On this date in history, 1931, Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion. But it didn’t come easily or quickly. This is his story.
Al Capone was born in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City to Italian immigrants. Capone was a Five Points Gang member who became a bouncer in organized crime premises such as brothels. In his early 20s, he moved to Chicago and became bodyguard and trusted factotum for Johnny Torrio, head of a criminal syndicate that illegally supplied alcohol and that was politically protected through the Unione Siciliana. A conflict with the North Side Gang was instrumental in Capone’s rise and fall. Torrio went into retirement after North Side gunmen almost killed him, thereby bringing about Capone’s succession. Capone expanded the bootlegging business through increasingly violent means, but his mutually profitable relationships with mayor William Hale Thompson and the city’s police meant Capone seemed safe from law enforcement. Apparently reveling in the attention, such as cheers when he appeared at ball games, Capone made donations to various charities and was viewed by many to be a “modern day Robin Hood.” However, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of gang rivals from the North Side Gang damaged Chicago’s image, leading influential citizens to demand governmental action.
The federal authorities became intent on jailing Capone and prosecuted him for tax evasion in 1931. The case was highly politicized and both prosecutors and judge later received preferment. During prior and ultimately abortive negotiations to pay the government any back taxes he owed, Capone had made admissions of his income; the judge deemed these statements usable as evidence at the trial, and also refused to let Capone plead guilty for a lighter sentence. The effect of such decisions by the judge was added to by the incompetence of Capone’s defense attorneys. Capone was convicted and sentenced to a then record breaking 11 years in federal prison. Replacing his old defense team with experts in tax law, his grounds for appeal were strengthened by a Supreme Court ruling, but Capone again found that his status as a symbol of criminality meant that judges decided against him. Already showing signs of syphilitic dementia by early in his sentence, he became increasingly debilitated before being released after eight years. On January 25, 1947, Capone died of cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke. Capone’s conviction had negligible effect on the prevalence of organized crime in Chicago.