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Al Capone's Pineapple Politics | The Nation

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Al Capone's Pineapple Politics

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Everett CollectionAl Capone, Prohibition era gangster boss in 1931 mug shot.

About the Author

Who is this Chicago gangster known as 'Scarface'?

At the battlefront, Chicago, April 16

Meet Big Bill. Blatant, muddle-headed, obnoxious, incoherent. A big noise in a big hulk. Some say he is the Spirit of Chicago. That charge held good until Tuesday, April 10. On that memorable day something came up and hit him. Now he has that touch of melancholy so essential to the art of a clown.

Meet Abie Arends. In the mauve decade he was the masculine madame of a house of prostitution. More recently he has moved up a notch and has been engaged by Bill to teach the populace the plaintive song-poem of Packing-town :

Scanning hist'ry's pages, We find names we love so well, Heroes of all ages-- Of their deeds we love to tell. Who is the one, Chicago's greatest son? It's Big Bill, the Builder—

And so on, for, fourteen verses.

Meet Al Capone, called "Scarface." Ruler of the realm of racketeering. Overlord of the underworld. The man to whom 3,000,000 people pay tribute—$75,000,000 annually. The man in charge of the procurers and the killers who manage the elections.

Meet Harry Gusick. He and his woman were once convicted of pandering, of selling a bewildered country girl into the pit that has no bottom. Len Small's pardon saved them from the stigma of doing a stretch in prison. Now Harry is one of the main cogs in the machine of Al Capone.

Four of the principals in our offering for this evening: a melodrama of intrigue and adventure, of suspense and conflict, of thrills and super-thrills, of passion and plunder—and pineapples.

The plot has its beginnings in the making of a machine that is to become the most formidable, the most menacing, in all Chicago's history. The plot ends in the smashing of that machine on the rocks of its own placing. Threaded through the recital runs an amazing tale of the rise of open terrorism, of almost unbelievable corruption, of demagoguery and thuggery, of a government of clowns and a super-government of crooks.

For the setting we have a city which some of us believe is destined to be the greatest in the world, but which today, we all admit, is still the callow youth of the plains. A city dominated by a stockyards aristocracy. A city suffering from growing pains. A city with a bad-boy complex, smoking its first cigar. Give it time; it will come out all right.

ACT I: The Rise of Terrorism

The lifting curtain finds "Scarface Al" Capone in the center of the stage. He has held the spotlight ever since the mayoralty election of a year ago, when Bill Thompson was returned to power. The votes had scarcely been counted before Al set out to join the city's gambling, prostitution, brewing, moonshining, and bootlegging into one vast ring of vice. He succeeded—in such spectacular fashion as to arouse the envy of many a captain of more legitimate industry.

He alone supplies beer to downtown Chicago. He alone exacts tribute on nearly every barrel of beer tapped between Madison Street and the Indiana State line. And thousands of stills percolating in Little Italy and throughout the West and South Sides render him tribute in cash or "alky." Commercialized vice, too, recognizes his thraldom. He has an interest in every section of city and county. The gambling trust bears the same imprint. Al controls at least fifteen of the larger establishments, and from members of the Thompson administration he has bought up the citywide gaming privilege at a flat rate. Besides setting up his own little Monte Carlos—some of them palaces and some of them just "joints"—he takes 25 per cent of the gross profit in every place that aspires to run without fear of the police.

At times his dictatorship is disputed. Especially on the North Side, where the pickings are rich. Polack Joe Saltis, Frank McErlane, and others from time to time have set up independent duchies. Some of them are still among the living. Others have been "taken for a ride," have fallen afoul of a machine-gun bullet, or have stepped in the path of a "pineapple"—Chicago parlance for bomb.

In building up his organization Capone has gathered around him as choice a group of racketeers, gunmen, hoodlums, and what-not as ever saw the inside of a rogues' gallery. He never ventures out without a bodyguard of ten or more of these creatures, well-dressed, tight-lipped, shifty-eyed. But the duties of these minute men consist of far more than guarding their precious package. When rivals dare enter the Capone kingdom, or distillers dare question the Capone levy or the price of sugar, or barkeeps seek a source of supply other than the Capone brewery, the Capone army takes care of them. Law and order of the Capone variety must be and is maintained. An obdurate moonshiner may see the light with the crash of a gun butt on his head. A saloonkeeper may decide, while spitting out a half-dozen teeth, that Capone's beer is what his customers cry for. Or almost any morning a county-highway policeman or a small-town constable may find a bullet-torn body in n roadside ditch. Whereupon another casualty is marked up in the gang-war column, or there is an addition to the list of sixty-eight bombings in six months' time.

Thus Chicago lives by gang law. Thus the world's sausage metropolis, which used to limit its slaughtering to the stockyards, takes on new airs. But "Scarface Al," accused as he has been of participating in a score of such murders, is no wanton killer. He knows that money often is as powerful as death or the threat of death.

When the thunder of political oratory sounds, Al is summoned into council for the good of the party. Campaigns cost money; there are halls to be hired, bands must be paid for braying, speakers must have their honoraria, printers must have their cash, and there are "incidental expenses." And, when properly shown the need for money, the impulsive, warm-blooded Sicilian "Scarface" is not one to let the country go to the dogs. He contributes generously to the coffers of both factions and both parties. His usual practice in this regard is to align himself with the party or faction picked to win, letting a trusted lieutenant do what is necessary for the other side. No matter who loses the Capone interests win.

On election day Al is no laggard sitting at home and waiting for a precinct captain or a civic organization to interest him in the voting. All day long he is at his headquarters, dispatching his hoodlums hither and thither where the fight is hottest, where an unfavorable ballot-box is to be hoisted, or where a judge or a clerk of election is to be inspired with the fear of King Capone.

Thus, from the evolution of bullets to ballots we now have the devolution of ballots to bullets. And "Scarface" and his satellites are persons of exceeding importance to the politicians and their parties. When those politicians have control of the pardons, the police, and the prosecution, the alliance becomes mutually magnificent. Both sides are no longer afraid of the law; they adjust the law to suit their needs. Only one thing keeps Al from being supreme: he has to split the millions in profits with his compatriots, the politicians.

Act II: The Machine "Goes for a Ride"

Meanwhile another election is approaching. Big Bill, still riding on the crest with his cheap circus, his AmericaFirst, Draft-Coolidge, Out-With-King-George nonsense, needs the cooperation of county and State in order that the gang may maintain its hold on pardons, police, and prosecution and that Bill may reach out for the Presidency. He joins Bob Crowe, the shifty, wiry State's attorney, and Len Small, the Governor who says he did not steal two-thirds of a million dollars from the State but put it back anyway.

With the help of Samuel Insull—who, by a freak of fate, finds that his attorney, Samuel Ettelson, is also the attorney for the city—the three set out to keep Crowe and Small in office, send Frank Smith back to the Senate, turn city and State over to lasull's public-utility corporations, and continue the high purpose of combining privileged corporate wealth and privileged vice and crime in a concerted raping of public rights, public morals, and public security.

Opposed to this combination is one headed by Senator Deneen, including in its ranks Frank Lowden and Ed Litsinger, of whom more later. The strength of this group is scattered, its force demoralized by years of tough sledding and impotent leadership. It may have public opinion on its side, but such opinion is worthless unless it votes. The Crowe-Thompson outfit has the organization and the jobs; and that is what counts in direct primaries.

Big Bill wraps the old flag about his barrel-like form and proclaims that it (the flag) shall never touch the dust. All the old hokum is polished up and hurled into the fray. Everything is going beautifully, and Bill is clamoring for all the pie in sight, and about to get it, when there is a slight slip. The bombs begin bursting in air with a trifle too much regularity, even for Chicago.

The homes of Senator Deneen and Judge Swanson, Crowe's opponent for State's attorney, are pineappled. Swanson escapes by seconds. Crowe rushes into print with the announcement that the Deneen-Swanson forces planted the bombs to arouse public sympathy. The callous, cynical note of such a pronouncement is not lost on the public. Before this the public has been indignant, exasperated. Now its smoldering wrath bursts forth in fire.

As if that were not enough, Bill makes another stupid move. He refers slightingly to the dead mother of Ed Litsinger, a man whom be defeated for the mayoralty nomination a year ago and who now is running for the board of review on the Deneen slate. Ed's sister leaps up from her seat in the loop theater audience and shouts: "Mayor Thompson, you're a liar!" Ed, heretofore regarded as comparatively harmless, takes up the gage of battle. He doffs his coat and plunges into Big Bill in a barroom fight of invective and vituperation. He meets the Mayor on the Mayor's own ground. He calls him "this man, with the carcass of a rhinoceros and the brain of a baboon."

Big Bill, dumfounded, confounded, frightened for once in his life, caves in. His audiences, which once laughed at his gags, now laugh at his gagging.

ACT III: Upsetting the Pineapple-Cart

And that brings us to the climax.

When election-day rolls around, the gangsters are still laughing at the public. They have the machine and they know it. They send their gunmen out into the tougher regions, get ready for the usual terrorism, and dispatch bombing threats by the score. But the hoodlums discover, too late, that the public will take a joke just so long.

In this instance the press has thoroughly exposed the alliance of the utility corporations, the criminal elements, and the Crowe-Thompson outfit. The Hearst papers, even while emitting their customary clarion calls for the rights of the people, have gone to bat for the gangsters and the despoilers, but other papers, led by the Tribune and the News, have told the truth. The public is fully advised and determined. It refused to be terrorized. It squares off to do battle with the men who have made money their god.

Thousands of citizens, recruited from the ranks of the civic organizations, act as voluntary watchers at the polls. The corruptionists try everything, but the majority rolled up against them is too overwhelming to be counted out or stolen. Big Bill's machine goes slithering into the ditch.

Big Bill's day-dream of grandeur is over. If he has not yet awakened, if he does not yet realize the extent of his broken-down pomposity, he will. New York had its Hylan, Boston had its "Honey-Boy Fitz," Chicago has its Big Bill. He still has three years to go as Mayor, but after that—unless the public goes to sleep again—he will fade from the scene and be among our souvenirs. Lowden, not Thompson, emerges from the battle as the factor to be reckoned with in Illinois's choice for the Presidency. Back of him looms the heretofore futile Deneen, dark-horse candidate for the Republican nomination for either the head of the ticket or second place.

The result is gratifying to all men who have kept their faith in the American democracy in the face of recent history. It furnishes ample evidence of the soundness of mind and heart of the men and women of Chicago. It is an encouraging sign of the power of democracy—even in a vast and heterogeneous community—to purge itself of its sins.

Some have hailed the revolt as a clear-cut victory for civic righteousness. Reluctantly, I disagree. I should qualify this by saying the voters arose en masse because they were disgusted with the kind of rule they had been getting and there was nowhere for them to go but to the opposition. A new gang will doubtless spring up. But whatever organization comes out of the shambles of the old one, it can hardly be as bad as its predecessor.

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