“It was the Time of Al Capone”

jboyl5av on Nov 10th 2008


The era of Prohibition, the years between 1920 and 1933 in the United States, marked a period in the nation’s history where the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. [1] The Senate proposed the Amendment on December 18, 1917, after significant pressure from the temperance movement. The temperance movement strived to limit the use of alcoholic beverages, active and influential in the United States since the 1830s. With alcohol often linked to the social ills of poverty and insanity, temperance usually was associated with other reform movements. Progressive reformers were concerned with the moral fiber of society and wished to reign in the corrupting influences of liquor distillers on politicians in city, state, and national governments. [2] Not until America became involved in World War I, did the temperance movement effectively alter national policy, arguing that diverting raw materials and labor from crucial manufacturing industries to that of alcohol production debilitated the nation’s capacity to defend itself. On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, and went into effect one year later. Although President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, The “Volstead Act,” another name for the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress on an override, establishing the legal definition of intoxicating liquor and the means of enforcement for Prohibition. Although called a “noble experiment,” by President Herbert Hoover, prohibition soon became problematic in its enforcement. The Federal government’s attempt to dictate public morality could not quell the continuing demand for alcohol. People began to look elsewhere for their needs. “Bootleggers,” “bath tub gin,” and “Speakeasies” emerged, as an illicit traffic for alcohol developed. Cities became more violent, corrupt and lawless, as organized crime gangs competed with each other for the control of the sell of alcohol. [3] Chicago, rampant with corruption, was one of the most violent cities during the Prohibition era.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 17, 1899, Alphonse Capone grew up in a neighborhood rampant with criminal gang violence. Capone’s relationship with Jonny Torrio, a fellow gangster from Brooklyn, led him to move to Chicago in 1919 to engage in the underworld enterprises of James “Big Jim” Colosimo. Nicknamed “Scarface Al,” Capone bore two jagged scars on his face, signs of earlier violence. When Capone entered Chicago, bootlegging was under-developed. Capone got his start managing Colosimo’s gambling and prostitution businesses. Capone moved up the ranks of underworld crime in 1921 when Colosimo was murdered and soon entered a key position in the expanding liquor trade. During the early 1920s, Capone found himself working under Torrio in the middle of a bloody gangland struggle for the monopoly of bootlegging business. By 1928, only two powerful gangs remained: one led by Capone and the other by “Bugs” Moran. Capone “ruled one of the largest and most sophisticated criminal operations in the history of the United States,” with an estimated yearly income between $12 million and $70 million a year. As lord of a vast criminal empire, Capone was responsible for much of the violence, rampant lawlessness, and corruption that existed in 1920s Chicago. Capone’s colorful personality, defiance of the unpopular Volstead Act and his flamboyant lifestyle, however, captured the attention of the media and the American public, metamorphosing him into a “mythic folk figure.” One reporter from the Chicago-Tribune, even described Capone “harmless as a Saint Bernard puppydog.” Although some journalists fell for this romantic image, others people, such as the Federal Government, had trouble overlooking Capone’s violent nature and brutality. One event that demonstrated this brutality was The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the brutal slaying of seven rival gang members by the hand of Capone’s men in the winter of 1929 over a shipment of Canadian Whiskey. By the late 1920s, business leaders rallied against Al Capone, the symbol of corruption and gang rule in their city, gaining the title of “Public Enemy Number One.”[4]

If Al Capone is the symbol of the villain in Prohibition-era gangland Chicago, Eliot Ness would serve as his foil. Born in Chicago to Norwegian bakers, Ness was the youngest of five. After graduating from the University of Chicago, Ness began his career as an investigator for the Retail Credit Co. of Atlanta, eventually assigned to the Chicago territory. With the help of Alexander Jamie, his brother-in-law and Bureau of Investigation agent (a precursor to the FBI), Ness was able to acquire a position with the Treasury Department, working in Chicago’s division of the Bureau of Prohibition in 1927. The election of the “dry candidate” Herbert Hoover brought a newfound resolve to Federal agents to bring down Al Capone, especially after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The federal government’s strategy was two-fold: the Bureau of Prohibition would focus on Capone’s violation of the Volstead Act and the Internal Revenue agents would focus on a case for income tax evasion. Ness was chosen to head the operations under the Volstead Act, targeting the illegal breweries and supply routes of Capone, in an attempt to financially crush the kingpin. Due to the widespread corruption throughout the Chicago law enforcement, Ness looked through the records of all the treasury agents to create a reliable team; initially consisting of fifty men, it was later reduced to fifteen and finally to just eleven trustworthy men. Ness began his attack on Capone’s underground alcohol industry immediately. Ness loved conducting raids, and after six months he claimed to have seized breweries collectively worth over one million dollars. Initially, Ness relied on anonymous tips for potential locations to raid, until Capone’s agents got wind of his operation. As fraudulent calls repeatedly sent agents to random locations, Ness’s operation eventually became more sophisticated, using extensive wire-tapping to manage their targets. To break-down sturdy, reinforced doors that often concealed Capone’s distilleries, Ness and his crew manufactured a ten-ton truck, with a steel ram attached. Capone usually dealt with officials through heavy bribes, but an attempt by Capone to bribe Ness’ agents was seized on by Ness for publicity, leading to the media nickname “The Untouchables.” Their escapades did not immediately capture the interest of the media, since raids were commonplace in the period, but Ness often sought media publication to highlight his raids on the Capone outfit’s breweries. [5]

The efforts of Ness and his team had a serious impact on Capone’s operations, collecting thousands of pieces of evidence for Capone’s violation of the Volstead Act. As Ness and his “Untouchables,” tirelessly worked to gather evidence of bootlegging activities, Internal Revenue Service agents worked to put together a case for income tax evasion for Al Capone and many of his top associates. Such Agents included Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson. During one of Ness’s earlier raids, bookkeeping ledgers were confiscated. Several key testimonies from a few of Capone’s cashiers and bookkeepers of certain business operations linked the money trail back to Capone, providing proof of an enormous unreported income. The IRS’s case of income tax evasion, proved to be the key weapon in the case of Al Capone. In 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. On October 17, 1931, Capone was found guilty of income tax evasion and was sentenced to eleven years at Alcatraz prison, and following a failed appeal, he began his sentence in 1932. Although Eliot Ness’s efforts crippled Al Capone financially, leaving him vulnerable to the law, all evidence gathered through raids for the violation of the Volstead Act was never brought to trial.[6] In 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed.


[1] U.S. Constitution, amend. 14. The National Archives, under the “Charters of Freedom,” http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#18 (accessed November 11, 2008).

[2] “Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform,” The Library of Congress’s American Memory Timeline, http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/index.html (accessed November 11, 2008).

[3] The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, History of Alcohol Prohibition, http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/Library/studies/nc/nc2a_5.htm (accessed November 11, 2008).

[4] Dennis E. Hoffman, Scarface Al and the Crime Crusaders: Chicago’s Private War Against Capone (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 5-9.

[5] Paul W. Heimel, Elliot Ness: The Real Story (Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, 2000).

[6] ibid

One Response to ““It was the Time of Al Capone””

  1. erinon 03 Jun 2009 at 9:54 am

    hey i read the book called alcapone does my shirts thanks for letting learn more

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