About the Author:
Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer and historian. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages worldwide. Among his books are biographies of Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and Irving Berlin. He lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He was atavistic, flamboyant, impossible to ignore. A big fat man with a cigar and a $50,000 pinkie ring. A jowly smiling Satan nearly six feet tall, with two scars across his left cheek. He weighed over two-fifty, yet despite his bulk and the sloppy grin, he could move with lethal speed and force. Not an articulate man, he was nonetheless charismatic: warm, charming, generous. A big tipper. He attempted elegance with an outrageous wardrobe -- custom-tailored suits of purple, electric blue, or yellow; pearl-gray fedoras accented by a black band; and diamond-encrusted stickpins. He liked people, wanted them to adore him, and people gravitated toward him, they applauded him, sought his autograph, and as he excused himself as a businessman or a rogue, he submitted to their hero worship and condemnation.
His name was Al Capone, and he was, according to the New York Times on the occasion of his death, January 25, 1947, "the symbol of a shameful era, the monstrous symptom of a disease which was eating into the conscience of America. Looking back on it now, this period of Prohibition in full, ugly flower seems fantastically incredible. Capone himself was incredible, the creation of an evil dream."
Incredible. Fantastic. Ugly. Evil. In harsh, censorious language the obituaries attempted to explain, condemn, and, perversely, revel in his life and career. They informed the public that "Alfonso Caponi" had been born in Naples in 1895, as if no American lad could ever grow up to be so evil. They evoked his apprenticeship to crime in Manhattan's Little Italy, in particular, a neighborhood known as the Mulberry Street Bend; reproduced his draft card; mentioned his service during the Great War as part of the French "Lost Battalion" and described the duel -- though some accounts referred to shrapnel -- which gave him the two famous scars across his left cheek. They confided that his nickname was "Scarface"; explained that the young Capone fled a murder rap in New York and arrived in Chicago one step ahead of the police to work for his cousin Johnny Torrio, vice lord of that city. They portrayed him as the mastermind behind the notorious St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929; in some accounts he even wielded a machine gun himself. They gave as the cause of his death pneumonia or a stroke, or a combination of the two; and, finally, they unanimously claimed his death marked the end of an era of gangsters and murder in Chicago and around the country. Thus his life became a paradigm of the gangster's progress in America.
However, nearly all of this endlessly repeated -- and generally accepted -- information was erroneous, beginning with the time and place of his birth. So, too, was the story of his military service in the Great War; the often-reproduced draft card actually belonged to another Al Capone, a butcher who resided in New Jersey. The manner in which he received his scar was similarly falsified and romanticized, as was his real nickname ("Scarface" was strictly for the movies and newspapers), the true cause of his death, even the correct spelling of his name. Nor did his demise mark the end of gang-land, as his moralizing obituaries predicted; powerful racketeers followed Capone as surely as they had preceded him. "You who only know him from newspaper stories will never realize the real man he is," his younger sister, Mafalda, publicly stated, but her words fell on deaf ears or met with outright derision; was she not blinded by family loyalty? And then there were the movies and later the television programs inspired by his career, which served to increase the confusion surrounding his deeds and reputation, since these dramatizations endowed characters engaged in largely fictional exploits with the names of real people. Ultimately, the Al Capone who became familiar to Americans is a myth: a poisonous but intoxicating blend of the shrill yellow journalism of the 1920s, Hollywood sensationalism, and pervasive anti-Italian prejudice. These multiple distortions transformed Capone into a larger-than-life symbol of evil.
For decades American politicians and writers had been warning the populace about Al Capone -- or someone very much like him -- as an example of the alien element contaminating clean native shores with disease, throwing the nation's economy into turmoil with cheap labor, and corrupting Anglo-American institutions with rapacious feudal codes. The Capone phenomenon, according to such voices, was the natural and inevitable outcome of the nation's permitting millions of immigrants from around the world to flow into the country during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Among the most influential critics of unrestricted immigration was a Republican member of Congress from Massachusetts, the Honorable Henry Cabot Lodge. The scion of a wealthy family, a historian, and a former editor of the respected North American Review, Lodge personified the political, economic, and financial establishments of his day; well could he presume to decide whom to admit to the United States and whom to exclude. In 1891, three years before Capone's parents arrived in New York, this flower of New England warned that during the previous fifteen years alone, almost 6.5 million immigrants had poured into the country, a number "equal to one-tenth of the entire population of the country," a sum, he warned, that contained "enough voters to decide a presidential election." Lodge wanted them to stay away for precisely the reasons they wished to come, because they were impoverished, uneducated, without a secure place in the world. "We have the right to exclude illiterate persons from our immigration," he insisted, and he proposed screening the millions of undesirables washing up on American shores with a literacy test, a notoriously elastic gauge. "And this test," he concluded, "combined with others of a more general character, would in all probability shake out a large part of the undesirable portion of the present immigration. It would reduce in a discriminating manner the number of immigrants, and would thereby benefit the labor market." Later in the year, Lodge warned that the United States had become a haven for the "paupers and criminals" of Europe. "It is certainly madness to permit this stream to pour in without discrimination or selection, or the exclusion of dangerous and undesirable elements," by which he meant, specifically, Italians, who, he noted, simply came to this country to earn money and then returned home to spend it, enriching their countrymen at the expense of Americans. Despite Lodge's warning and an 1882 federal law excluding paupers and criminals, immigration continued almost unchecked, inhibited only by the Great War. "We are overwhelmed, submerged and almost drowned out by great flood-tide of European riff-raff, the refuse of almost every nation on the continent, paupers, criminals, beggars and the muddy residuum of foreign civilizations," complained the New York Herald. "We don't wonder that they want to come to this country, but the country is not a philanthropic institution or an asylum for the crippled and depraved of the globe....The sooner we take a decided stand and shut down the gates the better." Not until 1924 did Congress finally establish a quota system for immigrants.
Each immigrant group suffered from this intense bias in its own way, but one of the cruelest stereotypes to gain currency -- and beyond that, intellectual respectability -- was that of Southern Italians like the Capones, who were invariably portrayed as lazy, lusty, stupid, and criminal. Writing in the Century Magazine as late as 1914, Edward Alsworth Ross, a prominent sociologist, gave voice to the beliefs of America's ruling class concerning the disreputable new arrivals, especially those who came, like Al Capone's parents, from Naples. "Steerage passengers from Naples," Ross observed, "show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves; hence their death-rate in New York is twice the general death-rate." Too unintelligent to survive, or so Ross believed, Southern Italians also displayed a want of"mechanical aptitude." In addition, "their emotional instability stands out in sharpest contrast to the self-control of the Hebrew and the stolidity of the Slav." As for their children, their exasperated American teachers agreed that they "hate study, make slow progress, and quit school at the first opportunity....They are very weak in abstract mathematics." Coming to the New World only worsened these problems, Ross believed. They were far better off in their own country, among their own kind, he insisted. "Who can forget the joyous, shameless gregariousness of Naples?" Ross asked, where "the streets are lively with chatter and stir and folks sitting out in front and calling one another." They like it there in the slums of Naples, he supposed, where the illiterate peasants "covet the intimacies of the tenement-house." (Even that observation, intended as a compliment, held sinister implications.) In contrast to the typical Southern Italian, Ross described those national character traits he admired: "The man who 'sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not' is likely to be a German..., an Englishman with his ideal of truth, or an American with his ideal of squareness."
Even the champions of the impoverished immigrants despaired at the inability of Italian arrivals to improve themselves, find employment, become educated, in short, to assimilate. Among the most influential was Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant who had abandoned a comfortable background in Denmark to venture to the United States. In his career as a crusading journalist with the New York Evening Sun and a social reformer, he displayed righteous anger at the disgraceful living conditions imposed on the newest Americans, especially children, but when he came to Italians, he portrayed them not as casualties of the appalling social conditions afflicting all immigrants, but as victims of their own flawed natures. Unlike Lodge, whose xenophobia was largely an intellectual proposition, Riis based his impressions of Italian immigrants on direct personal observation. In his otherwise progressive book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), Riis wrote that the Italian who comes to New York "promptly reproduces conditions of destitution and disorder which, set in the framework of Mediterran exuberance, are the delight of the artist, but in a matter-of-fact American community become its danger and reproach....The Italian comes in at the bottom...and stays there."
The harsh view shared by respected politicians and journalists had as its street equivalent a single word summing up what so many Americans thought of Italians: dago. A corruption of Diego (Spanish for James), the derisive epithet originated in the American West and worked its way back East, where it extended to the new Italian arrivals, who were often pitifully unaware of the climate of hatred and resentment awaiting them in America.
As Southern Italians, they had been accustomed to prejudice from the Northern provinces of their own country; indeed Northern Italians could be just as contemptuous of their Southern compatriots as Henry Cabot Lodge and Jacob Riis were. For Northerners, Italy consisted of two countries, the North and the South, or perhaps even three: the North, the South, and Sicily -- the latter province being so alien, backward, corrupt, and feudal that the Northerners referred to the Sicilians as Africans, a term that had little to do with the Sicilians' appearance but much to do with fears about their character. (As an adult trying to survive in the fiercely contested rackets, Capone came to share the non-Sicilians' fear of the "Black Italians" who dominated the business; "those crazy Sicilians" became his common complaint.) In addition to the virulent prejudice they faced at home, Southern Italians were also plagued by natural disasters; there were earthquakes, there were droughts, there were even volcanic eruptions -- all of which suggested that farmers and other peasants who made their living from the land had best flee for their lives. As a result, they kept on coming despite the extreme hostility they faced in America, and their numbers shot past the levels that had so concerned Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1880, approximately 12,300 Italians came to the United States; only eight years later, the number reached over 51,000, more than a fourfold increase. During the 1890s, Italian immigration averaged about 50,000 souls a year; and in the following decade, the first of the new century, the numbers exploded: 100,000 in 1900, 230,000 in 1903, 286,000 in 1907. The figures remained at these tremendous levels until the Great War impeded civilian transatlantic travel. Nothing -- not the threat of war between the United States and Italy or the hovels awaiting them in "Little Italys" around the nation -- deterred the Italians from coming to a land bristling with transplanted historical hatred for them. Their willingness to brave these hardships was testament to their desperation, their courage, their naïveté, and their great hopes for life in America -- hopes that, more often than not, were to lead to conflict and bitter disappointment.
The youth of Al Capone, as with many other sons and daughters of Italian immigrants, was largely a response to this climate of anti-Italian prejudice. He and his brothers would all devise different responses; some of the strategies would prove more admirable than others, but none of them would escape it.
Al Capone always insisted he was an American, born and bred, and so he was, but his Italian heritage formed and informed every aspect of his life and career. He belonged both to the Old World -- with its fatalism, corruption of flesh and spirit, and charm -- and to the New -- with its striving, materialism, and violence.
His mother, a seamstress named Teresina Raiola, and his father, a barber named Gabriele Capone, grew to maturity, married, and started their family in Naples. Italy's third-largest city, located on the western coast approximately halfway between Rome and the boot's toe, Naples sprawls down to the ocean like a brightly colored, tattered and soiled dishrag. Neapolitans are renowned for their ability to improvise and adapt; they have to, living in a city hemmed in by Mount Vesuvius on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other, a capital that had been changing hands for over two thousand years. At one time or another, Greeks, Romans, Austrians, Spaniards, and the French (in the person of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother) ruled the city; for a time during the eighteenth century, it had served as the seat of an improvised nation, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As a result of this ceaseless upheaval, the city had the air of an abandoned capital that had fallen into chaos; where kings once walked, herds of sheep later grazed. "There is nothing...quite like Naples in its sordid and yet tremendous vitality," wrote Edward Hutton, an English visitor, of the city in 1915. The noise, dirt, and overcrowding appalled the fastidious Hutton; Naples seemed more "a pen of animals than a city of men, a place amazing if you will, but disgusting in its amazement, whose life is...without dignity, beauty or reticence."
However, Neapolitans enjoyed a reputation for being singularly accepting and relaxed in the midst of the dirt and chaos of their city. They had seen too much of history's folly to heed the Catholic Church; resentful of the North, or at least mindful of the North's resentment of them, Neapolitans te...
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