By Kubair Chuchra '18
Piercing winds blew through Chicago’s streets on the morning of February 14, 1929. On the southside of warehouse parking lot in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, seven men, all members of George “Bugs” Moran’s North Side gang, stood waiting for a bootleg booze delivery—nothing out of the ordinary for America’s capital of vice. As the clock neared half past ten, a beaten-up police car zoomed into the lot, presumably to conduct a raid and collect a bribe. When the car screeched to a halt, four men clad in police uniforms piled out. They ordered the Moran gang members to line up against the wall with their hands above their heads; all seven obeyed the command. Within seconds, the roar of a tommy gun shattered through the air, piercing each victim's back with over twenty lead bullets. By the time the real police arrived, six slaughtered men (one victim would later die at a hospital) lay sprawled on the pavement.
The cold-blooded killing, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, would go down in history as the deadliest attack in Chicago’s decade-long gang war. Though the police never gathered enough evidence for a conviction, the victims’ blood reeked of Chicago’s most notorious gangster: Alphonse Capone. A heavy set Italian hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Capone was recognized by his scarred face and dark pinstriped suits. In the nine years between his arrival in Chicago and the massacre, he had progressed from a small-time hoodlum to the mastermind behind a criminal empire specializing in bootleg liquor, prostitution, and gambling. Citizens, policemen, politicians—all of Chicago’s inhabitants lived in constant fear of him. The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and Capone dictated each other in ubiquitous harmony: Capone’s brutality and exquisite attention to detail defined the ruthless, unattributable nature of the massacre, and the massacre’s unforeseen consequences defined the pitiful, unexpected downfall of Capone.
Capone organized a multitude of gruesome executions before the St.Valentine’s Day Massacre. Most notably, he was behind the 1924 killing of Dion O’Banion, Capone’s rival mobster, and the 1928 killing of Frankie Yale, Capone’s former mentor and faithless business partner. However, there had never been a killing so brutal, so deadly, so Capone as the St.Valentine’s Day Massacre. All the elements of a classic Capone killing were present. The seven victims were shot in broad daylight, their bodies left for the police, an execution style similar to that of Dion O'Brion's: “(Capone’s) organization would murder O’Banion face to face, at his place of business, in the middle of the day” (133). The plan was brilliant—even Chicago’s savviest gangsters fell for the ruse of the fake police car—and untraceable. Capone had his right-hand man, Jack McGurn, assemble an assassination party of out-of-towners that would be unrecognizable to any witnesses and difficult to catch once they returned to their hometown, as “murder was not a federal offense and police departments in different cities often had difficulty coordinating their investigation” (306). Capone also gave himself an indisputable alibi by spending the day of the massacre at a public official's office in Miami, Florida. The most stylistically Capone element of the murders, however, was the way the press reacted and the way the police investigated. While the papers were quick to link the horrific murders to Capone, helping him reach new heights of infamy as “a national phenomenon, a fixture in the public consciousness, the best-known gangster of the era” (318), the police, due to a lack of evidence, could only call the headlines theories. In a malicious, meticulous, defining style of murder unique to Capone himself, he escaped conviction. Accordingly, he felt like an invincible force in Chicago, subject to no laws—a true climax of his career. However, it was this false sense of invincibility, and the drive of others to destroy it, that defined the remainder of his life.
Capone’s elimination of the Moran gang and subsequent clout over the Chicago rackets provided him with a newfound level of infamy and, in turn, a newfound level of arrogance. Blinded by such arrogance, he did not notice increased police surveillance regarding his criminal activity. No longer were the corrupt policemen of Chicago the only government officials monitoring Capone’s illicit operations; word of his criminal actions had reached the White House. With the power of the federal government at his dispense, President Herbert Hoover had the Department of Justice serve Capone with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury and answer questions about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone, once again blinded by his arrogance, skipped out on the subpoena. The authorities did not react well. Hoover ordered a Department of Justice task force led by Chicago-based United States Attorney George E. Q. Johnson to apprehend Capone, no matter what the cost. Johnson had unlimited resources:“If (Johnson) needed more investigators, he would have them. If he needed to reach judges to obtain warrants, he would. Most important, he had the law on his side, which was obvious but easy enough to overlook in the Prohibition era” (302). After months of work, they struck gold: “The most significant find of the raid (on a Capone establishment) was not the booze or the stills or even the hundreds of slot machines; it was a set of ledgers the police had confiscated” (302). These ledgers provided detailed accounts of the millions of dollars Capone was making through his illegal business ventures, exposing the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had failed to pay in taxes. He was caught. Finally, on October 17, 1931, only two and half years after the Massacre, Capone began an eleven-year sentence for tax evasion. He never returned to crime again.
Alphonse Capone’s life climaxed in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. His true colors defined the nature of the event, and the event’s consequences defined the imprisoned nature of his remaining years. In the legend that was his life, Capone came full circle: he built an empire of crime in Chicago and watched it crumble before his very own eyes.
Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: the man and the era. New York: Simon & Schuster,