Born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 17, 1899 to Italian immigrants Gabriele and Teresa, Alphonse Capone would go on to become one of the most notorious gangsters of all time. The Robin Hood of Prohibition was just as much of a folk hero for the common man as he was public enemy no. 1 in the eyes of federal agents, and he remains one of the most notable figures of his time. Here’s what you need to know about the man known as Scarface.
1. Al Capone’s notorious temper flared early.
Capone spent his early years hanging around the docks along the Brooklyn Navy Yard near his home. He was a good student in his youth, but at age 14, while attending P.S. 133, Capone struck a teacher in the face. According to some accounts, Capone was expelled; according to others, he left school himself. Whatever the case, he never went back.
2. Al Capone worked odd jobs after leaving school—and even played semi-pro baseball.
After leaving school, Capone went to work, holding jobs at a candy store, a bowling alley, and a local bindery. He made quick money at the pool hall at 20 Garfield Place and played on a semi-pro Brooklyn baseball team with his brother Ralph.
3. Al Capone belonged to several gangs.
At the same time he had legitimate jobs, Capone also belonged to street gangs that specialized in things like petty crime and vandalism. In addition to the South Brooklyn Rippers and Junior Forty Thieves, Capone joined Johnny Torrio’s James Street Boys gang, where he became Torrio’s protégé; and at 16, Capone became a member a Lower East Side-based gang called the Five Point Gang, named after the notorious 19th-century Manhattan slum.
4. Al Capone got the nickname Scarface from a barroom fracas.
Under Torrio’s tutelage, Capone was introduced to Brooklyn racketeer Frankie Yale, a.k.a. Frank Uale. He hired Capone as a bartender and occasional bouncer at the Coney Island dance hall and saloon he owned called the Harvard Inn. The story goes that, while working there, Capone allegedly insulted the sister of a local petty felon named Frank Galluccio—who promptly slashed him with a pocket knife across the face three times. But Mario Gomes of MyAlCaponeMuseum.com found a December 1918 article in the Brooklyn Daily Times that said one “Alfonzo Capone” was approached by two men and had his cheek slashed by a knife (though the paper gets the side of the face wrong). Alongside other evidence, Gomes speculates that Capone had insulted Galluccio’s sister at a different dance hall, and then Galluccio found Capone at a restaurant and attacked him.
No matter what happened, the healed wounds eventually led to Capone’s infamous “Scarface” nickname, a moniker he did not care for. (He preferred to be called "Snorky" by his closest friends, a reference to his fashion sense.) Later, Capone told people he sustained the three scars from shrapnel while fighting in France during World War I, even though he had not actually gone to war.
Despite the permanent marks Galluccio left on Capone, thanks to Yale’s intervention, there was no ill will between them, and when he took over the Chicago mob, Capone hired Galluccio as his bodyguard for a then-astronomical salary of $100 a week.
5. Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919.
There are two stories about how Capone ended up in Chicago: According to one, it was because Capone had assaulted a member of a rival gang called the White Hand, which warned there would be retribution. This prompted Yale to send Capone and his family west to work for Torrio, who had moved to the Windy City to work for Chicago Outfit kingpin James "Big Jim" Colosimo in 1909.
According to the other, Capone moved because Torrio wanted his protégé to be his underboss. Capone arrived in Chicago in 1919; shortly after, Colosimo was killed with either Capone or Yale doing the whacking, and Torrio became the boss.
6. Al Capone rose to power after a shootout.
In November 1924, the leader of the Irish North Side Gang, Dean O’Banion, was killed outside his florist shop on Torrio’s orders. The next year, that gang retaliated, attempting to assassinate Torrio in a shootout. Torrio was wounded, but survived; after serving some time in jail, he retired, ceding power of the Chicago-based criminal organization to the 26-year-old Capone.
7. Al Capone’s “Chicago Outfit” made a lot of money.
The organized crime syndicate led by Capone, colloquially known as the “Chicago Outfit,” made him one of the country’s notorious—and wealthiest—mobsters: Through activities like gambling, bootlegging, and racketeering, Capone’s gang netted around $100 million a year in the 1920s.
8. Al Capone’s brother was a Prohibition agent.
While one Capone made his money flouting the nationwide constitutional ban on the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” another Capone made his money enforcing it. Al’s oldest brother, James Vincenzo Capone, left New York in his mid-teens and changed his name to Richard James Hart (after silent film western idol William S. Hart). He eventually became a federal prohibition agent in Nebraska.
9. Al Capone bought a house in Miami Beach, and locals weren't happy.
Capone did not receive a warm welcome when he bought a home on Miami Beach ’s Palm Island in 1928. Instead, Miami instituted what was known as the “Chicago Plan,” which called for Capone’s arrest whenever he was within city limits—at one point he was arrested three times in 10 days, often on a vagrancy charge that was supposedly tailor-made for Capone. The gangster was arrested a number of times but only wound up in jail once.
10. Al Capone was never charged for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
O’Banion’s killing—in which Capone was believed to have taken part—sparked a five-year Chicago gang war, culminating in the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Capone himself had survived a handful of assassination attempts throughout the open warfare between the Windy City’s Italian and Irish gangs. It’s said that he gave the order to off the North Side Gang’s latest leader, George “Bugs” Moran, who had taken over after that gang’s previous two leaders, Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci, had been killed.
On February 14, 1929, men dressed as police officers faked an alcohol raid on Moran’s headquarters at a trucking warehouse and garage at 2122 North Clark Street, lining up seven men against a wall—mistaking one of them as Moran, who in reality was running late—and killing them in cold blood. The only witness, who lived just a few minutes after the actual police arrived, wouldn’t say a word.
Moran kept active in organized crime beyond Prohibition, but died penniless in Leavenworth Federal Prison in 1957. The massacre’s perpetrators have never been identified, and Capone—who said he was in Miami during the event—was never charged for his involvement in allegedly ordering the multi-man hit.
11. Al Capone ran a soup kitchen during the Depression.
Around a year after the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, Capone opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street in Chicago that touted “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed” and served more than 2000 people a day. It wasn’t an altogether altruistic gesture: Capone likely used it as a PR move to turn public sentiment in his favor after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
When the kitchen closed shortly after it opened, its operators cited the country’s economic recovery, even though jobless rates had actually risen. Not long after, Capone was indicted.
12. The infamous baseball scene in The Untouchables was based on reality.
Capone usually had his minions do his dirty work, but sometimes he took matters into his own hands. Take, for example, when a Sicilian mobster named Joe Aiello persuaded some of Capone’s own—Chicago Outfit gangsters Albert Anselmi, John Scalise, and Joseph Giunta—to overthrow the gangster, and one of Capone’s bodyguards, Frank Rio, uncovered the plot.
As author John Kobler writes in Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone, Scarface invited the men to dinner—the traditional “hospitality before execution.” When the meal was over, he revealed to them that he knew about their treachery. Then, Capone’s bodyguards tied the men to their chairs, and Capone stood up, grabbing a baseball bat:
“Slowly, he walked the length of the table and halted behind the first guest of honor. With both hands he lifted the bat and slammed it down full force. Slowly, methodically, he struck again and again, breaking bones in the man’s shoulders, arms and chest. He moved to the next man and, when he had reduced him to mangled flesh and bone, to the third. One of the bodyguards then fetched his revolver from the checkroom and shot each man in the back of the head.”
Brian De Palma later made use of the incident in The Untouchables, showing Capone (Robert De Niro) treating some of his colleagues to a lavish dinner before killing a guest with a baseball bat himself.
13. Al Capone was the first “Public Enemy No. 1.”
The Chicago Crime Commission, led by attorney Frank J. Loesch, issued its first Public Enemies List—which consisted of 28 men—on April 23, 1930. The purpose of the list, according to Loesch, was “to keep the light of publicity shining on Chicago's most prominent, well known and notorious gangsters to the end that they may be under constant observation by the law enforcing authorities and law-abiding citizens.” Al Capone nabbed the top spot.
14. Taxes sent Al Capone to prison.
It wasn’t his bloody behavior that landed Capone in the clink—it was his failure to pay the piper. In 1927’s United States v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that “gains from illicit traffic in liquor are subject to the income tax.” Consequently, federal prosecutors argued that Capone hadn’t paid any income taxes between 1925 and 1929, and a jury found him guilty. Capone was given an 11-year sentence and was ordered to pay $50,000 in fines, in addition to court costs. According to the FBI, Capone also had to pay $215,000 and interest owed on his back taxes.
15. Al Capone’s played in Alcatraz’s band.
After spending the first portion of his sentence in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, Capone was shipped to the newly opened Alcatraz in August 1934. There, thanks to good behavior, he was able to join the Rock Islanders, an inmate band that performed Sunday concerts; Capone played the banjo. Capone is even said to have written a song, “Madonna Mia,” about his wife, Mae. But recent scholarship has discovered that it was a 1930s song that Capone had just transferred to an easier key.
16. Al Capone got out of Alcatraz thanks to a case of syphilis.
Capone contracted syphilis in his early days in Chicago, probably from a prostitute. He wasn’t treated, and began to show signs of neurosyphilis early in his time at Alcatraz. His odd behavior led to a diagnosis of syphilis of the brain in February 1938; in early 1939 he was transferred from Alcatraz to a Los Angeles-area prison hospital called Terminal Island. In November he was transferred to Pennsylvania, where he was released on November 16, 1939.
Post-release, Capone was treated with a new drug called penicillin, but his physical and mental health continued to worsen. The 48-year-old former gangster died in Florida, of heart failure, on January 25, 1947.
17. One Canadian town used Al Capone for marketing purposes.
It’s likely that Capone’s bootlegging operation made forays into Canada, but according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, one of the spots he definitely didn’t slip by the border was in the Saskatchewan city of Moose Jaw—despite what the town’s marketing materials claimed.
According to an official statement on the RCMP’s website, “In 2000 the town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, came up with a marketing ploy to attract tourists. They claimed that Al Capone spent time covertly in Moose Jaw during American prohibition using the Moose Jaw tunnels to run his bootlegging business. There is no evidence that links Capone's bootlegging to Moose Jaw, let alone any evidence that he ever set foot on Canadian soil.”