Alphonse Gabriel Capone (1899-1947), nicknamed Scarface, is perhaps the most notorious figure in 20th Century America. Capitalizing on the banning of alcohol during the disastrous Prohibition era, Capone made a vast fortune by selling alcohol on the black market. With many people perceiving Prohibition as a ludicrous and tyrannical law, the impertinent and witty Capone was looked upon fondly by the American public. His charisma and open admission of bootlegging made him a folk hero: âI’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor. I’ve given people the light pleasures… and all I get is abuse.’
However, public opinion turned decidedly against him when seven members of the rival North Side Gang were gunned down on St Valentine’s Day 1929, for which he was widely assumed to be responsible. This went against the public image Capone gave of himself, for though he admitted to bootlegging and ran his operation in plain sight at the Metropole Hotel, Chicago, he always firmly denied any involvement in violence or murder. The truth is that Capone rose to become a mob boss by murdering opponents and kept his business running smoothly through horrific violence, intimidation, racketeering, and bribing city officials.
Famously, Capone was finally convicted not of his mafia activities but tax evasion, for which he received 11 years. He died of a heart attack brought on by tertiary syphilis after being released. Our ghost story begins, however, while Capone was alive. Whilst serving an earlier minor sentence for carrying a concealed weapon at Eastern State Penitentiary, Capone was haunted by the ghost of a man he killed, known as Jimmy. Fellow prisoners heard him talking to Jimmy and screaming at the ghost to leave him alone. Jimmy followed him from Eastern State and continued to plague Capone at Alcatraz.
âJimmy’ is believed to have been the ghost of James Clark, a victim of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. When not shouting at Jimmy at Alcatraz, Capone whiled away the hours by learning the banjo. The inexplicable sound of a banjo being plucked is often said to be heard coming from his former cell. He is sometimes seen propping up the bar at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago, which he used for business meetings. On a related note, the site of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre is haunted by the ghosts of the victims and the sound of gunfire.
These reports give a sense of the contradictory manner in which the notorious gangster is remembered today. In full possession of the facts about Capone’s personality and criminal career, he is rightly seen as a ruthless killer and thoroughly unpleasant man, to which the ghosts of the North Side Gang attest. The ghostly banjo-playing and his presence at the hotel bar attest to his softer side and the enduring romance of Capone’s legend. His self-crafted public image â a lovable rogue simply giving the people what they wanted directly in the face of killjoy public officials â also endures beyond the grave.
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