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Book Review

The Secret Six has much to do with bringing down Scarface Al Capone


Dennis E. Hoffman. Scarface Al and the Crime Crusaders: Chicago's Private War Against Capone. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993. Pp. 192 with illustrations, notes and index. $24.95 (cloth).

"Scarface Al" was the nickname of Alphonse Capone, the most famous gangster in Chicago history. During the 1920s he was the boss of most organized crime in the city. His only rival was "Bugs" Moran, but on Feb. 14, 1929, Capone effectively eliminated the rival gang by shooting key members in a garage. This was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

In 1931 federal prosecutors obtained convictions against Capone and his gang of bootleggers, con-men and murderers. Until now, most people have assumed that a federal agent named Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" brought down Capone. Dennis Hoffman now says that the real credit belongs to a group of civic leaders called "The Secret Six." Today we know the names of these six lawyers and businessmen. The two most familiar to modern readers were Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears, and Samuel Insull, an oil and gas magnate. The other four were Frank F. Loesch, Edward E. Gore, George A. Paddock and Robert Isham Randolph.

Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune lent valuable assistance through his newspaper, and Charles G. Dawes, vice president under Coolidge, persuaded the federal government that it should commit its prosecutorial resources to help destroy Capone's grip on Chicago. Capone was so powerful that he either owned or frightened many elected officials notably Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson and State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe. Local authorities could not stop him. Only civic leaders could organize opposition to Capone. Meeting secretly, they hired Alexander G. Jamie, the incorruptible brother-in- law of Eliot Ness, to run a series of sting operations that they financed. Ness, as a public official, made the arrests at the stings.

While Ness and U.S. Attorney Dwight H. Green took the public credit, Hoffman quotes Scarface Al as saying, "The Secret Six licked the rackets. They've licked me. They've made it so there's no money in the game anymore."

Why did the Secret Six and their colleagues do it? Hoffman suggests their primary motive was to clean up Chicago's national and international image. They also wanted to hold a World's Fair in 1933 and knew that Chicago could not obtain the fair unless it ridded itself of its reputation as a "gangster town."

Hoffman opens his book with a conversation between Colonel Randolph and Capone in which both agree that Chicago's gangster reputation was "bad for tourism." After Randolph told Capone that the Secret Six would try "to put Capone out of business," they shook hands and said there were "no hard feelings" between them. One gets the impression that the Secret Six may have thought of Capone more as a business rival than a criminal.

What lessons can we draw from Scar- face Al today? One is the effect of prohibiting a commodity many people want without taking steps sufficient to enforce that prohibition. In the 1920s, alcohol was prohibited. Capone, as the chief supplier of liquor in Chicago, eventually had the local bootlegging monopoly. He earned huge profits, although his business expenses included buying off politicians and bankrolling murders of competitors


©Chicago Historical Society

"Scarface Al" Capone

and even honest public officials. Hoffman says the Secret Six estimated that it cost Capone $3 to produce a barrel of beer, which he then sold to a speakeasy for $55. Truly, this was a robber baron's profit. Colonel Randolph predicted that the legalization of liquor would destroy Capone because it would destroy his monopoly.

Today the prohibited commodity is drugs, from marijuana to cocaine. Modern-day Capones run their drug monopolies just as he did, even to the corruption of public officials. What does this say about our "war on drugs."

Another lesson is that decent, powerful people can band together to defeat crime and corruption. The citizens of Chicago did not rise up and destroy Capone. A few dedicated men who obtained the ear of the president of the United States did. Does Chicago have such leaders today?

Al Capone and the crime crusaders are now dead. Everyone has heard of Scarface Al, but few have heard of the Secret Six. Hoffman argues correctly that in destroying Capone the crusaders made Chicago a better city. Yet many foreigners still think of Chicago as "the gangster city." Indeed, we almost glory in that image and regard Scarface Al as a picaresque figure.

Ironically, Capone and his fellow gangsters, who were once "bad for Chicago's business," are now a major tourist draw. Today's tourists take "gangster bus tours of Chicago" and visit that popular new museum, Al Capone's Chicago. In death, Capone has done far more for Chicago than he ever did in life. 

Ann Lousin is professor of law at the John
Marshall Law School in Chicago. 

30/September 1994/Illinois Issues

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