Al Capone at 125: A Cultural Icon's Impact on American History

In commemorating the 125th anniversary of Al Capone's birth we delve into the riveting saga of one of the most notorious figures in American history

by Sededin Dedovic
Al Capone at 125: A Cultural Icon's Impact on American History
© The man of the era Al Capone / Youtube channel

January 17 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of the most infamous figures in American history – Al Capone. Known as the co-founder and head of the Italian-American Mafia during the Roaring Twenties, Capone's life and legacy continue to capture the public's interest.

Immortalized in films such as "Scarface" and "The Untouchables," his story is one of notoriety, charisma and lasting cultural influence. He established himself as one of the most famous and influential personalities of the entire twentieth century.

The early years of Al Capone

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, born on January 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York, was the son of immigrants from Naples. He entered the world of organized crime at a young age, becoming a member of the "Five Points", a criminal street gang primarily of Irish-American origin.

His initiation into the world of racketeering involved extorting protection money in lower Manhattan, New York. He had success from the beginning of the business, and in the end the whole town was paying the young Capone's racket.

He rose through the ranks very quickly, realizing that violence alone would not ensure lasting success. He earned his nickname "Scarface" at the age of 18 when he disfigured the face of a rival gang member with a knife. Fleeing New York to avoid trouble, he set his sights on Chicago.

In Chicago, he would become the most influential man in the city, and the biggest politicians and businessmen came to him for advice and permission to do business.

Al Capone (1899 - 1947) signing Uncle Sams $50,000 bail bond in the Federal Building© Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Rise to power

Capone's reign in Chicago from 1925 to 1929 made him the most notorious mobster in the United States even though he enjoyed popularity both in Chicago and in the US.

Operating under the guise of a wealthy businessman, Capone's criminal empire thrived on illegal activities such as gambling, prostitution, smuggling, bribery, drug trafficking, robbery and murder. Despite his criminal ventures, he was known for his public presence, hanging out with the press and throwing extravagant parties.

The most influential people, actors, artists, writers, politicians would come to his parties. They all knew who Al Capone was and what kind of business he was engaged in, but he still enjoyed enormous respect. The Valentine's Day Massacre, which took place on February 14, 1929, is one of the darkest chapters in Capone's legacy.

Assailants posing as police machine-gunned seven members of the rival Moran mob. There were many dead and one seriously injured ordinary person, a bystander. Although Capone was in Florida at the time, his involvement in ordering the massacre was suspected.

Although he was never convicted of the murders, he eventually faced prison time on tax evasion charges. He ended up in prison because of taxes, although it is assumed that several hundred people were killed under his orders.

American gangster Al Capone (1899 - 1947) with US Marshall Laubenheimar© Keystone / Getty Images

Doom and imprisonment

Capone's criminal career ended at the age of 33 when he was finally convicted for tax evasion.

He served his sentence in the notorious Alcatraz prison, which is located on an island near San Francisco. Released in 1939 for mental illness, Capone's health deteriorated. He was in poor health, with brain damage caused by syphilis.

His wife, Mae, bought him a house in Palm Beach, Florida, where he tried to live a normal life. However, Capone could not escape his past. He was under constant surveillance by the police and the FBI, and his reputation as a criminal followed him everywhere.

He tried to rebuild his business, but to no avail. Capone's health was deteriorating, and in 1946 he suffered a stroke. He remained immobile and demented for the rest of his life. He died in 1947 at the age of 48.

Cultural heritage

In addition to his criminal exploits, Al Capone left an indelible mark on American culture, especially Hollywood.

Numerous mob movies have drawn inspiration from his life, with iconic portrayals of the typical mobster – pinstriped suit, cocked hat and all. Movies like "The Godfather" and "Scarface" showed Capone's influence, perpetuating the legend of the charismatic gangster.

You must have seen many times the image of the Italian mafia with an expensive suit and a hat, which was the basic styling of Al Capone. He became synonymous with the Italian mafia, and he still enjoys great respect in today's mafia families.

"The Untouchables," directed by Brian De Palma, is a landmark drama inspired by the Capone story. Robert De Niro's portrayal of a gangster and Kevin Costner's role as agent Elliot Ness described the lifestyle of a mafia don in his "golden" years.

The film itself has become part of world culture, and one of the best films inspired by the Italian mafia. Even in recent years, with the 2020 film "Capone" starring Tom Hardy, the fascination with Al Capone's life continues.

His story embodies the American dream of rising from immigrant roots to wealth, and also reflects the ambivalence of American culture during Prohibition - a time marked by violence and excessive consumption. Al Capone, with his infamous legacy, has become a fascinating figure in American history and part of mainstream culture.

The contradictions of his life, from criminal movement to cultural icon, reflect the complexity of American society during Prohibition.