The Marshall Project

Defending Al Capone

How the most notorious gangster of all got railroaded in Philadelphia.

“I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.” - St. Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons

Celebrity, like its darker cousin notoriety, lands on those who have assumed larger-than-life dimensions in the public’s imagination. We fancy movie stars as stronger or more virile or more charming than the rest of us, supermodels as more poised, athletes more confident. And when it comes to our most notorious criminals, particularly those whose past exploits have taken on the patina of legend, we envision them as criminal masterminds one step ahead of the law, caught only by a twist of fate or the karmic principle that what goes around must eventually come around. Had Dillinger not been betrayed by the Lady in Red, or Jesse James shot in the back by the coward Robert Ford, their mythic adventures might well have continued into old age.

And then there is Al Capone, still the most prominent gangster of them all nearly a century after his violent reign came to an end. The original “Scarface” continues to captivate the public—best-selling books are written about him, and his name appears regularly on television and in song; a Capone-themed restaurant chain is spreading in Florida.

Most people know that the violent Capone was taken down by that least likely of weapons—a group of accountants focused on his tax returns. Far fewer are aware that his career-ending federal prison sentence was preceded by a ten-month stint in a Philadelphia prison for toting an illegal handgun. Those who do know about the time Capone spent in the City of Brotherly Love probably accept the commonly held myth that the mob boss, feeling the heat from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre he had engineered on the North Side of Chicago, set up his own arrest to remove himself from the public eye and the possibility of retaliation from other mobsters.

The Chicago press had seized on this idea shortly after his Philadelphia arrest: surely a recognizable figure such as Capone wouldn’t have been foolish enough to be walking around with a loaded gun. Such a notion—that Al Capone was too smart or too connected or just too famous to get pinched on such a mundane charge—continues to find considerable support in modern biographies (though Jonathan Eig in Get Capone ridicules the idea that he would ever plan his own incarceration).

Twenty-five years ago, a friend, knowing of my interest in offbeat crime news, presented me with a copy of the actual court file of Capone’s gun case, which I stashed in the basement and forgot. Recently I dug it out, dusted it off and read it. It puts to rest

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