Updated Tue, Jul 1, 2014 2:36 pm
Tuesday, July 22 • 8 p.m.
The mention of Al Capone's name sparks images of pinstripe suits and ruthless murders. More than 80 years after the height of his power, this program explores Capone's enduring impact on American culture and learn why people are still so fascinated by this celebrity gangster.
Al Capone got an icy reception when he arrived in Miami Beach in 1928. Whether he was winter-weary like other Northern tourists was immaterial; Miami saw him as a blight on its reputation.
By 1928 the "New Yorker" had already dubbed Capone "the greatest gang leader in history." His brutality was legendary even during his lifetime. It was widely known -- though almost impossible to prove -- that he engineered dozens of murders. He escalated gangland warfare to establish Chicago's supremacy over his native Brooklyn, and he operated profitable prostitution rings and speakeasies.
But always there was the outward appearance of respectability. A disciple of "gentleman gangster" Johnny Torrio, Capone considered himself a benefactor of the Italian immigrant community, his bootlegging operations a source of jobs for the poor. The son of Italian immigrants himself, Capone lived in a modest house in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood with his wife and son, his mother and siblings. He told neighbors he was a secondhand furniture dealer.
Miami Beach, however, knew that Capone was no secondhand furniture dealer, and the city shuddered upon his arrival. Northern backlash against Florida had slowed the land boom, and a hurricane in 1926 devastated the local economy. Residents feared that Capone's presence would convince the country that "Miami Beach was no longer the good clean fun it had been in 1920."
Capone was accused of bringing gambling to the city, but "with or without him, South Florida was a hotbed of illegal gambling, prostitution, corruption and rum-running." City officials had looked the other way before. The "Miami News" led the campaign to drive Capone out, but he wouldn't budge. In fact, he decided to make Miami Beach his home, choosing Clarence Busch's Palm Island estate as his permanent residence. As always, Capone brokered the deal through a middleman; direct payment would attract the Internal Revenue Service's attention.
Florida mobilized to rid itself of Capone. The American Legion hatched a plan which would end in martial law stripping Capone of his constitutional rights. The city sued him, calling his Palm Island home "a menace to the safety and well-being of residents." The governor of Florida, fearful of further damage to Miami's reputation, "ordered all sheriffs to arrest him on sight."
Capone was arrested several times in Miami, and jailed once. Constant surveillance neither drove him out not prevented him from orchestrating what would become his most notorious deed: the Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, in 1929. The execution-style murder, in which several rival gangsters were killed by Capone's henchmen, could never be pinned on Capone officially: He was in Miami at the time, being questioned in another, unrelated murder investigation. The massacre elevated Capone's celebrity, and he went so far as to hire a press agent.
In May 1929, following his arrest in Philadelphia on a concealed weapons charge, Capone was sentenced to a year in prison. With Capone behind bars, and the blessing of newly elected President Herbert Hoover, the IRS Special Intelligence Unit sought evidence of tax evasion, Capone's Miami home irrefutable proof of his healthy, and till then untaxed, income. The now-legendary Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" were simultaneously gathering evidence of Capone's massive bootlegging violations.
Released from prison two months early for good behavior, Capone returned to Miami in 1930 to find himself named Public Enemy Number One by the head of the Chicago Crime Commission. While he did not cease bootlegging, Capone tried to improve his image by hosting a series of "good-will dinners" in Miami. He failed to impress his detractors. In 1931 Capone and 68 of his associates were charged with 5,000 separate violations of Prohibition, and Capone alone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion. On October 17, 1931, Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion, sentenced to 11 years in prison, and fined tens of thousands of dollars.
In 1934 Capone was moved from the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, where he enjoyed privileges denied other prisoners, to Alcatraz. Capone was a good prisoner, but his health was in sharp decline. He had contracted syphilis prior to his marriage (and in fact transmitted the disease to his then-unborn son), and by 1938 he was exhibiting the dementia characteristic of late-stage syphilis.
His sentence was shortened to six and a half years, again for good behavior, and Capone returned to Miami in 1939. Public Enemy Number One, ravaged by syphilis, died of cardiac arrest on January 25, 1947, just a week after his 48th birthday.