Hillside, Illinois, a sleepy village of 8,000 souls, is a fairly unremarkable place. There is little to do there, other than sample the classic trappings of small town America. Yet nestled near its heart is Mount Carmel Cemetery, the resting place of the most notorious gangster who ever lived, making this a highly unlikely tourist destination.
The grave is obscured by shrubbery, but one imposing slab of concrete dwarfs the rest in a symbolic tribute to the man buried beneath. On the ground, the words Alphonse Capone are chiseled with grand simplicity into a headstone, followed by the dates of his lifespan, the years of his reign: 1899-1947.
People take photographs beside this grave like teenagers at a concert or backpackers near a famous landmark. The headstone is often littered with gifts, ranging from cigars and beer bottles to flowers and notes of thanks. Cemetery staff are forced to clear the mementos regularly, maintaining an unintended shrine to a man of incredible evil.
This appetite to be near Al Capone, to celebrate his life, isn’t confined to a sleepy graveyard fifteen miles west of Chicago. On the contrary, entire industries have spawned to feed this disconcerting desire. In June 2011, Capone’s personal handgun sold for $110,000 at auction. The following year, a Cadillac model 341 fetched $341,000 on the strength of testimony from one man who vaguely remembered his father tailoring the car for Scarface.
Our culture is simply obsessed with Al Capone, whose iconic image and everlasting charisma inspire awe to this day. People collect paraphernalia related to his business, have tattoos depicting his likeness, and wear merchandise bearing his legendary quotations. Some open restaurants and imitation speakeasies in homage to the man, while others foster his taste in clothes or liquor. An entire genre of film and literature glorifies his work, and in Iceland, there is even a contest for the best Al Capone impersonator.
So just why are we so fascinated by a man who saw killing as part of some grand business plan? Why does a brutal gangster who died sixty-nine years ago stimulate devotion from fans? How did Al Capone become such a powerful icon, and what does that say about our society?
The most simple answer is pure nostalgia. Our attempts to recreate Capone through film, music and literature can be seen as a yearning for that bygone age of American advancement when Babe Ruth hit homers, Charles Lindbergh flew planes, and Henry Ford built cars. There was something magical about that era, defined by fedora hats and city slicker confidence. It was a time of freedom, of fertile dreams, of unending possibility. Perhaps we realize those things aren’t true in our modern context, and thus relics of a glorious epoch are held dear to our hearts. Al Capone presiding over his self-made empire is one such relic, and one by which we’re fittingly intoxicated.
“He fits the mold of a complete gangster,” says Mario Gomes, the owner of a virtual Al Capone museum. “His name, his looks, his ability to hold Chicago in his grip for many years. I think it’s what Capone represented that makes him popular to this day. He represents respect, lawlessness, corruption, power and death.”
In many respects, Capone is a transcendent oxymoron. He left a trail of murder and destruction, but did so in compliance with an underworld code of honor that won him respect. He would remove anybody who stifled his omnipotent vision, yet often paid hospital bills for innocent people caught in the crossfire. Al Capone was a celebrity, perhaps the only gangster ever to stage press conferences. People loved his charismatic image, even if it was a contrived facade for selfish gain. Quite aside from his despicable acts, Capone became synonymous with opulence and success, wealth and class, serenity and confidence. Those traits are highly admirable and deeply persuasive.
“It’s bad to look up to any criminal,” Gomes explains. “But I think it’s important to differentiate between, say, Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer and Al Capone. We look at these old-time gangsters in a different light as the years distance them from their misdeeds.
“Hollywood helps glamorize these historic figures into icons. Capone had other gangsters killed; the same gangsters who would have killed him. The romance with the gangsters of that era is based on the respect towards the unspoken rules of the game back then. When a gang wanted to kill an opposing gang member, they made sure he was alone and not with his family. If he was with his family, then they would wait for another opportunity. Today, a gang will kill everyone in sight just to get their prey, killing many innocent people.”
Indeed, part of Capone’s popularity has always been a consequence of circumstances. Gangsters of his ilk were spawned from within society and not simply its rebels. The Depression created a void within the hierarchy of American power that represented fertile ground for Capone, who with codified brutality positioned himself to become a hero. Many people felt that, if hard work and sensibility didn’t ensure financial safety, why should they abide by the same old rules and live the same jaded lives? In commanding figures like Al Capone, they saw that lawlessness paid, essentially, and many applauded his independence.
The illegal production and trade of alcohol during Prohibition allowed that notion to germinate. It put mobsters in good faith with the communities they served. After all, they were willing to stand up for the little people and combat what many believed to be unnecessary laws. Of course, it was self-serving for those gangsters involved, as Capone’s extreme wealth illustrated, but the general public didn’t really care about what lurked beneath the veneer.
The mainstream wasn’t involved in the circles dominated by mob rule. The majority, which didn’t take drugs, gamble or borrow money, found there was a certain epistemic distance between themselves and Capone, a glass window that enabled people to marvel from a distance without getting involved. That’s why he was cheered at Cubs games and held in esteem by some journalists. From a safe distance, there was little to fear but plenty to admire.
Almost a century later, in an unfair modernity, Capone’s modus operandi, or at least its pop culture silhouette, is a parallel metonymy for the American Dream. Al Capone defied the machine for personal and familial gain, which many deem commendable. Subconsciously, we may be fascinated by him because, in the crudest terms, he was everything we aspire to be: a self-made American man of incredibly foresight, unbeatable determination and rampant optimism. In popular culture, the means by which he reached that point, and his eventual demise, have subdued into the background like one tile in the wider mosaic of an icon. We need the mythology he provides for our own escapism, to nourish our yearning for difference. Enigmas beguile in all walks of life, and Al Capone was chief among them.
Thus, in many ways, it’s perfectly understandable that people post his famous quotes or create parody accounts on social media. There’s even credence given to The Mob Museum, located in downtown Las Vegas, which pays homage to what many consider a halcyon age of American violence. Ashley Misko, its public relations director, says that “organized crime, for better or worse, is woven deep into the history of this country. It cannot be ignored if one wants to understand the economic and political stories of the twentieth century.”
This is a sentiment shared by over a million people who have visited the museum since it opened in February 2012. And, unquestionably, artifacts relating to Capone are a main attraction. “His iconic status endures because he was such a public figure when he was alive,” Misko concludes. “Therefore, we know a lot about him. Unlike other mobsters, he held press conferences with reporters and was photographed extensively. He was portrayed as something of a Robin Hood character, opening soup kitchens for the poor and frequently handing out money to friends and bystanders alike. His stature peaked during the height of Prohibition, the era that still resonates as the go-to image of the American gangster.”
Ultimately, Al Capone was a savage man in the underworld and a benevolent idol in public. That dichotomy, that genius duality of being, is what made him so elusive to enemies and so captivating to allies. Capone was the man of an era, the breathing symbol of personal determination trumping established rule, regardless of the consequences. By many, he was justifiably hated, for his reign left a trail of terror and woe. But by others, he is worshiped, at the confluence of adulation and nostalgia.