Feature Articles

March 2001

The Brief Glorious Days Of Al Capone

By John William Tuohy

     Al Capone was at the top of the world as 1927 began. Still, on top of the world or not, Capone had taken to sleeping with a gun under his pillow and having his brother Mimi taste all of his food.

     Capone would become America's most famous bootlegger. An odd distinction since Capone was primarily a pimp. Capone would always be more of a legend than an influence on organized crime. He was widely regarded in his day, on both sides of the law, as a crude buffoon who dug his own grave through his desire for the limelight.

     Capone owed his celebrity to the local and eventually the national media who were desperate to find a central point in Chicago's extremely disorganized and violent bootlegger business, and Capone happily complied. The press took his garbled words and rearranged them often times into witty insightful messages and commentary on the day.

     In 1922, Capone, who was more or less still a pimp and part-time enforcer, was making $2,000 a week, more money then he ever dreamed he could make but it was still a mere fraction compared to the millions that Johnny Torrio was piling away.

     Towards the end of 1927 he said he "fooled away about ten million on gambling," his going rate was $5 for newsboys, $10 for a hat check girl and $100 for a waiter. He once bought a round a drinks in a country club speakeasy in New York for 1000 people. He wore a pinky ring imported from South Africa worth $50,000. In 1929 his car cost $30,000, at Christmas he spent $100,000 on miscellaneous gifts.

     Tourist buses stopped in front of "Capone's castle," the Hawthorne Inn in Cicero and the Metropole hotel in Chicago.

     When he attended a prize fight it made the sports column, the London Daily Mail sent a reporter to cover "a week in the life of Al Capone" and stories of personal glimpses of times with Capone sold for a flat $100.

     As his fame grew so did his ego. He said that he got the horrible scars on his face and neck when he was fighting with the "lost battalion" in France.

     He distributed diamond inlet belts and gave away ruby encrusted cigarette lighters. He would buy a year's supply of coal or groceries for a family, pick up hospital bills and donate food to soup kitchens.

     He would outlast four police chiefs; he was credited with killing between 20 and 65 men himself and ordered the killing of at least 400 others and was never charged with one of them. He outlived hundreds of investigations, committees and prosecutors.

     Capone liked young, blonde, girls with lily-white complexions, the younger, the blonder, the better. His caddie at the Burnham golf course remembers peeking in through the club house window one night: "I looked through and saw about twenty couples, most of them naked. Not Al though. He just stood on the sidelines watching and laughing."

     There was nothing about Capone to mark him for fame and fortune. He dropped out of sixth grade after punching his teacher in the old Williamsburg section of New York, he impressed no one and was known only for being mediocre, a soft spoken nonentity.

     It was commonly accepted by Torrio-Capone old friends in New York and new friends in Chicago, that Johnny Torrio was the brains and Capone was the muscle and that was the way it would always be but now with Torrio gone, Capone was proving to be more than just the gorilla that most gang leaders pegged him to be and for what he lacked in gray, Jake Guzak would make up for them.

     Capone opened the year 1927 by moving his headquarters from Cicero to the Metropole Hotel at 2300 South Michigan Avenue. At the Metropole there were two rooms filled with punching bags, pull-up bars, trapezes, rowing machines and all of his staff were expected to have regular workouts. Pasley said: "They followed a schedule of training as methodical as that of college football athletes. Experience had taught him that their professional value, based on that quality commonly described as nerve, was in direct ratio to their physical fitness. It might be only the imperceptible tremor of a trigger finger or the slightest wavering of an eye or a split second of hesitancy at the crucial moment in any of a score of unforeseen emergencies yet the cost of the lapse would have to be reckoned in lives and money."

     Capone's empire included the ownership of breweries, distilleries, speakeasies, warehouses, fleets of boats and trucks, nightclubs, gambling houses, horse and dog tracks, whorehouses, labor unions, hundreds of private businesses, he employed at least 1,000 full-time enforcers, one third of the Chicago police department and several thousand other employees. His gross income was an estimated $105,000,000 for the year, at a time when a middle class American family got by, and very well, on less then $8,000.

     That was in 1927. By 1933, it was all gone and Al Capone was nothing more than a number in the federal prison system. He died broke and powerless, twelve years later.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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