The Man Who Brought Down Al Capone

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Did you know May is National Mystery Month? 

Today, May 4, marks a milestone in American criminal history. On this day in 1931, one of the most ruthless and famous crime bosses of the Prohibition Era, Al Capone, began serving his 11-year prison sentence for tax evasion.

America has always had a bee up its bonnet about liquor and in some ways, still does (I live in a county that was a “dry” county — i.e., no selling liquor within county lines — until 1999). Temperance was high on the list of reforms during the Progressive Era. After World War I, the nation’s government decided to do something about it. So in 1919, the Volstead Act was passed, prohibiting the making and selling of liquor in America. In 1920, the Prohibition Era kicked off in America, bringing with it the birth of the gangster, the speakeasy, and the Tommy gun. It also marked the most violent era in criminal history in America.

I meant to write this blog post about the criminal (Al Capone). But digging deeper into the history of Prohibition law enforcement, I became more fascinated by the crime fighters than the criminal. Because there was a team of crimefighters that brought down Capone and they were led by one man: Eliot Ness. 

Photo Credit: Eliot Ness, 1933, retouched: Melesse/Wikimedia Common/PD US government

Ness worked for the federal government and he and his men had a reputation for being smart, heroic, and incorruptible (no mean feat during this era). He worked for the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) department which put the fight to enforce anti-liquor laws right up his alley. In 1930, his department paired with the U.S. Department of Justice and Treasury in the fight against violent crimes in America which had reached their peak. That year was also Hoover’s declaration of war against the gangsters largely responsible for those crimes. At the head of the list was Al Capone, who had risen to fame as Chicago’s kingpin and evaded every criminal accusation made against him.

The message was clear: get Al Capone on something, anything. Agents worked several angles, including the (obviously) prohibition violation angle and the income tax evasion angle. In the end, the treasury won. Though Ness and his team managed to get enough evidence together to bring forth thousands of prohibition violations against Capone, the kingpin eventually was sent to jail not for the many people he had killed and the violence he and his gang instigated but for avoiding his income taxes.

Why was Capone found guilty of tax evasion rather than prohibition violations (those charges were eventually dropped?) One theory is prosecutors were afraid the jury would find Capone not guilty of the violation charges because, frankly, everybody hated prohibition, and many saw gangsters that fought against it as heroes rather than criminals. Tax evasion, though, was a different matter. Most citizens weren’t sympathetic to those who didn’t pay their taxes (just as we are today). Keep in mind Hoover’s orders: get Al Capone on anything. 

Still, Ness made his mark in history. In fact, he was so well known during this era that in that same year, cartoonist Chester Gould created a tough-talking, smart private eye who would become an icon in detective fiction. 

Come meet the crime fighters of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, starting with Book 1, The Carnation Murder, which is out now and at 99¢ (though not for much longer!) You can get all the details about the book Barnes & Noble chose for their Top Indie Favorites list here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Immigration, Riots, and Murder: A Look at America in 1892

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This is the original immigration station on Ellis Island that was built in 1892. It was destroyed by fire in 1897 so a new one was built in its place.

Photo Credit: First Ellis Island immigration station, 1896, personal image of old stereo photograph, author unknown: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons/PD Mark 1.0

The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, takes place in the year of 1892. I’ve already discussed my fascination for the last quarter of the 19th century in two blog posts about the Gilded Age, which you can read here and here. But I thought it would be fun to look at some of what was going on in the year 1892 from a social, political, and psychological standpoint. In The Specter, much of this is not touched upon because I chose to focus on a more generalized sense of what it was like to live in 1892 in relation to how it affected the Alderdice family. But there was also a lot going on externally in the United States at this time.

America went through some milestones in 1892 as a nation. For example, the now infamous immigration station, Ellis Island, first opened its doors in January of that year. While there were other immigration stations in the United States (not the least of which was Angel Island in San Francisco), Ellis Island was the first and largest and the most significant. Many of us will probably remember the scene in The Godfather II that recreates the Ellis Island experience, showing us the crowds and the mustiness of the building in which immigrants were received right off the boat, the indifference of the officials receiving them, and the fear, apprehension, humiliation, and anger it invoked for those arriving in the United States during this time. You can read more about Ellis Island and its history here.

But just as American was welcoming some immigrants in 1892, it was also taking pains to shut out others. In this year, the Geary Act was proposed and passed as legislation, preventing new Chinese immigrants from entering the country and requiring those already in the country to carry identification papers to be produced at any time upon request. The act was an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and did not go without protest from the Chinese communities in the United States (and rightly so) for causing strife and humiliation to Chinese citizens of the United States. You can read a little about that and see images of these certificates of residency here.

I talk in my blog post on the Progressive Era about reforms that were to fall into place in the first few decades of the 20th century. But much of the groundwork was already laid out in the last few decades of the 19th century, at least as far as labor relations were concerned. Nothing epitomizes this more than The Homestead Massacre in 1892. A bloody battle broke out between skilled labor union workers and security guards in the Homestead Steel Works. When the union could not reach an agreement with management regarding contract terms, management locked these workers out of the mill and a strike ensued that was followed by a violent outbreak between the workers and the Pinkerton Detective agents who had been sent to protect non-union workers who were coming in to replace them. Although the strikers lost in the end and the union disbanded, the mill management (especially financial giant Andrew Carnegie) were not shown in a very good light, and this kind of criticism of business management would have effects in the turn of the century with more awareness of worker’s rights and the easing of some of the rigid rules of big business, such as long work hours and inhuman conditions. If you’d like to find out more about the Homestead Strike, you can do so here.   

Photo Credit: Portrait of Lizzie Borden, 1892 author unknown: Wikilug/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

One of my future projects is a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries. I love classic mystery stories and I also love classic true crimes, especially those involving women. Probably one of the most famous happened in 1892 with the discovery of the dead bodies of Lizzie Borden’s parents in their home in Massachusetts and their daughter, Lizzie becoming the prime (and only) suspect. I deal a lot with family dynamics and dysfunction in my fiction, so a murder case from the past that involves family always catches my attention. Lots of information on the Borden case focuses on the trial and the fact that Borden was acquitted, but I’m more interested in the “why” of the murders and the family dynamics that might have driven Borden to commit this heinous crime. Money has been suggested as the motivator (Borden’s father was well off but a cheapskate) and also the fact that Borden was controlled by him and wanted autonomy. You can read about that here.

And speaking of crime, here’s an interesting tidbit. Also in 1892, one of the most infamous world’s fairs was supposed to take place, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). I say infamous because America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, emerged as the first serial killer in the American during the fair. But the exhibition date got delayed because of a battle between Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla over electricity (which was to be one of the main displays of innovation and technology at the fair). Thus, the exhibition was moved to 1893.

To find out more about how the Alderdice family lived and their world in 1892, you can go here. To find out about the series itself, I have a page for that here

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