Al Capone lived as a schoolyard bully, died in a simper with a brain et by syphilis, and lives on through eternity as a cigarillo mascot and gimme film role for dark-haired white actors who want a chance to really chew some scenery.
He was one historical scumbag of many, but no one wears T-shirts emblazoned with the mug of mass murderer Richard Speck. The 7-Elevens in the Loop don’t sell “Welcome to Chicago” shot glasses with convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko on the side. Italian chain restaurants don’t have framed photos of Jon Burge on the walls to imply the torture cop loved the soup.
Yet Chicago has embraced a man who was responsible for a higher body count than Speck, ripped off the public more than Rezko, and oppressed communities of color more than Burge, slapping Big Al’s fat face on enough sightseer merch to fill Navy Pier. Guides for companies offering mob-themed tours through town tell Scarface tales to oohs and ahs: “Wow, Capone exploited social divides and curried favors from his political overlords in this very room!”
In death, a totalitarian political parasite became a folk hero.
In the 1920s, Illinois’s Republican Party was divided between two factions. You were either with Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson or U.S. senator Charles Deneen, each GOP primary a proxy fight between the two. In the 1928 primary, Deneen’s candidates started winding up dead.
A Deneen precinct committeeman named “Diamond Joe” Esposito was gunned down near his home. The home of Deneen’s candidate for state’s attorney was bombed. Deneen’s own home was bombed. Polling places were bombed and Chicago voters scared off by gun-waving thugs.
But a south-side aldermanic candidate named Octavius Granady got special treatment. In the interests of the Republican Party and the mayor of Chicago, Capone sent two carloads of gunmen after Granady. They found him while he was out campaigning. Granady and a friend led the killers on a high-speed car chase through the city. Granady’s car hit a tree. The T-shirt logo’s men jumped out and murdered a would-be alderman in the street. Nine men, four of whom were Chicago police officers, were charged. No one was convicted.
The reason? Of all the candidates in all the races, Octavius Granady did the one thing Al Capone couldn’t handle: He was a black man running for public office. Your folk hero from the movies wanted Chicago’s African-American community to know what would happen if they tried to improve their lot.
That’s your “Welcome to Chicago” shot glass. That’s the guy whose photo implies the meatballs at a chain Italian restaurant are sufficiently authentic.
The pop culture cult around Capone is equivalent to someone rooting for electrical fire after watching The Towering Inferno. Sure, both made for cool movies. In real life, both would torch you to the ground. v