Copyright © 2002
Conspiracy theorist is not at all a new line of work. And one of the more unusual conspiracy theories relating to organized crime dates back to 1931 and the accusation of an ersatz Capone.
In 1931, Alphonse Capone was the most well known gangster in American organized crime. At that time, the "organized" part of organized crime was, itself, largely within the realm of conspiracy theorists. (It would be decades before the Apalachin, NY, Mafia conference and the revelations of Joe Valachi would open the eyes of the nation's chief law enforcement officials.) But determined theorists were able to find conspiracies within conspiracies even back then.
"Real Detective" magazine charged in 1931 that Al Capone was dead, that the man who just had been imprisoned for a year in Philadelphia was an imposter and that Johnny Torrio, thought to be retired since 1925, was actually sitting atop a national criminal empire.
The Helena Montana Daily Independent reviewed the conspiracy charges and the evidence for them in a May 7, 1931, story written by Bill Biesel (probably picked up from the NEA Chicago Bureau). According to Biesel, "Real Detective" noted that Capone's eye color had recently changed from brown to blue, his ears had grown rounder and his facial scar was visibly different (due to a not-too-accurate surgical procedure designed to make an imposter look more like Capone). In addition, the magazine asserted that the new Capone's fingerprints were not a match for ones on file with the authorities.
Capone was murdered, according to the magazine, just outside Atlantic City, NJ, in May of 1929. Johnny Torrio found an illegitimate half-brother of the murdered man in Naples - a man named Giacomo Calabrese - and imported him to the United States to sub for Capone and keep order in Chicago.
The magazine further charged that the Philadelphia arrest of Calabrese was set up so the imposter would have a year to study Capone history and characteristics with fellow inmate Frankie Rio before being exposed to the Chicago underworld. "Real Detective" also notes that the "Capone" jailed in Philly refused visits from his mother and sister and, upon his release, ducked out of an interview with a long-time buddy, Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle. All of those people, said the magazine, would have been able to identify Calabrese as an imposter.
Lingle's ability to identify Capone ended abruptly - along with his life - when a gunman shot him through the back of the head in 1930.
Personally, I don't believe a word of the theory. Yet, it certainly does fit in well with many of the events of the time.
For example, we know that Capone's misbehavior in Chicago - his perceived involvement in the 1928 murder of national Unione Siciliana President Frank Uale, his manipulation of the local Chicago branch of the Unione, the February 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the subsequent clubbing to death of important Sicilian Mafiosi Joe Guinta, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi - was a main topic of conversation at a convention of new wave gangsters in Atlantic City in May, 1929. The mobsters - particularly the Sicilian ones - were fed up with Capone's antics and the media and law enforcement attention they triggered.
It is also believed by many organized crime historians that Torrio was a major force in the movement from individual gangs to a single, unified Syndicate and was among the honored guests at the Atlantic City meeting.
In spring 1929, the Chicago press speculated that Capone murdered Guinta, Scalise and Anselmi because they had been plotting with Johnny Torrio, who had announced his readiness to step out of retirement. They might have been onto something, and that might have used up Torrio's last ounce of patience.
Capone's arrest in Philly has always been something of a puzzle. Why was he in Philadelphia at all? The Mafiosi in that community had no affection for him. He had no business interests there. Why did he so quietly accept his one-year sentence without a legal battle? Capone had always been a fighter before (and after) this event. But he didn't make a consequential move to defend himself in the Philadelphia matter, and the time between arrest to conviction was so brief as to be suspect.
Capone's conduct visibly changed after 1929. Yes, he is believed to have rubbed out an Aiello near the start of the Castellamarese War, but he also calmed Chicago noticeably in his final years in the underworld there. Before he went off to prison on 1931 tax evasion charges, Capone reportedly met with the lieutenants in his organization and set up a cooperative leadership council. Among the Chicago bosses were Frank Nitti, John Roselli, Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo. None of those men was ever known to struggle against any other for power.
It's almost as if they were invisibly guided by the cooperative nature of Torrio and had already grown accustomed to being partners in a criminal conspiracy.
The author relied on the sources cited in the Bibliography web page as well as sources named above for information contained in this article.