Real-life spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want to know what might happen to Al Capone in the final season of Boardwalk Empire, then vamoose.
With the final season of Boardwalk Empire kicking off on Sunday night, there’s a lot of focus obviously on Nucky Thompson and Chalky White. If you want to know what happened to Nucky Thompson in real life, you can read about it here, although note that the real-life events that led to his downfall didn’t come until much later than 1931, which is the year the final season is set. (But don’t expect an ambiguous ending).
However, while Nucky Thompson is a largely fictionalized version of Nucky Johnson, the Boardwalk Empire Al Capone has stuck pretty closely to the real-life Al Capone, at least as it pertains to the big moments, his relationship with Johnny Torrio, and the death of his brother, Frank Capone.
What we will presumably miss in the jump to 1931, however, will be the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, a gangland shooting in which Capone had seven mob associates of the North Side Irish gang led by Bugs Moran murdered. It’s probably what Capone is best known for.
Instead, 1931 takes us essentially to the end of Al Capone’s reign as a crime boss, at only 33 years old. What happened? Did the FBI nab him? Was he brought up on murder charges? Racketeering? Bribing public officials? Fixing elections? Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
He was brought down for tax evasion. Most people know that. What most people DON’T know, however, is that the reason he got nabbed for tax evasion is because he had a lousy, no-good incompetent lawyer. Basically, the IRS and a man named Frank Wilson went after Capone for tax evasion because the FBI has been otherwise incapable of pinning a crime on him. Up until 1927, illegally earned income didn’t have to be declared on your tax forms (a weird loophole). However, after a Supreme Court ruling overturned that, you could nab criminals for tax evasion if you could prove they generated income and failed to pay taxes on it.
The key in the Capone case was, therefore, proving that Capone earned income. How did the IRS find out he earned income? Capone’s lawyer TOLD them. After Capone initially denied making any income (and basically threatened to murder Frank Wilson’s wife), Capone’s lawyer Lawrence Mattingly turned over what is referred to as the Mattingly letter and said, “This is the best we can do. Mr. Capone is willing to pay the tax on these figures.” Basically, it was the lynchpin to the entire case against Capone. The Mattingly letter conceded that Capone made a certain amount of income and offered to pay taxes on it. While the letter couldn’t be used in court (5th Amendment), the statement Mattingly made could.
The Mattingly statement plus a witness who was flown to South America for two years of safekeeping was what the IRS needed to prosecute. However, the parties did come to an agreement on a plea bargain, which would have sentenced Capone to less than three years in prison. In a surprise move, however, the federal judge denied the plea bargain and forced a trial, in what was basically a f**k you to Capone: “It is time for somebody to impress upon the defendant that it is utterly impossible to bargain with a Federal Court.”
Capone countered by bribing the entire jury. The judge, however, found out, and at the last second, exchanged his bribed jury for another jury on another case. The prosecution presented enough evidence to prove without a doubt that Al Capone had generated a large income. It was so foolproof that Capone’s best defense — a lousy one — was to argue that he lost all of his income betting on horses, and therefore had no income with which to tax (an erroneous argument, because you still have to pay taxes on that money).
After an extensive trial, the jury came back with a guilty verdict in under eight hours. Capone was sentenced to eleven years — the longest ever sentence for tax evasion. He served eight, but by the time he came out, he was suffering from paresis caused by untreated syphilis.
He was done as a mob boss, and died eight years later in 1947.