Monday, June 16, 2008

Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era

Moviemakers shooting "Public Enemies" here, starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, dug deep into the files of the Chicago History Museum to research the film. And for good reason: Those files contain a treasure trove of photos from the 1920s and '30s gangland era of Chicago.

Some of those pictures -- many snapped by photographers of the old Chicago Daily News -- now have been compiled by museum curator John Russick in a book, Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era (Turner Publishing, $39.95).

Russick's goal was to capture not just the criminals, but the times. So among the 200 photos in the book are shots of biplane barnstormers, jazz cats, suffragists and flappers in fur coats.

At its center, though, are photos of Al Capone and his ilk, including crime scenes depicting bloody soldiers snuffed in the vice-driven street wars. One, however, shows Capone relaxing at a White Sox game in the front row of old Comiskey Park.

Russick said Capone was a different kind of crime boss when it came to publicity.

While Capone's mentor, John Torrio, shied from the public eye, Capone welcomed attention and posed for photos. His fearlessness was founded partly on a safety ensured by corrupt police, but also in the support he had from a thirsty portion of the general public who resented Prohibition, said Russick.

"Alcohol was such a fundamental part of the culture of America and of the immigrant communities,'' said Russick. "For Germans, going to a beer hall with your family and friends was a way of bringing solidarity to the community. [Prohibition] wasn't just an attack on alcohol but an attack on culture."

Capone, who inherited Torrio's mob in 1925, was eventually imprisoned on tax evasion charges in 1931.

It was an angle the feds had to take "largely because federal agents weren't certain a [Chicago] jury would convict him on bootlegging,'' said Russick. "Prosecution of the man would be pro-Prohibition."

Museum spokeswoman Lauren Dolan said a handful of museum experts worked with the film's researchers on "everything from the style of dress of the time to what the streets and street lights looked like -- including the storefronts.''

"They used many of our photographs that feature key people involved to make sure the actors looked like the real-life characters," she said.

Thanks to Andrew Herrman

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