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I WAS thinking about bad hombres with foreign-sounding names, and Al Capone popped to mind. This is not the irrational neurologic activity it might seem: My mother and father, rest their souls, knew Eliot Ness, leader of The Untouchables and one of the people contributing to gangster Capone’s downfall. In fact, my current research refines a family legend that it was Ness who single-handedly cornered Capone into the latter’s years in stir.
My parents got to know Ness in the latter portion of his public service career. In 1947 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in my native Cleveland, Ohio. By that time, Ness had known ups and downs, affected by poor business acumen and, ironically enough, an enthusiasm for booze. Indeed, assessing his business acumen, Wikipedia lists one of his jobs as “salesman of frozen hamburger patties to restaurants.”
My mom worked for this Cleveland place and I can correct one alternative fact: They weren’t merely frozen hamburger patties; each was thinly sliced strips of steak, with a pocket of ground beef within their two layers. Just for the record, these multilayered delicacies were delicious. And I remember Ness driving a ’54 Ford convertible with a missing rear window.
Al “Scarface” Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Italian immigrants. The Capones from Napoli were a respectable family; Al’s father, a barber.
Despite this, one of Al’s early jobs in New York City was a bouncer at a brothel run by the Five Points Gang. In 1920, Capone moved to Chicago and added illegal booze, fostered by U.S. Prohibition, 1920–1933, to the skin trade and other illegal stuff.
In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling with far-reaching implications: Illegal activities were subject to income tax. Capone didn’t realize it, but his downfall was predestined. He bought a Palm Island estate, a 1922 Mediterranean Revival in Miami, and immediately started to renovate the place extensively. Though Capone did all these transactions in cash, the assets of the estate were tangible—and traceable as evidence of considerable income.
In Chicago, a gang war between Irish-dominated North Siders and Capone’s Italian South Siders grew in intensity to culminate in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Thursday, February 14, 1929. Wikipedia notes that this incident, “resulting in the killing of seven men in broad daylight, damaged Chicago’s image—as well as Capone’s”
Who knows the effect on image had it happened at night?
In any case, Capone became “Public Enemy No. 1.” U.S. District Attorney George Emmerson Q. Johnson was tasked with finding enough non-bribable Chicagoans to take Capone down. No mean task, this.
Johnson appointed Ness to attack Capone’s finances by searching out and destroying the gangster’s breweries and distilleries located throughout Chicago. Biography.com notes “Within the first six months of operation, Ness and his crew seized 19 distilleries and six major breweries, denting Capone’s wallet by approximately $1 million.” Later, Capone lost another $200,000 in another raid of a single brewery.
Let’s see. One million-two in 1929 is around $17 million in today’s cash. Hardly chump change, even for Capone. By the way, according to Biography.com, “Always smartly dressed, he set out to be viewed as a respectable businessman and pillar of the community.”
In 1930, Ness was offered $2000 to stop ruining Capone’s refreshment business, with another $2000 for each week this oversight continued. Ness refused and immediately called a press conference in which he announced that neither he nor any of his team could be bought. Hence, the Chicago Tribune coining the term The Untouchables.
Capone retaliated with intimidation of Ness’s team and their families. Ness responded by telephoning Capone one day and telling him to look out his window at 11 o’clock. Precisely on time, Ness paraded a fleet of Capone’s seized vehicles on their way to be auctioned off.
Capone countered with three murder attempts on Ness. Ness and his men retaliated by destroying a secret brewery discovered on the top two floors of an office building. This one cost Capone another estimated $1 million.
Geez. How’s a guy to bribe people without any cash?
On March 13, 1931, a federal grand jury determined that Capone had a 1924 tax liability of $32,488.81. Later, it found another 21 counts of tax evasion totaling more than $200,000. There were also problems with violating Prohibition’s Volstead Act, but the tax evasion took legal precedence.
At first, a deal was secretly struck between government prosecutors and Capone’s lawyers: He’d plead guilty to a lighter charge and get two-to-six. However, newspapers got wind of the deal and campaigned against it. All bets were off.
On October 6, 1931, Capone was put on trial in Chicago’s Federal Court Building. He had already lined up a list of jury members to bribe, but the judge saw this coming: At the last minute, the jury was exchanged for another one to be sequestered so Capone’s boys couldn’t get to them.
After nine hours of deliberation, on October 17, 1931, the jury found Capone guilty of several counts of tax evasion. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and socked with $50,000 in fines and another $30,000 in court costs. Bail was denied.
Capone served time in Philadelphia and Atlanta, then was moved to Alcatraz in 1934. Already suffering from tertiary syphillis, he was ill and disoriented.
Released after six and a half years “for good behavior,” Capone returned to his Palm Island estate in Miami. He died there, age 48, of cardiac arrest on January 25, 1947.
Eliot Ness, largely forgotten and short of money, died of a heart attack, age 54, at his home in Coudersport, north-central Pennsylvania, on May 16, 1957. His book, The Untouchables, was published posthumously that same year. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017