Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Al Capone: Chicago's Most Infamous Mob Boss

Capone Moves Up

Big Bill Thompson and William Decent Devers
"Big Bill" Thompson and William "Decent" Devers

For several years after Capone arrived in Chicago, things were comparatively quiet among the various gangs that had carved up Chicago's rackets.  Nonetheless, reform-minded William E. Dever succeeded the spectacularly corrupt Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson.   With city government nominally in the hands of an earnest reformer, the daily process of payoffs and corruption became more complicated.   Torrio and Capone decided to put many operations out of the city into the suburb of Cicero, where they could purchase the entire city government and police department.

Shortly after opening up a brothel in Cicero, Torrio took his elderly mother back to live in Italy, leaving Capone in charge of  the business in Cicero.  Capone made it clear that he wanted an all-out conquest of the town.  He installed his older brother Frank (Salvatore), a handsome and respectable-looking man of twenty-nine,  as the front man with the Cicero city government.  Ralph was tasked with opening up a working-class brothel called the Stockade for Cicero's heavily blue-collar population.   Al focused on gambling and took an interest in a new gambling joint called the Ship.  He also took control of the Hawthorne Race Track.

For the most part, the Capone conquest of Cicero was unopposed, with the exception of Robert St. John, the crusading young journalist at the Cicero Tribune.   Every issue contained an expose on the Capone rackets in the city.  The editorials were effective enough to threaten Capone-backed candidates in the 1924 primary election.

On election day, things got ugly as Capone's forces kidnapped opponents' election workers and threatened voters with violence.  As reports of the violence spread, the Chicago chief of police rounded up seventy nine cops and provided them with shotguns.  The cops, dressed in plain clothes, rode in unmarked cars to Cicero under the guise of protecting workers at the Western Electric plant there.

Frank Capone dead
Frank Capone dead
Frank Capone, who had just finished negotiating a lease, was walking down the street when the convoy of Chicago policemen approached him.  Someone recognized him and the cars emptied out in front of him.  In seconds, Frank's body was riddled with bullets.   Technically, the police called it self defense, since Frank, seeing the police coming at him with guns drawn, had drawn his own revolver.

Al was enraged and escalated the violence by kidnapping officials and stealing ballot boxes. One official was murdered.  When it was all over, Capone had won his victory for Cicero, but at a price that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Capone threw his brother a funeral unmatched in opulence.  The flowers alone, provided by racketeer florist Dion O'Banion, cost $20,000.  Lavish though it was, Frank's funeral was different than Big Jim Colosimo's.  Bergreen says that "the perfume of crushed blossoms, however sweet, did little to soothe the raw and sullen mood.   There had been a festive air about "Big Jim's funeral, but Frank Capone's youth ensured that the tone of this last rites was entirely tragic; instead of singing, there was wailing...Chicago Police Chief Collins dispatched the same cops who had shot Frank to death to observe his funeral.  Capone restrained himself from mounting a full-scale war against the Chicago Police Department." 

Capone's temper stayed under control for about five weeks.  But then, Joe Howard, a small-time thug, assaulted Capone's friend Jack Guzik when Guzik turned him down for a loan.  Guzik told Capone and Capone tracked Howard down in a bar.  Howard had the poor judgment to call Capone a dago pimp and Capone shot Howard dead.

William McSwiggin, the hanging prosecutor
William McSwiggin, the "hanging prosecutor"

William H. McSwiggin, called "the hanging prosecutor," decided to get Capone, but in spite of his diligence he wasn't able to win a conviction, mostly because eyewitnesses suddenly developed faulty memories.  Capone got away with murder, but the publicity surrounding the case gave him a notoriety that he never had before.  He had broken out of the Torrio model of discreet anonymity once and for all.

At the age of twenty five after only four years in Chicago, Capone was a force to be reckoned with.  Wealthy, powerful, master of the city of Cicero, he became a target for lawmen and rival gangsters alike.  He was keenly aware that the next lavish gangster funeral he attended could be his own.  The fragile peace that Torrio had constructed with other gangs was blown apart by Prohibition.  Gangland murders were reaching epidemic proportions.

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