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Tracing the downfall of a mob icon

The fix was in. Al Capone, the iconic Chicago gangster who in the 1920s gave a face to the American mob, got sandbagged by the legal system he had artfully abused for years.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster

By Jonathan Eig

Simon & Schuster. 468 pp. $28

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Reviewed by George Anastasia

The fix was in.

Al Capone, the iconic Chicago gangster who in the 1920s gave a face to the American mob, got sandbagged by the legal system he had artfully abused for years.

The result: a conviction for income-tax evasion and a sentence of 11 years in prison.

But that wasn't the way it was supposed to play out.

According to Jonathan Eig, in his fascinating new book Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, Big Al was supposed to get 21/2 years after pleading guilty in 1931 to income-tax evasion and Prohibition-violation charges.

The deal was worked about by his lawyers and federal prosecutor George Johnson, head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago.

Johnson knew he had a weak case built on circumstantial evidence and less-than-credible witnesses. He agreed to the deal, figuring any conviction involving Capone - who epitomized a criminal underworld out of control - was worth taking.

But the federal judge in the case, after what Eig implies was pressure from President Herbert Hoover, nixed the deal. Hoover, Eig writes, used to start each day with an exercise routine, but before he began, he would ask his Cabinet members, "Have you got Capone yet?"

Not only did Judge James H. Wilkerson sandbag the lawyers and prosecutors, Eig writes, but he also may have rigged the jury pool for the subsequent trial, making sure it was stacked with middle-aged or older white males from the suburbs.

Capone's lawyers had hoped for at least some ethnic, working-class Chicagoans as potential jurors. But there were none.

Eig's book is a sweeping account of Capone's life set against the backdrop of a city where corruption was the norm and a country dealing with the hypocrisy of Prohibition and the devastation of the Great Depression.

Federal court was the only place authorities had a shot at convicting Capone, Eig wrote, noting that city courts were a place where "crooked lawyers bribed crooked cops to testify the right way before crooked judges."

Capone had quickly established himself in the bootlegging business after moving from New York to Chicago.

He also generated income from gambling, extortion, narcotics, and prostitution and was a suspect in more than a few murders. But he was never convicted of any of those crimes.

Eig has built his book around extensive research in court records and in newspaper accounts from the day - Capone was an unbelievably loquacious mob boss who was constantly granting interviews.

Some samples of his bons mots to reporters:

"You can get a lot farther with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile."

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I've tried to serve them decent liquor and square games."

"If I were guilty of all the newspapers accuse me of, I would be afraid of myself."

In addition to positing that the judicial system was manipulated to send Capone to jail, the book also puts the lie to the theory that Capone was behind one of Chicago's more infamous mob hits - the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

More probable, Eig writes, is that the shootings, in which seven gangsters were killed, were carried out by police to avenge the murder of the son of a law enforcement figure.

Eig also says it was a bookish accountant with the Internal Revenue Bureau named Frank Wilson who built the tax case used to convict Capone.

In a short chapter titled "The So-Called Untouchables," Eig notes that Eliot Ness "gave terrific interviews" and that he came up with a "catchy nickname for his squad of gangbusters" that had newspaper reporters "dashing for their typewriters."

But while Ness' squad busted up some breweries, it did little to bust up the mob.

The book also provides an interesting account of Capone's arrest in Philadelphia and his one-year stay at Eastern State Prison. Capone was pinched on a gun-possession charge as he exited the old Stanley Theater after watching a movie.

Big Al and three associates had stopped here while traveling home by train from Atlantic City, where a big mob confab had been held.

Capone, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1930 in an article that described him as the "John D. Rockefeller of the underworld," is presented by Eig as a multifaceted and charismatic crime titan.

He could be violent and short-tempered, yet was also caring and sympathetic. A loving father and husband, he also ran and frequented brothels. He counseled peace during a turbulent period of underworld unrest, yet was suspected of orchestrating some of gangland's most violent murders.

And all the while, he and other members of the Chicago Outfit made millions.

The estimates: $50 million a year from bootlegging; $25 million from gambling; and $10 million each from prostitution and narcotics. That came to $95 million annually, or, Eig noted, "about $1.2 billion by today's dollars."

Capone never denied he was a bootlegger, but said he was just giving the public what it wanted. In an interview with the New York Times just days before his aborted sentencing, he asked how his crimes stacked up against the pirates in the banking business and on Wall Street who had stolen from the public.

"Why don't they go after those bankers who took the savings of thousands of poor people and lost them in bank failures?" asked Capone, who was sitting behind his desk in a suite of rooms he kept at the Lexington Hotel, "his hulking frame clad in black, silk pajamas."

But those bankers, Eig seems to argue, were part of the system.

Capone was not. His lavish lifestyle - a home in Florida, another in Chicago, fancy clothes, big cigars, and days of leisure at the racetrack, on the golf course, or in some brothel - did not sit well with Hoover and those in his administration.

While the feds were never able to prove many of the things they believed Capone had done, Get Capone argues that they were determined to put him behind bars because of who he was - a quick-talking, larger-than-life outlaw who had become America's first celebrity gangster.