Professor Kitana Ananda
November 24, 2017
When talking about dark years in the history of the United States it is almost impossible to skip the era of the “Roaring 20s”. It is undeniable that the American culture changed in many different aspects especially in different cities across the country. The City of Chicago was no exception to this. The population was increasing as much as the skyscrapers being built. Immigrants from all over were coming to this city searching for jobs and opportunities. The United States was always a door with “hope” and “prosperity”, but Chicago had something special. It was a city for strong people who weren’t afraid of being out there.This is what infamous criminal mastermind Al Capone was known for and this is why the city was his. He was made for those streets like Bonnie was made for Clyde. Capone’s acts of violence indeed shifted the life of many others and his operations proved the authorities were still a step behind the organized crime groups. Surprisingly people admired the man in the extravagant suits. The citizens of Chicago were in a moment in history ruled by Capone’s organized crime that led to many changes in society. What made Capone so different?
Al Capone was born in Brooklyn, to immigrant parents. He had a big family, as he was just one out of nine kids. Life as an Italian immigrant couldn’t be easy. Now being poor had just made everything much harder. Think about it, these are families that had found their way to an unknown country in search of a better life. Not only did these families come to new country, but they also had a new language to learn and also a new culture to familiarize itself with. Tobegin painting a picture:
“At the turn of the century more than half of the population of New York City, and most immigrants, lived in tenement houses, narrow, low rise apartment buildings that were usually overcrowded by their land-lords.” (loc.gov).
The Italian Americans that came here, often came in big families and lived in very small spaces. Sadly, for many families that were just beginning, this was the most that they could do. Now, this wasn’t the situation for every family and eventually this was seen less and less as the years went on, but it was very common at the start of the period of Italian immigration to the U.S. When it is said that the apartments were tiny and overcrowded, it actually means that. No exaggerations. The conditions many of these people were living in were absolutely insane.
The labor was absolutely terrible, for both men and women. Women were actually limited to only working in sweatshops or factories, and some didn’t even work at all! kids worked the streets selling newspapers for an incredibly low salary, if we can even call it that. Like in everyday lives, there are two possible scenarios for a situation. Scenario one: Everything is fine and life is great. Scenario two: Life isn’t as great or at its absolute worst.
“Some Italians seized upon entrepreneurial opportunities in their new home.In turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a Neapolitan American named A.P. Giannini began offering small loans to his fellow Italians, going door to door to collect interest. Eventually, Giannini’s operation grew until he was forced to rent an office in the North Beach neighborhood, then to buy a building. Today, Giannini’s Banca D’Italia has become one of the world’s largest financial institutions, the Bank of America” (loc.gov)
Does that name ring a bell? That’s something you STILL see today, multiple years later. Of course this is more like Scenario One, where everything ends up working out. He wasn’t the only person to take advantage of what he had in front of him. Unfortunately this wasn’t the reality for many Italian immigrants.
“Many Italian immigrants, however, found themselves toiling for low pay in unhealthy work conditions. At the turn of the 20th century, southern Italian immigrants were among the lowest-paid workers in the United States” (loc.gov).
Italians spent their days working in factories, delivering things, at docks, or even in mines. Most of the responded to a “Patron” who actually exploited the workers. This probably wasn’t as bad as things can get but it was definitely on its way. The salary was barely enough for their monthly expenses, and unfortunately this led to families kicked out of tenements. The second scenario was the reality of many during this period of time. Maybe Al Capone saw this future ahead of him and it had an effect in the decisions he made later on in his life. As he got older he responded to no Patron, and he was the boss himself.
Capone dropped out of school in the sixth grade. At a very young age he tried doing anything he could and started getting involved in street gangs and getting his name out there. Fast forward to Chicago, 1920. Al Capone had arrived to begin leaving his mark of infamy. At the time he arrived at the second largest city in the nation following New York City, after its reconstruction of course. Capone had arrived to this city to work for childhood friend Johnny Torrio. In “Get Capone”, the timing was perfect.
“…Things began to turn during the years of World War I. A wave of temperance swept the country. Americans we expected to sober up and sacrifice for their nation. Even Chicago cleaned itself up a little. Saloons were raided. Licenses were revoked. The high-end whores and drug dealers, fearing arrest, quit working in bordellos and dance halls and moved to hotel lobbies, where they could be more discreet” (Eig, 7).
Shortly after the occurrences listed above, The Prohibition law was in effect. Capone had arrived just in time to go against everything that the law said, and since the streets were a bit cleaner he was ready to take action. With the levels of alcohol consumption dropping to an all time low because of this law, Capone’s eyes lit up like he had everything solved. His first crime, and the one that started it all: Bootlegging.
Capone’s plan to make money was genius. He was determined to give people what they wanted and he was determined to make his fortune off going against the law enforcement. Is this is correct? Absolutely not. He did what he thought he could do best. He used his tools and experience in bars, brothels, and gang activities to his advantage. According to “Get Capone”, the more the city expanded, the more its crimes did. “By 1910, a special commission reported that five thousand full time prostitutes and ten thousand part-timers worked the city, and that, combined, they were responsible for more than 27 million sex acts a year” (Eig, 5). The amount of money made in these illegal activities was unreal. Bad things always seem the most searched for and they are were what sold the most. Chicago was a city that as its streets got emptied, it starved for the crime it once had. Al Capone started his story by feeding it by bits.
The story of Al Capone has two sides. One known by all which is filled with hits, attacks, illegal alcohol, etc. The other side of events gave Capone a lot of respect and admiration from the community. In the year 1929 the United States lived its worst times due to the great depression. The country suffered immensely, and the citizens pleaded to the government for help. This caused many people to be out in the streets. There was no money or jobs. The country was inhabitable, because of course the rich stayed rich while the poor and middle class suffered. Al Capone had a soft spot for this. Although he was a wealthy man, he helped out some people who needed it. During these very difficult years, there were many people out in the streets, with no shelter and no food. Al Capone opened some of the first soup kitchens to feed those who needed to be fed. He handed out clothes during the long winters to those who lacked it. Why bother help those who are in the streets? Perhaps this menace had a heart after all. Maybe he knew what it was like being poor, and although it isn’t much, it’s something.
A small act like this is very much needed in troubled times like those. To see it come from a man like Al Capone really says something. It shows to society that people can still help if they actually wanted to. How many people got the message? I wouldn’t be able to give you the answer to that but it sure does send a message. He wasn’t your average criminal who constantly had to hide from the authorities. No, Capone was a celebrity. Just as any other celebrity he was constantly in the public eye.
Was he treated any differently BECAUSE he was “different”? Sure there were many other mafia families and gangs, which means there were many other mobsters roaming the cities. They might have committed many of the crimes Al Capone did, but why was he such an exception in the eye of the law? Surely other criminals did time for homicides and robberies, but Capone avoiding these charges made him almost untouchable. The ironic thing is that hewas actually charged for something so simple.
“But his crimes were not easily proven in court. So federal prosecutors charged Capone not with running illegal breweries or selling whiskey or even slaughtering rival mobsters, but with failure to pay his income taxes” (Columbia Law Review).
It seems almost hard to believe, this is what the man FINALLY did time for. It was so difficult to prove Capone guilty for things the whole world knew he was in charge of, the police could never bring out the truth and along with the FBI charged him with this. Like I said in one of the previous paragraphs, the Police department was always a step behind the organized crime groups. Many things would’ve been avoided if they had just found the proper evidence, or charged him of anything they were really sure of. It was Al Capone’s way with words and actions that stopped this from happening. Yes, a lot of things could’ve been stopped with Capone being locked up earlier. The difference between him and the other mobsters was that he made sure to commit the perfect crime.
- Eig, Jonathan. “Get Capone: the Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster”.
Simon & Schuster, 2011.
- Italian – Working Across the Country – Immigration…- Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources – Library of Congress, Library of Congress, loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/italian7.html.
- Richman, Daniel C. and William J. Stuntz. “Al Capone’s Revenge: An Essay on the Political Economy of Pretextual Prosecution”.
Columbia Law Review, vol. 150, no. 2. Mar. 2005, pp. 583-639