When Al Capone Opened a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression: Another Side of the Legendary Mobster’s Operation

In response to the words “Amer­i­can gang­ster,” one name comes to mind before all oth­ers: Al Capone. (Apolo­gies to Rid­ley Scott.) Though few Amer­i­cans could now describe the full scope of his empire’s crim­i­nal activ­i­ties, many know that he grew that empire boot­leg­ging dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion and that he was even­tu­al­ly brought down on the rel­a­tive­ly mild charge of tax eva­sion. A media spec­ta­cle by the stan­dards of the day, the tri­al that con­vict­ed Capone in 1931 was in some sense the nat­ur­al last act of his pub­lic­i­ty-com­mand­ing career. Most Capo­ne­ol­o­gists place the begin­ning of the mob boss’ fall at the 1929 “Saint Valen­tine’s Day Mas­sacre” of sev­en of Capone’s rivals. Lat­er that year came the stock mar­ket crash that set off the Great Depres­sion, which offered Chicago’s “Pub­lic Ene­my No. 1” one last chance to win back that pub­lic’s favor.

Hav­ing long trad­ed on a Robin Hood-esque image, Capone opened a soup kitchen in his home base of Chica­go to serve the unfor­tu­nates sud­den­ly dis­pos­sessed by the dev­as­tat­ed Amer­i­can econ­o­my. “Capone’s soup kitchen served break­fast, lunch and din­ner to an aver­age of 2,200 Chicagoans every day,” writes History.com’s Christo­pher Klein. “Inside the soup kitchen, smil­ing women in white aprons served up cof­fee and sweet rolls for break­fast, soup and bread for lunch and soup, cof­fee and bread for din­ner. No sec­ond help­ings were denied. No ques­tions were asked, and no one was asked to prove their need.”

Capone’s will­ing­ness to sat­is­fy human needs and desires out­side the law kept him rich, and thus more than able to run such an oper­a­tion, even as the Depres­sion set in; still, he “may not have paid a dime for the soup kitchen, rely­ing instead on his crim­i­nal ten­den­cies to stock­pile his char­i­ta­ble endeav­or by extort­ing and brib­ing busi­ness­es to donate goods.”

Capone’s soup kitchen may have helped keep Chica­go fed, but it could only do so much to clean up his dete­ri­o­rat­ing pub­lic image, asso­ci­at­ed as it had become with smug­gling, extor­tion, and vio­lence. “Capone’s soup kitchen closed abrupt­ly in April 1932,” writes Men­tal Floss’ Shoshi Parks. “The pro­pri­etors claimed that the kitchen was no longer need­ed because the econ­o­my was pick­ing up, even though the num­ber of unem­ployed across the coun­try had increased by 4 mil­lion between 1931 and 1932.” Two months lat­er, “Capone was indict­ed on 22 counts of income tax eva­sion; the charges that even­tu­al­ly land­ed him in San Francisco’s Alca­traz Fed­er­al Pen­i­ten­tiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen dur­ing his tri­al, its doors stayed shut.” You can learn more about Capone’s soup kitchen at My Al Capone Muse­um and The Vin­tage News, and even vis­it its loca­tion at 935 South State Street today — though you won’t find any oper­a­tion more ambi­tious than a park­ing lot.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Map of Chicago’s Gang­land: A Cheeky, Car­to­graph­ic Look at Al Capone’s World (1931)

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

1,600 Rare Col­or Pho­tographs Depict Life in the U.S Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion & World War II

Con­fi­dence: The Car­toon That Helped Amer­i­ca Get Through the Great Depres­sion (1933)

What Pris­on­ers Ate at Alca­traz in 1946: A Vin­tage Prison Menu

New Archive Presents The Chicagoan, Chicago’s Jazz-Age Answer to The New York­er (1926 to 1935)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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