Tuesday, August 7, 2012

It’s important to remember, says the FBI’s historian John Fox, that Al Capone was real.

“It’s sometimes hard to separate myth and reality,” Fox said Monday in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

So much of the former revealed itself in gatherings last week in Carroll County with Deirdre Capone, Al Capone’s grand-niece who’s on something of a one-woman revisionist history mission to cast her Chicago gangland relative as a misunderstood community organizer who set up soup kitchens in the Great Depression. So, really, Capone’s “drink of choice” was Templeton Rye. Let’s toast it up in southern Carroll County. Or should we?

“There’s enough distance and kind of confusion from the movies,” Fox said.

Fox added, “We’re talking a combination of distance and how he’s been portrayed over the years.”

Think about it. When Templeton Rye announced Deirdre Capone would be a spokeswoman for the legally distilled Carroll County whiskey, the company may as well have said Darth Vader would be incorporated into its marketing strategies. After all, Capone and the heavy-breathing leader of the Empire in “Star Wars” provoke essentially the same emotions at this point. We know Capone is a flesh-and-blood figure in American history. But in American popular culture mobsters are Sinatra-loving jukebox anti-heroes, cinema bad guys whose real-life exploits one follows in the manner of kids with serial comics.

Which is why we need some context as Deirdre Capone travels the nation, raising glimmering glasses of Templeton Rye, peddling her book and associating her family with Templeton, Carroll County and the illegal booze produced here during Prohibition.

“In Capone’s case, I don’t see too much redemptive,” Fox said.

Here is how The Chicago Tribune described the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929: “On this frigid morning, in an unheated brick garage at 2122 N. Clark St., seven men were lined up against a whitewashed wall and pumped with 90 bullets from submachine guns, shotguns and a revolver. It was the most infamous of all gangland slayings in America, and it savagely achieved its purpose — the elimination of the last challenge to Al Capone.”

Is there anyway that wasn’t Al Capone’s call? After all, he was in Florida at the time.

“I haven’t seen anything that credibly suggests it was another gang,” Fox said.

Deidre Capone points out that the only crime authorities pinned on Uncle Al is tax evasion. That’s true.

But during the 1920s and 1930s Capone ruled a vast criminal enterprise in the Midwest that served to establish the structures for underworld activities that continue to this day, Fox said.

“He was almost a founding father of sorts of organized crime in our country,” Fox said.

Deidre Capone defends her family’s history, making the case that the enterprises extended into providing goods and service for which there were persuasive arguments for legalization.

“The businesses that my family were in, you say organized crime, it was only gambling, alcohol, prostitution,”  Capone said in an interview with The Daily Times Herald.

Fox said bank robbers of the 1930s and other criminals were “moving around the edges” of the organizations Capone established in Chicago.

People were killed — and not all were “in the game” of bootlegging.

“Orders would go out, and obviously, people would die,” Fox said.

Fox said he could not put a body count on Capone’s activities. But that misses the full picture, the FBI’s historian said.

Capone built a breeding ground for other crimes. He did it for money, not to serve as some friendly Prohibition scofflaw looking to outsmart the suited squares of the federal government.

“You should see the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Fox, who pointed to a vast archive of information the FBI has collected on Capone.

There’s little doubt Capone’s career damaged (or took) more lives than those of other infamous American criminals, like, say the clown killer John Wayne Gacy (who was convicted of killing 33 people and executed) or Charles Manson who is serving life in California for killing seven people in the 1969 “Helter Skelter” spree in Los Angeles.

Imagine the outrage if a wine company in California sought to trade on the infamy of Manson. What if there were a John Wayne Gacy IPA beer?

But using Capone will pose absolutely no risk to Templeton Rye. In fact, it’s a smart business move. People associate Capone with an era, a style.

He had better PR than crazy-eyed Manson, to be sure.

But based on beatings, bullets fired and graves dug — the runs, hits and errors of big league criminal life? Take a seat, Manson.

Mobsters like Capone are generally the beneficiaries of such disconnect. With the runaway success of television programs like HBO’s organized-crime-glorifying “Sopranos,” with its spectacularly colorful, even charismatic characters, Americans can’t (and probably don’t want to) see past the fantastically entertaining fiction to the truth.

There’s little chance of this changing.

But Templeton Rye, as an ambassador of Carroll County, has an obligation to keep this in perspective.

“Be cautious about lionizing a criminal figure,” Fox said.