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America's Most Wanted: The Hunt For Al Capone

May 1, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Chicago can claim its share of celebrities with global recognition — Michael Jordan and Barack Obama are international brands — but the city's most famous son might be the gangster who gets the two-fisted Tommy-gun salute. More than 60 years after his squalid, inglorious death, Alphonse Capone, a powerfully built man with two long scars on his left cheek, is still perhaps the most famous criminal who ever lived.

Jonathan Eig, a former writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of best-selling books on Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, has written a book about Al Capone's life and crimes, and the federal effort that brought him down, titled Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster.

Eig tells NPR's Scott Simon that Capone persists in our memory because during his time, the criminal was as famous as anyone in the country.

"He was huge," Eig says. "He was on the level with Babe Ruth [and] Charles Lindbergh and it was because he came along in the '20s when celebrities were just in love with the spotlight, and Capone was the first and really the only criminal that decided that he wanted to be famous, too, and he embraced celebrity."

Capone knew how to play to the people. He called his criminal organization "The Outfit," even though, according to Eig, it was "very loosely organized."

"We have this image now of him as this overlord who was in control of every bar, every casino, every speakeasy and brothel in Chicago." But Capone had a lighter business touch, and Eig says that made a difference. "He didn't try to micromanage. He let the bar owners [and] the gambling house operators do their thing, and collected his portion. And his big job was to make sure everybody stayed happy." He paid off the courts and the cops, Eig says, to keep his crew out of jail.

A People Person

How did Capone rise to such heights? Eig doesn't credit the gangster's smarts — Capone "was of average intelligence," with an IQ of 95. "But he had a real gift for organization," Eig says, "and he was a terrific people person, very gregarious, very well liked. This is not the popular image we have of him, but in fact he was a lot of fun to be around. I think that was really more the key to his success than his intellect."

A crime boss and murderer who was fun to be around? Eig says Capone could be violent, but he used his charm to "build a fraternity around him."

"That's how he survived in this business," Eig says. "He really did try to keep the rival gangsters at peace. And of course when he couldn't, then he took care of business, and that's part of being a good businessman, too, when you're in Capone's racket."

The St. Valentine's Day massacre, in which seven people were slaughtered in a Chicago garage in 1929, is a crime long hung around Capone's neck. It is supposed to have been his strike against the gang of rival crime boss George "Bugs" Moran and is often credited as being the event that raised public outrage against Capone enough to make him a target of federal prosecutors.

"I've always been suspicious," Eig says. "It doesn't make sense for Capone to have done this. In fact, the feds were already breathing down his neck. It also doesn't make sense that he would have gone after Moran in such a dramatic way and missed Moran."

In the aftermath, Moran told reporters, "Only Capone kills like that." But Eig says Moran would have had incentive to set investigators on his rival.

"What better way to take out Capone than let the feds do it? Moran would have been able to expand his turf dramatically," Eig says. "But even the cops and even the feds knew that Capone didn't do it." There was even a suspicion that the cops may have even been in on the hit, which may be "why the investigation didn't go anywhere, and why eventually, we came to blame Capone just by force of his sheer reputation."

But in researching Get Capone, Eig found new information about the massacre.

"I came across a letter in the FBI archives that offers a completely new theory," Eig says. "This letter suggested that one gangster got knocked off, his cousin came after the guy who did it, and in his rage, he killed everybody on the scene. I think everything about [the letter] that I was able to check out is supported by the facts."

'The Inactives'

The hunt for Capone also made a star out of the lawman Eliot Ness, the Chicago-based federal agent whose team of "Untouchables" went after Capone's illegal breweries. But according to Eig, Ness gets too much credit for Capone's downfall, and a better nickname for his crew would have been "The Inactives."

"He broke up a few stills and raided a few brothels," but never contributed any real evidence to the case, Eig says. "Ness was really more of a nuisance to Capone than a serious threat."

In Get Capone, the real hero of the investigation is U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson, who was tasked by President Herbert Hoover with bringing Capone to justice.

Johnson may have lost out on the popular celebration for Capone's downfall because his influence brought the criminal to famously prosaic justice: Instead of focusing on Capone's most dramatic crimes, like murder and bootlegging, Johnson went after him on tax evasion.

"He tried it out on some of the other gangsters in Chicago," Eig says. These included Capone's brother, Ralph, who went to prison for three years. "It was really the only chance they had against Capone, and they had real mixed feelings about it. They were worried that they'd be laughed at, that the government would be mocked for taking down this notorious criminal — this obvious killer — and getting him on nothing more than a tax charge.

"So it was a very interesting decision, a very important decision to go after him, and the Justice Department still refers to it as 'the Capone method.'"

Never Saw It Coming

Eig says when he was finally brought to trial on the tax evasion charges, Capone, who should have been able to afford the best legal assistance money could buy, might have been misserved by his attorneys.

"I think they were suckered by the government, and I think that Capone never saw it coming," Eig says. "He hired the guys that he usually hired for his criminal defense work. These guys knew the courts, they knew Chicago, they knew how to play the game, they knew who to bribe and how to take care of juries."

But their legal expertise didn't extend to tax law, and their gangster client didn't realize how much trouble he was in.

"I think Capone did not see the severity of this tax case and did not imagine that he could possibly go away for so long," Eig says. "He ended up being sentenced for 11 years. And Capone figured, 'These guys will make a deal for me, that's what they're good at.' And when it turned out that you couldn't deal with the government in this case, Capone was in big trouble."

In 1932, Capone was sent to prison in Atlanta. He also served time in Alcatraz and California's Terminal Island prison before winning his parole in 1939. By the time he got out, he was already a huge star. But Capone had always had a complicated relationship with the media. He didn't like his nickname, "Scarface," and Eig says he pleaded with newspaper editors to airbrush scars out of his photos.

"The media certainly made him famous — made him infamous," Eig says. Capone loved giving interviews, and the reporters loved him right back. They weren't alone. Even in his lifetime, Eig says, movies were made that were clearly based on the gangster's life, and Capone — the charming gangster — was the star of the show. "So very quickly, he could see that the public was becoming obsessed with him."

But as he was elevated to an icon, Eig says, some of the nuance of Capone's character disappeared from our understanding of him.

"I think that Capone was a complex man. I think that he was a two-bit thug who almost accidentally found himself in this position of power and extraordinary power and wealth," Eig says. "[He] made the decision that he would try to do it in a businesslike way and would try to go public with his activities, and that was a terrible mistake. He should have, like the other two-bit thugs, remained quiet about his illegal activities. But he was human."

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