On October 17, 1931, Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, the larger-than-life (and death) Chicago mob boss who built a vast, shockingly powerful organized crime empire on brutal intimidation and savage violence, toppled from his throne not by way of rival gangster warfare or internal turncoat assassins, but with the stroke of a pen. It was accountants who finally brought Scarface down.
Throughout Capone’s seven-year reign of carnage, Chicago police, Illinois authorities, and the FBI tried and failed, time and again, to nail the crime kingpin for (among other charges) racketeering, bootlegging, gambling, pimping, and, of course, murder.
Tax evasion was the charge that ultimately stuck, with Capone — who had never once filed a tax return — being found guilty of owing the government a then-astronomical $215,000, plus interest.
The knockout blow landed utterly by surprise, with UPI reporting in the colorful language of the day:
So suddenly did the prosecution rest and so unprepared did the action catch “Scarface Al’s” two attorneys, that Capone looked as though he were ready to weep. The “world’s worst criminal,” who wears silk underwear and who uses perfume, buried his face in his hands and shuddered… the Capone of machine gun murder fame almost wept.
At the conclusion of Capone’s tax-evasion trial, the jury deliberated for just four hours before delivering a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Capone to serve 11 years in federal prison and pay a $50,000 fine in addition to his tax fees.
Upon arrival at the Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary in May 1932, doctors diagnosed Capone with gonorrhea and syphilis, in addition to finding that addictive cocaine use had burned a hole in his septum.
After two years in Atlanta, amid rumors that he was receiving privileged treatment, authorities moved Capone to Alcatraz in 1934, off the coast of San Francisco.
While in that island prison for four and a half years, Capone got stabbed by a fellow inmate and suffered reduced mental faculties as his long-untreated syphilis infected his brain. At one point, Capone reportedly told the warden, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”
After a short subsequent stint at the Terminal Island penitentiary, Capone received parole on November 16, 1939. He served seven years, six months, and 15 days, and he had paid all his back taxes.
Capone spent his later years on a luxurious estate in Palm Island, Florida, but his physical health continually deteriorated and he lived with what the FBI describes as “the mentality of a 12-year-old child.” He died at home on January 25, 1947.
In death, the legend of Al Capone only grew as he became and remains an iconic figure of popular culture the world over via books, movies, TV shows, songs, and, lest we forget, the infamous 1986 Geraldo Rivera primetime special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.
Say the name “Capone” anywhere on the planet, and everyone instantly pictures the hat, the cigar, the machine gun, and the glamorous, bloody streets of Old Chicago. What doesn’t come to mind is his STD-spawned brain damage and the fact that an outlaw of monstrous reputation proved to be no match for IRS pencil-pushers. It’s enlightening to consider the whole picture.
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Main photo: Al Capone, 1931 [Chicago Police Department]