When Al Capone kept the books Mobster tried to go straight in Highlandtown

February 11, 1996|By Laura Lippman

He coulda been an accountant.

Before the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, before the conviction for tax evasion, before Alcatraz -- before all these milestones in his life, Alphonse Capone (you can call him Al) did time as a legitimate bookkeeper. In Highlandtown.

We know, we know: Most people think Capone's crooked path followed a straight line from his native Brooklyn to his adopted town, Chicago. But this early Baltimore interlude of Public Enemy No. 1 came to light with the 1994 publication of "Capone: The Man and the Era" (Simon & Schuster).

The gangster's biographer, Laurence Bergreen, first heard about Capone's flirtation with respectability from Capone family members. The then 20-year-old man, recently married, was trying to break away from the rackets and his patron, Johnny Torrio.

Mr. Bergreen writes: "When Capone left home, he went first to Baltimore, where he worked not as a hit man, racketeer, bartender, or pimp, but as a bookkeeper for a legitimate construction firm run by Peter Aiello. Capone's position was purely clerical. Each morning, soberly attired in a suit and tie, Al went to the Aiello offices in the Highland Town [sic] section of Baltimore."

Although the whereabouts of the Capone household at this time are not known, it was a family of three: Capone, Mae and their young son, Albert Francis, known as Sonny. A grade school drop-out, Capone set out to find a job doing what he did best: arithmetic.

"He had learned some of the rudiments [of bookkeeping] from Johnny Torrio, because that's the way Johnny Torrio administered his vice and gambling rackets," Mr. Bergreen explained by telephone from New York. "He had a good head for figures.

"For him, this job was a way out. A way out of his environment and an attempt to be legitimate and respectable and to pull away from any racketeering," he said, adding: "I want to stress that Aiello Construction Co. was and is a completely legitimate company, with no ties to organized crime."

Peter Aiello has died, but his stories live on, through his son,

Mike, and grandchildren. Although Mike Aiello spoke to Mr. Bergreen about his father's most famous employee, the Aiello family passed on the opportunity to discuss the subject with The Sun.

But the book tells readers what they need to know. "Evidently he was a good employee, and evidently my father liked him," Mike Aiello says. Evidently indeed, for when Johnny Torrio asked Capone to come to Chicago in early 1921, Peter Aiello lent him $500.

"He said he was cut out to do bigger and better things, and he needed money to go to Chicago because he had some opportunities there," Mr. Aiello told Mr. Bergreen.

Capone never forgot the debt. A few years later, the up-and-coming crime boss threw his former legit boss a parade in Cicero. Whatever the event meant to Peter Aiello, it was a seminal day for Capone, according to the biography.

"More than any racket, it was a sign he had arrived," Mr. Bergreen writes. "Never again would his enjoyment of la mala vita be so innocent, carefree and childlike as it was on this day."

Not long after that happy day in Cicero, Johnny Torrio fled Chicago in fear for his life and Capone became king of the rackets. It was a bloody reign, best remembered for the seven slayings on Feb. 14, 1929.

Capone ruled until 1931, when he was convicted for income tax evasion. He served eight years of his 11-year sentence in a string of federal prisons, including Alcatraz.

Upon his release, Capone returned to Baltimore in 1939, taking up residence in Mount Washington while being treated for syphilis at Union Memorial Hospital. (He was to have been admitted to Johns Hopkins, according to some accounts, but the board of trustees objected. And he tried to find a place to live in Guilford, but had no luck.)

The local papers dutifully chronicled his movements for the next four months: "U.S. Guard Put Over Capone In Hospital Here." "Al Capone Moves To Residence Here." "Capone Reported As Resting Quietly." "Capone Quits Residence On Pimlico Road." (None of these quite match perhaps the most intriguing Capone headline of all time: "Capone Plays Banjo And Writes At Alcatraz.")

At the time, the most factual reporting about Capone may have been in H.L. Mencken's diary. According to Mr. Bergreen, Mencken got the story right, in part, because he was "an eminent hypochondriac [who] happened to be a good friend of the physician who treated Capone."

"An extremely docile patient," Mencken wrote. "His mental disturbance takes the form of delusions of grandeur. He believes that he is an owner of a factory in Florida, employing 25,000 men."

On March 1940, Capone left Baltimore and retired to his Florida home, where he died Jan. 25, 1947. A heart attack was reported as the official cause, although his health had been in a long decline. In his final days, there was a stroke, followed by pneumonia and a fever.

Upon his death, the Associated Press invoked the usual descriptions: "Scarface Al Public Enemy No. 1 underworld king, big-shot gambler, free spender."

Now add to that list, Highlandtown bookkeeper.

;-

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Sun.

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