Chicago shivered through a particularly bleak November in 1930. As the U.S. economy plummeted into the Great Depression, thousands of the Windy City’s jobless huddled three times a day in a long line snaking away from a newly opened soup kitchen. With cold hands stuffed into overcoat pockets as empty as their stomachs, the needy shuffled toward the big banner that declared “Free Soup Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.”
The kind-hearted philanthropist who had come to their aid was none other than “Public Enemy Number One,” Al Capone.
Capone certainly made for an unlikely humanitarian. Chicago’s most notorious gangster had built his multi-million-dollar bootlegging, prostitution and gambling operation upon a foundation of extortion, bribes and murders that culminated with the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which he ordered the assassination of seven rivals.
Many Chicagoans, however, had more pressing concerns than organized crime in the year following the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Long lines on American sidewalks had become all-too familiar sights as jittery investors made runs on banks and the unemployed waited for free meals.
In early November 1930, more than 75,000 jobless Chicagoans lined up to register their names. Nearly a third required immediate relief. “The Madison Street hobo type was conspicuously absent from these lines of men,” reported the Chicago Tribune, which noted that many of the unemployed were well-dressed.
A week later the Chicago Tribune reported the surprising news that the mysterious benefactor who had recently rented out a storefront and opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street was none other than the city’s king of booze, beer and vice. Capone’s soup kitchen served breakfast, lunch and dinner to an average of 2,200 Chicagoans every day.
“He couldn’t stand it to see those poor devils starving, and nobody else seemed to be doing much, so the big boy decided to do it himself,” a Capone associate told a Chicago newspaper. Inside the soup kitchen, smiling women in white aprons served up coffee and sweet rolls for breakfast, soup and bread for lunch and soup, coffee and bread for dinner. No second helpings were denied. No questions were asked, and no one was asked to prove their need.
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On Thanksgiving in 1930, Capone’s soup kitchen served holiday helpings to 5,000 Chicagoans. Reportedly, Capone had planned a traditional Thanksgiving meal for the jobless until he had heard of a local heist of 1,000 turkeys. Although “Scarface” had not been responsible for the theft, he feared he would be blamed for the caper and made a last-minute menu change from turkey and cranberry sauce to beef stew.
The soup kitchen added to Capone’s Robin Hood reputation with a segment of Americans who saw him as a hero for the common man. They pointed to the newspaper reports of the handouts he gave to widows and orphans. When the government deprived them of beer and alcohol during Prohibition, Capone delivered it to them. When the government failed to feed them in their desperate days, the crime boss gave them food. For anyone who felt conflicted about taking charity from a gangster, hunger trumped principles. As the Bismarck Tribune noted, “a hungry man is just as glad to get soup and coffee from Al Capone as from anyone else.”
Writing in Harper’s Magazine, Mary Borden called Capone “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.” She noted the irony that the line of jobless waiting for a handout from Chicago’s most-wanted man often stretched past the door of the city’s police headquarters, which held the evidence of the violent crimes carried out at Capone’s behest.
Every day, the soup kitchen served 350 loaves of bread, 100 dozen rolls, 50 pounds of sugar and 30 pounds of coffee at a cost of $300. It was a sum that Capone could easily afford since on the same day that news of his soup kitchen broke, Capone bookkeeper Fred Ries testified in court that the profits from Capone’s most lucrative gambling houses cleared $25,000 a month.
Although he was one of the richest men in America, Capone may not have paid a dime for the soup kitchen, relying instead on his criminal tendencies to stockpile his charitable endeavor by extorting and bribing businesses to donate goods. During the 1932 trial of Capone ally Daniel Serritella, it emerged that ducks donated by a chain store for Serritella’s holiday drive ended up instead being served in Capone’s soup kitchen.
Although the press never spotted Capone in the soup kitchen, newspapers ate up the soup kitchen story. Some such as the Daily Independent of Murphysboro, Illinois, expressed displeasure at the adulation bestowed upon its operator. “If anything were needed to make the farce of Gangland complete, it is the Al Capone soup kitchen,” it editorialized. “It would be rather terrifying to see Capone run for mayor of Chicago. We are afraid he would get a tremendous vote. It is even conceivable that he might be elected after a few more stunts like his soup kitchens.”
However, prison, not politics, would be in Capone’s future. No amount of good publicity could save Capone from the judgment of a jury that found him guilty of income-tax evasion in November 1931.