Things that come to mind when you hear the name Al Capone: Gangster, Chicago, Scarface, Eliot Ness, Alcatraz, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
But some of these associations may soon be scrapped, if you read Get Capone, a new tome about America’s most iconic criminal, written by Brooklyn-born Jonathan Eig, who spoke at the Brooklyn Historical Society last Wednesday night.
Using thousands of pages of newly found government documents, Eig’s book topples two long-held notions, cemented in American lore by the film The Untouchables: that Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness was primarily responsible for taking down Capone, and that Capone was behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which seven men from the rival Bugs Moran gang were ruthlessly mowed down in a garage on Chicago’s North Side.
With gruesome photos splashed across front pages, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 horrified the nation. “It was shocking, even by Chicago standards,” writes Eig.
Investigators had several theories, but in the early days, one of the things they actually felt certain about was that Capone was not involved. (There was never any question that Capone didn’t directly pull the trigger, since he was in Miami at the time being interrogated about his finances by Brooklyn and Dade County prosecutors investigating the charges that would eventually incarcerate him: tax evasion.)
“As days turned to weeks and the crime went unsolved, blame gradually shifted to Capone. As the largest object in the gangster universe, dispersed matter tended to coalesce around him by force of nature,” Eig writes.
Though he was never charged, or even pressed to answer questions about the massacre, the assumption has long been that Capone ordered the slaughter of his gangland rival’s crew.
But Eig has found new evidence — a letter “recently discovered in FBI archives and never before revealed” — from a Chicago man named Frank T. Farrell to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, dated Jan. 28, 1935.
The letter points to the murder of a 40-year-old firefighter named William Davern Jr. in 1928. Davern, the son of a police sergeant, was shot in a bar fight by members of Moran’s gang and left for dead on a street corner. He held on for six weeks in the hospital, in which time he told his cousin, the notorious gunman/bank robber William White, who his attackers were. White swore revenge for his cousin’s murder.
With this evidence, all the pieces fall into place, Eig argues, such as a motive with enough “emotional power to explain the fury of the attack.”
If the massacre was retaliation for the murder of a cop’s son, it also explains why the police investigation went nowhere. In fact, investigators seemed to ignore one witness who described the man at the wheel of the getaway car as missing a finger; White was missing two fingers from his right hand. Recently uncovered FBI documents also reveal that White was an FBI informant, giving them reason to ignore leads pointing his way.
This explanation of the crime also lends new credence to the dying words of Frank Gusenberg, one of the seven men killed in the attack, who, lying in a pool of blood, said, “Cops did it.” Two of the men seen entering the garage that cold February day to perpetrate the attack were wearing police uniforms. And even if they weren’t real cops, White could have easily obtained uniforms from his police sergeant uncle or numerous other crooked cops. White was known to have disguised himself and a cohort as police officers at least once before — for a hit job in 1926.
Aside from these revelations about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Get Capone also restores Chicago U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson as the man most deserving of the credit for putting Capone behind bars.
Johnson was a shy man, with no desire to bask in the spotlight, who ducked out of photos being taken by newspaper photographers. He stood as an unusually honest public official in the Prohibition era, which bred corruption, especially in Chicago.
As U.S. Attorney, it was Johnson’s job to indict Capone, and a large portion of the book details how Johnson’s efforts were part of a broad attempt by several federal agencies, ordered by President Hoover himself, to topple Capone — the “leading symbol of lawlessness.” When Prohibition agent Eliot Ness, who was anything but camera shy, came along in 1931, raiding breweries and weakening Capone’s empire, Johnson had already been working for two years on the tax evasion charges that would put Capone behind bars.
Although Johnson’s name has been buried in the paperwork for decades, his contemporary Chicagoans seemed to understand his contribution. After his death in 1949, the Chicago Daily News wrote: “As long as organized crime and crooked politics challenge society, he will be remembered as the man who fought and defeated the most ruthless crime syndicate of our day.”
Al Capone served seven years, six months and two weeks in federal prison. When he got out, his mind was rotting away from syphilis. He lived a quiet life for the rest of his days in Palm Island, Florida, dying on Jan. 25, 1947.
Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, Simon & Schuster, 2010 $28.