In search of the real Al Capone

Al Capone
The notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone.

The recent arrest of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger after 16 years on the lam got us to thinking about an earlier hoodlum ... and the long shadow he still manages to cast. Dean Reynolds went in search of the real Al Capone, the Chicago mobster whose injuries from youthful brawling earned him the nickname Scarface:

Nine decades ago Americans needed a break. World War I had just ended, and just when people wanted nothing more than to pack up all their cares and woes and maybe have a stiff drink (or three), Prohibition arrived in 1920, like a sobering slap across the face.

There was, however, another arrival that year, in Chicago - one that would come to define Prohibition. It involved a 20-year old named Alphonse Gabriel Capone - a.k.a. Scarface - a tough kid from Brooklyn who saw clarity in the chaos and opportunity in the Windy City.

"Nobody really liked Prohibition, and certainly in Chicago, plenty of people were still drinking," said Jonathan Eig, author of a book called "Get Capone." "his was one of the wettest cities in the country throughout Prohibition."

Corrupt as it was, Chicago was a very good place for a savvy hood to provide what were called the lighter pleasures.

"When Prohibition came along, it was incredibly tempting, if you were working a menial job, to get into this line - and suddenly make more money than you ever dreamed possible," said Eig, "if you were willing to put up with the risks, of course."

Capone was more than willing ... muscling his rivals to the side, and by the mid-1920s gaining the lion's share of Chicago's graft ... the bootlegging ... bookmaking ... and brothels.

British actor Stephen Graham, who plays a young Capone in the hit HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," calls the mobster "an opportunist.

"He saw the moment, and he took it, and he grasped it with both hands," said Graham.

"To be 27 years of age and own Chicago, and run that whole empire, that's one helluva mind, and one helluva desire, do you know what I mean?" said Graham. "And a passion to achieve."

Capone achieved all of it with a splash of style. The best clothes, the biggest cars, and more.

"The big difference is that Capone talked to the media and really welcomed the spotlight, so that people heard more about him," said Eig.

But away from the spotlight ...

"If you had a butcher shop and you weren't paying your contribution to the local protection association, the first thing is you'd get a broke window," said Eig. "The next thing is you might get a pineapple - a homemade bomb, hand grenade equivalent which would cause not only a broken window, but some fire damage."

"So a brick, a hand grenade ..." said Reynolds.

"Maybe a baseball bat to the head, to the knee," said Eig. "And then finally, you know, if you still didn't get the message, somebody might get killed."

While that sort of thing went on, Capone would likely be out on the town. The Green Mill cocktail lounge was a favorite haunt. "I'm guessing he didn't have to pay for his own drinks

Owner Dave Jemilo tends bar nowadays at the Green Mill - right above a subterranean escape route used by gangsters. He showed us the tunnels: "You went this way, you're under the street. And then it was boarded up. Then you go down this way and there's a whole other set of tunnels."

"So this was pretty elaborate," said Reynolds. "I mean they were serious about escaping."

"Well, wouldn't you be?" replied Jemilo.