Al Capone Was A Notoriously Ruthless Gangster, But He Hid A Secret Life As The People’s Savior

History remembers Al Capone as a ruthless gangster, the mastermind behind the slayings of seven enemies in broad daylight, among other crimes. And, while his wrongdoings have come to define him, the notorious Chicagoan wore more than one hat. Indeed, he had a secret life which few people know about.

Firstly, Capone had more than earned his image as a bad guy. He had grown a multi-million-dollar business on a trio of illegal activities: gambling, prostitution and bootlegging alcohol. To keep it all under wraps, he had no trouble bribing and extorting people – or ordering them to be murdered.

And the most horrific of Capone’s acts happened on February 14, 1929. Yes, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre saw seven members of a rival gang mowed down by men dressed as police officers. Of course, the real Chicago police never solved the crime, but most people point to the infamous crime boss as the one who approved the killings.

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But for all of his wrongdoings, there was more to Capone than coldheartedness. The mob boss had a soft spot for those in need, and he became a Robin Hood-like figure to those in Chicago. This was never more apparent than during the Great Depression when Capone performed a slew of good deeds.

Nothing about Alphonse Capone’s childhood indicated that he’d become one of history’s most infamous American gangsters. His parents, Gabriele and Teresina, immigrated to the United States from Italy in search of a better life for themselves. And they had nine children including the future bootlegger, who was born in Brooklyn.

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The Capones settled into a tenement in the city, a typical dwelling for immigrants to the Big Apple. His mother worked as a seamstress, while his father cut men’s hair for a living. Meanwhile, young Al went to elementary school and did well in his classes – at least, for the first few years of his education.

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But by the time Capone reached sixth grade, he started lagging behind academically. And he had to repeat the year, a blow that came at around the same time that he started skipping school in favor of days on the Brooklyn docks. He hadn’t completely given up on his education – yet.

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That day came when one of Capone’s teachers punished him for rude behavior in the classroom. Being that the future gangster grew up in a different time, his teacher slapped him for his insolence. But the pupil didn’t take his punishment laying down – he ended up striking back at the adult.

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From there the school principal took over, beating Capone to the point that he never came back to school again. Instead, he spent more time in the Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood where his parents had moved. There, he met Mary “Mae” Coughlin, the woman who’d one day become his wife.

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Interestingly, Park Slope also brought Capone together with his mentor Johnny Torrio. Now, most parents wouldn’t want someone like Torrio guiding their child’s career decisions. He helmed the James Street Boys, a New York gang, and he worked in brothels and saloons. Furthermore, Torrio had a gambling outpost, for which he enlisted the young Capone to help with errands.

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At first, Capone ran errands for Torrio but didn’t go full gangster. Instead, he worked as a paper cutter and factory worker for a munitions manufacturer. Even when he did cross paths with Brooklyn’s infamous street gangs, nothing noteworthy came out of it – at least, not at that point in his life.

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But by 1917, Capone found himself working for another gangster named Frankie Vale – a job that got him his nickname, “Scarface.” While tending bar at the Harvard Inn, the future Chicago mobster made a suggestive comment to a female patron. And her brother retaliated by slashing the bartender, thus leaving a trio of scars on his face.

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Still, Capone wasn’t fully entrenched in the gangster way of life – and he attempted to leave it behind at 19. That year, he married his girlfriend shortly after she delivered their first child, a son named Albert Francis. And as a new husband and dad, he wanted to do right by his new family.

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So Capone moved his wife and son to Baltimore, where he worked as a construction company’s bookkeeper. And he remained on his honest career path until 1920, when his father died of a heart attack. After that, Torrio offered his one-time errand boy a job in Chicago, which he accepted.

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Now, Torrio’s move from New York to Chicago wasn’t made to legitimize his business. Instead, the mobster continued his illegal exploits, raking in cash through his gambling and prostitution rings. And, when the 18th Amendment made alcohol illegal to sell or drink, he made even more money by becoming a bootlegger.

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What’s more, Capone could help Torrio thanks to his experience as a bookkeeper, as well as his innate street smarts. Soon enough, the Chicago boss promoted his new employee to partner. And his rise in the ranks came with a more prominent reputation in the city – all because of his raucous, drunken behavior.

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That’s right, Capone’s reputation as a troublemaker gave way to much more sinister behaviors. For example, in 1924 he and Torrio worried that a reformist mayoral candidate would get in the way of their illegal dealings. So when election day arrived, the gangsters intimidated voters, going so far as to shoot and kill some of them to get their way.

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The next year, the guns were turned on Torrio when a rival gang tried to take him out. So he stepped down from his post and fled to Italy, leaving his protege, Capone, in charge of his arm of the Chicago mafia. But the Brooklyn-born boss didn’t follow orders to live under the radar – instead, he splashed out on a luxurious lifestyle.

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And Capone made bold moves as Chicago’s new mob boss, too. Within a year of his appointment, he ordered a hit on two of his rivals who had been spotted in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. But Scarface had no idea that a prosecutor named William McSwiggin – who had tried to charge him with murder previously – was with the duo.

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So when Capone’s cronies arrived – and carried out the murder as planned – they also slayed McSwiggin. This outraged the public to the point that police raided the mobster’s businesses in search of evidence. They couldn’t pin the killing on him, but they did find documents that proved he’d evaded taxes, which they’d use against him later on.

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Now, most would lay low after such a close run-in with the law. But Capone resumed his mob-caused violence within months of the triple murder. Also, he grew his illegal liquor business to the point where it dominated all of the Windy City’s bootlegging outposts. Others wanted in on the lucrative underground market, though.

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You see, Capone’s biggest problem was with his rival Bugs Moran who wanted to climb the bootlegging ladder. And Moran had even previously attempted to murder both the Brooklyn-born mob boss and his mentor, Torrio. At the start of 1929, word got out that he wanted another of Capone’s men dead – “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn.

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Of course, Capone wouldn’t take such news sitting down. Instead, he and McGurn decided to get rid of Moran first. So they sent Machine Gun’s men – who donned police uniforms – to mow down the leader of their rival gang. Lining them up against the wall of a garage, as if they were going to be frisked, the fake cops opened fire, killing seven people on February 14, 1929.

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Amazingly, the mass murder – now known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – didn’t achieve its goal of ending Moran’s life. No, he made his way toward the garage, but was warned of the violence before walking into it. To add to that, Capone was nowhere to be found on the day of the killings, either.

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Instead, the mob boss had slipped away from Chicago to spend time in his Miami residence. However, this move didn’t fool anyone – everyday people and the media knew who was behind the seven-man slaying. Soon enough, the world had a new nickname for Scarface, calling him “Public Enemy Number One.”

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Then-President Herbert Hoover heard the public’s outrage in the wake of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. So he pushed the government to crack down on Capone for his tax-evasion crimes, at the very least. Indeed, the Supreme Court had decided a few years prior that income derived from illegal activities was just as taxable as an honest paycheck.

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This ruling gave them leverage to charge Capone with 22 counts of tax evasion, which they did on June 5, 1931. Still, the mobster expected to get off easy with a plea deal, but the judge refused to cut his sentence. So the case went to trial – and the jury found Public Enemy Number One guilty.

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With that, Capone ended up with an 11-year prison sentence, serving five of them at the notoriously high-security island prison, Alcatraz. But in 1939 authorities moved him to a mental-health facility in Baltimore, as he had dementia and had begun to deteriorate. Eventually, the gangster was sent to Miami, where he spent his last days with his wife.

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Given that, Capone died on January 25, 1947, leaving behind a dark legacy of crime and death. But not everyone remembered Scarface as a ruthless killer or illegal operative. To some of the Chicagoans who knew him peripherally, he was seen as a savior – all because of the double-life he led.

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You see, by 1930 – a year after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – the United States had plunged into the Great Depression. It all started with the October 1929 stock market crash. This meant companies laid off workers in droves, and the country’s industrial output diminished. By 1933 – the depression’s rock bottom – about 15 million Americans had lost their jobs.

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Now, Chicago was no exception to the bleakness that came with a stalled economy. Indeed, in November 1930 the city had at least 75,000 out-of-work individuals registering for relief. In the meantime, many of them relied on a new soup kitchen that promised donuts and coffee to the unemployed.

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At first, the benefactor behind the life-saving outpost was a mystery. But within a week, the Chicago Tribune found out that Capone had opened the new soup kitchen, situated at 935 South State Street. The mobster’s new eatery served breakfast, lunch and dinner and saw about 2,200 hungry people pass through each day.

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And one of Capone’s associates revealed why the gangster had decided to perform such a charitable act. The anonymous source told The Rock Island Argus on November 14, 1930, “He couldn’t stand it to see those poor devils starving, and nobody else seemed to be doing much, so the big boy decided to do it himself.”

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Inside of his soup kitchen, Capone’s generosity became even clearer. Staffers never asked guests for proof that they needed a free meal, nor did they stop anyone from reaching for seconds. Instead, friendly waitresses poured coffee and served buns for breakfast and soup for lunch and dinner.

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Furthermore, Capone’s kitchen delivered more than just daily sustenance. Indeed, the eatery was to hold its own Thanksgiving feast in 1930, and the mobster had planned a traditional meal for the city’s jobless population. But funnily enough, another crime crew got in the way of that happening when they hijacked an order of 1,000 turkeys.

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This time, Capone wasn’t the criminal behind the heist. But he knew how it’d look if he served mass amounts of turkey shortly after such a crime had occurred. So rather than a holiday-appropriate meal of turkey and cranberry sauce, Scarface opted to serve beef stew on Thanksgiving instead.

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What’s more, the soup kitchen wasn’t the only philanthropic effort helmed by the famed gangster. Some considered Capone to have a Robin Hood reputation in the way that he helped the poor. For instance, Public Enemy Number One had provided handouts to widows and orphans, acts which newspapers had chronicled at the time.

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Some of Capone’s other provisions weren’t as wholesome as the orphan-and-widow handouts or the soup kitchen, of course. In fact, many considered his bootlegging to be a Robin Hood-esque act – the government had taken booze away from the people, but the gangster made sure that they got what they wanted.

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In any case, it’s much easier to see the Robin Hood parallels when considering Capone’s soup kitchen. And those who frequented the Chicago eatery had no qualms with accepting charity from someone so notoriously criminal. As the Bismarck Tribune put it, “A hungry man is just as glad to get soup and coffee from Al Capone as from anyone else.”

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Ironically enough, Capone’s soup kitchen drew in such large crowds that the line of hungry people snaked past the entrance to the Chicago police department. Given that,Harper’s Magazine writer Mary Borden may have put it best, describing Capone as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

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