Capone’s Chicago—Why the City and Prohibition Belonged to Al

Capone’s Chicago—Why the City and Prohibition Belonged to Al

The greatest unanswerable question about Al Capone is whether Chicago made him, or if he made Chicago.  Why is Capone revered almost one hundred years since his rise in Chicago?  This country has revamped the way we talk about early American history, yet, the glamour of Capone remains untouchable. (Puns are your friends, and they’re funnier after you’ve had a few drinks on the tour, I promise!)

Capone’s story isn’t at all unlike Chicago’s own.  He was born into a blue collar, hardworking family.  He took odd jobs throughout his youth, just trying to get by.  Once he was introduced to organized crime in his teens, he thought it seemed more profitable than a 9-5 job.  Not unlike Chicago’s entrepreneur-spirit and creative side-hustling capitalism we live in now.

Like the City of Chicago, Capone is a study in contrast.  He’s a bad guy, a wealthy bad guy, but a bad guy, responsible, it’s presumed for up to two hundred murders.  He spent much of his fortune on maintaining bribes to law enforcement, politicians, judges, and even reporters to protect his industrial spirit.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is his most famous hit, but it’s far more interesting that on a birthday whim, his guys kidnapped jazz legend Fats Waller and made him play for Capone for three straight days at gun point, before finally paying him and taking him home.

Allegedly, Harvard Business School studies Capone’s business acumen as a case study in American capitalism.  Perhaps a Chicago school also studies his political corruption? Worth an estimated $100 million dollars ($1.44 billion in today’s money) before he was shipped off to prison, he also spent some of his fortune on operating soup kitchens during the early part of the Great Depression.

He’s so uniquely Chicago, brash, bold, decisive, and corrupt that it’s become impossible to separate the two from one another even after almost 100 years.  Dressed in impeccably tailored pastel suits, he was as flamboyant as the City’s skyline and creative architecture, but he remained as much of an enigma as many of the City’s best kept secrets.  Did it remedy the two hundred murders that he provided meals for people in need during the Great Depression?  It probably depends on who you were in the 1930’s.  If you’re one of those people that didn’t have a meal, then yeah, it might.  If you’re a Chicago cop making an additional income to overlook drinking in certain gin joints, a politician that needs a cash-infusion for your next campaign, or the speak-easy owner that stays open and unbothered by law enforcement during the 1920’s, you might overlook a lot of bad stuff.

What we don’t know about Capone is as interesting as what we do.  If we repeated the great Geraldo debacle of the 1980’s and thought we had found a tunnel full of his fortune or the secrets we wish we knew about Capone, people would still flock to live television footage.  He remains as much a part of Chicago as the Sears—err, Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, and the Magnificent Mile.  And for better or worse, Chicago lives on in his shadow.

Written by Amy Williams

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