Dethroning the King of Chicago

“Why does Chicago continue to embrace Al Capone?” asks Paul Dailing in an article in the Chicago Reader. Dailing describes Scarface as “a school-yard bully…and gimme film-role for dark-haired white actors who really want to chew some scenery.”

Dailing continues: “Chicago has embraced a man who was responsible for a higher body count than (mass murderer Richard) Speck, ripped off the public more than (corrupt businessman Tony) Rezko, and oppressed communities of color more than (brutal Chicago cop John) Burge, slapping Big Al’s face on enough sightseeing merchandise to fill Navy Pier.”

Dailing didn’t allude to one of the city’s more spectacularly awful ideas: an interactive “museum” celebrating Capone in the River North neighborhood in the early 1990s, where an animatronic version of the hoodlum (a la Disney World) spoke to incoming visitors.

Thankfully, the museum’s life-span was shorter than the five years of Capone’s reign over Chicago (1926-1931).

Dailing makes the point that lionizing a man who committed brutal murders is an insult to the families affected by the urban violence of the 1920s. Good point. But, it is the exact same point which we at the Italic Institute have been making for decades.

There are two answers to the question, “Why does Chicago continue to embrace Al Capone?”

1. Capone’s rise to power coincided with the birth of a powerful propaganda tool: motion pictures. This, along with media sensationalism, burnished his image in the world’s collective psyche.

2. Capone’s image perpetuated a public prejudice very much accepted at the time: the Italian American as “the Other”—specifically, someone belonging to a shadowy, almost primitive people, prone to violence. Indeed, many newspaper articles of the time described Capone’s “ape-like” features. Such prejudice, ironically and insidiously, is still being stoked even in the 21th century (e.g. “The Sopranos”).This dissing of Big Al, albeit long in coming, is certainly welcome. One can only hope that modern journalists like Dailing continue to blow away the fog of Febreeze with which both Hollywood and the media have spritzed him. A rich source for Dailing and others would be the research of the late Mark Haller of Temple University in Philadelphia. While working on his Ph.D at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, Haller conducted one of the most thorough academic examinations of Capone and “organized crime.”

The ultimate disappointment of Dailing’s piece is that he fails to connect those dots; that is, there is no recognition of what Haller called (in later research) the “multi-cultural complexity” of organized crime. Capone got where he was by having Jake Guzik (Polish) as his right-hand man and fixer. Guzik got to where he was being mentored by Ike Bloom (Jewish) of the infamous Levee District of the late 1890s. Bloom worked with gamblers and bomb-throwers like Mike McDonald (Irish). And yet, the media continues to start the timeline of organized crime beginning with Big Jim Colosimo in the 1920s, the gang boss whom Capone worked for and eventually overthrew.

A thug is a thug is a thug. Ours just got longer media coverage.

Two take-aways: Haller called Capone “one of the most over-rated gangsters in American history,” and also noted the “interlocking relationship” between corrupt Chicago ward politics and its equally corrupt neighborhood citizens. In fact, Haller went out of his way to demonstrate that organized crime, heretofore associated only with Italians, had existed in Chicago in the 1880s, when Italians weren’t even a presence in the city.

Big Al has cast a long shadow over both Chicago and the Italian American community for a very long time. Turning up the media light can help dim it. -BDC

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