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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Get Capone by Jonathan Eig

Audiobook:  By age 28, Capone was virtually “King” of Chicago.  He had orchestrated the reelection of Big Bill Thompson, a lunatic so weird that he would debate animals in cages, in 1927.  Thompson is considered the most unethical Mayor in Chicago history and was the last Republican to win election to that office. He ran on a platform of shutting down police raids on the ordinary citizen and had full support of the criminal element. “When I’m elected we will not only reopen places these people have closed,but we’ll open ten thousand new ones…. No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask.”   By that time the police had become much more hated than the gangsters.  Rather than go after the big guys (who were paying them graft) the cops made arrests by invading people’s homes and arresting anyone with a minute amount of alcohol. Corruption was endemic. (I suspect there is similar if less obvious corruption from the war on drugs.)  There was just too much money to be made.  The Volstead Act was celebrated, especially by the crooks.

No one was ever quite sure just how much Capone’s empire took in, but reasonable estimates place it close to $1.5 billion a year in today’s money. The intricate web of speakeasies, prostitution, gambling, and every other imaginable criminal enterprise all paid Capone.  He was smart, however, in that he was lavish with payoffs to cops and politicians and never was envious of others in his organization being ostentatious with their wealth.  For himself, he was not. His sole extravagances were gambling, fine suits, and a seven-ton Cadillac, heavily reinforced so has to make it impervious to bullets.  Other than that he lived a modest lifestyle.

It was the passage of the 16th amendment that probably got Capone. Aside from the fact that constant gang warfare and street shootings were having an impact on the rich by driving up insurance premiums and reducing their income of the wealthy; now gangsters were required to report their income.  Manny Sullivan had argued in court that reporting income on illegal activities was tantamount to self-incrimination (United States v Sullivan, 1927) and thus a violation of the 5th amendment. He lost unanimously and tax fraud investigations were conducted by postal inspectors, famous for their honesty and integrity.  No one dared violate the postal regulations because they were sure to be caught and convicted.  President Hoover had declared that the rule of law would prevail and it was reported that every day he would ask his associates if Capone was in jail yet.  Hoover, in his inimitable way suggested that everyone just stop drinking and that would ruin the crooks. Well, we know how well abstinence theory works.

The stock market crash (It’s just a depression, not a panic, said Hoover) affected Capone little.  He had refused to participate in the stock market, arguing he was a piker compared to the crooks on Wall Street and given the activities of the media and brokers to hype stocks (“hey, they will only go up, be sure to hang on to them, and what a great time to buy” while they were selling,) he had a point.  

One hindrance to any Capone prosecution was that he didn’t keep any books. So the details necessary to get him had to come from the inside. That insider was Eddy O’Hare. Eddy had managed to get the rights to the electric rabbit that revolutionized dog racing. Recognizing he was better off colluding with Capone than competing with him in dog racing, they formed a partnership. Frank had a son, Butch, who desperately wanted to fly airplanes.  Apparently he was a loveable kid and the apple of his father’s eye so Eddy made a deal with Frank Wilson, the most active of the prosecutors (Eliot Ness and the “untouchables” should have been called “the inactives” according to Eig) to help Butch get into the Naval Academy. As everyone knows who flies through O’Hare airport in Chicago, Butch was killed during the war in 1943 after becoming the Navy’s first ace.  He was also awarded the Medal of Honor.

Lots of detail about shootings and the role of the “Tommy” gun, the staccato sound of which apparently became familiar background noise for Chicagoans.  Not to mention how the new science of ballistics was used in the investigation of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. I found the early parts of the book to be quite superficial, but it definitely became more interesting as the decade progressed.

Anyone complaining about corruption today needs to do some reading about the early 20th century.  Prohibition, much like our current drug laws, created multiple scenarios for graft, murder, and political decadence. We obviously learned nothing from prohibition, but then we don’t have machine guns going off in the streets constantly, either. Oh, wait.
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