GET CAPONE: An Excerpt from the new biography about Al Capone

In the fall of 1923, Capone transferred his headquarters from the Four Deuces in Chicago to the Hawthorne Inn in Cicero. Nestled at Chicago’s western edge, Cicero was the state’s fourth largest city. It looked exactly like a working-class section of Chicago, with several big manufacturing plants—the biggest of them belonging to Bell Telephone’s Western Electric company—where more than ten thousand men and women built and assembled telephones.

All around the factory sat the usual smattering of churches, schools, and small brick houses. The Hawthorne Inn squatted on Twenty-Second Street, the city’s main drag. It was a modest, two-story structure. Like everything else on the block, it was red brick, with white tile set in the top of the facade. Attached to the hotel was a mirrored restaurant, also called the Hawthorne, no wider than a railroad car. A gambling house called The Ship sat next door, open to the public with a sign out front to make it simple to find. It was a place where roulette, faro, craps, blackjack, stud poker, and chuck-a-luck games ran around the clock, and supposedly on the square.

All over Cicero at the time of Capone’s arrival, saloons and casinos were cropping up faster than oil rigs around a live well. Prohibition was flouted so routinely and so brazenly that the writer Fred Pasley called Cicero the first city in the nation to secede from “the United States of Volstead.” As one of the saloon-keepers explained: “When the cops and the Prohibition agents come here all the time to get drunk with us, why, of course they go along with us. They always tip us off to the raids. An injunction means nothing. When the owner of a place is caught by one he opens up somewhere else under another name.”

The town government was controlled completely by Torrio and Capone, who paid off the mayor and members of the city council. Once, to show his disdain for some recent bit of public policy, Capone slugged the town president, Joseph Z. Klenha, knocking him down on the steps of City Hall, as police officers stood by and watched.

Capone slugged the town president, Joseph Z. Klenha, knocking him down on the steps of City Hall, as police officers stood by and watched.

“The Free Kingdom of Torrio,” the Chicago Tribune snidely labeled the town. “It has gambling and liquor and everything, including a police force….”

By the spring of 1924, when election day came around in Cicero, Klenha, a Republican, was concerned that the same reformers who had helped elect Dever in Chicago might try to bring reform to his fair town. He turned to Capone and Torrio for help. They assured the mayor he had no reason to worry.

On the eve of the election, the Democratic candidate for town clerk, a reformer named William K. Pflaum, received a visit from some so-called political activists who beat him with with their revolver butts, sacked his office, and fired several shots into the ceiling before they fled. A Democratic campaign worker got shot through both legs and dumped in a basement, where he found himself surrounded by eight other reformers. An election clerk was gagged, tied, and stashed in a saloon until after the voting was done. A policeman was blackjacked, two men (presumably Democrats) were shot dead on Twenty-Second Street, and another man had his throat slashed. It was a tough campaign.

Election day dawned cold and gray. Outside a polling station at Twenty-Second Street and Cicero Avenue stood Frank Capone, his cousin, Charlie Fischetti, and a third man who was probably Al Capone. The three men were handsomely dressed, with overcoats, jackets, silk ties, and snap-brimmed fedoras. Each had an automatic weapon. They meant for their presence to serve as a reminder to vote Republican.

By late afternoon, a judge in Cook County decided that the election was beginning to look a lot like a riot and sent more than one hundred police officers into Cicero in an attempt to restore order. A cold rain started to fall. When the cops got to Cicero, they used their night sticks and pistols to push back at the gangsters. By late afternoon, the three men were still standing at Twenty-Second and Cicero as hundreds of workers began pouring out of the Western Electric factory across the street. The air smelled of smoke and coal dust and the coming of spring. Just then, a police car pulled up at the polling station. Police cars in the twenties were often indistinguishable from ordinary sedans, which might explain why the gangsters didn’t move.

Sgt. William Cusack fired, bullets flew, and Frank Capone fell to the sidewalk, gulping air, choking, and dying there on the concrete.

Three patrolmen stepped out, guns raised. Fischetti froze. Frank Capone took off running to the north. The man that police assumed to be Al Capone took off running, too. The police later claimed that Frank Capone ducked into a clump of tall grass and began firing at them, but at least one witness said the gangster never raised his gun. What happened next is beyond dispute: Sgt. William Cusack fired, bullets flew, and Frank Capone fell to the sidewalk, gulping air, choking, and dying there on the concrete.

The headline in the Tribune read “GUNMAN SLAIN IN VOTE RIOTS,” and in smaller print, “G.O.P. Ticket Wins”

The next day, the Capone home on Prairie Avenue was filled with hundreds of men and women paying their respects. So many flower arrangements were delivered that the Capones needed fifteen cars to carry the bouquets to the cemetery. Every gangster in Chicago, it seemed, came out to offer condolences to Theresa Capone. Neighborhood children lined up by the dozens across the sidewalk to watch the spectacular parade of expensive cars and men in dark suits. Even the police officer who fired the fatal shots made an appearance and expressed his sympathy.

With Cicero locked up at least until the next election and the booze business becoming more lucrative by the day, the Torrio-Capone empire steadily grew. Capone’s take of the profits in 1924 came to more than $123,000, or about $1.5 million by modern standards, according to an estimate made several years later by the Bureau of Internal Revenue. But the bigger the business got, the more violence it engendered. And while Torrio was generally mature and mild-mannered enough to avoid becoming personally involved in the brutal work, his younger partner was not. Capone was learning from Torrio the ways of the booze business, but he had not mastered the emotional control that helped make his boss so successful for so long.

For a second-in-command, it was not such a serious character flaw to fly off the handle from time to time, and nothing in Capone’s behavior in those early years suggests he aspired to run the Chicago outfit. There’s certainly no indication that he had designs on removing Torrio.

A few weeks after the death of Frank Capone, a small-time hoodlum named Joe Howard showed up at Heinie Jacobs’ saloon, just down the street from the Four Deuces. Howard was twenty-eight, still lived above his mother’s South Side fruit store, and made his living by burglary and beer-running. It was six o’clock in the evening. He was sitting at the cigar counter, trying to choose a smoke, when the saloon’s doors swung open with a flutter behind him.

“Hello, Al,” Howard said, smiling, turning around, and putting out a hand in greeting.

Al was almost certainly Al Capone, although witnesses would later say they couldn’t be sure. Coming through the door with Capone was another man—bigger than Capone—also unidentified by witnesses at the scene.

Capone fired five more shots. The big man released his grip. The rest of Howard fell from his stool and into a puddle of his own blood. Capone and the big man turned and walked out of the bar.

The men said nothing as they entered and walked briskly toward the bar. The big man grabbed Howard by the coat and held him tight. Capone pulled a gun, put the muzzle to Howard’s cheek and pressed. He pulled the trigger. Blood, bones and tooth particles exploded across Hymie Jacobs’ bar, but Howard was still sitting on the stool, his body suspended in the hands of Capone’s accomplice. Capone fired five more shots. The big man released his grip. The rest of Howard fell from his stool and into a puddle of his own blood. Capone and the big man turned and walked out of the bar.

Thirty minutes later, police told reporters they had identified their suspect.

“I am sure it was Capone,” announced chief of detectives Michael Hughes. But the detective went on to complain, in frustration, that the men in the bar sitting next to and across from Joe Howard were refusing to identify the killer. Each of them claimed he had been looking away when the man entered the bar and that the gunman was gone by the time the victim fell from his stool. Heinie Jacobs, who was standing opposite the victim, behind the cigar case, said he had seen the whole thing but didn’t recognize the man Howard had greeted as “Al.” Another eye witness who lived at 2220 S, Wabash, next door to the Four Deuces, claimed he had never seen nor heard of anyone named Al Capone.

Chief Hughes knew the run-around when he was getting it.

“It’s an old story already,” he complained.

The next day, Capone’s picture appeared in the Chicago Tribune, probably for the first time. It was a mug shot soon to be familiar to Chicagoans.

The investigation dragged on weeks. Chief Hughes said he knew exactly what had happened, “but for the life of me I can’t tell the motive.”

A story had begun to go around on the gangland grapevine. According to the gossip among hoodlums, Howard had recently hijacked a load of booze. After the heist, he’d gone to a speakeasy to celebrate. Drunk and trying to act big, he’d decided to pick on one of the smallest, chubbiest, and most harmless-looking men he could find. Unfortunately for Howard, the victim he selected was none other than Jack “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, chief bookkeeper for the Torrio and Capone syndicate. Howard didn’t just beat Guzik, he humiliated him, slapping back and forth across his face a few times and then letting him have it with a hard and heavy fist to the head. After the beating, Howard had bragged to friends that he’d “made the little Jew whine.”

Just before Capone had pulled the trigger, he had muttered into Howard’s ear: “Whine, you f___ing fink.”

Just before Capone had pulled the trigger, he had muttered into Howard’s ear: “Whine, you f___ing fink.”

Amnesia and temporary blindness continued to afflict the witnesses in the days after Howard’s murder. Capone made himself scarce. If the murder of Joe Howard didn’t elevate Capone’s reputation among Chicago’s gangsters, demonstrating both his brutality and loyalty, what happened next surely did.

A month later, on June 11, Capone walked in of his own accord to a police station and said he’d heard a rumor that the cops had been looking for him. He said he was “curious to know what it was for.”

The police delivered Capone to the state’s attorney’s office in the criminal courts building, where he was told he was wanted for questioning in Howard’s murder. The interrogation turned out to be brief.

“Well,” Capone explained, “I don’t know anything about the shooting because I was out of town at that time.”

That was a good enough explanation for the young assistant state’s attorney assigned to the case, William H. McSwiggin.

Capone walked.

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