Al Capone, one of America’s most famous gangsters, rose to fame as the leader of the Chicago Mafia during the Prohibition era. Born in 1899, into a respectable family living in Brooklyn, Capone struggled through school and was expelled at the young age of fourteen for hitting a female teacher.
Capone’s career in organised crime began when he met the gangster Johnny Torrio, who proved to be a great influence on the impressionable young Capone. Capone soon joined his James Street Boys gang where he swiftly rose up the ranks. Torrio moved to Chicago in 1909, and a decade later Capone would follow.
It was in Chicago where Capone rose to the top of organised crime and made a name for himself. It is alleged that either Capone or Frankie Yale were responsible for the assassination of Big Jim Colosimo in 1920, the then current Mafia crime boss, making way for Johnny Torrio’s rule. Capone would soon replace him in 1925 however, and became the leader of the group that would become widely known as the “Capones.”
What is interesting about Capone’s time in the Mafia is that his coming signaled a new age in organised crime unlike any ever seen before. First off, the crime boss enjoyed publicity and did not avoid it like most gangsters. He embraced celebrity culture and made a name of himself, making himself out to be a pillar of the community and a respectable businessman.
Secondly, whereas prior to Capone organised crime was not so much organised, more crude and loosely structured, Capone created a corporate empire. He tried to tone down gang crime violence and have run everything like it were a legitimate business. The principal reason why? Prohibition.
Before prohibition organised crime had largely been based on gambling, theft and prostitution, but prohibition created an illegal market unlike any which had existed before. With the ban on the sale of alcohol put into effect in 1920, a black market was created under Capone’s Mafia.
Ironically, although there are no official figures because its sale was illegal, it is believed alcohol consumption in the USA actually increased under prohibition. The problems which prohibition was meant to solve were actually exacerbated and made worse. Bootleg liquor brought in by the Mafia was more dangerous to drink; there being no standard of quality in the products, the result was many consumers were harmed or killed. Furthermore, the US government mandated that poisonous adulterants be added to industrial alcohol, resulting in the deaths of thousands.
Prohibition was responsible for the massive expansion of crime in the 1920’s. The money it brought in was used to bolster, diversify and expand many of the Mafia’s business interests, legal and illegal. Gangs were given the opportunity to flourish, and Capone took full advantage, allowing organized crime to grow and rise to heights never seen before. Although Capone may have publicly sought to tone down the violence associated with organised crime, as gangs expanded so did violence, and soon Chicago became the centre of a gang war which cost the lives of many.
The plain fact is that the introduction of prohibition increased risks and violence. Alcohol, a commodity which prior had been enjoyed by the average American without problem, soon became the centre point for the rapid expansion of the American crime scene. Prohibition allowed organized crime to expand like never before, giving the American Mafia an untapped source of income which the government struggled to close.
Capone was eventually convicted of over twenty-two acts of tax evasion, totalling over $200,000, but not before he left his mark. By the time Capone was sent to Alcatraz prison in 1931, he had amassed a fortune worth over $100 million and was responsible for the murders of countless people. Capone may have made himself out to be a respectable businessman, a man for the people and a “Robin Hood” type figure, but he was far from it. Rather, he was responsible for the rise of a new culture of crime in the USA. But to give him all the credit would be a touch too far, for he would not have been able to make it so far without prohibition.