Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Young Al Capone" by William and John Balsamo

Al Capone, long portrayed as the King of Chicago, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. It was there that he made his beginning in the local crime syndicates. At the time, there were two "mobs", one Irish, known as the White Hand; and a second, up and coming "mob" of Italians, known as the "Black Hand." These two groups would battle for control of the 60 odd piers in the Borough of Brooklyn in the days before Prohibition came in. When the Volstead Act came, the piers would become less of an attraction than booze.

The authors, William and John Balsamo, have a wealth of information on the subject of both Al Capone, as well as the beginnings of Organized Crime in Brooklyn. Their father's brother was Batista Balsamo. He was born in Sicily in 1868, and although he is pictured here as a "low key gangster extraordinaire",(those are the author's words) he is considered by some to have been the first "Godfather" of Brooklyn.

Salvatore and Domenico Balsamo, Batista's sons, were the author's Grand Uncle and Father, respectively. So, these guys have some pretty good stories to relate.

August 1917 was a month so hot, that I still remember my Uncle Irving telling me about sleeping in Coney Island and sometimes on Brighton Beach. The trip was 5 cents, and the relief was priceless. 278 people and 272 horses perished that month. In my old neighborhood, people slept along Ocean Parkway, some on the benches, others on the ground. In this muggy and steamy month, and year, Al Capone would receive both the nickname, and the scars behind the ubiquitous moniker "Scarface."

It happened at the Harvard Inn on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. Al Capone walked into the club, which was owned by his boss, Frank Torrio, and noticed a group sitting near the rear doors. This caused extra work for the waitress, as well as arouse the suspicions of Capone. The only reason he could think of for their being seated so close to the entrance was that they either expected, or would be responsible for, some sort of violence. It didn't take long to happen.

Capone, always on the look out for a woman, lost no time in offending the sister of one Frank Gallucio, who jumped on Capone, trying to cut his throat. Instead, he created a legend. Scarface.

The incident caused a "sit down" to be held between the two men. "Lucky" Luciano and Frankie Yale, the first of the two "modern" mobsters, and the bosses of both parties involved, mitigated the dispute. Luciano "lent" $1,500 to Gallucio for him to pay "damages" to Capone. It was also a way of putting Gallucio in his "pocket", as the man now owed him a large sum of money. This was fortunate for Gallucio, as it guaranteed that the "bosses" would find him a lucrative position so that he could pay them back.

The author's take the reader on a very deliberate, step by step journey in the career of one of the most notorious gangsters ever known. With his bulging eye and withering stare, he was quite formidable. At least until the IRS got a hold of him.

The book follows Capone's rise from the streets of Brooklyn, to his "exile", and new home in Chicago. In Brooklyn, before Prohibition, there were three primary ways of making money in the "mob." They were gambling, loan sharking in support of the gambling, and prostitution. Al Capone was involved in each of these vices as he climbed the ladder, rung by rung, to his eventual success.

The authors follow Capone as he makes the transition from Brooklyn to Chicago. A situation occurred in which it was best than Capone leave Brooklyn for awhile, and he needed to go far. So, he "removed" himself to Chicago. And once there, the rest is, as they say, history. But this book, which chronicles Capone's early years, his roots and beginnings in Brooklyn, is a story often overlooked. You will be amazed at the mentality that drove the hoodlum of the early 20th century, and then be doubly amazed when you realize that this same mentality drives the gang wars of today!

In the words of Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." This book is proof of that assertion.

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