In 1920, the United States entered a new stage in its life, the Era of Prohibition. However, flaws in the planning, execution, and administration caused this noble idea to vacillate unquestionably. However, men who were willing to break the law were the ones that were able to build a lucrative life for themselves; one such man was Alphonse Capone. However, honest men such as Elliot Ness fought adamantly to defend their morals, beliefs, and the law of the land. Nevertheless, Capone was a man who took advantage of his time and lived the life of the American Dream: going from rags to riches. However, it was this very same opulence that caused his downfall and incarceration. The tireless efforts of Elliot Ness eventually paid off when
On January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. This legislation gave legal satisfaction to the temperance movement of the early twentieth century. It officially mandated that the transportation, manufacture, sale, and consumption of any beverage with an alcohol content of more than .05% was illegal. However, although the U.S. government took the initiative to enact the law, the enforcement of it was severely lacking for several reasons. First, responsibility was given to the Department of the Treasury, not the Department of Justice. This resulted in agents with little to no training in the skills required to execute their duties. Second, these agents received scant salaries that eventually lead to widespread corruption and bribery. In fact, from 1920 to 1926, 148 enforcement employees were convicted of bribery or other alcohol-related offenses. Although the original intent of the Eighteenth Amendment was to lower crime and increase public morale, it mainly served as a catalyst for crime and violence.
In 1926, a Senate investigation discovered that most of the illegal liquor being consumed was coming from smugglers, illegal usage of industrial or medicinal alcohol, and moonshine liquor. They concluded that increasing border security could control the smuggling dilemma. The other problems could only be solved by a more competent approach to enforcement, including the restructuring of administration as well as the officers and agents, changes in hiring practices and training, and increased salaries for all agents.
However, the main reason for the failure of the Eighteenth Amendment was nothing the Senate could remedy; many Americans were upset by its enactment. Since the beginning of Prohibition, the general public disregarded the legislation as hogwash. People of all classes, races, or beliefs flocked to speakeasies in droves to drink illegal alcohol that was either produced illegally or smuggled in from other countries by land or sea.
Smuggling alcohol was a very lucrative business for the unscrupulous. In order to ease the transportation, smugglers switched from beer and wine to hard liquor because it was more concentrated easier to hide. Since illegal liquor production was a black market, producers did not have to worry about government regulations when considering what to put into their drinks. In addition, many bootleggers were new to the game and did not know what they were doing. Many ended up accidentally producing poisonous liquor.
Gabriele and Teresina Capone, along with their three sons, were two of the 43,000 Italians who arrived in the U.S. in 1894. After five years in the United States, a forth son joined the family as Teresina gave birth to the family’s Alphonse Capone. Since their arrival, nothing “about the Capone family was inherently disturbed, violent, or dishonest… They were a law-abiding, unremarkable Italian-American family with conventional patterns of behavior and frustrations; they displayed no special genius for crime, or anything else, for that matter,” (Bardsley 2000).
At first, the Capone family resided at a cold-water tenement flat in Brooklyn, NY near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Luckily, after several years, Gabriele was able to move his family to a better section of Brooklyn. This is where Alphonse first went to school, and possibly, learned his first lesson in brutality. At Public School 7, “fistfights between students and teachers were common, even between male students and female teachers… Al Capone found school a place of constant discipline relieved by sudden outbreaks of violence,” and in fact, was expelled at age fourteen for hitting a female teacher; he never returned, (Bardsley 2000).
Al Capone first began his life of crime after his expulsion from school. It was then that he first met Jonny Torrio, a local gangster and neighborhood role model. At first, Capone ran minor errands for Torrio, but as their relationship grew, he was given more responsibilities. When Torrio moved away to Chicago, 18 year old Capone fell under the wing of another “role model”, the feared and respected Frankie “Yale” Loele, and was hired as his bartender. It was here that Capone not only learned the “business” and established himself in the criminal underworld, but he also met his future wife: Mae Coughlin. The two were soon married and moved to Chicago to reunite with Torrio, who had previously taken over the largest crime ring in the city. After several assassination attempts, Torrio retired from his life of crime and left his copious empire to Al. For months, Capone lived his life in the spotlight of both New York City and Chicago. He was a frequent at the opera, sporting events, and neighborhood hotspots. Everyone he met knew that he was the infamous crime lord, responsible, for crime, prostitution, and murder; however, no one could ever establish any proof to corroborate the connection. His fame grew to epic proportions when national media coverage implicated hit as Public Enemy #1 after the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
However, it was this very same publicity that catalyzed government forces against Capone. In an effort to save a sense of authority and increase public opinion, President Herbert Hoover ordered Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to launch a massive assault on the Chicago underworld boss. Finding an honest man amongst the corruption-ridden Prohibition Bureau proved to be a difficult task. In the end, the primary Treasury agent in charge of collecting evidence for a conviction on Prohibition violations was a young man who had earned a reputation for reliability and honesty; his name was Elliot Ness.
The success of the government’s case depended upon the honesty of the agents. Ness searched long and hard for men to fit his ideal profile of the perfect agent: single male younger than thirty, stamina to work long hours, and the courage to use fight to the death if the situation presented itself. He also needed experts in certain fields such as wire tapping, driving, and disguise. He was given the personnel records of the entire Prohibition Bureau from which to select his special team. After an extensive investigation he narrowed down a list of fifty men to just nine and consequently, “The Untouchables” were born.
Capone’s lieutenants actually tried to bribe and kill Ness. When Ness and two of his agents refused to accept money and turn their back on Capone’s illicit activities a newspaper columnist called them “Untouchable.”
Capone, with his extravagant lifestyle, had not filed an income tax return for several key years. Even after his brother Ralph and other gangsters were being indicted on tax evasion, Capone did not protect himself from prosecution. Although he personally did not have bank accounts, did not sign checks and did not appear to own assets, an established legal precedent allowed him to be prosecuted. Internal Revenue Service agents covertly went about building their case against Capone by proving that Capone’s net worth and net expenditures were far in excess of his income in the years in which Capone had not filed any income tax statements. Elliot Ness actually estimated that Capone had at least twenty breweries in operation with a weekly sales volume in excess of a million and one half dollars.
Finally in June of 1930, Capone’s luck with the law ran out as he was indicted for income tax evasion. One of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century–the man held most responsible for the bloody lawlessness of Prohibition-era Chicago–was imprisoned for tax evasion. To reduce the chances of jury tampering, the judge tried to keep the trial as short as possible and ordered the jury to be sequestered at night. Despite these countermeasures, Capone allegedly paid off the entire twelve-person jury, and under the advice of Elliot Ness, switched the jury with one from another court room.
During the trial, the prosecution documented Capone’s lavish spending as evidence of a colossal income. The government also submitted proof that Capone was aware of his obligation to pay federal income tax but failed to do so. After nearly 9 hours of deliberation, the jurors found Capone guilty of three felonies and two misdemeanors, relating to his failure to pay and/or file his income taxes between 1925 and 1929. Judge Wilkerson sentenced Al Capone to serve 11 years in prison and to pay $80,000 in fines and court costs, ending the criminal life of the FBI’s original Public Enemy # 1. That very same day, Elliot Ness learned that Congress was considering repealing Prohibition (National Archives and Records Administration 2000).
Despite the noble efforts of the U.S. Congress to end the consumption of alcohol, Prohibition was definitely a failure. Both faulty schematization and general sense of public disapproval contributed to the defectiveness of the Eighteenth Amendment. However, from this blunder rose venal men such as the infamous Alphonse Capone. These men gained both notoriety and fear through the practices of corruption and murder. Nevertheless, the tireless efforts of the U.S. government lead by the honest Elliot Ness and his men lead to the eventual downfall of this great pillar of crime. Despite the failure of the Prohibition Era, the United States learn a valuable lesson: the American mind is stubborn and it takes a little more than laws to change it.
Bardsley, Marilyn. Al Capone – from the Crime Library. 15 May 2000.
Wright, Jacob C. The Enforcement Of Prohibition. 15 May 2000.
National Archives and Records Administration. Exhibit: Al Capone Verdict. (15 May 2000).