Who was Al Capone and how was he convicted of tax evasion?

The reign of one of the most notorious criminals of Prohibition-era America came to an end after years of close shaves. BBC History Revealed takes a closer look at Al Capone's conviction for tax evasion on 17 October 1931…

Capone (in the plain white hat) leaves court after being found guilty in 1931. As well as receiving a prison sentence, he was also made to pay his taxes. (Image by Alamy)

Born in 1899 to Italian immigrants in New York, Alphonse Capone joined his first criminal gang around the age of 14. As a young man, he was slashed across the cheek with a knife during a fight, earning him the nickname ‘Scarface’.


He later moved to Chicago, becoming embroiled in alcohol smuggling, gambling and prostitution. By 1925, he was in charge of an Italian-American syndicate known as the Chicago Outfit, which he moulded into one of the most powerful and violent criminal organisations in the US. Chicago’s gang violence came to a head with the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which seven members of a rival gang were gunned down – on Capone’s orders, it was suspected, but not proven.

Capone’s reputation as a ruthless mobster had captured the fascination and horror of the country. Alleged to be the mastermind behind at least 30 deaths, government agents spent years trying to bring Capone down, but he avoided convictions by bribing officials and intimidating witnesses. Ultimately, it would be the US Treasury Department that brought an end to the man dubbed “Public Enemy No 1”. Capone was known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and was worth $100 million before he was 30 – yet he had never filed a tax return.

On 17 October 1931, he was found guilty on five charges of tax evasion and later sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was sent to Atlanta penitentiary in 1932, then transferred to the newly opened Alcatraz amid rumours he had been receiving special treatment.

Somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?
Al Capone’s thoughts on Prohibition

His health deteriorated in prison, the result of late-stage syphilis. Though paroled in 1939, he never returned to gangland politics and retired to his mansion in Palm Island a different man – according to his physician, he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. He died of a heart attack in 1947.


This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of History Revealed