The Early Days of America’s Most Infamous Mobster
On this day, January 17, 1899, Alphonse Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York. Most know about Capone as a vicious mob boss, the man who virtually ran the city of Chicago at the age of 26, and the gangster whose empire began to crumble after the bloody events of St. Valentines Day 1929. But most people don’t know much about the early days of Capone – before he came to Chicago.
Alphonse Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 17, 1899. His father, Gabriele, a barber, and his mother, the former Teresina Raiola, had come to America from Castellammare di Stabia, a town about fifteen miles south of Naples, Italy, in 1893. The family’s surname was an Americanization of the original “Caponi,” from an augmentative of capo, or head, meaning someone who was stubborn or arrogant, rather than the literal sense of someone with a large head. The Capones settled in an apartment in Brooklyn at 95 Navy Street in the chaos of the borough’s largest Italian neighborhood. Rent in the brick and wood-frame tenements ran around $4 a month and none of the flats had heat, running hot water or bathrooms. Water had to be heated on potbellied coal stoves, which also provided scant protection against cold weather.
After working as a grocer for a short time, Gabriele opened a barbershop at 69 Park Avenue, a short distance from his home. He and Teresina, who was usually called Teresa, eventually had nine children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. In order of birth they were Vincenzo (renamed James), Ralph, Salvatore (Frank), Alphonse, Amadeo Ermino (later John, nicknamed Mimi), Umberto (Albert), Matthew, Rose (who was born and died in 1910) and Mafalda, who was named for Italy’s royal princess. Gabriele was a literate man who wrote poems and stories in his spare time. Teresa had been a seamstress in Italy and she continued to do sewing piecework after she came to Brooklyn.
Italian immigrants faced many barriers when they arrived in America, from language barriers to harsh stereotypes.
The Capones were just like the other thousands of poor, uneducated Italians who had been pouring into American during the first mass migration from their country that began in the 1880s. The Italians had a harder time assimilating than the other immigrants of the era. They were, especially the Southern Italian peasants and craftsmen who made up the majority of the new arrivals, clannish and wary of outsiders. Centuries of problems caused by foreign invaders and domineering domestic masters had taught them to mistrust authority. They considered the police and the politicians their natural enemies. The laws, they believed, had been made to protect the rich and to take advantage of the poor. Italian immigrants tended to place loyalty to family and community above allegiance to their adopted country. For this reason, they did not necessarily look down on those who broke the laws of the new society, even the gangsters and racketeers, and sometimes invested them with heroic stature, as long as they were loyal to their people and, above all, good family men.
The hardships and prejudice endured by the Italian immigrants in the “land of opportunity” confirmed their suspicions about the new country. With their lack of formal education, their inability to speak, read or write the language, and their past employment limited to farming and shop-keeping, they found, as city dwellers, only the lowest-paying jobs were available to them. They became ditch-diggers, brick-layers and stone-cutters; they laid pipes and railroad ties; sold rags from street carts and stands; ran small fruit and vegetable stores; and, like Gabriel Capone, they plied scissors and razors to put food on the table. But what these jobs made was not enough and consequently, a man’s wife and children worked, too. The Capone children were working odd jobs before they entered their teens.
Years of labor in the old country gave the typical Italian immigrant the physical stamina to withstand the hardships of the city slums, but the health of the children suffered. Undernourished, overcrowded in dingy cold-water tenements, lacking adequate sanitation, clean water, fresh air and sunlight, the first-generation Italians had the poorest health of any foreign group in New York. Infant mortality was almost double that of the rest of the city’s population with the greatest killers being respiratory diseases, diarrhea and diphtheria.
Illiteracy among the Italian-Americans ran to almost sixty percent, highest among all of the immigrant groups, and because their children had to go to work, very few of them ever made it to high school. By the second generation, though, compulsory education largely eliminated the illiteracy problem. During the boyhood of the Capone brothers, however, it was, together with truancy, commonplace. Except for Matt, the youngest brother, none of the Capones ever finished high school.
Like the Capone family, many Italian and Sicilian immigrants lived in the poor tenement slums of Brooklyn.
The Italians also had to deal with a myth that continued to plague their descendants for generations to come. According to this myth, they had criminal instincts. Mayor Joseph Shakespeare of New Orleans, another city that was flooded with thousands of Italian immigrants, wrote that the Southern Italians and Sicilians were “.... the most idle, vicious and worthless people among us.” Many New Yorkers shared this view, although largely for reasons that were more fiction than truth. In fact, based on the menial jobs they took and the prejudices against them, it’s surprising that more Italians didn’t enter into a life of crime. Those that did, however, garnered a lot of attention. These younger immigrants, tired of hard work for little pay, found that crime opened the door to the “opportunities” that had been promised when their parents arrived on American shores. They joined the ranks of professional gunmen and bombers, extortionists, vice peddlers, labor racketeers, gambling house operators and bootleggers. It was this lawless generation that began to combine the methods of predatory Italian secret societies like the Mafia with American big business tactics to create one of the most efficient enterprises in the history of organized crime.
Gangsters and lawbreakers made up a small percentage of the Italian-American population and yet the criminal few reinforced the prejudices already in place. Many saw the “dago” as not only criminal by nature, but physically unclean and mentally inferior. The effect of these prejudices caused the Italian-American community to draw even more tightly together in a way that no outsider could penetrate. The enclaves were further divided among the traditional lines of class and regional origin – Sicilians stuck together and refused to trust Neapolitans and Romans viewed Calabrians with suspicion. The sense of community ran so deep among some Italian-Americans that they were likely to keep in touch all of their lives, no matter how widely their careers diverged. This often explains why the pallbearers at a gangster’s funeral have been known to include judges, district attorneys and priests and why, at testimonial dinners for a retiring city official, police inspectors may sit next to hardened gunmen.
This was the world that shaped the life of Alphonse Capone.
However, Capone was unusual when it came to Italian-Americans of his day. He took little pride in his foreign roots. “I’m no Italian,” he often said, “I’m from Brooklyn.” The press often labeled him as being from Sicily or Naples but Capone was born in New York and was baptized at St. Michael’s Church at the corner of Tillary and Lawrence streets, just a block from his parents’ home.
Life in the neighborhood where Capone spent his first 10 years was rough, but it was never dull. Hordes of ragged children played stickball, dodged traffic and ran wild as their mothers, dark women with thick black hair, walked the streets with baskets on their heads that were filled with groceries for the day’s meals. Fruit and vegetable carts lined the curbs and the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the greatest suspension bridge in the world at that time, brought hordes of people to the area, looking for cheap housing.
During the warm weather months, the corner of Sands and Navy streets was often the scene of music shows, attended by hundreds of people. It was during these shows that Capone acquired his passion for Italian opera. At night, Sands Street catered to darker tastes as sailors came ashore, looking for liquor and women. It was an area that was one of the roughest in the city, where murder and mayhem constantly occurred. The bars were filled with drunken sailors, stacked three and four deep and if their money ran low, there were pawnshops that stayed open all night. There were tattoo parlors, gambling dens, dancehalls, fleabag hotels that rented rooms by the hour and a legion of gaudy whores who were always available.
Capone’s schooling began not far from Sands Street at P.S. #7 on Adams Street. His teacher, a 16-year-old girl named Sadie Mulvaney, had received her training from Catholic nuns and despite her youth and general unworldliness, she managed to keep order among some of the toughest boys in the neighborhood. One of them was Salvatore Luciana, who would become better known later in life as Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He and Capone took to each other and they remained lifelong friends. Sadie Mulvaney would later remember Capone as a “swarthy, sullen, troublesome boy,” but he was no more trouble than any of her other students. He was big and strong for his age, quick to anger and when provoked, would fly into a murderous rage.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, a favorite hangout of boys in Capone’s neighborhood.
After school, Capone liked to hang around the docks. He never tired of watching the change of the U.S. Marine Guards behind the main Navy gate. The recruits, many of them new, had to mark time in drill formation before they could be relieved. If a raw recruit was out of step, their corporal would keep the entire detail marking time until the blunderer caught on. One afternoon, Capone, who was 10 years old but looked about 14, came to the gate with several friends. Having watched the whole routine for several weeks, he understood the corporal’s strategy. On this occasion, there was one particularly inept guard who, even after three of four minutes, still didn’t understand what was going on. After several minutes, Capone called out to the man and told him to get in step because he was holding up his comrades. The recruit finally changed step and the detail was dismissed. Burning with anger, the red-faced recruit charged up to the fence, making as if he planned to spit at Capone. Al flew into a rage and even though the guardsman was twice his size, challenged him to a fight. The corporal intervened and ordered the recruit back to the guardhouse. He told Capone that if the young man had actually spit on him, he would have put him on report. But Capone told him not to. He said that if the Marine stepped outside the gate, he would take care of him. He walked away with his fists clenched and his face reddened with anger.
Not long after, the corporal discussed the cocky Italian boy with the sergeant of the guards, “If this kid had a good Marine officer to get hold of him and steer him right, he’d make a good man for the Marines. But if nothing like this happens, the kid may drift for a few years until some wiseguy picks him up and steers him around and then he’ll be heard from one day.”
John Torrio in 1903
The corporal’s prophecy, which he recalled in 1947 to a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, came true much sooner that he likely imagined. Capone fell under the influence of an older, Navy Street gangster named John Torrio, who had been born in Naples in 1882. By the time that he met Capone, Torrio had already established himself as an underworld figure of some note. Torrio, who stood no higher than Capone’s upper chest, was a pallid little man with delicate hands and feet. He seemed to be mild-mannered and quiet, but appearances were deceiving. He had belonged to Manhattan’s famous Five Points Gang for seven years until the bloodthirsty hoodlums began to dwindle in ranks, headed for either prison or the grave. He then joined another gang with headquarters in a saloon that he ran on James Street. Although calm and reflective, he made a name for himself as having no compunctions about murder and would order the execution of an enemy without hesitation – even though he himself never carried out the violence. He claimed that he had never fired a gun in his life and had practical objections to most acts of violence. He considered it a poor solution to business problems and preferred alliances, meetings and diplomacy. There was, Torrio believed, enough money in the rackets for all to share in peace without risking injury or death. Torrio, in his heyday was the closest thing in the underworld to a criminal mastermind from the pages of detective fiction. His methods greatly influence his young protégé and Capone would often remark that by imitating John Torrio, he solved many problems without bloodshed.
In 1907, the Capones moved to another Italian neighborhood about a mile south of Navy Street. The family moved into a flat on the second floor of a cold-water tenement at 38 Garfield Place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, which is now an upscale neighborhood but at the time was a rough area. All eight of them (the oldest son, James, vanished at the age of 16 and it would be many years before the family learned what had happened to him) shared the crowded space.
Al maintained his contact with his friend John Torrio. At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street, above a restaurant that was within sight of Garfield Place, Torrio started a “social club” with his name in gilt letters on the window. Capone passed by the place every day on his way to school.
Capone began second grade at P.S. #113 on Butler Street, six blocks from his home. He maintained a B average all of the way up to sixth grade, when he fell behind in math and grammar, mostly due to truancy, and had to repeat the grade. During the year that he turned 14, he missed 33 days out of a possible 90 and when his teacher admonished him for skipping class, his got angry and struck her. After being thrashed by the principal, he quit school, never to return. He worked sporadically as a clerk in a candy store, then as a pinsetter in a bowling alley and finally as a paper and cloth cutter in a book bindery. There was a poolroom at 20 Garfield Place where Capone and his father both played and Al became the neighborhood champion.
Capone found that he could not roam very far from home without crossing into territory that was run by various street gangs. Any stranger was liable to arouse their suspicion and trouble often developed between Sicilians and Neapolitans. An area near Flushing Avenue was dangerous for anyone not from Sicily. The Sicilian gangs were vicious knife fighters and had brought to the Brooklyn streets an Old World tradition of disfiguring their enemies, especially informants. They would cut his face from eye to ear and this “rat” work became so well known that other gangs began imitating it to divert suspicion from themselves. Knives were a used by just about all of the Italian gangs.
The Irish gangs dominated the area near the Navy Yard. To them, especially those who worked on the docks where their leaders monopolized the labor market, the Italians were cheap competition who threatened their livelihoods. The preferred weapons of the Irish were fists and canvas sacks filled with stones and pieces of brick. Garbage can lids were used as shields. They made formidable opponents on the battlefield.
The Jews occupied the territory in the northeast section of Brooklyn known as Williamsburg. They despised the Italians for their excessive loyalty to Italians alone, which made them indifferent to group efforts toward the general betterment of all of the gangs. The Jewish gangs were less violent than most, with the exception of the Havemeyer Streeters, who waged war on all non-Jewish gangs. They repeatedly smashed the windows of the Williamsburg Mission for Jews because it advocated conversion to Christianity.
The gangs offered an escape to the young men and boys of the tenements. They offered freedom and an outlet for stifled energies, plus a camaraderie that was missing in a home where both fathers and mothers worked long hours to feed and clothe their large broods. The agencies that might have kept the boys off the streets, the schools and churches, lacked the money and support to do so. Few schools in the slums had a gym or a playground or any kind of after-school recreation programs. The average teacher was poorly trained, unimaginative, and deadly dull, mostly thanks to the uninspired curriculum. The religion taught in the churches failed to reach the young and few religious organizations had the money to offer any sort of activity that would compete with the lure of the streets. In the gangs, the boys formed their own street society, independent of the adult world around them. Led by some older, forceful boy, they pursued the thrills of shared adventure, engaging in horseplay, gambling, pilfering, vandalizing, drinking, smoking and fighting with rival gangs. Not all of the gangs were criminal. Some developed into social or athletic clubs, approved and assisted by adults in the community. For many boys, though, it was a small step from random mischief-maker to professional criminal. Practically every racketeer, Capone included, spent his formative years in a street gang.
Nearly every street gang enjoyed the protection of the local ward boss. It wasn’t necessary for its members to have reached voting age at election time. They could still render valuable service by intimidating voters, slugging or kidnapping them and stealing ballot boxes. The ward bosses spared no expense securing young allies. They leased clubhouses for them, bought sports equipment and uniforms, and gave them steak dinners, picnics and tickets to ball games and prizefights. If a gang member was arrested he could count on his ward boss to furnish bail and a lawyer. If convicted, the ward boss could often get his sentence reduced or dismissed altogether.
The gang that Capone and Lucky Luciano joined as teenagers was the Five Points Gang, into which Torrio introduced them both. The gang was based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and named for the convergence of five streets, which were Mulberry; Anthony (now Worth); Cross (now Park); Orange (now Baxter); and Little Water (which no longer exists). This was an area known as the “Five Points” and it lay between Broadway and the Bowery in present-day Chinatown. By the 1820s, this district was already starting to fall into disrepair and disrepute, filled with gambling houses and brothels and all manner of criminals. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Five Points and in his book American Notes wrote how appalled he was at the horrendous living conditions he found there. Reform of the district was attempted by various religious groups, but to no avail. The district was at the heart of the “Bloody Old Sixth Ward,” which had a notorious reputation for political corruption. One glaring example was an election in which the number of ballots that were received was higher than the number of actual registered voters in the area at the time.
For nearly a century, Five Points spawned the most brutal gangs to ever terrorize New York City. The Forty Thieves were the first, formed in 1825, and they were followed by the Shirt Tails, so named because they wore their shirts outside of their trousers; the Plug Uglies, Irishmen who protected their heads in combat with leather plug hats, felled their victims with clubs and stomped them to death with hob-nailed boots; and the Dead Rabbits (“rabbit” being a slang term of the era for ruffian), whose standard bearer led them into the fray with a dead hare impaled on a stick. After the Civil War, the Whyos emerged. Legend gave the origin of the name to a owl-like cry of “Why-oh!” they uttered while fighting. Membership in the gang required a recruit to commit at least one homicide for murder was their main source of business. A price list found on a gang member when he was arrested in 1884 details the going rate for acts of murder and mayhem the Whyos were willing to commit, ranging from $1 for a “punching,” $7 for “nose and jaw broke,” $15 for “ear chewed off” and $100 and up for “doing the big job” (i.e. murder.)
The Five Points Gang, a successor to the Whyos, was in its heyday around the turn of the twentieth century under the leadership of a former prizefighter named Paul Kelly, whose given name was Paolo Vaccarelli. From the New Brighton Dance Hall, a club that he owned on Great Jones Street, he directed operations for more than 1,500 gang members and laid claim to all of the territory bounded by the Bowery and Broadway, Fourteenth Street and City Hall. A quiet, cultured man, Kelly was better educated than most gangsters of his day. He spoke English, Italian, French and Spanish and always dressed with great style. No gang leader could keep his power if he did not prove himself politically useful and Tammany Hall was in debt to Kelly for the many times when his men gave support to its candidates on election day.
By the time that Capone joined the Five Points Gang, Kelly no longer had the prestige that he once did. Years of warfare with Monk Eastman’s Bowery gang had strained his resources and then his own lieutenant, Biff Ellison, had started to resent Kelly’s leadership. One night in the winter of 1905, Ellison and a member of the rival Gopher gang burst into the New Brighton Dance Hall with guns blazing. A Five Points man named Harrington went down with a bullet in his head and Kelly himself stopped three slugs. He somehow survived the attack, and three months later opened another dance hall, Little Naples. A reform group managed to get it padlocked and Kelly retreated to Harlem, where he set up a new racket organizing labor unions. He eventually became president of the International Longshoremen’s Association.
Despite his move to Harlem, Kelly did not sever his connections with what was left of the Five Points organization. Though the membership had drastically dwindled, the remnants included a core group of tough guys that a man with Kelly’s business and political aspirations found worth preserving. On Seventh Avenue, close to the Broadway Theater, he set up a new headquarters for them, which he named the New Englander Social and Dramatic Club. While the name seemed innocuous, what went on there was anything but tame. Police repeatedly raided the club during investigations of knifings, beatings and shootings and while arrests were sometimes made, the charges never stuck. Capone was arrested three times during his days with the Five Pointers, once for disorderly conduct and twice for suspicion of murder. No evidence was ever produced to support the charges.
One of the main uses that Kelly found for the remaining Five Point men were their affiliations with other gangs and gang leaders. John Torrio and his friends often worked with Frank Yale, a Sicilian from Brooklyn. At the time, Yale was only 25 years old and was already making his mark in the Brooklyn rackets. Before long, he would dominate them. His specialty was murder contracts and he was quick to admit it – “I’m an undertaker,” he often quipped. But he believed in diversification, owning a dancehall, the Harvard Inn, on the Coney Island waterfront that turned out to be a strategic location when Prohibition came into effect. He quickly became the first New York gangster to distribute liquor from coastal rum-running ships. Yale also rented out gunmen for labor-management disputes, working as either strikebreakers or union goons. He forced Brooklyn tobacco shops to stock cigars of his own cheap manufacture. His portrait adorned each box and soon a “Frankie Yale” became a slang term for a bad smoke. Race horses, prizefighters, nightclubs and a gangland funeral parlor were all part of Yale’s operations but his single greatest source of profit and power was the Unione Siciliane, a society that was described as everything from a secret criminal group with close ties to the Mafia to a much-maligned fraternal organization.
A young Frankie Yale – a man whose death Capone would later be responsible for.
Yale hired Capone as a bouncer and bartender for the Harvard Inn, positions which suited the young man. When required to break up a fight in the club, he was quick to use a club or his large fists. He was also fast and accurate with a pistol, having perfected his skills shooting beer bottles in the basement of the Adonis Social Club, a favorite Brooklyn hangout.
It would be during his time at the Harvard Inn that Capone gained his trademark facial scars. The incident took place one night when Frank Galluccio, a petty felon from Brooklyn, dropped into the club with his sister. Capone made a remark to the girl that Galluccio found offensive and he whipped out a knife and went for Capone’s face. When the wounds healed, they left brutal scars. Capone, normally vindictive, chose to forgive Galluccio, perhaps knowing that what he said to the girl had been out of line. Some years later, in one of those magnanimous gestures that he had learned could win him admiration, Capone hired Galluccio as a bodyguard for $100 a week.
A young Al Capone, already showing the facial scars that would earn him the despised nickname that he carried with him for the rest of his life.
Many young and rising mobsters of the day started what were called “cellar clubs,” which were usually rented storefronts where, behind closed blinds, the members gambled, drank and entertained girls. In 1918, during a party at a cellar club on Carroll Street, Capone met a tall, slim, blonde named Mae Coughlin. She was 21, two years older than Capone, and worked as sales girl in a department store in the neighborhood. Her parents, Michael Coughlin, a construction worker, and her mother, Bridget, were respected in the Irish community for their hard work and religious devotion.
Despite the antagonisms between the Irish and the Italians, young Irish girls often showed a preference toward Italian men, mostly because they were willing to marry young, while Irish boys tended to wait until they were settled and secure in their occupation. John Torrio, for example, had married a young Irish girl from Kentucky, Ann McCarthy. Capone was apparently so eager to marry Mae that he obtained a special dispensation from the Church, eliminating the necessity to publish banns, a public announcement of an impending marriage that enabled anyone to raise a legal impediment to it. This prevented marriages that were legally invalid, either under Church or civil law. Presumably, the difference in their ages embarrassed the bride because on the marriage certificate she lowered her age by one year and Capone raised his by one. The ceremony took place on December 18, 1918, and was performed by Reverend James J. Delaney, pastor of the St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, where Mae’s family worshipped. The bride’s sister, Anna, and a friend of Capone’s, James De Vico, were witnesses. The following year, Mae bore her first and only child, Albert Francis, nicknamed Sonny. Torrio was his godfather and on each of Sonny’s birthdays, he bought him a $5,000 savings bond.
Torrio had been spending more and more time in Chicago, starting in 1909, when his uncle, James “Big Jim” Colosimo, first brought him there. Although he continued to pursue ventures in New York, Chicago was now his home. Capone’s fortunes, meanwhile, had not changed and the money that he craved to take care of his wife and son still eluded him. Already suspected of two murders, he faced indictment for a third if a man that he sent to the hospital during a bar brawl should die. The man lived, but Capone was no longer around to hear about his recovery. A message had come from Torrio, summoning him to Chicago.
With his wife and son, he fled New York and headed west to the Windy City.
For the full story of Al Capone, the Chicago mobs – and the haunting that followed Capone for the last years of his life, see my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES. For an autographed copy, click on this link to get info – or check it out as a Kindle edition from Amazon.com