Al Capone’s Altruism and Spoiled Milk

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Was infamous mobster Al Capone the reason we have expiration dates on containers of milk? This is a story that’s been told for decades and in this episode, we talk about Al Capone, the reason for the story existing and try to get to the bottom of this piece of Gangland lore. Then we chat with Comedian Jay Black!

stealing someones thunder

Sometimes horrible people do good things. 

Saddam Hussein gave free education and free healthcare to the citizens of Iraq.

Hitler passed a bunch of animal advocacy laws. 

Ted Bundy worked at a suicide hotline. 

These men are still monsters. They’re just awful people who did some good things. And by pointing out a story about something good they did doesn’t mean I’m trying to revitalize their image or excuse their vile acts. Sometimes it’s just interesting to see this strange juxtaposition. And that’s what today’s story is about.

There are a lot of facts about Al Capone that can’t be 100% proven. One of the earliest ones has to do with how he got his infamous nickname: Scarface. Capone hated the name because he hated the scar. Almost all the photos you’ll ever see of him have him turning his head to hide the scars on the left side. He had three large scars across his cheek and above his neck and thus became known as Scarface. His close friends called him “Snorky,” which apparently was some sort of reference to him dressing well. But to this day, no one knows for sure how he got those scars. We know that his early years were spent working in New York City for a bunch of different gangs like the Five Points Gang, the Bowery Boys, The Brooklyn Rippers and the Junior Forty Thieves. The most popular theory of how he got the scars places the story somewhere around 1918 and involves fellow gangster Frank Gallucio. That story involved Capone insulting either Gallucio’s sister or girlfriend. But this story was never told until decades later once Capone was in prison. Capone would tell people he earned the scars while fighting in the military in France during the war. No one has ever uncovered any evidence that Capone was in the military, so that one is decidedly false. There’s a Brooklyn Times article that may have the true story. That he received the scar in December of 1917 by two random criminals on the street. I tell this story to stress that many things about this guy we just can’t pin down. Capone is a legendary figure, so the stories about him get spread far and wide, regardless of their truth. There have been more than a dozen major films about the life of Capone and hundreds of books, so over the course of a century, the line between fact and fiction has become blurred. Even contemporaneous accounts from the early 1900s tend to contradict one another.

There are some things we know for sure. Capone left New York for Chicago in 1919 and started his career there as a bouncer for a brothel run by the Chicago mob. A lot of his legendary status as a ruthless mob boss begins in Chicago. Capone basically ran the underground crime world in Chicago through the 1920s and early 30s. Prostitution, Gambling, bootlegging, bribery, drug trafficking, robberies, protection rackets and murder were all attributed to Scarface. He had been invited to Chicago by mob boss Johnny Torrio. But after Torrio was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in 1925, Capone became the boss. Once Capone was in charge, all of the rival gangs were completely eliminated. He is thought to have orchestrated the famous 1929 “St. Valentines Day Massacre” in which 7 members of a rival gang were all assassinated by mobsters posing as police. 

I could go on to list the many many crimes that have been attributed to Capone, but this podcast isn’t about Al Capone the crime boss. It’s about Al Capone the altruistic upstanding member of society. Or at least his attempt at being that. 

The economic outlook for everyday Chicagoans in 1930 was bleak. Something like 40% of the workforce in Chicago found themselves unemployed after the crash of 1929. So for Thanksgiving in 1930, one Chicago soup kitchen had a line of 5,000 hungry out of work Chicagoans. And the proprietor of that soup kitchen was none other than the infamous Alphonse Capone. 

By that point in his career, he had already become known as the most ruthless gangster alive. He had left a wake of death and destruction behind him as he took revenge on anyone who got in the way of his many illegitimate business interests. But for poor Chicagoans, some saw him as a man of the people. During prohibition, when they couldn’t get alcohol – he was the man credited with bootlegging the liquor for them. He was the one bribing local law enforcement to look the other way. A man of the people! After all – it wasn’t those innocent people who were being gunned down by Capone – his only beef was with mafia competitors and people who got in the way of his business. 

But as ruthless as the man was, he also had started to pay for his crimes. The 1925 attack on Torrio had also injured Capone and shaken him up. He had seen friends and colleagues gunned down in the line of work like fellow mobster Hymie Weiss and even Capone’s personal driver who had been kidnapped, tortured and killed. Capone himself often traveled away from the city to stay safe. He was always careful to keep distance between himself and the crimes that were ordered on his behalf such as the gruesome St. Valentines Day Massacre.

Capone apparently had told people close to him that he wanted to “go straight” and get out of the crime game. He had enough pull within the city to get things done and thought that the people would support him. He thought of himself like a sort of Robin Hood figure. In addition to helping support local widows and orphans, he ran projects like the soup kitchen.

There was also the fact that prohibition had ended and he needed more revenue streams to replace the $100 million dollar bootlegging business. 

And one of his legitimate businesses was a milk bottling plant. He found that the markup on milk was even greater than the alcohol he’d been peddling. And this is where the story may get closer to legend. 

There’s a quote that I found in multiple places – none of them with any sort of attribution. It’s supposedly Al Capone talking to his brother. 

“I’ve got to get out, Ralph. I’ve got enough money. I don’t need this insanity. Weiss, Moran, and [the members of the other gangs] are idiots. You can’t do business with crazy people. I’ve been shot at, almost poisoned with prussic acid, and there is an offer of $50,000 to any gunman who can kill me. They don’t understand that there’s enough for all of us. [. . .] They’re [mad] because I run a better business. I make more money than they do. [. . .] I run my outfit like a business. It is a business.”

-citation unknown

Because this podcast is about actual true facts, it’s important that I preface this next part with a warning that it’s never actually been verified. But the story has lasted and it makes sense when you consider the place and time, and the businesses that Capone was in. 

The story goes like this: sometime in the late 1920s, one of Capone’s relatives became seriously ill after drinking expired milk. And as Capone was in this phase of his life where he was interested in rehabilitating his image from gangster to philanthropist, he lobbied Chicago City Council to start requiring a stamp on milk bottles that would list the expiration date. Of course refrigerators weren’t available to the public yet and the shelf life of milk was short. So while he was lobbying Chicago politicians to enact this law, he was busy buying up all the equipment that would be necessary to stamp glass milk bottles. 

So the story continues that his plan ran into a snag because the milkmen were unionized and therefore only teamsters could deliver milk – not Capone’s men. He tried to work out a deal with the Teamsters and it failed, so he had the Milk Teamsters President kidnapped and held for $50,000 ransom. The ransom was paid and that gave Capone enough money to buy Meadowmoore Dairy, a huge milk processing business. 

As this was all happening, something else was happening in Chicago. The Feds were busy working on a tax evasion case against the mobster. And in 1931, Capone was charged with tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. So we never really got to see Al Capone, the milk magnate. He went to prison from 1932-1939 and was released to do his failing health. He had developed Syphillis – likely from his time working as a bouncer at the brothel and was in very poor health. He ended up dying in 1947 at the age of 48. 

Again – the milk stamping legend could be just that. But nevertheless, the story has been told so long and so often that it’s often referred to as fact. The fact being that Al Capone – the most notorious gangster in history – is the reason that to this day – we have expirations on containers of milk. It may not be – but at least The Internet Says it’s True. 

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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