Al Capone Boardwalk EmpireAre we the only ones watching "Boardwalk Empire" and thinking that Al Capone comes off as sort of a wimp? When is this guy gonna get, you know, badass?

We decided to check in with our friends at Mental Floss. Their new book, "The Mental Floss History of the United States
," provided more information on the life and times of the guy whose poster hangs on college dorm walls everywhere. Historical spoilers may follow.

Today Prohibition is regarded as the single biggest failure in the history of American social reform. But on one front, it was a huge success, for without Prohibition, we never could have had Al Capone's Chicago Outfit.

Although there are no statistics on alcohol consumption during Prohibition, the rate of cirrhosis of the liver didn't waver one bit during Prohibition or afterward. So what did banning alcohol accomplish, if people were still drinking just as much? Well, it drove the whole business underground, into the hands of enterprising criminals.

Enter the Sicilian mafia, also known as cosa nostra ("our thing"). In Chicago, a nascent Mafia was established by Giacomo "Diamond Jim" Colosimo, an Italian immigrant from Calabria (the "toe" in the Italian boot) around the turn of the century. In 1909 Colosimo brought in his nephew, Giovanni "Johnny the Fox" Torrio, from Brooklyn to serve as his enforcer. A decade later, Torrio's old second-in-command -- an ambitious 20-year-old thug named Al Capone -- followed.

Like Colosimo and Torrio, Capone was not of Sicilian extraction. His parents were from the area around Naples, and he was born in Brooklyn. But he made up for it with his willingness to employ utmost brutality.

By 1920, it was obvious to Torrio and Capone that Prohibition was a potential bonanza, but Colosimo, an old-fashioned whores-n'-numbers guy, was nervous about taking on the federal government. Torrio and Capone had Colosimo "rubbed out," then jumped into the illegal alcohol trade feet-first, making the most of Colosimo's network of 200 brothels -- a ready-made distribution network for illicit booze with preexisting connections to corrupt cops and politicians.

From 1920 to 1923, Torrio and Capone saw their business grow by leaps and bounds as the good people of Chicago flocked to speakeasies. (The word comes from the barkeep's advice to "speak easy" to avoid police attention.) Their network of illegal bars and clubs grew from about 160 in 1920 to about 10,000 by the middle of the decade, when Torrio retired, giving Capone a virtual monopoly.

Unlike his Sicilian colleagues, Capone was happy to employ "talented" individuals whatever their background, so the Chicago Outfit was a bit of a rainbow coalition. Capone's gang included plenty of Jews, Irish-Americans and African- Americans. At its height in the late 1920s, Capone's Chicago Outfit was said to employ 1,000 people, with a payroll of $300,000 a week, while annual revenues reached over $100 million a year.

Capone's liquor was sold all over the country, from New York City to Omaha, Neb., and the mob boss took a personal interest in the management of his regional businesses. In fact, he had at least a dozen luxurious safe houses
set up across the country for business travel. If ever displeased, Capone could quickly and easily dispatch one of the hundreds of paid killers in his employ almost anywhere in the country to protect his interests.

Al Capone mugshot
Overall, Capone's criminal operation is blamed for about 500 murders -- mostly underworld players, but also a good number of innocent bystanders. The first wave of murders warranting national attention came during the "Chicago Beer Wars" of 1923–1926, an intermittent series of turf fights that left the Torrio-Capone mob in control of most of the city after 375 gangsters and affiliates on both sides had been killed.

Probably the most infamous incident, however, was the Valentine's Day Massacre of seven rival gang members on Feb. 14, 1929. Capone's men, disguised as police officers, pretended to arrest the men but then simply lined them up in a basement garage and shot them. While this succeeded in securing Capone's control of all of Chicago, the brutal, execution-style murders -- publicized in lurid newspaper photos -- sparked a national outcry.

But Capone was never convicted of a single murder or for the illegal sale of alcohol. Rather, his fate hinged on his failure to pay income taxes on all the money generated by the Chicago Outfit. Capone was only able to launder so much of his fortune through reputable businesses, and he was finally caught by Eliot Ness, a former director of public safety for Cleveland, who'd been given a special mission in 1927 to stop Capone. Sifting through the Chicago police department for officers not on Capone's payroll, Ness assembled a small team of incorruptible individuals, nicknamed "The Untouchables," who doggedly pursued Capone for three years. (Ness himself survived several assassination attempts.)

Capone was finally found guilty on 22 counts of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years beginning in 1932. In prison Capone's mind began to deteriorate from untreated syphilis, and he was completely demented by the time he was released in 1943. He finally died of late-stage syphilis on Jan. 25, 1947, at age 48.


Excerpted from "The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America."