The Notorious Life of American Gangster Al Capone

Crime bosses, Italian gangsters, the mafia, the mob – whatever you want to call them – have intrigued people for hundreds of years. So many movies have been made about notorious gangsters and how they could outrun the police and maintain their lives of crime.

Newspaper clipping / Al Capone / Italian Mafia / Al Capone, Frankie Rio.
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One of the most recognizable Italian American gangsters is Al Capone, sometimes referred to by his nickname “Scarface.” He was the founder of the Chicago Outfit (an organized crime institution) and was infamously recognized during the Prohibition Era. Born to Italian Immigrants, Al Capone was illustrious for his crimes and a hero to the common man.

Who is Al Capone?

Capone was born in 1899 in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants Gabrielle and Teresa Capone. He had eight brothers and sisters who partially also joined the mob scene. His life as a gangster started in his teen years as he entered the Five Points Gang. He also found work as a bouncer in organized crime establishments such as brothels.

A portrait of Al Capone.
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His brothers Frank and Ralph worked with Al in his mafia empire. Frank ran the legal and illegal bottling companies and was also the face of the Chicago Outfit for a period of time. He did so until he was sent to jail in 1932 for tax fraud.

Starting His Life of Crime Early

Capone attended a parochial Catholic school. He was known to be a good student but struggled with the strict rules. After hitting a female teacher in the face, he was expelled at the age of 14. He worked various jobs, such as a bowling alley and a candy store.

An image of Al Capone’s vehicle.
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He also played semi-professional baseball for a while until he was acquainted with Johnny Torrio, a gangster who would eventually become his mentor. He married Mae Josephine Coughlin, who was of Irish Catholic descent. They had a son named “Sonny” and were known to have a happy marriage.

Roots in New York

In the early part of his criminal career, Capone joined several gangs, such as the Junior Forty Thieves and the Bowery Boys. Later he became a part of the Brooklyn Rippers and then moved to join the forceful Five Points.

A photo of Al Capone, John Capone, and Mrs. Ralph Capone during a baseball game.
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

His first fellow influential mobster was Frankie Yale, who hired Capone as a bartender at a Saloon at the Harvard Inn and Coney Island dance hall. One story involved Capone insulting a woman whose brother was a known felon named Frank Galluccio. Her brother slashed Capone’s face three times with a pocket knife, earning him the nickname “Scarface.”

A Face Filled with Pride

Capone hid the side of the face from the scars when his picture was taken. He referred to the scars as the aftermath of battling in France during the First World War, even though he didn’t fight. His closest group of friends called him “Snorky” (his preferred nickname (for his excellent taste in clothing.

A portrait of Al Capone.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Yale, his first mentor, intervened between their beef calmed their rivalry. They apparently reached good terms as Capone hired Gallacuio as his bodyguard when he joined the Chicago mob. He also paid him an unheard-of salary for that period of $100 a week.

Moving out West

Capone and his family eventually moved to Chicago in 1919, where he bought his first home in Chicago’s south side for $5,500 several years after he moved. Several rumors endured about why he left, but the most notable was that he was invited by Johnny Torrio, who considered Capone his Protege. He wanted him to work as his underboss.

A photo of Al Capone with his family and close friends.
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His first job was as a brothel bouncer, where he supposedly caught syphilis that was never treated. James “Big Jim” got him his first job under Colosimo’s criminal empire.

Power Arrangements

The Chicago Daily Tribune recalled that Joe Howard was killed after getting in the way of the Capone-Torrio business based on beer bootlegging. After “Big Jim,” who ran the empire, was murdered, Torrio took over. It was said that Capone was involved in the murder.

A photo of Al Capone.
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Torrio ran the most prominent Italian institution in the south side of Chicago with Capone as his go-to guy. To maintain the “peace” among rival gang groups, he would negotiate territory disputes. The smaller gang led by Dean O’Banion ran into some trouble with the Genn brothers, who were loyal to Torrio.

Climbing up the Ranks

Despite his ability to “settle” disputes, Torrio ran into trouble with O’Banion. As a result, Torrio orders the murder of O’Banion at a flower shop. After the change of power, the gang was adamant about getting revenge and tried to murder Torrio. He survived the shooting but was left wounded.

A picture of Torrio walking with his face covered.
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He was then sent to jail, and as a result, Al Capone took over the organization and became its leader. As the new boss, he took over the transportation networks and illegal breweries. Political and law-enforcement protection of the businesses allowed the work to continue.

A Force to be Reckoned With

During the 1920s, Capone wasn’t a gangster to mess with. Businesses that refused to buy alcohol would face the consequences of bombings. One hundred people were killed in a bombing he ordered during this era.

A picture of Al Capone’s house in Miami.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The reestablishment of brothels was also credited to Capone in Chicago. He befriended members of the local black community who would also join his operations. Such examples included the uncles of Jazz musicians who he employed on the South Side of Chicago. A jazz pianist named Earl Hines was accompanied by two of Capone’s bodyguards on a trip.

A Life of Luxury

Capone spent his royalties without hesitation. He bought suits, gourmet foods, cigars, and the companionship of females. He was credited with having expensive and glamorous jewelry. When asked to give his opinion about his questionable activities, he would respond, “I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want.”

A photo of Al Capone’s car.
Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

All his fame led him to become a person that people spoke about – a known celebrity. Capone moved to the suburbs of Cicero, Illinois, after taking over the town’s elections and solidifying his power, and denouncing the threat of the North Siders.

Using His Intimidation

Various institutions became highly familiar with his use of force and even used it as a marketing tactic. Examples include Vine-Glo, who created a grape concentrate that was sold during prohibition. As Capone’s reputation rose, security became a hot issue during his travels.

A portrait of two members of Al Capone’s gang.
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He was always trying to steer away from Chicago, the center of all the crime. Cautiously, he would often buy an entire Pullman sleeper car for himself and his entourage on trains to various cities such as Cleveland, Omaha, and Kansas City, and Hot Springs.

There were Power Struggles

A Sicilian-American well society called the Union Siciliana named Antonio Lombardo hed on November of 1925. The organization was overrun by the gangsters, causing Joe Aiello (another organized crime member and bootlegger) to become enraged as he thought Capone was responsible for Lombardo’s promotion.

A reenactment of Al Capone’s gang threatening an enemy gang.
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Not to mention, he hated that a non-Sicilian was trying to intervene in the Union. This led to a feud between Aiello and the Capone/Lombardo ties. Infuriated by the situation, Aiello befriended the enemies of Capone and attempted to murder him and Lambardo several times.

Poisoning His Soup

One instance of Aiello’s attempts to kill the duo was when he bribed the owner of the Bella Napoli Café (one of Capone’s favorite restaurants) to put prussic acid in their soups. He didn’t take him up on this and instead told Capone what he was planning.

An exterior shot of the Bella Napoli Café.
Photo by Arthur Fellig/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

The led to war as Capone ordered men to destroy one of Aiello’s stores. The machine-gun attack on his business, Brothers Bakery, wounded Antion, Aiello’s brother. He also assigned killers to take out Capone, who themselves were killed in the act.

A $50,000 Reward

Aiello wanted Capone gone and was willing to award a $50,000 prize for anyone who could get the job done. Many tried but ended up losing their own lives in the process. Even an ally of Capone wanted to murder him for the cash reward.

A photo of Al Capone winking his eye.
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An intelligence network led by Capon’s accomplice, Frank Nitti, found out what he had planned and organized for Sheldon, who had taken his chance at the money to be shot in the front of a West Side Hotel even though they failed in killing him.

A Plan for the Press

Aiello continued his chase after Capone and Lombardo as he organized several machine-gun attacks at a cigar store that Capone liked to visit and Lombardo’s home. He failed in the process as someone anonymously tipped off the police, who arrested the men.

An image of Aiello’s bullet-riddled coat.
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Aiello was arrested after someone confessed to the police of Aiello’s murder plans. Capone found out and sent out about twelve dozen shooters to wait outside the station. They didn’t try to hide their plans, and so the press awaited to see Aiello’s planned murder.

A Case of Political Corruption

To get his business to run smoothly and efficiently, Capone needed the support of the politicians in power. Capone was remembered for widely assisting Republican William Hale Thompson to win the 1927 mayoral race in return for the reestablishments of illegal saloons. It was support characterized by a larger level of violence.

A portrait of Al Capone.
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Once his proclamation was made public, Capone donated $250,000 to his campaign. He accepted the bribe and barely won the election. His political manipulations took on machine-like qualities, often receiving continued support from the Italian Mob community.

Getting Away with Murder

O’Banion’s killing didn’t go away quietly. It actually led to the Chicago gang war that lasted five years. It was assumed that Capone was responsible for the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 even though he was staying in Florida when it occurred.

A picture of Bugs Moran.
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The goal of the massacre was to get rid of Bugs Moran, who was leading the North Side Gang after O’Banion’s murder. It was apparently fostered by someone hijacking expensive illegal whiskey on its way from Canada through the Detriot River.

Catering to the People’s Needs

Capone probably figured that cleaning up his image would him a great deal of good with the public. His empire thrived during the depression following the 1929 stock market crash. To help the people struggling during the challenging economic era, Capone opened up a soup kitchen that offered “Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.”

Unemployed men are standing outside the store.
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Over 2000 people a day arrived at the soup kitchen. His sentimental act was to get the people in his favor after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, even though the kitchen was closed not long after its opening.

A Movie Based on His Life

A plot by three men inclined by Aiello was set out to dispose of Capone so that he could become the new head of the Chicago Outfit. Once discovering the plot, Capone beat the three men with a baseball bat before having his bodyguards execute them.

Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures

The interaction became famous when it was featured in the film The Untouchables (1987). There were mixed reactions regarding the event as it seemed strange that three men would allow Capone to carry out his beatings. However, it was concluded that if not Capone, then one of his men would have done it.

The Feud Couldn’t Last Forever

It seemed Capone was fed up with Aiello’s constant attempts to have him killed, and in 1930, he finally put an end to it. Aiello hid out in the Union Siciliana’s treasurer’s apartment as Capone’s people were hunting him.

A photo of Al Capone exiting a revolving door.
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Once Aiello left the apartment to get into a taxi, a shooter from the second floor of a nearby window started shooting at him. It was recalled that he was shot 13 times before eventually getting hit by another gunman on the third floor of an apartment nearby.

Too Much for the Local Police

Following the Sanie Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Chicago Daily News’ publisher decided to take matters into his own hands and contacted President Herbert Hoover to manage the explosive crimes. Shortly after Hoover’s inauguration, he scheduled a secret meeting at the White House.

An exterior shot of The White House.
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Several men, including a representative from the Chicago Crime Commission, presented their findings to the president. The local police were totally under the mob’s control in Chicago. Upon hearing their statements, Hoover ordered all federal agencies to focus on Mr. Capone and his followers. A multi-agency chase was launched to get Capone.

Gathering Information

Plans were set out to catch gangsters guilty of tax fraud. A mall squad of Prohibition Bureau agents went on the hunt for bootleggers. The City of Chicago had been heavily corrupted, but these lawmen were very adamant about hunting the perpetrators down.

A newspaper clipping on Al Capone’s arrest.
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Unlike Chicago’s local authorities, they were nicknamed “The Untouchables” as it was impossible to corrupt them. Walter A. Strong, who had organized the initial meeting with the President, utilized his resources from the newspaper to gather necessary intelligence and information on Capone and his empire.

The First of His Kind

On March 27th, 1929, Capone was arrested by federal agents after he testified that he was reviewing any violations of federal prohibition laws. He also avoided a court appearance after faking an illness. He was arrested once more and after pleading guilty for hiding weapons at a Pennsylvania court. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

Mugshots of Al Capone and his lieutenant, Frankie Rio.
Al Capone, Frankie Rio. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Following his release, Capone was named Public Enemy Number 1 on the Chicago Commission List. The purpose was to constantly monitor some of the most notorious criminals and gangsters by citizens and law enforcement.

Avoiding Taxes

It is no secret that mobsters and Gangsters lived costly lifestyles without actually filing for tax returns. The Assistant Attorney General noticed that she could convict them for this action without needing concrete evidence for other crimes they had committed.

An image of members of the mafia exiting a federal building.
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She checked to see if this was a successful tactic on Manley Sullivan, a South Carolina bootlegger. The trial was named the United States V. Sullivan and was accepted by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In his judgment, the 5th amendment was not plausible in protecting criminals from not reporting illegal income.

Focusing on the Money

It was clear now that investigators would go after Capone’s revenues in the hunt to bring him down. The best evidence that proved Capone was guilty was that he was willing to pay taxes on income he had evaded.

A photo of Al Capone in court.
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He spoke with his lawyer and negotiated a settlement. In a grand jury, he was charged for income tax evasion for the year 1924. After his $50,000 bail, he was released only to be once again indicted for 5,000 violations of Prohibition laws known as the Volstead Act.

Debt Owed Based on Fraud

In October of 1932, Capone was finally made responsible for five instances of income tax evasion. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail, received a $50,000 fine, $7,692 for court costs, $215,000 in interest—a heaping amount of money during that era.

A member of the Al Capone gang before a Senate Committee.
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Capone was granted new lawyers who claimed that tax evasion was not fraud-based, which hinted to charges being outside the prosecution time limit. The appeal was denied because a judge took away Capone’s years from the money fraud in Miami.

His Prison Sentence

At the age of 33, Capone was sent to jail. He was sent to the Atlanta U.S Penitentiary, where he suffered from cocaine addiction and was diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. Regardless of being decent at his job of sowing soles to the bottom of shoes in prison, he wasn’t viewed as the big, don’t-mess-with-him character he was in the streets.

A photo of Al Capone’s jail cell.
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Red Rudensky, a fellow inmate who had previous criminal-related interactions with Capone, started looking out for him. His protection labeled him as receiving “special treatment” by other prisoners.

Playing in the Band

It was believed that because of his “special treatment,” Capone was moved to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which had recently opened in San Francisco. There, however, he was stabbed by a fellow inmate. Shockingly, Capone displayed good behavior in prison, so he was allowed to join the prison’s band.

Al Capone poses for a mugshot in Alcatraz.
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He played banjo in the band known as the Rock Islanders, who would give weekly Sunday performances. He also rewrote the song “Madonna Mia,” making altercations to dedicate the song to his wife.

An Illness Leads to Parole

His health declined at a quick rate, considering he was sick with neurosyphilis. The disease impaired his mental capabilities, leading him to serve the prison’s hospital’s section. At this point, he was flustered and confused due to his condition.

A portrait of Mrs. Capone.
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Following his time at Alcatraz prison, Capone was moved to the Federal Correction Institution at Terminal Island, located in California. His mental health was highly impaired, allowing his wife Mae to appeal to the court. He received parole on November 16, 1939.

What Happened While He Was Away?

Being gone for a while had its consequences in the mafia hierarchy. At this point, Capone was no longer the head of the Chicago Outfit, which also led to the disruption of the organized crime institutions. It wasn’t over, though, and Chicago was still functioning with Frank Nitti as its new boss.

An image of Al Capone’s prison cell.
Photo by Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

The crime organization was undoubtedly keeping a low profile without open displays of violence and Chicago police intervention. When Prohibition ended, organized crime had taken a toll in addition to the consequences Capone faced.

How Did Al Capone Die?

Once released from prison for his health, Capone was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital to undergo treatment for Paresis as a result of initially being sick with Syphilis. Hopkins refused to treat him due to his misconduct, but he was admitted to Union Memorial Hospital.

A portrait of Al Capone sitting at home.
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At this point, his brain condition couldn’t be recovered. He was one of the first Americans to be treated with Penicillin, which slowed down the harm of the disease. Nevertheless, it wasn’t going to save him as the damage was too big.

Where Did Al Capone Die?

At this point, psychiatrists examined Capone concluding his brain was that of a 12-year-old. There he suffered a stroke, was able to recover, and then fell ill once again with Bronchopneumonia. Capone underwent cardiac failure in late January of 1947 and died as his family surrounded him in his death bed.

An interior shot of Al Capone’s house.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The last period of his life was spent at his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, with his wife and grandchildren. A funeral was held for him after his body was moved back to Chicago a week after he died.

Not Part of the Family Business

Although many of his family members took part in the Mafia crimes, his older brother James Vincenzo Capone took a different direction. He left New York when he was a teenager and took on the name of Richard James Hart.

A portrait of Al Capone’s brother.
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He idolized William S. Hart, a prominent Western film actor, and so named himself after him. He moved to Nebraska and became a federal Prohibition agent. He didn’t want to reveal his Italian descent and invested effort to rid himself of his Brooklyn accent and demeanor.

A Fashion Trend Setter

Al Capone’seputation preceded him in various cultural spaces such as fashion and music. His sense of style resembled that of an elegant gentleman. He cared a lot about the way he looked and was perceived.

A portrait of Al Capone.
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For example, he would request his picture be taken from his right side to avoid the scars on the left side of his face. He wore extravagant pin-striped suits imported from Italy, wore a fedora hat, and smoked cigars. He also wore diamond belt buckles and massive diamond rings on his pinkies.

Expensive Taste

His suits were usually mixed with several delicate fabrics such as silk and could cost up to $6500 in today’s currency. His suits varied in color, with tan, beige, charcoal, navy, purple, and lime. Essentially, the bombastic look made up for the poverty he experienced as a child.

A picture of Al Capone leaving court.
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Capone wore his buttoned-down white shirts with cufflinks. His ties usually displayed dots, patterns, stripes, and more made of silk, of course. Let’s not forget the overcoats, which were double-breasted for the most part.

Menswear in TV Shows

Al Capone’s style and mannerisms certainly inspired successful TV shows surrounding gangsters and the mafia. Babylon Berlin, for example, takes place during the roaring ’20s. The style on the show highlighted the extravagant nightlife of the time, exhibiting three-piece suits with solid colors and patterns.

Stephen Graham as Al Capone.
Source: Copyright: HBO

Another hit show portraying Al Capone is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Stephan Graham portrayed Al Capone in the hit TV show. The show’s focus was to make him out to be funny and portray him with his family.

Inspiration for Movies

Silent films were less relevant at this time, and with the Great Depression, the film industry was keen on making films based on the mobsters who created empires from small hard-working immigrant families.

A portrait of Al Capone.
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The first movie made about the mafia was called Little Caesar, where the mobster dies without paying for the crimes he committed. The movie was a huge success, and 50 more similar films came out as a result. The most violent, Scarface, is highly influenced by the life and crimes of Al Capone.

Did Elliot Ness Take Down Capone?

Many believed that because he was responsible for taking him down because Elliot Ness took over when Capone went to prison. His job as a federal agent was to go with a team to break in and take down illegal breweries and bootlegging operations.

A picture of Al Capone.
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Ness indeed assisted in focusing on Capone’s crimes during the Prohibition era, but the main reason Capone was taken down was tax evasion. Ness moved on to take the role as director of public safety in Cleveland.

The First Prisoners of Alcatraz

When Capone was transferred to Alcatraz, he was among the first group of prisoners who were sent to the maximum-security prison. Its purpose was to hold criminals with significant disciplinary problems and were violent in nature.

An image of a barge arriving at Alcatraz.
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Capone, however, wasn’t a problematic inmate. Instead, it seems he was sent to Alcatraz as a publicity stunt for the new high-security prison. He was sent to jail for his crimes, but his fame was taken advantage of by his publicity.

He Avoided the Public

His life of bootlegging and illegal business transactions led to Capone’s fame and stardom. However, after being released from prison, he avoided the public as he was treated for his disease at the Baltimore hospital.

Al Capone walks the street.
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He spent most of his time at his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, playing cards and fishing. He was also undergoing treatment, which weakened his physical capabilities. Although he received the new and upcoming penicillin, at this point, nothing could cure him of his condition.

Playing Scarface

Although Paul Muni didn’t play Al Capone in Scarface, he took on his notorious nickname. The movie exhibited one of the most graphic displays of the life of a mafia gangster. It went on to become one of the best gangster movies ever created.

Paul Muni in Scarface.
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An administration in charge of promoting a moral code in films demanded movies like Scarface not glamorize such a crime life. However, the moviemakers didn’t pay too much attention to these codes of conduct and focused on making the movies as realistic as possible.

Al Capone – The Movie

A movie about the gangster’s life came out in 1959. It starred Rod Steiger as Al Capone. The film highlights some of the significant moments in Capone’s life, including his introduction to Johnny Torrio and his Chicago crime environment to a scene of him in Alcatraz getting beaten up by another prisoner who doesn’t know that he was head of the Outfit.

A still of Rod Steiger in Al Capone.
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The movie also portrays the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and his lack of adherence to the tax laws, which is why he gets thrown in jail.

Where is the Mafia Today?

The Mob or the Mafia has a long history of families and Italian-rooted culture. Although the criminal scaling is much lower, Mafia families have the most activity in Northeastern United States. The largest venturing in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Buffalo, and New England, such as Boston.

A picture of two members of the Al Capone gang.
Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Most of the mafia families are no longer in existence. However, some descendants still participate in criminal activity in various cities. Other smaller displays of the modern mafia are found in Kansas City, Detriot, Pittsburgh, and more.

Current Mafia in Italy

A famous modern Italian mafia family is the Pagliarelli family in Palermo, Sicily. Investigators have released information highlighting how some entrepreneurs utilize the mafia’s services to assert unpaid debts, get back stolen goods, and oversee the economic competition.

A view of a wrecked street after a mafia bombing.
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There was an example of a shop owner who used the services of the mafia family to find thieves who had stolen from him. It took about a week for them to find the thieves torture them and force them to return the goods they stole.