This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and a mindless, blubbering invalid. This is also the story of a loving son, husband, and father who described himself as a businessman whose job was to serve the people what they wanted. Al Capone was all of these.
He died in 1947, and almost seven decades later it seems that anywhere one travels in the world, people still recognize his name and have something to say about who he was and what he did. Everyone has an opinion, and yet, within the deeply private world of his extended family, there is an ongoing quest to find definitive answers about its most famous member.
The saying goes that family history is often a mystery and that “all families are closed narratives, difficult to read from the outside.” Attempting to reconstruct their truth is much like trying to solve the most complicated puzzle imaginable. In the case of those who bear a name that is famous or, as in the case of Al Capone’s relatives and descendants, infamous, the task can be heavy indeed.
Some of his relatives found it easier to change their surname than to deal with its history, choosing to distance themselves and deny the relationship for a variety of reasons. Some merely wanted to lead ordinary private lives. Some said they feared reprisals from gangland Chicago, while still others who remained “connected” in varying degrees said they wanted to make their way in that world unencumbered by Al’s long shadow. Still, there were those who kept the Capone name but said it was the reason why they had to lead peripatetic lives, some moving as far away as they could get, while others only moved cautiously from one town to another throughout northern Illinois, never far from the security and familiar environment of Chicago.
In recent years, the question of who has the right to claim a legitimate place within the family of Al Capone has resulted in some interesting pieces that may or may not fit into the puzzle of its history. “You who only know him from newspaper stories will never realize the real man he is,” said his sister Mafalda in 1929, when he was in his prime. It is a remark echoed in so many other instances by his granddaughters, who have only recently become involved in sorting out what they call their “amazing family history.” All four granddaughters (three of whom survive in 2015) called Al Capone “Papa.” They loved him deeply as small children and still do as adults. With children and grandchildren of their own who ask about Papa, they now call him a “conundrum.”
One of the questions they ponder repeatedly is how one man could embody so many vastly different personality traits. They talk among themselves about their family history; they argue and debate about whose memory is the most correct and the closest to the truth. They always strive to assess their grandparents and parents with honesty, objectivity, distance, and detachment, and they admit the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of arriving at definitive conclusions.
When they talk about their papa, they first put “Al Capone” in air quotes as they ask themselves what gave rise to the myth and legend. How did the grandfather they adored fit into all these stories? Where was the real person within the grandiose and exaggerated public personality, whose exploits continue to grow more outrageous seven decades after his death? What was it that makes the name of a man who died sick, broke, and demented in 1947 so instantly recognizable a decade and a half into a brand-new century? Are we fascinated with him today because of the so-called Roaring Twenties, the colorful time in which he lived? Is it because we now seek to understand the many ethnic histories that formed our country, and therefore the circumstances of his birth and family life as an Italian-American that might shed light on our own assimilation as Americans? Or, is it simply Al Capone’s larger-than-life personality, the outsized figure who strutted across our historical stage for such a brief time that we did not have enough time while he was with us to assess him? After so many intervening years, can we figure him out? And after seven decades, is nothing left but the myth?
The members of his family agree with me that the enigma of Al Capone is a riddle to be solved and now is the time to try to do it. I was initially contacted by several members of the immediate family and the extended clan who were undertaking their own searches into the origins of their family and its subsequent history. I have been privileged to discuss my book with those people, and I have also benefited greatly from interviews and conversations with many other members of the extended Capone family whom I met throughout my research. Here, when I speak of the extended clan, I am including those who are definitely related, those who claim to be, and those who would just like to know whether or not they are.
While most prefer to keep their lives as private as possible and asked me not to reveal their true names or where they lived, they all agreed that everything they told me would be on the record. Those who asked me to keep their lives private often have children or grandchildren who don’t mind being identified at all; they tell me it’s “cool” to have a relative like Al Capone because he is far enough in their past that no onus is attached to their present circumstances. I have honored everyone’s wishes because they all insisted that everything they told me was the truth as they knew it.
Mine is a curious hybrid of a book, because I concentrate more on the private man than the public figure. I admit that it is impossible to write about Al Capone without taking notice of the major events of his public life, but my aim was not to give yet another version of such well-trod ground unless I could provide new insights into it. Rather, my intention was to look at his public behavior within the context of his personal life, to see how the two might possibly be interrelated, and how the one might have had influence or bearing on the other. This was not an easy task, and like his family members I still wonder if it is possible to arrive at that curious postmodern concept of “the real truth.” Starting in his lifetime, so many histories, biographies, articles, and profiles were written about Al Capone that even with today’s technology it is impossible to arrive at an accurate tally of the secondary documents. All of them purported to be the truth, and perhaps they were at the time they were written. But as we know, what is true for one generation is usually subject to new and different interpretations by the next.
Whenever I speak to any member of the Capone family, our conversations always seem to end on the same note: the enigma of Al Capone is a riddle that our efforts may help to solve, and we share the consensus that our contributions to the task are beginnings but certainly not the final endings.
Chapter 1: The Early Years
Gabriele Capone was twenty-nine years old when he boarded the ship Werra that brought him to the United States in June 1895. With him were his wife, Teresa Raiola Capone, twenty-seven, and their two sons, three-year-old Vincenzo and seventeen-month-old Raffaele. Although they traveled as most other Italian immigrants did, in second class or steerage, Gabriele was unlike the majority who had to indenture themselves to pay for passage, for he had a trade that paid his family’s way. He was a baker who had specialized in making pasta, which earned him a decent living in his native village of Castellammare di Stabia, just outside Naples. He was confident that his skills would easily lead to employment that would let him thrive in the New World. Gabriele was unlike his countrymen in another way: although Naples and its surrounding villages provided one of the largest contingents of Italian immigrants to America, and many bore the fairly common surname of Capone, none of his closest relatives had left their village, so no one was waiting on the dock to greet him and ease his way. A third distinction from most of the nearly fifty thousand other Italians who arrived that same year was probably most significant: he could read and write and had acquired a smattering of English that, coupled with a natural linguistic ability, he used from the beginning to navigate the teeming perils of life in New York.
A rumor surrounding his arrival has it that Gabriele did not enter the United States directly because he did not have enough money to pay the entrance fee imposed on immigrants at Ellis Island. Some of his descendants believe that he went instead to Canada and sneaked over the border, although they have no documentation to show how he would have found the money to go there if he did not have sufficient funds to leave Ellis Island. It is one of the earliest myths surrounding the origins of the Capone family in America; all that can be verified is that Gabriele Capone avoided New York’s largest Italian settlement in Manhattan’s crowded, crime-ridden Mulberry Bend on the Lower East Side and headed directly for Brooklyn. He had been forewarned of Mulberry Bend’s dangers by the letters written by others from his village who came before him, but the tenement apartment he found in the area near the New York Naval Shipyard was not much better. Known locally as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it was another gang-infested area of vice and crime where local thugs took turns hassling and assaulting the sailors who poured out of the main gate at the end of Navy Street. It was cheaper to live there than in Manhattan, and Gabriele thought it a possibly better place for a pasta maker to find work as a baker. However, this was not to be, and to find a way to support his family, he re-created himself as a barber.
His initial plan was to find work in someone else’s shop until he could save enough money to set up one of his own, but he could find no one to hire him, so he had to take whatever work was offered. There is no mystery about why he abandoned baking, for it would have cost money he did not have to set up a shop of his own, which was the same reason he did not initially become a barber with his own shop. Other Italians who could not afford to set up a shop usually practiced their trades in their homes and made enough money to scrimp by, which Gabriele could have done as well. However, he was a cautious man, which was probably why he chose instead to find steady work alongside 90 percent of the city’s Italian population, doing day labor whenever he could find it.
Much of it was the “dirty work” done under the auspices of the city’s Public Works Department, the hard and dangerous physical labor building subways, sewers, and skyscrapers that no other ethnic group was desperate enough to take. Italians had replaced the Irish at the bottom of the ethnic influx by the 1890s, when an official in city government described the situation succinctly: “We can’t get along without the Italians; we want someone to do the dirty work and the Irish aren’t doing it any longer.”
Gabriele fared better than most when he was hired as a grocery store clerk because the job enabled him to read, write, and speak English a little better every day. It was different for Teresa, who was already pregnant with her third child before the boat landed and who gave birth in 1895 to another son, Salvatore, in the Navy Street tenement. From the time they arrived, she helped her husband save money for a barbershop by taking in piecework for various garment factories. Because she worked at home and because everyone in her small enclosed world only spoke Italian, she had little reason to improve her English and throughout her life spoke it hesitantly. She was like most other Italian-American women of her generation, who all used the expression of going “down to America” when they had to venture beyond their known worlds of local tenements and shops; Teresa was representative of all their hesitations and fears because she insisted that her only safety came from within the sanctity of the family, which she always gathered close about her.
Whether by accident or design, there were no more children until 1899, when Gabriele was finally able to set up his own shop in a slightly better neighborhood at No. 69 on Brooklyn’s elegantly named Park Avenue, a street whose quality of life was far removed from its Manhattan counterpart. He moved his growing family into an apartment above the shop where they were living when their first child conceived in the New World, Alphonse, was born on January 17, 1899. Teresa had hoped this pregnancy would result in a girl who would mark the end of her childbearing years, but neither was to be.
Alphonse was followed by five more children, the sons Erminio (1901), Umberto (1906), and Amadoe (1908) and the daughters Erminia (born and died 1910) and Mafalda (1912). At home, each child was called by the formal Italian baptismal name, but on the streets and at school the boys quickly adopted American versions. Vincenzo called himself Jimmy, and the others became (in the order of their birth) Ralph, Frank, Al, John (or sometimes Mimi), Albert, and Matthew (or Matty). Mafalda, who bore the pretentious name of King Victor Emmanuel’s coddled princess daughter, never had a childhood nickname, for she liked the status her name gave and would not have tolerated one. Only as an adult were some of her favored nieces and nephews permitted to call her Aunt Maffie, and if she was in one of her bad moods, she might not respond until they used her full name.
Brooklyn’s Park Avenue, unlike Manhattan’s WASP enclave, was a curious mix of ethnic identities. Al came of age in the decade between 1910 and 1920, when the metropolitan area swelled with an immigrant influx that amounted to—according to the lawyer and patron of the arts John Quinn—“seven or eight hundred thousand dagos, a couple of hundred thousand Slovaks, fifty or sixty thousand Croats and seven or eight hundred thousand sweating pissing Germans.” To Quinn, they were “nothing but walking appetites,” and as he thought of so many other earlier arrivals, he despised them as well.
The Capones lived among them, on the fringe of the Italian section where it gave way to a mix of Irish, German, and eastern Europeans. Unlike other Italian ghettos in the New York area, where buildings were occupied by compatriots from the same province, sometimes segregated by floor based on families who came from the same tiniest villages, the Italian residents of this particular part of Brooklyn came from a variety of Italian homelands and spoke different dialects. Here, only the Sicilians kept to themselves in buildings of their own, but on the streets Al’s playmates and school classmates traced their origins throughout the poorest parts of southern Italy, from Sicily to Campania and Calabria. They all spoke “broken” English as he did, a mix of the dialects they heard at home and the heavily accented English that was pounded into them at school. The children of the other nationalities reflected the hodgepodge that was New York English, which made Al comfortable enough from his early childhood to move freely among other “Americans,” as Italian-Americans dubbed anyone who had not come from their homeland. He was at ease among other ethnic groups and had no trouble relating to other nationalities, a quality that was apparent in the diverse group of people he hired as an adult gang leader.
Teresa stayed healthy and became the rock-solid foundation of the family despite bearing so many children and living one step up from hardscrabble poverty in a small apartment with no heat and an outhouse down the stairs and out the back. They were even more crowded when they took in two boarders (one of whom worked as an assistant barber to Gabriele). Her word was law to her children, and it had to be, because, although she and Gabriele had a marriage based on love and mutual respect, his constitution was not as robust as hers. He would lay down family law, but she was the parent who enforced it. Whether he was weakened from the hard physical labor of the first grim years of their American life or whether he was simply prone to catch whatever illness came along, Gabriele was often not in the best of health. He did, however, work hard at his barbering, and he did have a steady enough clientele that allowed him to be the primary financial support for the family. It gave him great respect in the eyes of his children and the community.
Gabriele and Teresa seized every opportunity to prosper in their new life, and the extra income brought by her sewing and the two boarders was a great help in making them relatively comfortable in comparison with many of their fellow Italian immigrants. Unlike most, they did not expect their sons to quit school and go to work at the earliest opportunity, for although it was not actually said to the children, the parents valued education as a way to get ahead. Gabriele was a quiet man who liked to spend his evenings reading Italian newspapers or going to his social club just next door, where he enjoyed playing cards and billiards, while Teresa usually busied herself at home with some sort of sewing. With the exception of shopping, the only time she left the house was to go to daily Mass, for she was deeply religious, or for the evening meetings of the church’s sodalities, as the women’s groups were called. Whether or not Gabriele shared her devotion, he was like most other Italian men, for he (and the boys shortly after they received their first Communion) did not attend Mass on Sundays, let alone weekdays.
Both parents were highly respected within the Italian community, each known by the honorific titles of “Don Gabriele” and “Donna Teresa.” By comparison to many of their neighbors, this extra degree of respect added to the general impression that they were reasonably secure and therefore, in the eyes of their countrymen and other neighbors, better off than most of them. The Capone family had come up in the world after 1906, when Gabriele took the oath to become an American citizen. The following year, they moved to a slightly better neighborhood when Gabriel (as he wrote his name now that he was an American) found commercial space for a barbershop with an apartment above it on a street called Garfield Place. The neighborhood was solidly traditional Italian, but the Capones once again lived on a street that was on its fringe, on the downhill side of Park Slope where Brooklyn’s Little Italy abutted the solidly Irish Red Hook section. Italians were a minority in their building, which was mostly inhabited by Irish families or those relative rarities, native New Yorkers.
This was a household of some culture; Gabriel tried to share with his sons the ideas and interests he gleaned mainly from Italian and American newspapers and conversations with his clients, but none of the older boys were much interested. Jimmy just wanted to go to the movies to watch the cowboys, particularly his hero William S. Hart. His secret ambition was to go to Hollywood to become a cowboy movie star, but until he could get there, he went to Coney Island to hang around the stables of ponies he could not afford to ride. Ralph, who had no interest in anything at home, took up with street gangs as soon as he was old enough to do so. Frank, the best looking and most intelligent among all the brothers and possessed of more street smarts than the two older ones, soon followed Ralph but in a much more subdued manner. While Ralph often used his brawn to intimidate others into giving him what he wanted, Frank preferred not to risk harming his pretty-boy features, instead using charm and intelligence to persuade others to do his bidding. Despite being the third son who was supposed to defer to his two older brothers, Frank had such a way about him that he often took the lead in deciding what Jimmy and Ralph should do, and young Al looked up to him as well.
All the Capone boys respected their father and knew better than to oppose him in any way, for to do so would bring the wrath of Teresa down upon their heads—and their backsides. And yet, despite having parents who urged their sons to better themselves and rise to success through honest work and education, every one of the boys left school as early as he could and turned to crime in one form or another. Al was the only one who found extraordinary success through illegality and also the only son who, from the first, thought of himself as “American” rather than Italian or even Italian-American. His earliest memories were of the melting pot in which he grew up among different ethnic groups. As an adult, he grew angry when anyone called him Italian, saying repeatedly and angrily, “I’m no Italian, I was born in Brooklyn.”
By the time they arrived on Garfield Place, the eight-year-old Alphonse had already established a reputation in both groups as a brawler to reckon with. As one of Al’s many biographers said of an Irish kid in the neighborhood who was much like him, Al’s mere “existence presented a challenge.”
This reputation was cemented after a fight that has gone down in Capone lore as “the incident of the washtub,” or how Al rescued Mrs. Maria Adamo’s stolen washtub and used it as a weapon in a fight with an Irish gang that disrespected Italian women. Nothing in that version of the story was true. What is true is that whenever the Italian matrons ventured out onto the streets to do their daily marketing, the Irish boys liked to sneak behind them and pull up their voluminous long skirts and petticoats to reveal their bare legs and the bloomers they wore underneath. Because none of the Italian boys had yet been brave enough to stop them, the Irish were boldly escalating their attacks by invading Italian neighborhoods, doing damage to property, and occasionally stealing whatever they could easily haul away. However, they did not steal Mrs. Adamo’s washtub, because it was not something they needed or wanted. It was their arrogant demeanor that the Italian boys could not allow to go unchallenged.
The Italian boys were led by Frank Nitto, later to be known as Al’s enforcer, Frank Nitti, who was then almost eighteen and a decade older than most of the others. Al was between the ages of eight and nine and already had a reputation for his fighting prowess, so Nitti made him the mascot of “the Boys of Navy Street,” as they called themselves. The older boys “borrowed” the washtub and strapped it to Al, upside down and in front. They found two sticks and told him to be the gang’s drummer who would lead their song as they marched to confront their Irish enemy, “We are the boys of Navy Street/touch us if you dare!” Once they engaged the other boys, the fight ensued, and throughout it Al stood in the midst of the fray, beating his drum and singing his song. After the fracas ended, the washtub was dutifully returned in time for Mrs. Adamo’s next day’s washing, and Al’s reputation as a foot soldier who could be counted on in a fight was assured.
Until Al was fourteen or fifteen, stories told by his contemporaries describe him as a nice boy who, after he quit school and went to work every day, always brought his entire paycheck home to his mother. He was well-known on the streets of his neighborhood because that was where everyone congregated for most of the year to escape the overcrowded, squalid, and fetid tenement apartments in which they had to live. In good weather, family life, from the oldest patriarch to the newest baby, was lived outside, on the stoops and on the streets. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, so the memories of Al hanging around in pool halls or on the streets are true, but so too are the stories of how he had to be home every night at 10:30 or face the ire of his mother.
The writer Daniel Fuchs, who portrayed Brooklyn life with unstinting reality in his novels, knew Al and remembered him as someone unlikely to become a flamboyant gangster because, as a boy, he was “something of a nonentity, affable, soft of speech and even mediocre—in everything but dancing.” Fuchs was most likely depicting Al before his first foray into criminality, which probably did not happen until after he quit school and was in his early teens, when his father set him up in what was meant to be an honest business.
Gabriel was aware of the fights that the Navy Street Boys led Al into, and he worried that the petty thefts and bad stunts they pulled might escalate into something far more serious. Al had taken to hanging out at one of the ubiquitous social clubs that dotted the neighborhood, this one called the Adonis, with a basement outfitted for target practice where he is believed to have held a gun for the first time. He was fourteen and big for his age, so to steer the boy away from a place where he could get into real trouble, Gabriel gave him a shoe-shine box and told him to stake out a position on the busy intersection of Union and Columbia Streets, where pushcarts lined the sidewalks and vendors hawked their wares in competition with the shops. Gabriel had tried earlier to set Frank up in the shoe-shine business, but the enterprising Frank sold his box to another boy for a handsome profit, then used the money to gamble and, with his winnings, to buy the flashy clothes he had begun to fancy. In the vernacular of the time, Frank was becoming a snazzy dresser and a ladies’ man, and Al was eager to imitate him.
Although Gabriel had given up on his three older sons, he was trying to turn the next in line into a businessman who would see the wisdom of moving up in the world through honest labor. He told Al to park his box under the big clock that was the busiest spot on the street, where he would have the best chance of making the most money. It was also the location where some of Don Batista Balsamo’s men conducted much of his business. Don Balsamo, whose informal but always respectful title was “the ‘mayor’ of Union Street,” was also “the first godfather of Brooklyn.” Al observed the don’s minions as they made their weekly rounds to extort the local merchants into paying protection in exchange for doing business safely. Watching them gave Al the inspiration to go into the protection racket himself but on a much smaller scale that would escape Balsamo’s notice and therefore his punishment.
Al’s target was the other shoe-shine boys who brought their boxes to Columbia Street as soon as they saw what a lucrative spot it was for him. The first employees who did his actual collecting were two of his cousins, Charlie Fischetti and Sylvester Agoglia, and two of their friends, Jimmy DeAmato and Tony Scrapisetti. Al had learned the fine art of delegation from watching Frank, who, like the don, chose other boys to be his enforcers and seldom did the dirty work himself. He also noticed that Frank usually chose boys who were sometimes older than he but not nearly as intelligent or innovative and who were therefore content to be followers and not try to usurp him as leader. It was a practice Al followed throughout his adult career.
As this, his first business, grew, Al’s helpers expanded to include other boys eager to make easy money. Soon this fairly large group began to think of themselves as a gang and gave themselves a name, the South Brooklyn Rippers. Their protection racket was ultimately unsuccessful when the Balsamo organization simply booted them off the street, but only after smiling at the boys’ audacity and taking careful notice of who among them might become useful in the future. Eventually, it brought the boys, particularly Al, to the attention of two other rising stars in the criminal firmament, first Frankie Yale, né Ioele, and then Johnny Torrio. They watched as Al branched out from Brooklyn and strutted into Manhattan, where Ralph was now operating.
Ralph Capone left Ralphie with his mother, Florence, when she returned to claim him briefly before giving him up entirely to be raised by his grandmother Teresa. Ralph moved from his parents’ home to Manhattan around 1917, where he had more opportunities to be with women, mostly the prostitutes and dance hall girls his mother would have frowned upon, and where he was doing deals that were just on the fringe of illegality. He was involved with the notorious adult gang called the Five Points, which specialized in selling stolen auto parts or sometimes actual cars, but more likely Ralph was just doing whatever odd jobs gang leaders assigned in order to pick up a quick buck. Al sometimes joined his brother in the city, where he became familiar with the streets of the Lower East Side, pulled pranks with other ruffians, and seized whatever opportunity he could to pick up a bit of change. Soon he was part of a loose affiliation who called themselves the Forty Thieves Juniors, and that brought him to the attention of his ultimate crime boss, Johnny Torrio.
One of the reasons the very young Al Capone thought Torrio presented such an attractive role model was that he operated in the mold of his admired older brother Frank, when in actuality Frank probably learned this technique from Torrio. He, too, was a snappy dresser, a short and slight man who never sullied his hands and whose preferred way of doing business was to use the biggest thugs he could find as his enforcers. Torrio must have had a silver tongue to go along with his considerable intelligence, for he “dominated his swollen-muscled thugs with a large brain abetted by a colossal nerve and will.” This impressed young Al, as did Torrio’s one consistent expression, that there were spoils out there aplenty and therefore no need for violent conflict because there was more than enough to go around.
Torrio and his gang gathered in one of the euphemistically titled “social clubs” that filled all the neighborhoods where they lived. The clubs had names that subtly identified which of two kinds they were: some bore the name of an Italian province, city, or hero, and law-abiding Italian men gathered there in the evenings to read newspapers, shoot pool, and talk among themselves; in others, such as the one bearing the name of the John Torrio Association, dangerous-looking men congregated all day long and stayed far into the night, not really doing very much of anything but always ready for whatever might arise. In pleasant weather, all the men hung out on the sidewalks in front of both kinds of clubs to watch the passing scene. Al was still in school when he had to walk past Torrio’s every day, where men who did his bidding noticed the big kid just as he noticed them. Around the time he turned sixteen, he was mounting the stairs to Torrio’s second-floor office and running numbers along with a host of other boys.
Here again, legend steps in: Before entrusting them with bags of money, Torrio allegedly would not be in his office when the boys arrived for their first interview. They would be invited to wait for him in his inner sanctum, where a large pile of money would be sitting on his desk in clear view. Some of the boys could not resist the temptation and took all or part of it, and they were immediately dealt with and dismissed. This tale is told about Al Capone in a variety of versions, but in each he was always a paragon of virtue who left the money untouched, thus earning Torrio’s complete confidence in his trustworthiness.
In recent years, Torrio’s importance in the annals of American crime has been diminished if not eclipsed because of Al Capone’s near-mythical stature. It would be unfair to relegate him to the sidelines when he was, in the words of Herbert Asbury, an early and astute scholar of crime, “probably the nearest thing to a mastermind this country has yet produced.” Torrio was active in Chicago criminal activity as early as 1909, going back and forth between there and New York until the late teen years, but by the 1930s, when he was an established figure and the word “crime” had become synonymous with the city of Chicago, the city’s crime commission called him “an organizational genius,” singularly responsible, as one of Capone’s many biographers put it, “for the development of modern corporate crime . . . casting traditional Italian racketeering in the American corporate mold, making its vices available to all, not just Italians, eventually extending its turf far beyond the streets of Brooklyn to the entire nation.”
Johnny Torrio was indeed a formidable role model for a canny and intelligent boy looking to move up in the world, one who lived in a place where honest and upright role models were few and far between for the simple reason that their Italian surnames denied them so many opportunities within the American dream. In Al’s case, it was easy for the young boy to have tremendous respect for the man who paid him handsomely for running numbers and carrying messages, work that was so much easier than bending over a shoe-shine box all day long. However, there seems to have been a gap in his thinking, a disconnect between the chores he did for Torrio and the money he was paid, which he dutifully brought home to his mother: the money was good, and it was probably better not to think about what he had to do to earn it.
There is no question that from the first he was unlike Torrio’s other boy collectors and messengers, for at the beginning, and for reasons still unknown, he was the one whom Torrio never sent into the brothels. So what if Al collected bags of betting money from the saloons? He was only there in the daylight hours, when there didn’t appear to be anything all that wrong with what he saw. He was not privy to beatings, shakedowns, and murders. He knew these things happened because everyone on the street talked about them, but they were done by men and boys so far down the Torrio organization’s ladder that it seemed they went on in another world, one that did not touch its dandified leader, whose hands (literally as well as metaphorically) were scrupulously clean and who kept the hands of a small coterie of his best workers clean as well.
Al had a way with numbers and could add them up with such alacrity that he was soon one of the boys at the very top of Torrio’s heap, often tapped to help the guys in the office who totted up the daily haul. He was still very young when he learned about Torrio’s other businesses, everything from extortion to brothels, and he observed how Torrio never dealt with any of them directly. Al watched as he worked and waited eagerly to assume the ever increasing responsibilities Torrio delegated to him. These eventually included visiting the brothels and perhaps enjoying the girls while collecting the bags of money they earned. When he went into bars, businesses, or homes to intimidate people into paying up, he used a frighteningly unflinching stare that he learned by practicing in front of a mirror. As an earlier biographer astutely stated, “What Torrio, with his brilliant, analytical mind was able to conceive, Al would eventually be able to execute.”
However, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, even though he was fast rising in Torrio’s organization in Brooklyn, not too many people would have thought of Al as much more than his brother Ralph’s sidekick, the one who liked to shoot pool and go dancing with other Italian men who frequented the dance halls that lined the streets of lower Manhattan. These dance halls, for men only and where men danced with other men, held to the customs of the old country; no women, especially single, would risk their reputations by appearing in such places. Al soon became such a good dancer that he branched out to the non-Italian dance halls frequented by certain classes of women, some of them from good working-class families like his own, who were “American” enough to go out and enjoy themselves, others who were just unfortunate girls out to make a buck any way they could.
Al learned about women from Ralph, whose first reported bout with gonorrhea came around 1915, when Al was almost sixteen. His older brother was a good customer of the dance hall girls looking to pick up a quick trick or the prostitutes who worked openly on the streets, as well as those who worked in the many brothels. Ralph’s gonorrhea was one of the fortunate varieties of the disease: at a time when there were no cures, his was the strain that healed quickly and never manifested itself later in life. Al never admitted to having had gonorrhea as a youth or to seeking treatment for a venereal disease such as the syphilis that first infected him in his twenties, but sex was abundant and readily available, and he indulged in it from a very young age. However, not with nice Italian girls, who were watched so carefully by their families that boys like Al had little opportunity to seduce them. And besides, he really wasn’t interested in them.
The Italian girls he knew clung to the ways of the old country, and those ways were not his. Often they were taken out of school as early as the third or fourth grade while they were still children, because their overburdened mothers needed them to help raise younger siblings who seemed to be born every year. For these girls, forced to take on adult responsibilities so early, their lives consisted of the hard, grueling work of washing clothes, doing piecework, and becoming expert at housework far before their time. They clung to the ways of their mothers because it was all they knew, and this included the refusal—or the fear—of learning English and going out into the world beyond the stoop of their building or the corner of their street. Al wasn’t interested in women like this, who, the minute they married, changed from willing sexual partners into the same Madonna-like beings as their mothers and had to be treated with the same kind of asexual respect. And neither was Frank.
Al watched as his older brother evaded Italian girls, and indeed all women, and how he skillfully sidestepped any talk of marriage, whether from his mother in the home or his friends on the street. Frank loved to dance and enjoyed taking the floor with dance hall girls, but he was almost too fastidious for sex, which he didn’t even like to talk about and which gave rise to a few whispered rumors about his sexual orientation. This is where he and Al parted company: like Ralph, Al was entranced by women, and if they were prostitutes, it didn’t matter; he embraced every opportunity for sex that came his way.
And so Al Capone reached adulthood like so many other boys in his neighborhood, with a future that seemed destined to consist of one violent scrape after another that would eventually bring him into conflict not only with others on the wrong side of the law but also with the law itself. Even though Torrio was spending so much time in Chicago that his move there was almost complete, stories still abound of how he increased Al’s duties in New York by entrusting him to carry guns in brown paper bags (this one probably true) or to transport narcotics disguised as cans of tomatoes (this one highly unlikely, for Torrio carefully avoided dealing in drugs). Al did carry out threats—or worse—on those who thought they could refuse to pay extortion, or those who simply did not have the money to do so, and he was probably present when a few hits were made on some of the small-time mobsters who ran afoul of Torrio’s organization. Whether he merely contributed to setting up the murders or actually carried them out depends on who is telling the tale, for if even some of the stories told by his many biographers are true, when they are added up, he was responsible for at least half a dozen killings before he was eighteen.
Reading about his youthful exploits is like reading a bildungsroman, not the traditional one of an artist or writer coming of age, but one of a young criminal coming into his manhood. There is, however, a basic question that is difficult to answer: Where does the life of the boy end and the life as a legend begin? Most likely for Al Capone, it happened somewhere between working for Johnny Torrio and working for Frankie Yale, and his marriage to the pretty Irish girl who said to anyone who would listen that he broke her heart but she loved him anyway.