Gangster’s Paradise: Chicago under Prohibition

Written by Emily Martin. Edited by Joscelin Woodend.

chic1The mysterious allure surrounding the American Mafia has been immortalised in popular culture. The danger and the glamour of organised crime and the mobster lifestyle has brought cult-fiction such as The Godfather, The Sopranos and more recently, The Boardwalk Empire, to the forefront of our imaginations. Chicago in the Prohibition era is renowned for glamour, jazz, and most of all, vice. The complete ban of alcohol spawned an age of illicit, immoral, but most importantly, exciting behaviour, and despite the ban, alcohol was widely available through mafia gangs ‘bootlegging’.

The most famous gangster of all, Al Capone, the ‘King of the Gangsters’, was portrayed in contemporary media as a heroic, philanthropic celebrity who could do no wrong in the eyes of the public. This image has immortalised Capone in collective public memory, with countless films being made about his escapades and various mobster characters in popular culture bearing striking resemblance to the main man himself (Fat Tony from The Simpsons, I’m looking at you here). Why are we so obsessed with Al Capone in Western culture? Why has a man who was responsible for the murder of so many, for the prostitution, crime and violence that plagued the streets of Chicago, been put on a pedestal and viewed with pride and envy by so many people? The truth is, there is no decade more glamorous or appealing than twenties America. The Hollywood stars, the daring fashions, and the economic boom; people had arguably never had it so good. The picture of the jazz-age is hardly complete without the sharply dressed mobster smoking a cigar and gazing menacingly over a deck of cards.

Al CaponePerhaps the reason for the cultural obsession with Al Capone is the sheer audacity of his whole operation. Capone essentially committed the most terrible crimes with the consent of police and the government, through bribery and corruption. Capone was untouchable, an international celebrity, the ‘symbol’ of Chicago. Deemed to be the ‘greatest and most successful gangster who ever lived’, Capone became revered in the newspapers, attracting tourists who flocked to the city to see the mean streets where shootouts would occur between rival gangs in broad daylight, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who could afford to pay protection rates of $25,000,000 a year to maintain his criminal lifestyle – this granted complete immunity from police intervention because the majority of police were on his payroll. Capone took this further by infiltrating the political domain of Chicago. His bribery of mayor ‘Big Bill’ Thompson was notorious and allowed Capone to turn the streets of Chicago into his personal playground, turning the city into a hotbed of corruption and vice.

However, it is not just the brutality that earns Capone his crown. Aside from the bloody violence and vice that earned his reputation, there was a softer side to the man they called ‘Scarface’. Born to a family of Italian immigrants, Capone was one of nine children and from an early age showed potential for a life of crime. However, he never forgot his roots and became Chicago’s very own Robin Hood, stealing, pimping and laundering money not only for personal gain, but also to help the very poorest people in the tightly knit community of Italian immigrants. Capone’s most noted ‘good deed’ was the opening of soup kitchens following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, for those that had lost everything in the economic crisis. Capone symbolises the ultimate rags-to-riches story, and his generosity with his money, however dubious its origins, makes him an almost saintly figure to some.

Overall it is safe to say that Capone’s complex life is fascinating. The poverty-stricken son of Italian immigrants who became one of America’s richest men by committing some of the most awful crimes on such a vast scale, with the authorisation and even help of some of the most influential figures in law and politics, is a story that captivates so many. Yet it is seemingly impossible to regard Capone as anything other than lovable, his charitable work confirming to the world that he had both a heart and a conscience. After all, we love a villainous character in Western culture, proven most recently by fictional television characters such as serial killer Dexter or meth-baron Walter White in Breaking Bad. Perhaps what makes Capone so fascinating to us is that his actions are worthy of that of an elaborate fictional story, but Al ‘Scarface’ Capone lived and breathed, carrying out impossibly large-scale criminal operations, which just makes his story that much more incredible.