The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster
by Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $28
During his 1882 tour of the United States, Oscar Wilde made a wry observation about the local tastes: “The Americans are certainly hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” The fantastic popularity of a whole string of movie and television gangsters—Little Caesar, Vito Corleone, Tony Soprano, to mention a few—would seem to confirm Wilde’s judgment: Americans adore crime bosses, men who live by their wits and defy the rules, the more brutal the better. The model for all of them, the Babe Ruth of gangsters in the Roaring Twenties, was, of course, Chicago’s own Al “Scarface” Capone. A bat-wielding Robert DeNiro offered a chilling rendition of the explosive killer in The Untouchables (1987). But was Capone really like that? A gusher of books, most recently Get Capone, argue the point.
Jonathan Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Chicago resident who has written excellent biographies of Lou Gehrig and Jackie
Robinson, draws a generally sympathetic portrait of Capone—a “community organizer, in his own fiendish way” who provides jobs in his neighborhood and a needed service for his customers: whores, gambling, and, especially, booze prohibited by the detested Eighteenth Amendment. In this revisionist account, Capone rarely seems to have blood on his hands. He oversees his vast operation—which the government estimated took in $95 million a year in its heyday, about $1.2 billion in today’s money—from a distance. Much is made of Capone’s love of family and his oft-stated desire to escape into a placid life, until he begins to come across as a kind of gangland Ozzie Nelson, happily arranging birthday parties at his Miami estate while, in the gentlest manner, overseeing the purchase of cops, judges, and politicians, and the manufacture and distribution
The author takes pains to insist that Capone had nothing to do with the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, though he had the means and motive to murder six members of the rival North Side Gang. Eig casts doubt on the story that Capone pulled out a baseball bat at a party and battered to death two of his men. He contends that the Untouchables version of events, whereby incorruptible G-Man Eliot Ness brought down Capone, is largely without foundation. (He doubts that Capone ever heard of Ness.) And Eig argues that the federal government treated the gangster unfairly, using the tax code to get him by dubious means after the corrupt legal system in Chicago had failed. In short, Al Capone is basically a good and likeable guy here rather than a psychopathic mass murderer who put his own greed before the good of his community, and showed little compassion for his bullet-
As Eig sees it, Capone unquestionably oversaw bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, and murder and was guilty of tax evasion as well. But he fell victim to a “secret” government plot (hence the title) to bring him down, by fair means or foul. The feds unkindly refused to settle his debt with the IRS. A judge threw out a plea deal that had been struck with the Department of Justice. And there were various irregularities during a trial that led to Capone’s incarceration for seven and a half years—a punishment that, in Eig’s view, greatly outweighed the crime.
Experts in the literature of gangland—and there are a lot of them out there—insist that the government’s case was not much of a “secret” since President Hoover publicly and repeatedly stated his intention to prosecute bootlegging and the murderous gangsters running the business. But Eig does bring to the table a long-neglected cache of the papers of George E.Q. Johnson, the shy, soft-spoken, colorless United States attorney who brought the tax case to fruition, managing a meticulous and bloodless campaign against Capone. Johnson seems a distinctly less engaging adversary than Eliot Ness; but in this account, he will have to do.
I found Get Capone so choppy and episodic—with 367 pages broken into 44 chapters—as to be distracting. The grand arc of the story, the final showdown, seems lost at times amid false starts and detours. Still, Eig’s style is undeniably engaging, reminiscent of snappy dialogue from Thirties movies: He describes early bootleg operators as “mostly gravy-stained losers—men in their twenties who still lived with their mothers.” Follies girls “burst from the seams of their gorgeously designed outfits: leggy, tiny waists cinched in, bountiful breasts thrust forward, smooth and sweet as butter.” A gangster gunned down on the street is “panting like a racehorse.” Another victim in the same hit: “Blackish blood spewed from his mouth, splashing over his face, as if he’d coughed up a bottle of ink.” A legman for the Chicago Tribune who ends up executed is described thus: “No matter what the time of day or night, he’d arrive looking like he just rolled out of bed and grabbed someone else’s clothes by mistake.”
Fun, too, is Capone’s own repartee with the press. To the considerable dismay of his fellow mob bosses, Capone seemed incapable of shutting up when a reporter was around: a love of headlines that irritated authorities in Washington, who concluded that he was rubbing their noses into it. That, no doubt, contributed to his downfall. He even defended what most would take to be indefensible, the murder of human beings to earn a buck: “What does a man think about when he’s killing another man in a gang war?” he asked rhetorically in
Well, maybe he thinks that the law of self-defense, the way God looks at it, is a little broader than the law books have it. Maybe it means killing a man who’d kill you if he saw you first. Maybe it means killing a man in defense of your business, the way you make your money to take care of your wife and child. I think it does. You can’t blame me for thinking there’s worse fellows in the world than me.
Get Capone, naturally, touches on the “Chicago way,” the corruption of law and politics in the Second City, and the use of muscle and dirty tricks to accomplish one’s selfish goals. This may well have a certain resonance in the age of the Obama White House, a product of Chicago ward politics. It is interesting to note that one of the president’s heroes, community organizer Saul Alinsky, consorted with the Capone gang for two years (this is not mentioned by Jonathan Eig) and described Capone as a “public benefactor” and his gang as a “public utility,” supplying “what the people wanted and demanded.”
The underworld can be a fascinating place, and Americans will always find something compelling about people who thwart society to get their way. Whether the ends justify such colorful means, of course, is a question every reader must answer for himself.
Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.