Scarface: The Life of Al Capone

Infamous gangster Al Capone smokes a cigar on the train carrying him to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he will start serving an eleven-year sentence. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Born Alphonse Gabriel Capone on January 17, 1899, Al Capone was a first-generation American born to two Italian parents who immigrated to the United States only a few years before his birth. He had a rough childhood while growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as he never completed his education after being expelled for striking his teacher in the face. He worked for a while as a barber and then a bookkeeper as he got married and even fathered a child. However, money was tight, and he often turned to crime to make ends meet, eventually rising through the ranks of the local Five Points Gang, which focused mostly on racketeering and running a saloon. It was during this time as a saloon bouncer that Capone made the mistake of catcalling the wrong woman. It turned out the man accompanying her was her brother, and he didn't hesitate to slash Capone in the face with either a knife or bottle opener, as accounts vary. Either way, it left the mobster's cheek disfigured enough to earn him the nickname Scarface.

Mug shot of Capone in Miami, Florida, 1930. (Miami Police Department/Wikimedia Commons)

After Capone attracted a little too much heat, becoming a person of interest in two murders, he was urged to move to Chicago to work beneath big-time crime boss Johnny Torrio, who needed someone to help run his local brothel. Capone may have had too much fun at his job, though, and contracted what would later prove to be a debilitating case of syphilis. In the meantime, Capone found plenty of opportunity in the bootlegging business after the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol and ushered in an era known as Prohibition. After Torrio was shot in an ambush, he handed over the reigns to the entire operation to Capone, who was only 26 at the time.

Capone's cell at the now decommissioned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where he spent about nine months starting in May 1929. (Thesab/Wikimedia Commons)

By the mid '20s, Capone was running the show, using violence and intimidation to keep competition out of his bootlegging and gambling rackets and gaining an incredible amount of wealth. Historians estimate the total at over $100 million, which would be well over $1 billion in today's money. Those riches came at the price of many lives, however, most notably during the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, when his mobsters dressed in fake police uniforms and gunned down seven people. While never convicted, he is also highly suspected of being responsible for at least some of the bombings that rocked Chicago during the 1920s. However, he was better at hiding his murders than he was at hiding his money, and eventually, the I.R.S. was tapped by the Department of Justice to do a little check into Capone's tax returns. Obviously, he wasn't paying Uncle Sam all the taxes he owed on his illegal ventures, and he was convicted on many acts of tax fraud and for violating Prohibition in 1932.

Stunningly, for all his damage done to the world, Capone only served seven years before being released due to his cognitive decline as a result of syphilis. He lived his remaining years in Florida, suffering a much-diminished mental state for the entirety of his regained freedom before dying of heart failure at the age of 48.