Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Get Capone, The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster

I’ve been a student of crime since I was a 12-year-old aspiring writer growing up in South Philadelphia in the early 1960s.

My interest in crime, and my particular interest in organized crime, stems partly from my being half-Italian and my coming of age in South Philly, the hub of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra organized crime family. Angelo Bruno, the long-time local mob boss, lived around the corner from my home.

Richard Zappile, an Italian-American who rose in the Philadelphia Police Department to become the Deputy Police Commissioner, also lived around the corner from my boyhood home. When Zappile was the Chief of Detectives, he was the cop who locked up the mob guys.

During one of my interviews with Zappile in a local newspaper in the 1990s, he said that organized crime members were very small in numbers and that most Italian-Americans, and most South Philadelphians, were honest and hard working.

Zappile was right, of course. South Philly was not then or now all mob guys, racketeers and gamblers - but the mob guys sort of stood out.

My early interest in organized crime also stems from the TV program The Untouchables, which aired from 1959 to 1963. I loved that program as a kid and I don’t think I missed an episode.

Robert Stack as the incorruptible federal prohibition agent Eliot Ness was an early hero of mine, and I loved the voice of former columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell, who narrated the program as if it were a crime documentary.

I recently watched the program on DVD and I’m sad to say that it does not hold up. The show is historically inaccurate. The Italians are portrayed as caricatures and real mob guys, according to Gay Talese, the author of Honor Thy Father, got a kick out of the show. They watched it as if it were an early version of Saturday Night Live .

The TV program was not realistic - nor was Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, although I thought Sean Connery and Robert De Niro were great in the film - but TV’s The Untouchables introduced me to the Prohibition era, Elliot Ness and a larger-than-life character named Al Capone.

Actor Neville Brand was miscast as the notorious gangster, but the TV show led me to read about Al Capone and true crime history.

Later, while attending Navy Boot Camp at Great Lakes, Ill in 1970, I visited Chicago and I took the crime tour. We stopped at several notorious crime landmarks, including the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where on February 14, 1929 seven men were brutally murdered during the Prohibition-era gangland wars. Al Capone, although he was in Florida at the time, was and remains a prime suspect. The horrific crime is unsolved to this day.

Although I’ve read several books about Capone and the Prohibition era - including John Kobler’s Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone and Laurence Bergreen’s Capone: The Man And The Era - my interest has not waned, so I picked up Jonathan Eig’s Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster (Simon&Schuster).
Eig, a Chicago writer who previously wrote about Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, states in Get Capone that he kicked around the idea of writing a book on Capone, but he couldn’t find the right angle.

Then while reading an article in the library about the prosecutor who led the government’s case against Capone, George E.Q. Johnson, he read that the prosecutor’s son stated that all of his father’s papers had been turned over to a college professor at the University of Nebraska. Eig tracked down the prosecutor’s papers, which were stacked in old boxes. Eig described the boxes as “treasure chests.”

“Here were transcripts of wiretaps typed by Elliot Ness; memos and telegrams from Herbert Hoover and his cabinet members plotting to put Capone behind bars; and handwritten notes jotted by prosecutors expressing their innermost doubts and fears as they tried to build a case they knew from the start was fundamentally flawed,” Eig wrote in Get Capone. “Here was the real story of Al Capone.”

Eig wrote he went on to receive from the IRS formally secret, raw intelligence files that had never been released to the public and he received Capone’s prison records, which included his personal letters and medical records. Eig also came across a hundred pages of notes that Chicago journalist Howard O’Brien made from his meetings with Capone when the crime lord was thinking of having O’Brien ghostwrite his life story. The book never came about, but the notes survived.

This was the “Roaring 20s,” the “Jazz Age.” A time of alcohol prohibition, yet many people still wanted to drink and party, which gave rise to the bootleggers and small-time crooks. Eig chronicles the rise of Al Capone and does a fine job of describing the crime boss and his era.

Not as well known as Capone and far less colorful, Eig also offers the story of the U.S. attorney at the time, George E.Q. Johnson. Coming from Swedish farmer stock, as Johnson himself put it, the fiercely principled and fiercely honest lawyer led the federal government’s fight to get Capone.

Due to the many murders in Chicago, the near-total disregard for Prohibition laws, and Capone’s public image, President Herbert Hoover ordered the Justice Department to “Get Capone.”

The best part of Eig’s book is his description of how the President, the Attorney General, the U.S. attorney, and a federal judge, James H. Wilkerson, conspired to bring Capone down.

I thought Eig went a bit overboard describing how much Capone was a loving family man (OK, but he was also a murderer), and I’m not convinced that Capone didn’t order the most notorious murders in American history, the St. Valentine Day murders.

Eig offers a theory that police officers killed the North Side Gangsters in revenge for the murder of a Chicago police officer’s son. Had the killers been cops, as Eig suggests, I don’t think they would have worn police uniforms to the shooting. I also believe had the shooters been cops, they would have taken the gangsters’ money.

Capone’s involvement in the murders is only a theory as well. He was in Florida when the killers (all of the suspected killers had ties to Capone) opened up their Thompson machine guns on Bugs Moran’s underlings.

Capone then traveled to Atlantic City to meet with other gangsters and then went on to be arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed gun.

Civic pride would like me to believe that the Philly detectives were on the job, but I subscribe to the theory that it was “suggested” to Capone by "Charlie Lucky" Luciano that he lay low until the clamor over the St. Valentine murders quiet down. What better place than a Philly prison? So Capone arranged to have himself arrested.

I visited Eastern Penitentiary a while back and I saw Capone’s cell. The prison, now a museum, has placed period furniture in the cell that matched photographs of Capone’s incarceration there. Capone lived better than most prisoners.

But laying low in a prison cell did not help Capone in the end. The St. Valentine Day’s murders were Capone’s undoing, whether he committed the deed or not. The murders pushed the feds to finally get Capone.

Eig’s Get Capone is a good addition to the many books about the most notorious gangster in American history, Al Capone.

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