Review: Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

I’ll first begin by stating I avidly read a lot of organized crime/mafia non-fiction.  While I would not consider myself an expert in the field, I have read enough to make some comparative assessments.

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster may be the best written Capone biography available.  Let me reiterate written.  The prose are crisp, descriptive and snappy.  Eig’s pacing is superlative and a lot of other historians (true-crime and otherwise) could learn thing or two from his style.  Too many other writers in this field tend to get clunky at times.  Eig creates a narrative that easily moves the reader along.  For this reason, I can see why the publisher Simon and Shuster was so excited about Get Capone.  The book was heavily promoted.  Author Jonathan Eig got to talk about his book all over television (including an episode the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which I happened to see).  It would be very easy for someone who has not read a lot about Capone or the Chicago mob to be enamored by this book.

Eig is a deconstuctor of history.  It has served him well with his book on Lou Gehrig, among others.  Eig is so intent on deconstructing history, he may be bordering on iconoclasm.  It is extremely important to reexamine historical events and not accept them as we collectively choose to remember or hope they occurred.  However, it is equally important not to overstate questionable evidence or ignore conclusive evidence that presents an alternative to the author’s agenda.

Eig spends a great deal of time explaining the income tax evasion case that eventually brought Al Capone to justice.  Eig’s utilizes hundreds of official documents to demonstrate how government agents built and prosecuted their case.  Eig presents how this process was a bit of witch hunt, whether or not the ends justified the means.

The big “bombshell” in the book was the proclamation that Al Capone and his mob were not behind the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  This was the angle that the author and publisher pushed to sell the book.   Eig claims he came across a hitherto unknown FBI letter that stated “Three Fingered” Jack White (rather than Capone’s gunmen) killed seven members of Bugs Moran’s Northside Mob on that fateful day in 1929.  This letter asserts the massacre was done in revenge for the Northside Mob’s murder of “Three Finger” White’s cousin (a fellow Chicago criminal named William Davern) some three months prior.  In fact, not only was this single FBI letter known to and seen by several historians, but it had also by seen by criminal prosecutors doing follow-ups investigations to the murders as early as 1935.  After careful examination, all had categorically dismissed the letter.  There is not any other evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to support the “Three Finger” White theory.  Further, Eig does not mention how ballistics tests (some of the first used in criminal prosecutions) had linked the Thompson sub-machine guns used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to one Fred “Killer” Burke, a  gunman who was employed by Al Capone during the late Twenties.   The machine guns were found in Burke’s possession upon his arrest in December of 1929.  How or why Eig fails to address this in any way, shape, or form is almost incomprehensible.¹

For readers whose only knowledge of famed prohibition agent Eliot Ness is episodes of The Untouchables, they will learn he was, in fact, a very fallible man (again, Eig’s fondness for deconstruction).  For those familiar with the topic, there is nothing new here.

I can only speculate as to the author’s motives for his presentation of his new historical narrative.  In a best-case scenario, Eig was so enthused with unveiling a construct contrary to a popularly-held notion within the collective national consciousness that he became tunnel-visioned in the critical portion of his investigation and research, thus not being in an evidentiary position to make a thorough analysis.   At worst, he intentionally omitted contrary evidence because it hurt his story.

As a documentation of history, Get Capone is best recommended to students to be read in conjunction with another book on this topic.  With this, the reader can see how writers can present (or ignore) evidence to form very different arguments and conclusions.

1. Doing more research for this review, I also learned that a later ballistic test revealed that a member of Capone’s Southside Mob, not Moran’s Northside Mob, was responsible for the death of “Three Finger” White’s cousin, negating White’s motive for the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of Northside Mob members.

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One response to “Review: Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

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