This week in history: Al Capone is born

Al Capone has become the idealised mobster

America’s most notorious mobster, Alphonse Gabriel Capone, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 17 January 1899 to Italian immigrant parents. Expelled from school at 14, Al Capone joined the Five Points gang, gaining the nickname ‘Scarface’. He proved intelligent and ruthless.

In 1919, he moved to Chicago to let the heat die down after he hospitalised a rival gang member. By 1922, he’d become deputy of the Chicago Outfit and three years later took over as the Big Fellow after his former boss retired.

In 1920, American prohibition came into effect, making it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol, but also presenting a business opportunity. Capone showed skill and ruthlessness in expanding his business and by 1930 his gang controlled an empire of alcohol, gambling and prostitution, generating an estimated annual income of $100m.

Big Al basked in the limelight and his notoriety seeded the modern Godfather stereotype. Notorious for his violent temper, Capone also had a soft side, opening the first Chicago soup kitchens for the unemployed after the 1929 stock-market crash.

Although the high-profile gangster was viewed as a Robin Hood figure, the massacre of seven rival gang members on St Valentine’s Day 1929 tarnished his image.

A strict code of silence protected Capone and his crimes went mostly unpunished until 1931, when he was convicted of evading tax on his illegal income and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

While in prison, neurosyphilis damaged his mind and once released he retired to Florida, where he died of natural causes in 1947. The horror of Capone’s gangland violence has faded in time, and it’s the caricature of an idealised mobster that endures.

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