upward through the immigrant communities, as casual as a rumor. However, the notion of continuing education was a novelty. New York City, had begun administering high schools only in 1897, and at the time Capone was working his way through the dregs of the city's public school system, most Italian immigrant families expected their children to leave school as soon as they were old enough to work, usually before reaching the ninth grade. Italian immigrants, especially, were discouraged from seeking higher education. Their Irish Catholic or American-born teachers often viewed them as a nuisance at best, a menace to the American way of life at worst. Even the Catholic Church fostered this attitude. "The Italians are not a sensitive people like our own," an Irish priest advised the archbishop of New York. "When they are told they are about the worst Catholics that ever came to this country they don't resent it or deny it. If they were a little more sensitive to such remarks, they would improve faster."
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. The teachers kept order any way they could, usually by shouting and throwing erasers and chalk at recalcitrant students. They resorted to corporal punishment when necessary, often striking a child with a ruler. The teachers also lived with the threat of violence and retaliation from their pupils and rarely went anywhere alone, inside or out of the school building. Still, fistfights between students and teachers were common, even between male students and female teachers. "They were a fighting tribe, those teachers," wrote a veteran of the Gowanus public school system, "and they needed to be to survive." While children such as Al Capone found school a place of constant discipline relieved by sudden outbreaks of violence, their parents could only imagine what was taking place behind the institution's big red doors. There was almost no contact between families and schools.
When Al became a little older, around ten, he was drawn to the Brooklyn docks, where the action was. There he could study a 100-ton floating crane used by the Navy and watch the changing of the military guard at the gate of the Navy Yard. The soldiers' marching fascinated the boy, who enjoyed hooting at the men who fell out of step. He was hardly alone in this practice and was usually ignored, except for one revealing instance. Observing a particularly inept guard bungle the drill, Al called out, "Hey, you long-legged number three there! Get in step! You're holding 'em up."
After he was dismissed, the errant soldier charged the Navy Yard gate, preparing to spit at his heckler. Instead of running away, Al held his ground and dared him to fight: a brave and foolhardy thing to do. But just before the boy and the man came to blows, the corporal in charge of the recruits called the soldier off. As he left, the corporal confided to Al, "You got his goat for sure, but if he really spits on you, I'll put him on report."
Instead of being grateful for the gesture, Capone remained defiant. "Don't do any reporting," he said. "Just let the big sonofabitch outside the gate. I'll take care of him."
Capone's bravado impressed the corporal, who later told his sergeant, "If this kid had a good officer to get hold of him and steer him right, he'd make a good man. But if nothing like this will happen, the kid may drift for a few years until some wise guy picks him up and steers him around and then he'll be heard from one day."
The young Al Gapone was heard from again, at least in the neighborhood. On this occasion, he chose to vent his youthful fury at the Italians' traditional rivals, the Irish. A neighbor, Angela Pitaro, says, "When Al Capone lived on Navy Street, all the paisani, the Italian fellahs, got together, and went to this Irish bar. In fact, every corner had a bar, all of them Irish. Women off the boat from Italy used to wear two or three skirts, and the Irish fellahs would go behind them and pick up the dresses." When the harassment hit closer to home, Angela recalls that Al became involved. "One day, my mother goes out to the hall. She's looking for her tub. She has to wash clothes. 'Angela,' she says, 'they stole my tub. How am I gonna wash my clothes for my kids? Who took it?' My brother said to my mother, 'Ma, don't worry, we'll buy you a new one.' But they couldn't take it no more, the Italian boys. So Al Capone formed a gang. They were young fourteen years old.
"Then, one day, we heard a noise, biddi-bum-bum-bum, biddi-bum-bum-bum, and then we heard, 'And we are the boys of Navy Street, and touch us if you dare!' The Irish fellahs came out of the bar. The Italian fellahs, Al Capone, my brothers, the whole gang, they gave those Irish fellahs such a beating. In those days the cops were short and fat, and by the time they came all the boys disappeared. They were on top of the roofs."
In this incident a few outlines of the mature Capone are visible. The vengeance he wreaked on the "Irish fellahs" was not an act of vandalism or desecration; it was surely violent and probably unnecessary, but it was, in its misguided, exuberant way, a gallant and generous gesture designed to secure the return of the missing washtub. It showed that Al, even in early adolescence, acted as a leader, playing the hero, wanting to be seen as a righter of wrongs, even while he perpetrated his own mischief. It also demonstrated his protective instincts, especially where his own kind, especially the women, were concerned. Above all, Al liked to create a spectacle in which he cast himself as the champion of the oppressed and aggrieved. "We are the boys of Navy Street, and touch us if you dare!"
As he acquired a taste for the distractions and dangers of street life, Capone's school record, which had once showed promise, gradually deteriorated. From P.S. 7 he moved to a larger school, P.S. 133. Located half a dozen blocks from his home, the new school was a hideous Gothic monstrosity, as impersonal and forbidding as its name, a massive building that bore more resemblance to a prison than to a place of learning. There he consistently received Bs on his report card, until the sixth grade, when his grades began to disintegrate. He was often truant, missing school more than half the time, and as his absences took their toll on his studies, he was forced to undergo the humiliation of repeating sixth grade. By the time he was ready to go on to the seventh grade, Al Capone was fourteen years old. That year his adolescent frustration and impatience with school finally exploded. After being scolded by his teacher one time too often, Al lashed out at her. She struck him, and he hit back. Since hitting was common in these schools, the incident might have ended there, but then the teacher took him to the principal, who administered a sound beating to Al. Afterward, the boy vowed never to return to P.S. 133, and he never did.
So ended the school career of Al Capone, as did the schooling of many other children in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Although the image of the large and glowering young student striking his young female teacher seems brutal, it is worth noting that such altercations were daily events at P.S. 133. Still, the expulsion was a decisive event in his young life, for it marked his first formal rebuff from an American institution, and by extension, from the mainstream of American life. The overriding message that the educational system sent to Al and to his classmates from Red Hook and Gowanus was that they were insignificant, had nothing to offer, and existed solely on the grudging largesse of the state. For these youths, school was more a tool of confinement than a method of advancement; it was an institutionalized form of punishment, a dead end. At the time of his expulsion, Capone had, at any rate, pretty well run his course in school. He was fourteen, able-bodied, and there was virtually no chance that he would go on to high school, even if he had been a model student.
By the time Al quit school, the Capone family had abandoned their quarters on Park Avenue for a succession of better equipped apartments on nearby Garfield Place. They lived first at number 38, then moved to slightly larger quarters a few doors up at number 46, and finally settled at number 21, on the other side of the street. Although it was only a ten-minute walk from Navy Street, Garfield Place was in every way superior: a pleasant, quiet, residential street lined with row houses and trees. There was a pool hall at number 20, close to the Capone home, and it was here that Gabriele spent considerable time, and where his son Al, in preference to attending school, learned to play the game, at which he quickly excelled.
To win Torrio's confidence, Capone had to pass a simple test. Torrio invited him to drop by headquarters at a certain time, and when Al showed up, Torrio made a point to be absent, but he had left behind a tempting sum of money where it could be easily taken. Many of the boys whom Torrio tested in this way took the money, and that was the last they ever saw of Johnny Torrio, but not Al, who left the money where it was and in so doing won Torrio's trust. From that time forward, the two enjoyed a partnership that lasted over two decades. In the end, it was Al who benefited most from the relationship; Torrio had many aspiring racketeers and hoodlums courting his favor, but Capone had only one Torrio in his life. If any man could be said to have invented Al Capone, to have been responsible for making him into what he eventually became, that man was Johnny Torrio. The proximity of the Capone residence to Torrio's place of business made all the difference to Al, and it would eventually make all the difference to Torrio as well, for what Torrio, with his brilliant, analytical mind was able to conceive, Al would eventually be able to execute.
It is not difficult to fathom Torrio's appeal to Al; the man was everything Gabriele was not: wealthy, successful, respected. He had made it; he was connected. He had ties to Manhattan, especially the notorious Five Points gang, for decades a fixture of that borough's underworld, an army numbering over a thousand young Italians available for hire by politicians, anti-union businesses, or anyone else willing to pay them to create mayhem. If there was a strike, the Five Pointers could break it up; if there was an election, they could enforce voting. Their leader was a small, dapper former boxer named Paolo Antonini Vacarelli. Like most other Italian prizefighters of the day, he had taken an Irish nom de guerre to overcome anti-Italian prejudice; thus he was known as Paul Kelly. His headquarters were located at the thrillingly disreputable New Brighton Dance Hall on Great Jones Street in Lower Manhattan, and his realm included the choicest blocks of southern Manhattan, including City Hall. But Kelly's day was passing; a celebrity in turn-of-the-century New York, he later retreated to a Sicilian district in Harlem, where he was content to organize hordes of ragpickers. Torrio and other racketeers quickly filled the vacuum, learning to work together, realizing that cooperation, not gang warfare, led to real wealth and power. Torrio's bailiwick was the Jane Street mob, a splinter of Kelly's gang, but Torrio rarely resorted to Kelly's strong-arm tactics. Torrio was, above all, a peacemaker; he had no bodyguard, carried no weapon, and always spoke in soft, measured tones. He considered himself a businessman, not a gang leader, and he conducted his rackets in a businesslike way.
So Capone passed through the days of his youth in Brooklyn. Days on the street. Days of running errands for Torrio, who was invariably mild, appreciative, disciplined, and, in his way, unspoiled. A perfect role model for young Al: the pimp and gambler who rigidly segregated business from his personal life, who maintained a wholesome home and a devoted, adoring wife. Whores on the job, a Madonna at home. Working for Torrio brought young Al $5 here, a ten spot there, and he brought all of it home to his mother, who never questioned the source of the money and lavishly praised her little breadwinner. Days of doing sums in his head, of calculating the odds. Days of learning by careful observation what men would pay for, how much they would bet at poker, at craps, on various neighborhood lotteries, on the outcome of the Dodgers game that afternoon. Learning how much they would pay for a drink or a woman.
During his apprenticeship, Capone learned to restrain his youthful bravado ("We are the boys of Navy Street, and touch us if you dare!") and to emulate Torrio's approach to organizing the rackets and reconciling opposing factions. From Torrio he also learned 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. This compartmentalization was good discipline, but its emphasis on piety, on home and hearth and sentimental platitudes, also led to domestic sterility. In these circumstances, maintaining a "good home" became a crushing burden. But it was a form of hypocrisy that was second nature to Johnny Torrio and that he taught Capone to honor.
As he fell under the spell of Torrio, Capone also became familiar with Brooklyn's numerous youth gangs. With its large working-class population and its multitude of immigrant groups, Brooklyn spawned a rich mixture of gangs, all of them in need of willing and bored young boys like Al. The gangs defined themselves by feuds with one another, and the most widespread rivalry existed between the Irish and the Italians. The Catholicism shared by the two groups was, if anything, a divisive factor, for there was a constant rivalry over which group made better Catholics. The Irish, from their cold climate and their repressive homeland, believed they were superior, and they considered the Italians lazy, self-indulgent, prone to all types of excess, and much too sexual. The Irish tended to regard sex with strict disapproval and so were convinced that they, as a group, were God's favorites. From the Irish point of view, the great problem was that the Vatican, through a ghastly historical accident, happened to be located in Rome, while all the world knew the Irish were more virtuous and Ireland more deserving to be the seat of the church.
In combat with their Italian counterparts, Irish gangs proved to be hardy, occasionally murderous, wielding bricks and stones in street combat. In addition to their Irish enemies, the Italian gangs faced constant, bloody internecine rivalry much of it based on the Italian origins of the gang members, in other words, a continuation of campanilismo. The two main factions were the Sicilians, who were fairly visible and congregated in Manhattan, and the Neapolitans, who were more obscure, though more numerous, and resided mainly in Brooklyn.
Among the best-known gangs of Capone's youth were the Red Hook Rippers, the Garfield Boys, and the Gowanus Dukes. Over the years, one gang would spawn another; rival factions would battle over turf. In a world that had rejected them, immigrant children like Al Capone found a refuge in the gangs, a fleeting sense of identity, of belonging. In school, they were nothing, at home they were nuisances, but on the streets they could find other models to emulate, to act out their rage and frustration, to reflect the world's hate back on itself. Too old to run with the Navy Street Boys, Capone now owed allegiance to the South Brooklyn Rippers, a ragtag collection of boys ranging in age from twelve to fifteen. They spent most of the time simply loitering; occasionally they resorted to petty vandalism or theft, but they were too green to be genuinely feared. Capone eventually moved on to another local gang, one consciously modeled on Kelly's outfit, known as the Five Points Juniors. They served as an auxiliary to their adult counterparts, but its members, mainly boys playing hookey, were not necessarily apprentice gangsters, and they drifted away from the group as casually as they had joined it.
Despite his flirtation with juvenile gangs, his expulsion from school, and his apprenticeship to Johnny Torrio, Al Capone still aspired to a legitimate career; he gave little indication of consciously preparing himself to be a racketeer. Many boys his age, and with his lack of prospects, were already out of the house, but he continued to live at home. Life in the Capone family continued to evolve, to creep upward. Gabriele progressed from renting his barbershop at 69 Park Avenue to owning it; he had a stake in America now, however small. Teresa continued to bear children. In 1901, she gave birth to still another boy, Erminio, or Mimi, as he was known in the family; later, he would go by the name of John. 1906 saw the birth of another boy, Umberto, who later went by the name of Albert or "Bites." Two years later, Amedoe, later called Matthew, or Matt, or Mattie, was born. Finally, in 1910, into this world of boys came the first female Capone to be born in America. She was named Rose. As if an angry God insisted that there should be no Capone girl, the child died before the year's end.
Two years later, on January 28, 1912 (ten days after Al's thirteenth birthday), Teresa Capone finally gave birth to a daughter who survived. As a symbol of their overflowing gratitude, her parents bestowed an extravagant name on her, Mafalda, after an Italian princess. The youngest child in the family, the only girl, with no less than seven older brothers to look out for her, Mafalda grew up in an atmosphere of indulgence. In fact, compared to her brothers' rude upbringing, she was downright spoiled, and the preferential treatment she always received affected her temperament. The Capone boys, Al included, were generally quiet and respectful toward their parents, especially their mother, but Mafalda's tongue could sting; she lashed out at anyone who crossed her. Thin and high-strung, Mafalda was, within the family circle, the most vituperative and ferocious Capone of all.
By the time Mafalda was born, the eldest Capone boy, Vincenzo (James), had abandoned the family. Always strong-minded, he could no longer stand the confinement of Brooklyn, the monotony, and the lack of prospects. In 1908, at the age of sixteen, he ran away from home not for a week or a month, but for good. A year after his disappearance, his family received a letter from James, postmarked Wichita, Kansas. He was fine, he told them; they needn't worry about him. They read to their amazement that he was traveling around the Midwest which the Capones of Garfield Place could only imagine as a plain populated with Indians and buffalo and no Italians whatsoever and that he had joined a circus as a roustabout and wrestler.
Hardy and muscular, James enjoyed living out of doors, rambling from town to town, seeing America: big cities like Omaha, little one-horse towns, whistle-stops, open spaces. He did his best to disguise his New York accent, and in time he came to sound like a midwesterner himself. Although he looked as Italian as his younger brothers, he never revealed his origins, never spoke of Brooklyn or Naples. He passed as a Mexican, or an Indian, or a combination of the two. He became fascinated with guns, which were readily available at the circus, and he spent hours shooting at beer bottles and empty cans with a .32-caliber pistol.
Indians especially fascinated James; he admired their physical prowess and their ability to coexist with nature. He spent time on the fringes of Indian reservations, and he gambled with Indians when they came to the circus. Perhaps, as an Italian immigrant, he was drawn to them because he shared their alien status; he knew what it meant to be an outsider in the white man's world, to be discriminated against, treated as a second-class citizen, and shunted onto a reservation. What was the Gowanus section of Brooklyn if not a reservation for Italian immigrants and other second-class citizens?
During the years of James's wandering, the Great War in Europe slowly engulfed the United States. In April 1917 the United States declared war, and James, still entranced with guns, enlisted in the infantry and went to France with the American Expeditionary Force. He was the only Capone to enter the armed forces. (In later years, imaginative journalists would claim that Al had seen action in France, where he received his famous scars, but there was no truth to the story.) An able soldier, James perfected his shooting ability, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In France, he received a sharpshooting medal from the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing. A photograph taken of the event shows Lieutenant Capone, standing in a field of mud, saluting, taut, his chest ready to receive the medal from the general's gloved hand. All the while, the Capone family knew nothing of his whereabouts. Nearly two decades passed before they heard from him again.
After James fled, the Capone family looked to the next child, Ralph, to lead the way. Taller, more reserved, and nowhere near as keen as his younger brothers (to say nothing of that spitfire, Mafalda), Ralph followed a far more conventional path, and for many years his younger brother Al followed faithfully behind him. Reliable Ralph quit school at the end of sixth grade, not in a burst of fury as Al had, but simply because it was time for him to go to work and augment the family's income. He found a job as a messenger boy for the giant Postal Telegraph company, delivering telegrams, hustling for tips. Later, he went to work in a nearby book bindery, a position that paid better. At least he was out in the world, employed, and he had, in a modest way, surpassed his father.
At about this time, his prison records reveal, Ralph acquired gonorrhea. This was not a surprising development, given the proximity of prostitutes in the neighborhood, but his condition healed and left no long-term effects on his health. It should be noted that Ralph's interest in women was not confined to prostitutes. On October 20, 1915, he became the first of the Capone boys to marry. He was twenty-one, and his wife, Filomena Marie Carmelo Moscato, usually called Florence, was just seventeen years old. Like him, she had been born in Italy, in her case Salerno. They were married in Brooklyn, and two years later they had their first child, a son, whom they named Ralph Jr.
Theirs was not a happy home. Ralph and Florence quarreled constantly, and the arrival of their child, rather than cementing their relationship, aggravated the strains that had existed before his birth. According to Ralph, Florence dishonored the name of motherhood; she neglected both him and the child; one day he came home from work to discover that she had left Ralph Jr. with the neighbors and had run off. Only in America. The estranged couple never reunited and eventually divorced. Throughout these years of domestic strife, Ralph functioned as the dutiful breadwinner. He sold life insurance for a year or two, developing an easy manner with his customers, and then he moved on to a clerical job at a street car company. More significantly, he also handled a soft drink route on the side, and everyone began calling him "Bottles." The nickname followed him throughout life as if it were a prophecy: "Bottles" Capone.
Al gave every appearance of trudging along in Ralph's footsteps: responsible if unspectacular clerical jobs, early marriage, and a child. He passed approximately three years working in a Brooklyn munitions factory and another three as a paper cutter. The latter meant mind-numbing, repetitive work, and the pay was equally humiliating, only $3 a week, all of which he dutifully brought home to his mother. That Al was able to hold these jobs as long as he did and to turn the money over to his family demonstrates his tenacity and loyalty, as well as his lack of direction. He remained and was long remembered around his neighborhood as likable and well-behaved, not especially prone to violence or other forms of antisocial behavior. A nice boy in tough surroundings. You didn't hear stories about Al Capone practicing with guns; you heard that he went home each night to his mother.
There was another side to the adolescent Capone: he loved to have fun. To dress well, to get out, to enjoy himself, to show off. Al loved to dance, and he was renowned as the best pool player in the neighborhood, a local champion with the cue. These activities suggested that he was gregarious and socially adept and that he possessed a highly developed sense of fine motor coordination not exactly the characteristics associated with youthful hoodlums. At about this time he came to the attention of another Brooklynite, Daniel Fuchs, one of the first novelists to depict Jewish immigrant life in America. Fuchs was astonished by the bloody reputation Al later acquired, for the writer, known for his unsparing portrayals of Brooklyn life, recalled Capone as a peaceful lad, well dressed and well mannered, hardly the typical neighborhood thug. Al was, in contrast, "something of a nonentity, affable, soft of speech and even mediocre in everything but dancing. Capone, always a well-dressed individual, was like many other Italians an excellent dancer. He frequented a hall called the Broadway Casino." An early friend of Capone, a reporter named Edward Dean Sullivan, seconded this impression of Al as a harmless young man. "Let me say that in my capacity as a newspaper man, I have known twenty men infinitely more vicious than he is," he wrote. "He never drank and the one outstanding trait known about him, in the tough circles where his skill with a cue won him some attention, was that he must be home every night at ten-thirty." Such disarming testimonials failed to tell the entire story, though, for Capone also frequented a far more sinister gathering place than the Broadway Casino; it was called the Adonis Social Club, and it was a magnet for violence. Gunfights had a way of erupting unpredictably at the Adonis, sending its young patrons, who were largely Italian, scrambling to the floor and out the door. In the basement, guests could take target practice if they liked, blasting beer bottles to smithereens. It was here that Capone learned how to handle a revolver.
Like his brother Ralph, Al also became familiar with the local prostitutes, and he probably contracted syphilis from them at this time. Throughout his life, Al refused to admit precisely how or when he caught the disease that would shape his future. In his later years, when he was undergoing treatment for syphilis in Baltimore, Maryland, he did reveal to his physicians that he was infected early in his life, very early, in fact, which suggests that he contracted the disease not long after he became sexually active. That Al acquired syphilis at such a young age was not evidence of promiscuity, however, since there is a 75-percent chance that engaging in sexual intercourse with an infected partner will lead to transmission of the disease. In other words, just one visit to a contaminated prostitute, the result of a dare or a spur-of-the-moment decision, would have sufficed to give him the disease. At the time, syphilis ran unchecked through the population, but not until the draft of the Great War would public health officials realize how widespread it was; blood tests revealed that approximately 10 percent of the draftees suffered from venereal disease. Estimates of syphilis in the general population of the United States varied greatly, but usually ran from 6 to 10 percent. Millions of Americans suffered from the disease at the time Al contracted it, and tens of thousands were dying of it each year.
Despite its devastating effects, venereal disease remained a secret plague, rarely spoken of, yet it had been devastating populations at least since the fifteenth century. Its origins are traced, interestingly enough, to the city the Capones fled: Naples. It went by several names, depending on who did the naming. The Italians called it the French disease, morbus Gallicus, and the French reciprocated by naming it the mal Napolitain, the Neapolitan disease. In this way the ancient scourge followed the Capone family all the way from Naples to Brooklyn. The malady acquired the name by which we know it in 1530, when an Italian poet, Girolamo Fracastoro, wrote a poem in Latin in which his hero, a shepherd named Syphilis, insults the god Apollo, who in turn afflicts his genitals with the disease; thus was the name of this fictitious character immortalized in a way his creator could never have imagined.
Because of its varied and exotic presentations, syphilis had long fascinated physicians, though they were powerless to cure it. A great mimic of other physical and mental ailments, it was considered the prince of clinical diseases. "Know syphilis in all its manifestations and relations and all other things clinical will be added unto you," declared Sir William Osler, an eminent physician and teacher. What was known about syphilis was that it is caused by a spirochete, a screwlike organism, usually transmitted by genital contact. In its first, most obvious, and least harmful stage, a boil or open sore, teeming with spirochetes, appears on the genitalia; if left untreated, it usually disappears within one to three weeks. The secondary stage is often more difficult to detect because the symptoms mimic the flu: a sore throat, a rash, enlarged lymph nodes. That, too, heals by itself, so it is entirely possible for the sufferer to think he has had a bad cold rather than a sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis then enters a latent stage, free of symptoms, and the final, or tertiary stage does riot begin for another two to twenty years. It is rarely fatal in the first or even the second stage; only if it returns for the dreaded third (or tertiary) stage can the disease kill, and then in only 20 percent of the cases.
Although he had no way of knowing it, Al belonged to that unlucky 20 percent of syphilis victims. Once his sore and his fever disappeared, he believed he had recovered from his illness, as most people did. As he later told his physicians in Baltimore, the disease simply vanished, and he assumed he had been cured somehow. He had no way of knowing that it had actually gone underground, gradually becoming a form of dementia, similar to Alzheimer's disease; slowly but surely the victim loses his mind. In his case, the disease typically attacks the frontal lobes of the brain, the seat of the personality, and within a short time it begins to alter the victim's behavior. The changes are so subtle as to be undetectable at first. The new, altered personality is closely modeled on the old; it is an exaggeration of it. Dr. Bernhard Dattner, an outstanding syphilologist, described the transformation this way: "Frequently the initial personality, changes are so insidious that even close friends of the patient remain unaware of them. How much more difficult it is for the physician to detect these minimal signs of psychic aberration if he has never before seen the patient." The array of symptoms Dr. Dattner observed included "irritability, nervousness, lack of initiative, insomnia, and memory impairment." So it was with Al Capone. Those closest to him and most familiar with his behavior were the least likely to recognize the incremental changes wrought by the disease. Generally affable, he could, on rare occasions, lash out at those who threatened him. As the neurosyphilis slowly took over his brain, however, his mood swings, which had previously been within normal limits, became more extreme. He would act moody and remote, then exuberant. More genial, then more enraged. More passive and withdrawn, then more hostile.
If Capone's syphilis had healed itself, as most cases did, it is unlikely he would have developed into the high-profile, feared gangster he became. It is entirely possible he would have drifted into the rackets under Johnny Torrio's guidance. But of course his syphilis never did vanish, and the special swagger and vehemence associated with Al Capone the sudden outbursts of violence, as well as his reckless gambling were the result of his incurable disease. Indeed, tertiary, syphilis is usually associated with megalomania; the young Al, quiet and withdrawn, showed little of those tendencies, but the mature Al, with his hallucinations of grandeur and his penchant for brutality, certainly did. The Capone we remember was the creation of a disease that had magnified his personality. Syphilis made Al Capone larger than life.
An early instance of Capone's rage suddenly spewing forth occurred one night when, as he attended a local political rally, a pool-playing pal of his informed him that a "slicker had stopped in...and had cleaned out the best of the talent for about eight hundred dollars." According to Capone's friend Edward Dean Sullivan, "Al hurried over to the pool room and at half past ten he had the eight hundred dollars back and a hundred and fifty of the stranger's money....Without a word the stranger reached in his pockets, opened a long bladed knife, and told Al that he'd play another game, or else !" Capone hit his adversary just once, but the blow was so powerful that it knocked the man out. Capone returned home, always mindful of the 10:30 curfew, but later that evening he heard the man in the poolroom was dead and that he had killed him. As Al later learned, the report was wrong, and the man survived, but the single blow had done sufficient harm to send him to the hospital for months.
Sullivan's story gave rise to one of the first legends surrounding Capone, that the poolroom confrontation sparked his flight from Brooklyn to Chicago to avoid a murder charge. In fact, when the time finally did arrive for Capone to leave Brooklyn, he would be a young married businessman looking for better career prospects, not a teenage gangster fleeing a murder rap. But the persistent legend demonstrated that an aura of violence whether deserved or not clung to Capone from an early age. Try as he did to avoid it, brutality, like syphilis, was fated to follow him through all his days.
Al Capone's first encounter with violence as a tool of business came through his mentor, Johnny Torrio, who, though a peace-loving man himself, knew intimately the uses of force, bribery, and fear. He introduced young Al to influential friends on Coney Island, where the flesh and the flash were to be found. The resort and amusement area was a considerable distance from Capone's home and the headquarters of the Torrio Association, all the way at the other end of Brooklyn. There Al met and came to work for Brooklyn's own Prince of Darkness, Frankie Yale.
Alternately killer and benefactor, he elicited wild and contradictory passions in Brooklyn, but on one point, at least, there was universal agreement: nobody defied Frankie Yale. He was only six years older than Capone, still in his midtwenties, but already famous and feared. He drew stares wherever he went, for everyone recognized the shock of black hair, the pug nose, and the burning black eyes. He was handsome in a menacing sort of way, compact and muscular. The stories about him were impressive; to hear people talk, Yale had killed eight, ten, maybe a dozen men or more.
Yale was not his real name, of course; that was an affectation. Nor did he originally spell it "Uale," as is often claimed and as it appears on his tombstone. His original name was Francesco Ioele. Nor did he belong to the Mafia, which was an almost exclusively Sicilian preserve. He was born in Calabria, one of the poorest of all Southern Italian provinces, in 1893, and he came to the United States as a child, the first of the influential Calabrians with whom Capone associated. Because of campanilisrao, it was unusual for Neapolitans like Capone to form alliances with rural Calabrians, who tended to be more suspicious and pragmatic than their urban counterparts. In the years to come, however, Capone would surround himself with Calabrians, who proved dutiful and respectful once he was able to win their trust.
Yale spent his adolescent years in the Five Point Juniors, constantly getting into scrapes. At seventeen, he teamed up with a wrestler by the name of "Booby" Nelson to wreak havoc in a poolroom on Surf Avenue; his victims discovered what a horrendous weapon a cue could be. The melee led to his first jail sentence, and shortly after his release, he was sent to jail again, this time for toting a pistol. More arrests ensued, including a charge of theft of sheep- and goatskins worth $300. Marriage finally accomplished what the courts had been unable to do; it took him off the street and transformed him from a thug into a businessman. He lived the life of a local big shot, ensconced in a large and gloomy brick home at 6605 14th Avenue, owned by his in-laws. The address doubled as his place of business; the legitimate career he pursued was dreadfully, appropriate, for Frankie Yale became an undertaker.
He also developed many sidelines. There was the ice route, for one. Ice was a necessity in the days before refrigeration, and icemen, usually from an Italian background, operated strictly as freelancers. The competition among them kept prices and profits low. Once Frankie Yale moved in and organized them, the icemen served assigned districts, for which they paid him a handsome tribute. Prices went up, and so did the profits. Essentially Yale imposed a series of local monopolies, strictly enforced. If you were an Italian iceman, and you bought your supply of ice from Frankie Yale's company and paid him his cut, you had no problem. His collectors' cars announced themselves with horns trilling a distinctive note, and the icemen trotted out to hand over the money, discreetly contained in an envelope. If you bought your ice somewhere else, you received a warning or a broken window in the night, or your child came home from school describing an encounter with a threatening stranger. Frankie understood that it was human nature to make a mistake now and then. If you persisted, however, Frankie shut you down. No one went to the cops, because Frankie had paid them off.
Then there was the laundry business, another profitable sideline in which he displayed his golden touch. To prevent unions from attempting to infiltrate their business, the owners of laundry establishments paid Yale $150 a week to scare off organizers. He exploited the situation by establishing his own union, and he forced workers to contribute a dollar a week out of their modest salaries toward it or face immediate firing, a beating, or worse. Yale's union did nothing to protect or advance the workers' cause, as a legitimate union did; it was a means of exacting tribute from laundry workers. Even cigars became a racket for Yale. He launched a brand featuring his portrait on the box, and the cigars sold for twenty cents, or three for fifty. As with the ice, tobacco shops had better stock them, or harm could come their way. Windows could be broken; necks, too. Brooklyn merchants found that in the long run it was better for business to stock the stinking Frankie Yales, as the cigars were known.
Frankie fancied himself an entrepreneur, and his most ambitious venture the one that lured Capone into his orbit was a Coney Island bar and dance hall situated close to the Atlantic Ocean. Established in 1916 with the proceeds of the ice racket, it was modeled on the thriving College Inn, and Yale decided to have a little fun by naming his pleasure dome after a university; thus Yale came to be the proprietor of the Harvard Inn. The Ivy League aura immediately went to his head; he began to part his hair in the center, after the fashion of students. The center part soon led to bigger changes, a flashier wardrobe, brightly colored fabrics, all in the height of gangster fashion, accented with eye-popping jewelry, especially his famous diamond-studded belt buckle. When people asked what the buckle represented, Yale replied with a laugh that it stood for the Championship of the Underworld. His new position meant that he spent many late nights away from his wife, Maria, and their two girls; inevitably, he sought out female friends around Coney Island, choosing from a large transient population of willing and desperate girls. Yale knew how hotheaded their boyfriends could be, and displaying the same cool judgment he brought to his business ventures, he always brought a bodyguard to stand watch during his brief assignations. When the girls became pregnant, Frankie had a solution for that, as well; he found nice young men for them to marry men who happened to work for him and would not complain if their new brides happened to be pregnant or who assumed that they themselves had fathered the child. Whatever the problem was, the resourceful Frankie Yale had a solution.
Despite its grand name, the Harvard Inn occupied a modest one-story building located on a popular thoroughfare, Seaside Walk. The most imposing feature was the bar, which ran twenty feet, almost the entire length of one wall. There was also room for an orchestra and a small dance floor. Yale loved running the tawdry little place. Every night he sat at his table, whose location was carefully chosen, a little off to the side, near the exit, in case he needed to make a speedy egress. His constant companion was "Little Augie" Carfano, another tough from the Gowanus area. There Yale nursed his tumbler of whiskey and transacted business. Searching for a young man who could double as a bouncer and bartender, capable of combining a winning manner with the threat of force, Yale turned to Torrio for a recommendation, and Torrio sent him Al Capone, who was now eighteen.
Capone and Yale struck up a rapport, and the young man became a fixture there, doing everything from washing dishes to waiting on tables under the proprietor's eye. He made himself a popular figure; the customers paid their respects to Frankie and shied away from "Little Augie," but they liked Al, the jolly way he served up the foamy beer at the bar and occasionally took a turn on the dance floor himself. It was not exalted work, but the job kept him busy and on display. There was plenty of opportunity to mingle with the customers, too.
One night, after he had been at the Harvard Inn for a year, Capone was waiting on a table occupied by a couple about his age. Al could not take his eyes off the girl. She was Italian, and she had a gorgeous figure. He repeatedly buzzed the table, and finally, with the impulsiveness of his age, he leaned over to her and said in a loud voice, "Honey, you have a nice ass, and I mean that as a compliment." Suddenly, the man who accompanied her leaped to his feet. His name was Frank Gallucio, he was the girl's brother, and he was obviously drunk. Capone had just done the unforgivable: he had insulted Frank's sister. Gallucio was nowhere near as big or bulky as Capone, but emboldened by alcohol he punched the man who had insulted his sister. As he later recalled, "A punch was not enough to stop Capone."
Capone's unpredictable rage erupted. Fearing for his life, Gallucio pulled a four-inch knife from his pocket. The sight of the flashing metal sent patrons fleeing. Gallucio went straight for Capone's neck. Undeterred, Capone moved in, and the blade cut into the flesh of his left cheek and his neck, once, twice, three times. There was blood everywhere now, blood on the knife, blood all over Capone, blood on the floor. Terrified, Gallucio grabbed his sister and ran from the Harvard Inn. Capone's wounds looked awful, but the injuries healed cleanly, leaving three large scars: one ran four inches along his left cheek and another followed his left jaw for slightly more than two inches. The third was the least visible but marked the most dangerous injury he had sustained; it coursed down his neck beneath his left ear. As they healed, the scars turned from red to white, and over the years Capone would become increasingly sensitive about them, averting his head from cameras attempting to photograph his left side, refusing to answer questions about them, even resorting to powdering them in a vain attempt to make the pale grooves blend with his olive complexion. But for now, they were a badge of courage, showing that he was a street fighter, and as the years passed, the scars acquired increasing fame until they came to identify Capone in the public mind forever as "Scarface."
Intent on revenge, Al announced he was looking for Gallucio, and he made sure to invoke Frankie Yale's name. Capone's antagonist sought the assistance of a small-time hood named Albert Altierri, who in turn took the issue to a rising young racketeer in Manhattan by the name of Salvatore Lucania. Only two years older than Capone, Lucania had been born near Palermo, Sicily, and had arrived in the United States as a boy of nine, spending the remainder of his bleak youth on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he fell in with the Five Points gang. By the age of sixteen he had gotten himself arrested and jailed for running heroin. Later, when everyone called him Lucky Luciano, he would rival Capone in underworld influence and direct a vast racketeering empire, much bigger than anything Frankie Yale ever dreamed of, all run out of a luxurious suite in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he maintained a full-time residence under the alias "Charles Rose."
Hearing the story of the knife fight, Lucania sided with Gallucio; nobody should insult someone's sister as Capone had. To bring the matter to an end, Lucania proposed a sit-down, a formal gathering, at the Harvard Inn to discuss the issue thoroughly. The principals waited until after hours, after the drunken patrons and chorus girls had departed, and then Lucania, Gallucio, Yale, and Capone engaged in a serious discussion of the slashing and what should be done about it. The elders in their wisdom decided that Al should apologize to Gallucio for insulting his sister, and that would be the end of the matter. Should Al attempt to take revenge, it would be his funeral. No matter how much he disliked the outcome of the parley, Capone had no choice but to obey, for Lucania was already powerful and feared, while Al was still a nobody, a waiter at a Coney Island bar; he had to show respect. And Al did. As long as he controlled his temper, Al always knew what was expected of him and behaved accordingly.
From its bloody beginning to its peaceful conclusion, the entire incident had been an education for him; he had seen the power of the racketeers to intervene in daily affairs and to enforce peace, and he began to learn the potency of restraint. In the years to come, when he had ample opportunity and power, Capone always refrained from attempting to settle the score with Gallucio, who never amounted to anything more than a minor Brooklyn thug. Instead, Capone put him on his payroll as a $100-a-week errand-runner. Of course, if any harm had come to Gallucio, suspicion would immediately have fallen on Capone, so discretion in this instance proved the better part of valor.
The scarring incident, for all its symbolism, was essentially a youthful escapade, and more importantly, Capone managed to keep his job with Frankie Yale despite the uproar he had caused. However, his next violent encounter, less celebrated and far more vicious, became a milestone in his youthful career in crime. After the fight with Gallucio, Al learned to make himself useful to his boss, especially in the always ticklish matter of collections. In Brooklyn in those days, youthful hoodlums were addicted to practicing "the look": a deadly gaze designed to strike mortal fear into the hearts of their enemies. Done right, this Rasputin-like, mesmerizing gaze could be more effective than a blow to the chin, but it was not for amateurs. Trying to give "the look" with just the right degree of menace, it was easy to appear ridiculous rather than intimidating, so the young hoods practiced in their mirrors, often for hours at a time, until they got it right. Yale had the look, as did his bodyguard, "Little Augie" Carfano. Eventually Capone acquired the look, too, and he soon had an opportunity to employ it in the service of his boss.
In addition to his other interests, Yale bankrolled a number of dice games. He told Capone he was especially vexed by one character, Tony Perotta, who had broken a dice game and now owed Yale $1,500: a considerable amount of money in 1919. Perotta's position was especially vulnerable because he was in the United States illegally; if any harm came to him, the police would be unlikely to conduct a diligent investigation. Al knew Perotta slightly and agreed to collect the money.
Capone found Perotta, predictably enough, leaving another dice game. Confronting him in the hallway, Capone demanded payment. "No," said Perotta, "this isn't fair. We've known each other a long time, and now you're doing this to me?" Capone tried again to make Perotta pay, but not even throwing "the look" could make him change his mind. The incident quickly got out of hand, and before he knew what he had done, Al had shot the man. And Perotta died. When he next saw Capone, Yale, greatly displeased, demanded to know why the younger man had killed Perotta. "The guy complained," Al told him. "He had a big mouth. He deserved what he got." Yale stood back, beheld the young man willing to do a "piece of work" (the standard euphemism for murder), and embraced him. From then on, Frankie loved Al; he loved the man who would one day kill him, as well.
Al was nearing nineteen now; though he still lived at home on Garfield Place, he was in every way a man, except in the eyes of the law. Although he had encountered many women at Coney Island, he became deeply attached to a girl who lived right on Garfield Place, in a house nearly within sight of his. Her name was Domenica, but everyone called her Susie. Only thirteen years old, she had already acquired a reputation around the neighborhood for wildness, and Al soon caught the fancy of this impulsive young creature. Her extreme youth posed no obstacle to him, and they were so often in one another's company, and seen together so frequently, that marriage and children, in no particular order, seemed the inevitable outcome of the romance. But at this crucial moment the relationship ran into trouble. Either Al or his parents began formal matrimonial negotiations with Susie's family, only to learn that the girl's parents were utterly opposed to the match. They insisted their daughter was too young to marry, they wanted no part of hoodlums or racketeers, and they did not consider Al Capone a fit husband for their daughter. The romance ended, and Susie, the wild one, went on to marry another Italian youth, who, as it happened, also had connections to the rackets.
To avoid the stigma he had acquired among the law-abiding inhabitants of Garfield Place, Al began to look further afield for a mate. He passed the time at a club located in a basement on Carroll Street a small place where Irish and Italians could be found. It was here that Al met a young woman to whom, despite everything to come, despite the other women, the violence, the lengthy jail sentences, despite all that, he would always remain devoted. Her name was Mary Coughlin. She was a saleslady in a department store, slender and pretty, and on the strength of these qualifications she became his Madonna. Everyone called her Mae.
Mae was different from the other girls Al had known; she was older than he, not a child but an adult. She was Irish. And her family was more prosperous than the Capones. Though she lived just a brief stroll from Garfield Place and the dank stretches of the Gowanus Canal, she came from another culture, the world of middle-class respectability. At the time Mae and Al met, the Coughlins resided at 117 Third Place, where they occupied a pleasant, substantial row house, three stories tall, with a traditional Brooklyn stoop. The street was broad and lined with trees, in all respects a respectable middle-class Irish enclave. Like her new swain, she was the product of immigrant parents, but hers had fared rather better in America than the Capones. Her mother, Bridget Gorman, was born in December 1873 and emigrated to the United States at age nineteen, and her father, Mike Coughlin, had been born in November 1872 and came to the United States in 1891. He soon found employment with the Erie Railroad, for which he worked as a clerk. Although they had both been born in Ireland, Mae's parents probably met after they came to New York. Before marriage they lived not in Brooklyn but in southern Manhattan (in what is now called SoHo), Michael on Grand Street and Bridget on West Houston. On January 28, 1894, they were married at a nearby church, St. Anthony of Padua, which describes itself as the oldest Italian Catholic church in the archdiocese of New York. As such it was an unusual choice for the wedding of these two young Irish immigrants, but since they lived on the border of Little Italy, St. Anthony was a sensible location. They subsequently moved to Brooklyn, living first at 6 Manhasset Place, and finally on shady, serene Third Place, far from the crowding and corruption of Manhattan. At the time Mae met Capone, the Coughlin family included her parents, two older sisters named Winnie Mae and Muriel, and a younger brother, Dennis, known to every-one as Danny.
There is no record that Mac's parents objected to her relationship with Al, or were aware of his gangland connections, but it is likely that they viewed their daughter's alliance with skepticism, at best. The Coughlins were known as decent and law-abiding folk; there was no taint of gang activity or racketeering about them. Neither they nor their daughter Mae had anything to do with the likes of Frankie Yale, or his Irish equivalents, the so-called "White Hand" gangsters like "Peg-Leg" Lonergan or "Wild Bill" Lovett, who ruled the Brooklyn waterfront. At the same time, the Coughlins' address bordered an Italian neighborhood, so it was not uncommon for their children to become familiar with Italians, despite the antagonism between the two immigrant groups, but romance and courtship were another matter entirely. Believing that Italian husbands routinely beat, cheated on, and degraded their wives, many an Irish father declared that he did not want his daughter marrying an Italian; she must marry a white man. In this climate of prejudice, the Coughlins could only have regarded their daughter Mac's relationship with Capone with trepidation. By the standards of the day, theirs was virtually an interracial romance. However, young Italian men of Al's background viewed matters differently, as did some Irish girls. For the Italians, taking an Irish wife meant marrying up the social scale; furthermore, they considered daughters of Hibernia to be sufficiently pious and submissive to make good, devoted, patient wives. They would concentrate on their churches and children and stay out of their husbands' affairs. Capone's mentor, Johnny Torrio, for instance, was married to an Irish girl from Kentucky, and she was devoted to her husband, his interests in vice and racketeering notwithstanding. Italian men in pursuit of Irish mates were also aided by the reluctance of their Irish counterparts to marry at a young age. The Irish male typically waited until the age of thirty before assuming the burden of maintaining a home, while Italians of Capone's background frequently wed before they reached twenty.
Although Al was only nineteen when they met, Mae was fully two years older, a disparity she went to considerable lengths to obscure throughout her life. With Mae leading the way, the romance progressed quickly; by April she was pregnant with Al's baby. She would not have known about his bout with syphilis unless he chose to tell her, and even if he did confide, he assumed he was now healed and the episode over. However, the latent syphilis would eventually have serious consequences for the entire Capone family.
Although Mae was pregnant, the couple did not wed immediately. For immigrant Catholic families, this was an unusual situation, and it suggests that there were great tensions in the relationship at this juncture. It is possible that Al and Mae would never have married, were it not for one external factor: the draft. On September 12, 1918, when Mae was seven months pregnant, Al went down to his local draft board, located between Fourth and Fifth Streets on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, and registered with the Selective Service System. This was an action he had been required to take earlier, but he had failed to do so. At the time of his registration, the clerk, Dorothy Wasserman, noted that Alphonse Capone was five feet seven inches, of medium build, with "gray" eyes, and "dark brown" hair. He gave his present occupation as a "paper cutter" at the United Paper Box Company in Brooklyn, and listed his mother, "Theresa Capone," as his nearest relative. (A registration card for one "Alfonso Capone," born in Montella Avellino, Italy, in 1896, living in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and working as a butcher, has been widely reproduced and described as the registration card for Al Capone of Brooklyn. It is, of course, nothing of the sort.) Once Capone had registered with the Selective Service System, he was vulnerable to being sent into combat overseas along with hundreds of thousands of other American boys. However, if Al were married, with a child to support, the likelihood of his being drafted declined. Thus his marrying Mae would, at one stroke, help him avoid the draft and resolve his domestic problems. More than ever, circumstances dictated the path he would follow in life.
From then on events moved forward swiftly, the milestones crowding one another. On December 4, 1918, Mae gave birth to a baby boy, whom they named Albert Francis Capone. He was universally known as Sonny, and his godfather was the man who was virtually a father to Al, Johnny Torrio. That Torrio was willing to stand as godfather suggests that he had counseled Capone through the entire ordeal of courtship and pregnancy.
Sonny was apparently healthy at birth, but as he grew older it became apparent that he was sickly, with a tendency to catch persistent infections. As time went on, he also became hard of hearing. That unusual symptom suggested that Al had transmitted his syphilis to Mae, who in turn transmitted congenital syphilis to their child. At the time of Sonny's birth, the disease was a leading cause of deafness in children. "When deafness occurs in the congenital syphilitic," stated a respected medical textbook of the era, "it should be regarded as syphilitic in origin until proved otherwise." Even though Sonny's deafness did not appear until well after his birth, there was still a high likelihood that congenital syphilis was the cause, for its effects are often delayed for years, with the most common cases in males appearing between the ages of eight and fifteen: precisely Sonny's situation. In addition to deafness, syphilis causes stillbirths and miscarriages. Both Al and Mae came from large families, and it would have been natural for them to have a large brood of their own, but Sonny remained an only child. This raises the suspicion that latent syphilis made it impossible for Mae to carry another child to term, and neither she nor her husband would have known the real reason why this was the case. So it was that the elusive disease continued to exert an invisible but decisive influence on the Capone family. It had already disabled their boy and shortchanged them of their chance to spawn a large family, and its most serious consequences were yet to come.
Al was a father, but not yet a husband. When the couple belatedly applied for permission to wed, they misrepresented their ages, even though the marriage license they signed was a sworn affidavit. On this document, they both gave their ages as twenty, when in reality Al was still nineteen and Mae twenty-one. As his occupation he furnished not "bartender" but the more respectable-sounding "paper cutter." Further embarrassments awaited the young couple. At the time, the law specified that a man came of age at twenty-one; thus Al, who was legally a minor, had to obtain his parents' consent to marry. The law of the day also specified that a woman came of age at eighteen, so Mae was spared the humiliation of having to ask her parents' permission to join the father of her newborn child in holy matrimony. If she had, they might well have refused her request.
Finally, there was the matter of syphilis. Had the couple been required to take a blood test, it would have revealed Al's condition, but they circumvented that obstacle. In lieu of a test, their marriage license contained the statement "I have not to my knowledge been infected with any venereal disease, or if I have been infected within five years I have a laboratory test...which shows that I am now free from infection." They were not required to respond to these precautions specifically; it was simply a declaration, not a question requiring an answer. Thus the disease continued to elude detection.
Having negotiated the intricacies of the law and shaded the truth according to their whims, Al and Mae wed as soon as the bride was physically able, following the birth of their child. On December 30, when Sonny was just three and a half weeks old, the ceremony took place at the Coughlins' splendid church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, hard by the Brooklyn docks. The church was distinguished by its impressively long transept and its soaring bell tower, which afforded a view across the length and breadth of Brooklyn. It was because of splendid buildings such as this that Brooklyn had acquired its nickname, sentimental but accurate, as "the Borough of Churches."
The Reverend James J. Delaney presided at the nuptials, and Mae's sister Winnie Mae acted as a witness and probably as a bridesmaid as well, but this could not have been a joyful wedding, despite the grand surroundings, not with the parents of the bride predisposed to dislike the bridegroom, and the couple having recently become parents themselves. Still; the ceremony was far removed from the floozies at the Harvard Inn and, for Al, it constituted a giant step toward respectability. Suddenly he had direction in life. Mae certainly exerted a more wholesome feminine influence than the Sands Street whores of his youth had. For the rest of their married life, Mae always represented virtue, conventional morality, and rectitude to Al; her existence legitimized all his ventures, however nefarious and immoral. She was the family member who dutifully attended Mass, and, following the example of Johnny Torrio's Irish wife, remained wholly, willfully ignorant of her husband's business life. Pale, bland, compliant, soft, and silent. Virtue on a pedestal towering over him. Otherworldly. A household goddess. That was just the way Al wanted his wife, but Mae's isolation could only have made for a stultifying domestic life. His constant lip service to the conventional pieties of hearth and home lacked true spontaneity and warmth. By marrying Mae, Al both obeyed and disobeyed his ingrained sense of campanilismo. True, she came from the neighborhood and had spent her childhood only blocks from Garfield Place, but she was Irish. Mae, for her part, found herself cut off from her family. She had married into the Capone clan rather than the other way around, and she would have to learn to acquiesce to her rather formidable mother-in-law, Teresa, and to acquire the rudiments of the Italian cooking her husband favored. Language posed a more serious barrier, for at home the Capones still spoke Italian in a guttural Neapolitan accent, and Mae often found herself unable to understand her in-laws, whom she thought enjoyed a secret rapport with one another that she would never be able to share. She remained an outsider.
Now that he was married, with a wife and child to support, Capone veered toward a legitimate career once again. He gave every appearance of having put his youthful gang experiences behind him and of wanting to return to a quiet, respectable occupation. He quit working for Frankie Yale, and more importantly, he decided the time had come for him to leave Brooklyn, to remove himself and his new family from the gangs, the dangers, and the temptations of his former life.
It is generally assumed that he made a seamless transition from the underworld of Brooklyn to the underworld of Chicago at this juncture, but, in fact, when Capone left home, he went first to Baltimore, where he worked not as a hit man, racketeer, bartender, or pimp, but as a bookkeeper for a legitimate construction firm run by Peter Aiello, who also headed a building and loan organization. Capone's position was purely clerical. Each morning, soberly attired in a suit and tie, Al went to the Aiello offices in the Highland Town section of Baltimore.
It seemed he had put the rackets and the gaudy Brooklyn street life behind him for once and all. He made himself into a valued worker at the Aiello construction firm, displaying a good head for figures and for business in general. He became familiar with accounting procedures and learned to read a balance sheet: essential skills on which he would capitalize throughout his life. "Evidently he was a good employee, and evidently my father liked him," says Peter Aiello's son, Mike. Capone apparently enjoyed the prospect of a secure, respectable future with Aiello Construction.
As Al began to get his life on a secure footing, with a wife, a child, and a reputable career away from the corrupting influences of Brooklyn, his father's health began to decline. He stopped going to the barber shop each morning and, now that his children were getting older and leaving home, eased into retirement. At the beginning of 1920, the census taker came calling and found that the Capone household at 38 Garfield Place had shrunken to lust six: Gabriele; his wife, Teresa; their three sons (Erminio, now seventeen and working as a "candymaker," Albert, fourteen and still in school, and Amedoe, eleven); and the lone Capone daughter, Mafalda, who was a school-child of eight.
On the morning of November 14, 1920, Gabriele went, as he often did, to a poolroom at 20 Garfield Place, across the street from his home. There he collapsed without warning and died of a heart attack. He was fifty-five years old. A doctor named W. E. Martin took charge of the body at the Capone home at 38 Garfield Place and determined Gabriele Capone had died of "chronic myocarditis," or heart disease. He was buried three days later at Calvary. Cemetery in the borough of Queens; Al returned to New York to attend the funeral, as did the entire family, with the exception of Vincenzo, the oldest child, who had ceased to communicate with the family. Emigrating to America had been the great adventure of Gabriele's life; beyond that, he had little to show for all his years of work, but he had left a bounteous legacy in the form of his large family; he was survived by his widow, eight children, plus two grandchildren (from Al and Ralph) about which the family knew and others (from Vincenzo) of whose existence they were ignorant.
The death of Gabriele marked the end of Al'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. In any event, 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 Brooklyn for the comparatively open spaces of Chicago, where he now worked for the prodigal vice lord there, "Big Jim" Colosimo. The opportunities were enormous: gambling, brothels, and, with the advent of Prohibition, an entirely new profit center based on illegal alcohol. Torrio persuaded Capone that he could make much more money working in the Chicago rackets than he ever could in a legitimate field of endeavor. Capone accepted the offer, for wherever Johnny Torrio went, Al was sure to follow, with his family, his newly acquired bookkeeping skills, his latent syphilis, and his scars.
Torrio's recruitment of Capone was shrewd, for Al had served a dual apprenticeship, learning street crime with Frankie Yale and bookkeeping with Aiello Construction. Now he would be able to combine these experiences in Torrio's new organization, putting his skill with numbers to darker and more lucrative use than he had in Baltimore.
Al's career move had consequences for the entire Capone family. With campanilismo still a fact of life, everyone from his widowed mother, Teresa, to his little sister, Mafalda, was poised to follow his lead. His acceptance of Torrio's offer was a bold move for Al, the biggest he had taken in his twenty-one years. With it, he vaulted over his older brothers to assume the leadership of the family, and from this time forth his mother, his brothers, and his sister all pinned their hopes of prosperity in America on him and his relationship with Johnny Torrio.
At the beginning of 1921, the rising young bookkeeper gave notice to his boss. Peter Aiello was surprised and sorry to lose the capable young man, whom he genuinely liked and wished well. As a parting gesture of goodwill and appreciation, Peter Aiello lent Capone $500. Al never forgot the generous gesture; he vowed to repay the loan as soon as he was on his feet in Chicago, a promise he eventually honored in a way that his former boss could never have imagined. "He said that he was cut out to do bigger and better things," Mike Aiello notes of Capone's leave-taking, "and he needed money to go to Chicago because he had some opportunities there."
Copyright © 1994 by Laurence Bergreen
Table of Contents
Genealogy of the Capone Family
Part One: Pursuit
2. Where the East Meets the West
3. Memento Mori
4. Round Lake Refuge
5. The Return of Al Capone
6. The Jazz Age
Part Two: Descent
7. Slaughter and Sanctuary
8. Public Enemies
9. Secret Agents
10. The United States of America vs. Alphonse Capone
11. Circles of Hell
12. After Capone
Notes on Sources
What People are Saying About This
Joseph Wambaugh An incredible slice of American history. Capone is not only fascinating, it's great fun to read.
Peter Maas author of Manhunt This is rich American history. There was only one Al Capone, and he and his times are brought to life in definitive and engrossing detail.
Nelson DeMille author of The General's Daughter Laurence Bergreen does a remarkable job of boring through the legends, the myths, and the misinformation, to reveal the true man. Capone: The Man and the Era is just that: an incredibly engaging look at the actual Capone, presented within a rich and evocative setting of time and place. Well written, well researched, surprising, and totally entertaining.
Vincent Patrick The New York Times Book Review Certainly the definitive biography....Mr. Bergreen has written a book objective and rigorous enough to meet scholarly standards, yet colorful enough to engross the general reader.
Richard Gid Powers The Washington Post Book World Laurence Bergreen's beautifully crafted biography of Capone transcends the true-crime genre to become a masterful study of a major figure in American history....This is a great story with all the trimmings.