*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
What You Didn't Know About Gangster Al Capone
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
The gang wars and drug violence that have afflicted some urban communities have
taken a frightful toll, but this isn't the first time American cities have seen
such violence. Writer Jonathan Eig's new book takes us back to the Roaring '20s
in Chicago, when cops and judges were on the take, and unsolved murders piled
up by the dozens every year.
Eig's new book chronicles the rise and fall of legendary gangster Al Capone.
It's based on newly acquired documents and interviews with some of Capone's
descendants. There's a lot you probably didn't know about Capone, like how
freely he spoke to reporters of his exploits, the time he shot himself in the
groin, how little Eliot Ness actually had to do with putting him away, and how
venereal disease eventually robbed him of his health and sanity.
Jonathan Eig is a former writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, whoâs
written bestsellers about Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. He lives in Chicago,
a half a mile from the site of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre. His new
book is called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted
Jonathan Eig, welcome to FRESH AIR. Al Capone comes to Chicago from New York in
the early '20s. Give us a sense of the Chicago he arrived in.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author, "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's
Most Wanted Gangster"): It's a wild town. It's a rip-roaring town by almost any
stretch of the imagination. And Chicago, for many, many years has been a fairly
lawless town, a place where the police have a hard time keeping up with the bad
guys just because they are so horribly outnumbered.
But by the 1920s, 1920 in particular, when Prohibition becomes the law, the
city gets a lot crazier, and the Prohibition really just amplifies everything,
and it makes incredible opportunities available to men like Capone, who are
willing to continue breaking the law. Suddenly, there's a lot more money to be
made than they ever dreamed possible.
DAVIES: And who was Capone? Tell us a little bit about his life in New York and
what drove him to Chicago.
Mr. EIG: Capone was born 1899 in Brooklyn, part of a big family, one of eight
children, and he was married just before coming to Chicago. He was working as a
bouncer in a bar in Coney Island, a place called the Harvard Inn, and it was
not Ivy League at all. It was a very tough place. And that's where he met a lot
of the underworld figures who would become really key to his career going
And once he got to Chicago, he was able to really grow in terms of his stature,
in terms of his prominence. I suspect if he'd stayed in New York, he wouldâve
remained a small-time guy. There was just too much competition for mugs like
But Chicago was a different story. Chicago, he was fortunate to latch on with a
good organization, where he really learned and was able to move through the
ranks quickly and became the man that we now today, you know, the ultimate
symbol of the 1920s, lawlessness, the ultimate gangster.
DAVIES: Talking a little bit about what was going on in Chicago and reading the
book, I'm really stuck by the level of violence, including political violence,
battles over alderman elections.
Mr. EIG: That's right. You had candidates for alderman throwing bombs through
each other's windows or at least using their representatives, their campaign
workers, to do some of this violence.
You had gangsters shooting each other over turf, you know, over beer sales and
on an average of about 50, 75 a year. And there were no convictions. That was
really the key. And that's why this violence was allowed to flourish.
There were very few arrests and literally no convictions in these gang wars
throughout the 1920s, and that's because the whole system had been purchased at
a great discount by these gangsters. They were able to bribe everyone in sight
so that the law simply wasn't functioning, and that made almost anything
possible for these guys.
DAVIES: I'm interested in how violent a man Capone himself was. Clearly, he
spent a lot of his career directing others, but there is a murder that you
describe of a man named Joe Howard. Tell us what we know about that murder and
what we know about Capone's role.
Mr. EIG: I think early in his career, Capone was a violent man and did carry
out many of these hits himself. And in this case, this is really the murder
that put him on the map and I think signaled to the gang in Chicago that Capone
was a man they could count on when the going got tough.
So what happened was one of Capone's men, an accountant, got picked on in a bar
by Joe Howard. And Joe Howard was one of Capone's rivals, but he was a two-bit
thug, really. Capone didn't know much of him. But you didn't go after Capone's
men, and that was the point.
So in broad daylight, with one of his bodyguards, Capone walks right up to Joe
Howard, says hello, puts the gun to his cheek, fires six times and holds him on
the bar stool as he keeps firing so that Joe Howard cannot get away, cannot
When he's finally sure that Howard's been completely obliterated, he lets go,
watches him fall to the floor. Everybody in the bar watches Capone walk out.
And this is amazing because you've got the police swarming the place, and they
know that it's Capone.
They've got eyewitnesses saying we know it was Capone. People saw him come in
and out. But suddenly, no one will testify because nobody wants to be on the
wrong side of Al Capone. Nobody wants Capone to be coming after them next.
So he walks away from this crime. He answers the police questions, and there's
no arrest. There's no conviction. He walks away a free man. And that sort of
cements his reputation in the city, at least among gangsters, and it's one of
the first times that he gets his name prominently displayed in the newspapers
DAVIES: By 1925, Capone is really the leading organized crime figure in
Chicago. And he is, what, a man in his mid-20s, right?
Mr. EIG: That's right. He's 26 years old.
DAVIES: And tell us a little bit about what his business was.
Mr. EIG: Well, he's making a lot of money. It's all cash. And it's mostly in
the beer and whiskey business. He's bringing the stuff in from many, many
different sources. It's a very complicated business. And that's really the key
to Capone's success: He's able to keep a lot of balls in the air.
He's able to run bars, brothels, casinos. He's bringing in some booze from
Canada; he's bringing in some booze from New York. He's bringing in some
whiskey from Iowa. It's a very complicated arrangement with a lot of people who
have to be paid off, a lot of police officers, judges, politicians all have to
be bribed. There's a lot of overhead involved. There's just â it's a
Now, I don't think Capone is taking in every penny from this operation. I think
he's wise enough to share it with the people who he needs to keep happy in
order to maintain such a complicated organization.
But nevertheless, the amount of money coming in is staggering. By the
government estimates, it's, you know, millions of dollars a year, which I think
was probably exaggerated, as the government later tried to build a case against
him for income tax evasion. But I'm certain, at the very least, Capone was
dealing in hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash every year.
And for a young man in his 20s with not much education, a sixth-grade
education, and not much really in the way of school smarts, he does a terrific
job, really, of running this organization. And I think that's really the key to
his success is his charisma, his sort of intuition as a businessman. It carries
him a long way, that, of course, and the threat of violence.
DAVIES: Now, you also write in this book that the Tommy gun changed the nature
of crime. How?
Mr. EIG: Well, the Thompson submachine gun was invented during World War I. It
was meant to put an end to World War I but it arrived too late. So the general
who designed the gun looked for other outlets, tried to sell it to police
departments, but police departments didn't have the budget and weren't really
sure what to do with such a powerful weapon.
Enter the gangster, who can easily purchase the machine gun in a sporting goods
catalog or at a local gun shop. And there happened to be one just a couple
blocks from where I live now in Chicago, a place where you could walk in and
buy a machine gun if you had the cash.
And this became the weapon of choice for the gangster because they could shoot
on the run. They could shoot from their car windows and fire hundreds of rounds
This, along with fast automobiles, really gave the gangsters an advantage over
the police because the cops had slower, older cars. They had much lighter
weapons. And this enabled them to commit their crimes and escape as if bribing
the police officers wasn't already enough of an advantage for these guys.
DAVIES: You know, mob hits are in some ways sort of a part of life in many
cities at many particular times, and citizens don't worry so much about them
because, you know, it's gangsters settling scores with one another.
It seems a little different if you have a car driving up and a submachine gun
splattering bullets all over a sidewalk. Did Chicago's population feel
Mr. EIG: You know, I think at times Chicago's population felt terrorized but it
wasn't so much the machine guns that did it. I think â because there really was
very little collateral damage. There were hardly any incidents in which
innocent civilians were killed in these gang wars.
It was really the gangsters being killed. And I think given that the police
weren't doing anything to stop these guys, the fact that some of them died
didn't stir a lot of sympathy among most Chicagoans.
The real issue, I think, for most Chicagoans was the damage it did to the
city's reputation. We already had, you know, an image of corrupt politics. We
had a mayor who was widely perceived as being one of the most venal in the
country's history, Big Bill Thompson. And then you've got these gangsters
walking down the street with machine guns shooting it out on Michigan Avenue in
And this is, as you can imagine, not good for business. So the city's business
leaders are really the first ones who start to raise a ruckus and say something
must be done about this.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that made Capone unique was his public
profile. And that's something that he fed in ways that modern gangsters I just
don't think did. I mean, it's remarkable to read some of the quotes in your
book that he gave newspaper reporters.
And I thought, you know, just for a little flavor here, I thought we would
listen to Robert De Niro as Al Capone in the movie "The Untouchables." This is
a moment where I think he's getting a shave and having an exchange with some
reporters. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of film, "The Untouchables")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) An article which I believe appeared
in a newspaper asked why, since you are or would seem that you are, in effect,
the mayor of Chicago, you've not simply been appointed to that position.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): (As Al Capone) Well, I'll tell you, you know, it's
touching. Like a lot of things in life, we laugh because it's funny, and we
laugh because it's true. Some people say, reformers here say, put that man in
jail. What does he think he is doing? Well, what I hope I'm doing, and here's
where your English paper's got a point, is I'm responding to the will of the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) People are going to drink. You know that, I know that.
We all know that. And all I do is act on that, and all this talk of
bootlegging, what is bootlegging? On a boat, it's bootlegging. On Lakeshore
Drive, it's hospitality.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: I'm a businessman.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) And what of your reputation that
you control your business through violence, that those that don't purchase your
products are dealt with violently?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and we used to say,
you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: And in that neighborhood, it might have been true. Sometimes a
reputation follows you. There is violence in Chicago, of course, but not by me
and not by anybody I employ, and I'll tell you why, because it's not good
DAVIES: And that is the fictional Al Capone, portrayed by Robert De Niro in the
movie "The Untouchables." We're speaking with Jonathan Eig, who has written a
new book about Al Capone called "Get Capone."
Jonathan, Eig, how close is that to the real thing?
Mr. EIG: It was pretty close, actually, because Capone did talk to the
reporters a lot, and he always defended himself as a businessman. He always
said people want to drink and all I'm doing is giving them the pleasures that
The irony is that De Niro actually understated Capone's tolerance for violence
because in interviews, Capone would often say violence was part of the job,
that he didn't see it necessarily as something God would consider a sin because
he was protecting himself. He was protecting his family. He was protecting the
business that he needed in order to take care of his family.
And maybe he had a broader view of this thing than the law has it. That's how
he explained it, but he did acknowledge that he was a bootlegger. He
acknowledged that sometimes violence was necessary in order to do his job.
DAVIES: How did his associates in organized crime feel about him being such a
media hog? I can't imagine they thought this was a good idea.
Mr. EIG: No, it didn't go over very well with his peers. Now, you have to
remember that in the 1920s, everybody wanted to be a celebrity. Everybody
wanted to be like Babe Ruth or Lucky Lindbergh or at least, you know, like
these guys who were sitting on flagpoles.
And businessmen in particular in the '20s really believed that to be a success,
to be an entrepreneur meant to have a personality, to cultivate a sense that
you were a success and to - that's why I think Capone dressed the way he did.
And that's why I think he entertained the press, because he wanted to be
perceived as a successful American, you know, sort of - Dale Carnegie later,
when he wrote his famous book on success in business, would cite Capone
actually as a model for creating the public image. Obviously, it went bad in
many ways with Capone, but nevertheless, that's what he was going for. And I
think that you have to understand that cult of celebrity and that desire for
the spotlight that really was so strong during the 1920s.
DAVIES: On the other hand, he clearly cared about his public image. How did the
public feel about Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: I'd say the feelings were mixed. Clearly, Capone was a villain, and
clearly he was a criminal. And the fact that he discussed his criminality
didn't absolve him of those crimes in any way.
At the same time, he was breaking a law that was wildly unpopular. Prohibition
was a mistake by almost any definition. And by the 1920s, when the war was
over, and people were coming out of these hard times and looking to celebrate
and the economy was booming, it was really, just, it just was a terrible fit.
And Capone became really the symbol of that era in many ways.
And certainly, when it came to people's willingness to break that law, Capone
became a very powerful icon. And he stood up for a lot of people who were
willing to say they didn't like it.
So he becomes the icon for the '20s because everyone is breaking this law, and
he's just breaking it in a much bigger way than anyone else.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonathan Eig. His new book about Al Capone is
called "Get Capone." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig.
He's written a new book about the life of Al Capone. It's called "Get Capone:
The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster."
Now, he had a house on Chicago's South Side, where his family lived, his wife
and other relatives. And he spent a lot of time kind of occupying a suite in
downtown hotels. Was he seen on the street? Did the public come up to him and
fawn over him and seek autographs or photos?
Mr. EIG: Yes, Capone really was a very public person, and he went to ballgames.
He attended opera. He was seen around town, and it became a joke, really, among
tourists when they visited Chicago, you know, when you came back from your
trip, people would say: Did you see Capone? Did you get any pictures of Capone?
Do you have any bullet holes in your car?
And some of it was a joke, but much of it was actually inspired by the fact
that Capone was seen around town. There were pictures of him in the newspaper
when he went to the races. He did not sneak about. He felt like he was a
businessman, and he wanted to be seen that way.
DAVIES: And, you know, we haven't talked about what he looked like, but just
give us a sense of the physical presence he struck.
Mr. EIG: Capone was a big man. You know, he was 5'10", 210 pounds, roughly, in
his prime. He got a little heavier late in his career. But I think that was the
key to his early success is that he was big enough and strong enough to scare
people when he stood over them in a bar.
But he always wanted to be perceived more elegantly, and he liked actually, you
know, his nickname was Scarface, of course, in the newspapers because of the
three hideous scars on the left side of his cheek.
But the nickname he preferred was Snorky, which at the time meant elegant,
ritzy. And he dressed in, you know, incredibly fashionable ways, with gleaming
diamond belt buckles but also, you know, very tasteful three-piece suits. It
was a real mix of elegance and show, and I think that that's how he preferred
to be perceived, and that was very important.
So you had this big, hulking guy who wanted to dress like Fred Astaire. He
wanted to be seen as a symbol of wealth and elegance.
DAVIES: You know, eventually gangsters like Capone appeared in the movies. And
I guess it was in 1931 that the film "Little Caesar" was made, which did not
have a character named Capone, but Edward G. Robinson played a guy named Rico
Mr. EIG: That's right.
DAVIES: I thought we'd hear just a little bit of this. This is a moment in the
film where he's basically ousting one of the local crime bosses, taking over
from a guy whose character's name is Sam Vatoni(ph). He's played by Stanley
Fields. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of film, "Little Caesar")
Mr. STANLEY FIELDS (Actor): (As Sam Vettori) I see the color of that...
Mr. EDWARD G. ROBINSON (Actor): (As Rico Bandello) Just a minute, Sam. I got my
own idea of a split this time, and you can take it my way or leave it. We ain't
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) Yeah? Well, I boss this job, and I'm going to get my
split in the regular way or else.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) How do you boss this job, by sitting here in your
office cheating yourself at solitaire? Well, that donât go no more, not with me
it don't. We're done. I've been taking orders from you too long.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) And you'll keep on taking orders, too, or you'll get
out of here so fast.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, well, maybe it won't be me that gets out.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) No? Well, maybe the boys, they got something to say
about that. What about it? So, that's it, huh?
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, that's it, all right. Sam, you can dish it
out, but you're getting so you can't take it no more. You're through.
DAVIES: And that's Edward G. Robinson from the film "Little Caesar" from 1931.
Jonathan Eig, you know, it's interesting that Al Capone was such a public
figure in his day. Do we know if actors like Robinson or Cagney actually drew
their performances from Capone?
Mr. EIG: We think that they did and, you know, these movies were made while
Capone was still in operation. That's the amazing thing, while â even before
Capone went to jail, before he was convicted by the federal government, these
movies and books were in the works.
And some reports say that Edward G. Robinson attended the Capone trial to sort
of get a sense for Capone's body language and his mannerisms. I think there's
more Edward G. Robinson than Capone in Rico Bandello, but there's â it's clear
that many of the elements of these characters in the movies were based on
Capone. And it's fascinating to think that even in his lifetime, even before he
got sent away to federal prison, that he's watching these books and movies
emerge based on his life story.
And I think what fascinated the American public was not just the violence but
the fact that these were immigrant stories. And if you watch these movies
today, really that's the key to their drama, to their psychological power. It's
the fact that these are, you know, Horatio Alger stories in many ways.
These are immigrants or immigrants' children trying to make it in this country
and finding a way that may not be the best way and is a dark, evil way in many
ways, but nevertheless, it's their way of getting up and getting a step up in
DAVIES: Did these films affect the public perception of Capone?
Mr. EIG: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, I think this is what cemented the public
perception of Capone and really began to turn it from a human being, which, you
know, Capone was. Capone was really not the psychopath that he was eventually
made to be in the movies. He was not this killing machine.
He was, you know, a product of his times and a product of Prohibition. And, you
know, his rise to power is certainly attributable to his violence, but it's
also attributable to his ambition. But I think these movies really began to
turn the picture into something much more stereotypical.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's new book is called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that
Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster." He'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is Jonathan Eig, whose new book chronicles the rise and fall of the
legendary gangster Al Capone, based on newly acquired documents and interviews
with some of Caponeâs descendants. Eig wrote that Capone ruled the Chicago mob
in the 1920s and often spoke candidly about his underworld clout to reporters.
Itâs interesting to read the story of his cat and mouse battle with law
enforcement. And there's a period of years where he seems to be practically,
openly, running this huge bootlegging and gambling and prostitution operation
and probably connected to multiple murders. Authorities can't seem to get him
on anything. But heâs so harassed that he eventually fleas Chicago for long
periods, tries to set up in L.A., that doesnât work, ends up in Miami. What was
Mr. EIG: Well, it really was harassment. When the police came after him,
ultimately, he got away each time. You know, they might charge him with some
small crime and heâd spend a night or two in jail, but he would bribe his way
out every time and the justice system just wasnât capable of putting him away
for any stretch. The irony is that he paid a brief visit to Philadelphia and
got picked up there for possession of a handgun and was jailed for a year in
Philadelphia, after a decade in which the Chicago judicial system was unable â
was incapable of doing anything with the guy.
But finally, by the late 1920s, he does start to feel like the harassment is
getting to be too much and he sort of flits about, from Los Angeles back to
Chicago, Chicago down to Miami, Miami back to Chicago really getting harassed
everywhere he goes. And this is, by now, is when the net is beginning to
tighten on him and the federal government is really getting involved and there
are FBI agents following him everywhere. There are wiretaps on his phones,
prohibition agents keeping an eye on him and trying to shut down his operation
and limit his cash flow.
And the Chicago police are still fairly ineffective at this point, but there
are enough forces coming after Capone by now, that heâs starting to really feel
DAVIES: Right. And one thing that stepped up the pressure was the events of St.
Valentineâs Day, 1929. What happened?
Mr. EIG: That was a huge moment for Al Capone. This is, of course, the St.
Valentineâs Day massacre. Everybody knows this as one the most famous unsolved
crimes in American history. Seven men in a parking garage on the North Side of
Chicago, most of them members of the Bugs Moran gang. And they are accosted by
three or four men, two of them wearing police uniforms. They're line up against
the wall and gunned down with machineguns and shotguns. And everybody assumes,
at first, that it must've been Capone who did this because these were rival
gang members. But there are many competing theories, including that it may have
been done by a gang from Detroit, a gang from St. Louis. Some people say it may
have been the cops who did it.
And over time, these theories just come and go. And Capone was not in town at
the time. Given how much pressure he was under from the federal government, I
find it hard to believe that he would've been so daring, to go after the Bugs
Moran gang in this way, and then also not to get Bugs Moran, you know, the
leader of the gang, wasnât in the garage that day. So, to me it doesnât have
the hallmarks of an Al Capone crime. But, nevertheless, it becomes just
associated with him. And this puts more pressure than ever on the federal
government to do something about this man.
DAVIES: Right. And so, youâve got the federal government; the president,
Herbert Hoover is making a big issue of the lawlessness in the cities and heâs
pressuring the IRS and the then brand new predecessor really, of the FBI,
right? Everyone is trying to find a way to get Capone. And one of the things
thatâs interesting is the role of Chicago business leaders. I mean there are
people who obviously who - corporate and civic leaders who have some interest
in reform in the town. What assistance, if any, did they give to authorities in
putting Capone away?
Mr. EIG: The Chicago business community was a great help, first of all, in
getting the federal government of its back, getting them to do something about
this, because the business leaders were tired of this man destroying the cityâs
image. And they went to Washington and they met with Herbert Hoover almost
immediately after his inauguration and said that we need your help, 'cause we
can't count on the local police, the local courts, to do anything about this.
And Herbert Hoover responded. He was really the perfect man for this at the
time because he came to office promising to clean up Americaâs broken justice
system and promising to enforce the laws of prohibition. And he really made
this a priority of his administration. Of course, this is before the Depression
And right now, you know, if you look at the spring of 1929, the economy is
booming, the stock market is going up and up, and Hoover can really gain a lot
of points by going after these criminals. And so he makes this a priority and
he orders his administration, not only to reform the justice system, but to go
after Capone, to make a symbol of this man. He understands the public relations
value in taking out the man that Chicago business leaders have dubbed, public
enemy number one, and thatâs really a phrase that the marketing team in Chicago
has come up with to try to put more pressure on the government to come after
DAVIES: Right. And there are various points in the story, at which the business
leaders will do things like come up with money to relocate a witness who might
be willing to give the government evidence against Capone.
Mr. EIG: Thatâs right. Chicago's business community did things that the
government couldnât do, things that were either unethical or the federal
government just didnât have the money for. There was no such thing as a witness
protection program at the time, so these men would take witnesses who were
willing to testify against Capone and ship them off to South America for some
months so that Capone couldnât find them.
They were willing to fund ballistic experts to come in and do work on some of
the guns and some of the bullets recovered after the Valentine's Day massacre.
So they were really pushing this thing forward and it was a really interesting
mix of private and public officials going to battle against Al Capone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He has a new book about Al
Capone called âGet Capone.â
Well talk some more right after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig.
He's written a new biography of the gangster Al Capone. Itâs called âGet
Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangsters.â
Now, in the legend as it has come down, itâs Eliot Ness that was leading the
charge against Al Capone. And I couldnât resist playing a little bit of the
opening of âThe Untouchables,â the TV series in which Eliot Ness is played by
Robert Stack. This is the opening to the show with Walter Winchell narrating.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of âThe Untouchablesâ)
Mr. WALTER WINCHELL (Newspaper, radio commentator): In the last weeks of March
1931, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables were hitting hard at the Capone empire.
Every day gunshots rattled the concrete as Ness led his men in raid after raid.
While prosperity stayed around the corner for most of us, it came out and
licked the hands of mobsters, bootleggers and bookies. For them, it had been
Rome at its height under emperor Al Capone, until Eliot Ness moved in to clean
DAVIES: And that's from the TV series âThe Untouchables.â
Jonathan Eig, you tell us that the Eliot Ness story contains a fair amount of
mythology. How did he get to be the legendary crusader against Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: Ness was a prohibition agent during the â20s. He got the job because
of nepotism. He was really not qualified for it, particularly, and he wasnât
very good at it either. Early in his career, he did some undercover work that
just ended disastrously and he was completely, easily identified by these
gangsters and was never able to go undercover again. So he spent his years in
the Capone case really, just as a sort of a nuisance to Al Capone, busting down
doors and breweries, breaking up distilleries and trying to disrupt Caponeâs
He never came up with any evidence that was useful to the prosecutors who were
trying to build their case against Scarface Capone. And as a result of that, I
think Capone really had very little to do with Eliot Ness. I donât even know if
he knew that Eliot Ness existed, to be honest. He was much more concerned with
the lawyers who were building this case, and he was much more concerned with
Revenue Bureau agents, the tax men, who were coming after him about his income
taxes. These were the real pressures that were making Al Capone sweat.
Eliot Ness really only became famous later at the end of his career. After
Chicago, he went to work as a public servant in Cleveland. His career did not
end well. He ran for mayor and lost. He had some problems with the law himself,
a drunk driving case, some affairs with women that became public. But he was
fortunate enough to run into a man who rewrote his story for him. And this
ghost-written story of Eliot Ness became a very successful book and was turned
into the TV show and then, of course, the movie later, with Kevin Costner. But
these stories were really only very, very loosely based on the truth, and Eliot
Ness was the beneficiary, really, of just a great marketing team that went to
work for him late in his life. And he never actually lived to see the fame that
would come his way.
DAVIES: So who were the key figures in taking Al Capone down?
Mr. EIG: Well, after Herbert Hoover, Hoover really is the man â the engineer â
whoâs making all this happen. But the key person in Chicago is someone your
listeners have probably never heard of and thatâs George E.Q. Johnson. He was
the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. And I was fortunate in
my research to find his personal papers, to find all of his government work
papers. None of this had been cataloged, none of it was in the National
Archives where it should have been.
And what this stuff showed, I mean this was thousands of pages of government
memos on the Capone case, transcripts of wire taps - it showed that he was
really a very nervous man who had a very weak case against Capone and he was
afraid to bring it to trial, in fact, and really had to do so only after
getting sort of kicked in the tail by President Hoover and his top men in the
Justice Department, wondering why it was taking so long to put together any
kind of a case against Al Capone.
DAVIES: Right. Now, and it was tricky, because although clearly, Al Capone had
a lot of money and spent a lot of money. There weren't really records that
showed he got any money from his illegal activities. They did put together some
witnesses and put together and case and indict him; but it had some holes,
Mr. EIG: Yes. The case against Capone had a lot of holes. And the federal
government knew it. First of all, they were dealing, almost entirely, with
circumstantial evidence. They had no proof of income. They were not able to
find any checks. They were not able to find any bank accounts. They really
could find very little property with Caponeâs name on it. So, they built this
case basically on his expenses. They showed the court, they showed the jury,
that he was a lavish spender. And they asked the jury to believe that if he was
spending lavishly he must've been getting the money from somewhere. But, in
fact, there was no way to really tie Capone to this bootlegging business,
except for the fact that he went around telling everybody that he was a
DAVIES: Right. And he had attorneys who, at times, approached the government
and said look, we want to make a deal. We want to settle our tax debt. And, in
fact, one of the memos that they gave on - one of the attorneys gave to the
government on Caponeâs behalf, was then used against him to show, a-ha, see he
does have all this illegitimate income, right?
Mr. EIG: Thatâs right. And this is one of the very suspect moments in the
Capone trial. They take this letter that was written in an attempt to settle
the case, and they say okay, hereâs what weâll agree to, if youâre willing to
make a deal, weâll agree to pay this much money and weâll, theoretically, say
that Capone had, you know, $100,000 of income this year and $100,000 that year
and $90,000 the following year. The government says well, thatâs, thanks very
much. We donât accept your offer, but we will use this letter to prove that
Capone had income in those years. Now that probably should have been thrown
out, should not have been admissible in court, but Caponeâs lawyers were not
able to stop it from being entered into the record.
DAVIES: And the fascinating thing, as I read the development of this, I mean
everybody wanted to get Al Capone. They had this somewhat shaky indictment on
tax evasion. And the government, including George E. Johnson, the U.S.
attorney, agreed to a deal in which Capone was going to plead guilty and get
what, two and a half years. Is that right?
Mr. EIG: Thatâs right, two and a half years.
DAVIES: And the judge refused to approve it. What happened?
Mr. EIG: This is one the most intriguing moments. And these documents that I
discovered, in the George Johnson files, really went into this in great detail.
Because Johnson thought he had a deal, Caponeâs lawyers thought they had a
deal, everybody up to the U.S. attorney general had signed off on this deal.
And the judge himself had told the U.S. attorney that he would go along with
this. And then they walk into court, Capone enters his plea of guilty, and the
judge says I'm taking it off the table, I do not accept, and he insists on a
trial. Now some...
DAVIES: And why did he do that?
Mr. EIG: Well, thatâs the really interesting question. Some people think that
it may have been because the judge was irate that Capone had already been going
around bragging to his pals at the newspapers that he was going to get two and
a half years and he could do two and a half years standing on his head. Heâd be
out. Heâd only be 33-34 years old. Heâd be back in business. But thereâs also a
school of thought that says that Herbert Hoover himself, the president,
intervened here, and may have sent one of his emissaries to visit the judge the
night before Capone entered his guilty plea and insisted that the judge should
take this to trial - that the president was not happy with the two and a half
year plea bargain.
DAVIES: And in the end, he is convicted by - not every charge, but enough - so
that the judge puts him away for 11 years. What was his reaction?
Mr. EIG: He was stunned. Nobody saw this coming, especially after he was
thinking, you know, we're talking two and a half â three years, based on what
kind of an offer the government had made and based on other income tax cases.
You know, he had already seen some of his gang members go to jail for income
tax invasion. Heâd seen his brother convicted and the typical sentence was two-
three years. So he was not prepared at all for this. And one of the keys,
really, is that Capone was not tried by a jury of his peers. The jury was
really hand-chosen, specially selected by this judge. And they were not only â
it was difficult in the â20s to find men who were willing to convict
bootleggers, because everybody drank, but this was a jury that was not only
willing to convict, it was eager to convict. And to say they threw the book at
Capone is a massive understatement.
DAVIES: And then heâs sentenced to serve time in Atlanta. And thereâs this
train trip where the marshals are escorting him from Chicago to Atlanta, and
this is hard to believe, but he actually â he actually has sort of mini press
conferences at every whistle stop.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EIG: Yeah. Youâve got hundreds of people lining the railroads, lining the
train tracks to see this guy. It kind of reminded me Babe Ruth every year when
he would go down to spring training and you'd have people just gather at the
train station, sometimes just hoping to see the train, even if not to see the
But Capone would stop at every train station and get out and wave to his
adoring public, and he would give press releases and he was dressed
immaculately. There was no, you know, prison attire for this guy. He was
allowed to play cards on the train with the U.S. marshals who were escorting
him down there. You know, he was conferred celebrity status. And itâs amazing
to me that the government let him get away with it, but he loved every minute
DAVIES: So, when Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1931, heâs
still a young man. And, you know, he might have gotten out in 10 with good
behavior and resumed his career, but he didnât. What became of him in prison?
Mr. EIG: When Capone got to the penitentiary in Atlanta, they ran a series of
standard tests. They interviewed him about his life. They took an IQ test,
found that he had a 95 IQ. They completed a very detailed record of his life
and his health. And in doing the health examination, they found that he had
tertiary syphilis, which meant that it was already affecting his nervous system
and affecting his brain. And he told the doctors that he had first noticed the
symptoms of syphilis when he was a very young man, at about 19 or 20, and had
ignored them and not treated them.
Had he treated them at that point, he probably would've made a complete
recovery. There was a very good treatment at the time. But in letting it go,
the disease spread, and by then it was affecting his neurological system and
there was no turning back. There was nothing anyone could do about it at that
point. And as a result of that, his remaining years would be just brutal,
really. His mind began to melt away. He would enjoy some moments of clarity and
some moments where he was a capable of writing letters to his family and
visiting with them in peace, but there were also times when he suffered
seizures, when he was delusional. And by the end, as one of his fellow gang
members put it, he was nutty as a fruitcake.
DAVIES: Did some time at Alcatraz, which was new, but eventually was released
and died in 1947 - never was an active criminal again, as far as we knew?
Mr. EIG: No. He really was not capable of it even if he had wanted to get back
into the life.
DAVIES: And he lived in Miami, right, with his wife, May and his son, Sonny, is
Mr. EIG: Yeah.
DAVIES: Was there enough money left over from the enterprise to make them
Mr. EIG: I think the family lived comfortably in those last years. And I think
the Outfit, as it continued on without him - obviously, prohibition came to an
end and they found other ways of making their money - I think the Outfit
continued to take care of Capone and his family members. I think they would
receive regular supplies of cash for whatever they needed. But once Capone
died, those envelopes stopped coming and the family had to fend for itself.
And there was never any great treasure chest that discovered. A lot of Capone
family members thought that Capone must have hidden the money away somewhere.
And in those late years when his mind was going and he really behaved in a
childlike way, they would ask him again and again, you know, where did you put
the money? Where is it? And itâs possible he spent it all, but he always said
that he couldnât remember. And if heâd hidden any away, he couldnât remember
where it was.
DAVIES: And irony of ironies, he never paid the tax debt that sent him to
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EIG: That is true. He died owing the government all this money. They never
seized the house in Florida. They never seized his motherâs house in Chicago.
But they took every other asset they could find, and he still left quite a
DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Eig, itâs been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. EIG: Thank you.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eigâs book is called âGet Capone: The Secret Plot That
Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster.â You can read an excerpt at our
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on the Swedish crime fiction you probably donât
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Larsson's Just The Tip Of The Nordic Literary Iceberg
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Long before there was Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson's
phenomenally successful âMilleniumâ series, there was Martin Beck, another
loner Swedish detective who investigated the bigger mysteries haunting the
society of his time.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan considers the utopian social fantasies offered up
both by the âMilleniumâ series and its 1960s-era forerunner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: For the past few months, whenever I've found myself in a
public space, in a Starbucks or doctor's waiting room, I always see somebody
reading one of the novels in the âMillenniumâ series by Stieg Larsson. As a
phenomenon, it's truly incredible. Millions upon millions of people in the U.S.
alone â men and women - are captivated by a mystery series built around a main
character who's an antisocial, bisexual, feminist, cyber genius avenger. Oh,
and she's Swedish. Not since the arrival of Ikea on these shores, has Sweden
made such an inroad into the American home and imagination.
As far as mystery fiction goes, though, Larsson is the tippy-top of a Nordic
literary iceberg thatâs been moving inexorably into our waters over the past
few decades. Before âThe Girl With The Dragon Tattooâ landed in this country in
2008, Henning Mankell was the mystery writer that everybody was raving about.
Mankell's fellow Swedes; Helene Tursten, who writes very good police
procedurals; and Kerstin Ekman, whose novel âBlackwaterâ was a standout, also
made their mark. So have Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbo from Norway, and the late
crime master, Janwillem van de Wetering from Holland. If the years between the
World Wars were the Golden Age of British mystery, we've surely entered a new
When I first read Stieg Larsson and heard his novels talked about as composing
a multi-novel epic about contemporary Swedish society, a little chime went off
in my head. I thought of an extraordinary pair of older Swedish mystery writers
I haven't yet mentioned: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. To anyone who loves crime
fiction, Sjowall and Wahloo are immortals. Their Chief Inspector Martin Beck
novels are still in print and still read, though their popularity has never
approached anything like Larsson's. Sjowall and Wahloo were married, and
together dreamt up the idea of writing 10 novels of 30 chapters each â
composing an epic that spanned 10 years, from 1965 to 1975.
Their aim, like Larsson's, was to investigate society. In their own words,
Sjowall and Wahloo said that they wanted to use detective fiction to wield a
scalpel, to lay open the soft belly of the morally debatable bourgeois welfare
state, exposing the cancer that was eating away at Swedish society. At night,
after they put their children to bed, Sjowall and Wahloo would sit down at a
table together, facing each other; and from detailed outlines, they would
simultaneously write alternate chapters of whatever Martin Beck novel they were
then working on.
To me, this sounds like a marital recipe for homicide, but it worked for
Sjowall and Wahloo, and they wrote brilliant stories â among them âThe Fire
Engine That Disappearedâ and âThe Laughing Policeman,â about the growing
violence in Swedish society and the upsurge in militant demonstrations against
the war in Vietnam.
To read the collective work of Sjowall and Wahloo and Larsson, is to have the
dizzying illusion of reading one smart, entertaining, multi-volume work of
social criticism focused on Sweden - with pointed applications to America as
well. But there's more. Great detective fiction doesn't only offer social
criticism; it also contains utopian alternatives to a world gone wrong. For
Sjowall and Wahloo, that utopian alternative, circa 1975, involved a
recommitment to the ideals of social democracy.
In the last scene of the last novel, âThe Terrorists,â Martin Beck and one of
his close colleagues are setting up a game of Scrabble. The colleague, who has
quit the police in frustration, tells Beck that - the trouble with you, Martin,
is just that you've got the wrong job, at the wrong time, in the wrong part of
the world, in the wrong system. Then, he turns over his Scrabble square and
says, my turn to start? Then I say X â X as in Marx.
Compare that class-based solution to society's ills to the dream vision that
Larsson gives us. By the end of the âMillenniumâ series, a much more ragtag
community of characters has come together, their very existence made possible
by feminism and by the gay liberation movement. In uneasy alliance, they
temporarily conquer the forces of cannibalistic capitalism, sexism and
international worker abuse. Such is the utopian dream that has infiltrated the
psyches of the American reading public - blue-stater and red-stater. The
astounding popularity of Larsson's âMillenniumâ series is a testament to the
uncover power of popular literature to transport us readers out of our hemmed-
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you
can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.