“Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster”
By Jonathan EigSimon and Schuster, 480 pages, $28
Finding a new way to tell a familiar story is a formidable challenge, but one that Chicago author Jonathan Eig has turned into a career of best-selling books. In his first book, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,” Eig broke new ground by focussing on the baseball legend's heartbreaking battle against ALS. With “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season,” Eig took on another icon by looking at every game of his rookie year.
With his latest effort, “Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster,” Eig has done it again. The book is a fascinating, fast-paced hybrid: a biography and an intensely reported look at the cat-and-mouse chase between Capone and the federal investigators trying to bust him. “I didn't want to write a straight biography,” Eig says over lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant near his home in Lakeview. “I was looking for a new angle.”
In taking on one of the world's best-known gangsters, Eig knew he was up against the work of authors, historians, journalists and, of course, Hollywood directors. He spent hours studying their stories. “I don't want to trash anyone else's work, but a lot of the stuff that was out there was prone to exaggeration,” Eig says. Even the allegedly historical accounts were tainted by, as he puts it, “the stereotype” of Capone, demon of the criminal underworld. “I felt like a big part of my job could be stripping away the parts that weren't true. So you weren't getting any more myth.”
Eig wondered if there was a Capone that many readers hadn't met yet. It was just a hunch, of course, but Eig was a reporter long before he wrote his first book. While working at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dallas Morning News, Chicago magazine and The Wall Street Journal, he'd seen plenty of hunches and brainstorms turn into big stories. His instincts kicked in. “The book really started out like it would for any typical reporter,” he said. “I had a vague idea and I started checking things out. Reading old stories, making calls, interviewing.”
Eig's first break came in the summer of 2007, when he came across a 1985 Chicago Tribune story about George E.Q. Johnson, the little-known federal prosecutor who led the government investigation that eventually sent Capone to prison. The article said Johnson's family had given his personal library to a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Days later, Eig tracked down the professor, Dennis Hoffman, in Omaha, and got a peek at the archive. Stuffed inside dozens of cardboard boxes were Johnson's personal letters, handwritten memos by Department of Justice and Bureau of Investigations officials, documents signed by J. Edgar Hoover and transcripts of wire taps. It was a behind-the-scenes look at the government's case and new way to learn about Capone's criminal life. The professor was willing to sell the collection. Shortly thereafter, Eig was packing the archive into a rented station wagon and heading back to Chicago.
That fall, he interviewed the handful of relatives who knew Johnson and Capone and combed through newspaper accounts and other documents. At the Newberry Library in Chicago, Eig found the notes of a reporter who worked with Capone on the gangster's short-lived autobiography and in an archive he found Capone's recently released prison letters from Alcatraz.
But then came the oddest thing: Good news from the IRS. In 2008, Eig got a letter informing him that his request to see its Capone records, which he had filed one year earlier under the Freedom of Information Act, had been granted. The records were long considered a Rosetta Stone for understanding Capone and his criminal network. “I was stunned,” Eig says.
And lucky. For years, the IRS had successfully denied countless requests for its Capone file, citing privacy concerns that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. “As it turned out, they had a new lawyer at the IRS and they had released some Civil War tax records,” Eig explains. “The argument was that they were of historical importance, and privacy wasn't an issue because no immediate family members were alive. Once they released those Civil War records, the lawyer in charge felt like the Capone case fell into the same category so they just turned them over to me.”
Once again, Eig found himself surrounded by dozens of boxes filled with government records, notes and evidence, everything from brothel expense sheets to a letter offering a new theory on who was responsible for the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre. While the Johnson archive was confined mostly to the Capone investigation, the IRS file gave Eig new insight into Capone and his family life which as and was much more interesting and complex than he had anticipated.
On a more personal level, the book was also an effort to show that he was more than a baseball writer. “I didn't want to be pigeonholed after those first two books,” Eig says. After lunch, walking through Lakeview, Eig instinctively points out a few gangster landmarks, such as the sporting goods store where thugs once bought tommy guns, and a few apartment buildings where Capone and his gang kept second homes. Across the street from a high-ranking hoodlum's old penthouse, Eig also mentions that he's finished a small side project: an iPhone application for a guided tour of gangster-era Chicago. Once again, the author has found a way to make an old story new.
Noah Isackson is a contributing editor at Chicago magazine.