By Thomas F. Schwartz
Alphonse “Al” Capone remains one of the most legendary mobsters. His extensive empire of bootlegging during Prohibition and bribing leading political figures from the mayor to law enforcement officials in Chicago, made him the kingpin of the city. Capone tried to soften his ruthless acts protecting his criminal empire by providing soup kitchens to help those displaced by the Great Depression. Journalist Fred D. Pasley’s Al Capone: A Biography of a Self-Made Man (1930) portrays Capone as the dark side of the American Dream. Capone’s downfall was claimed by Eliot Ness and his team of Prohibition agents in his autobiography, The Untouchables, later transformed into a popular television series and a Brian De Palma movie. Historians have argued that Ness claims too much credit that was largely the work of others. Writings on the topic in the last several decades have uncovered an unlikely hero that was determined to bring Al Capone to justice: that individual was President Herbert Hoover.
Two influential books—James C. Calder, The Origins and Development of Federal Crime Control Policy: Herbert Hoover’s Initiatives (1993) and Jonathan Eig, Get Capone (2010)—are the most authoritative writings detailing Herbert Hoover’s efforts to use federal power to bring Capone to justice. Calder’s study devotes a single chapter of a much larger study on Hoover’s efforts to completely reform criminal law, the courts, and prison system which was visionary for its time. It remained the model for later studies by criminal justice experts and sociologists interested in these topics. Eig wrote a popular account that uses the papers of George E.Q. Johnson, a tough lawyer whom Calvin Coolidge appointed to be Chicago’s U.S. District Attorney. Both Calder and Eig argue that it was Herbert Hoover’s dogged determination to clean up Chicago’s lawlessness and put Capone behind bars that led to his downfall.
According to Eig:
“The day after the assassination [St. Valentine’s Day Massacre], Hoover administration officials announced that the incoming president would appoint four hundred more federal Prohibition agents and would ask Congress for an additional $2.5 million in Prohibition enforcement funding. A consensus was beginning to emerge, both in Chicago and Washington, that Capone and his type had to be stopped.”
Calder puts Hoover’s efforts into a broader perspective:
“The Hoover administration gave priority to convicting Capone, thereby enlarging and transforming federal intervention in organized crime. Hoover was the first president to personally lead an organized crime investigation. On taking office, he ordered Attorney General William Mitchell and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to cooperate in strategies designed to insure Capone’s conviction.”
Those familiar with Capone’s conviction know that it has nothing to do with his criminal activities but rather his failure to pay income tax on his illegal fortune of bootlegged liquor and gambling. Investigation into Capone’s income followed in the wake of several Internal Revenue Bureau precedents. Several Hollywood celebrities, King Vidor and Tom Mix, had already been convicted for failing to declare all their income and pay their full requirement of federal tax. Even Herbert Hoover was audited in 1928 but found to be fully compliant. On May 3, 1932, Capone reported to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and became convict number 40866.