Perspective | We Call It Insurance. He Called It Protection

By: | April 7, 2024

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected].

Our subject today established a large insurance-based organization in the 1920s and ’30s. He made a great deal of money and was for a while something of a national hero.

His name has become a byword for a certain kind of insurance, due in part to his seven years as CEO of the group he ran. At the end of that period, his uncompromising business style resulted in him being sent to prison.

This fellow was born in 1899 in New York City to parents who were Italian immigrant professionals. By the time he was a teenager, he was apprenticed to the junior ranks of local organizations, fulfilling various  roles at his bosses’ request.

In the early 1920s, he moved to Chicago, where he grew close to the CEO of a syndicate of organizations in the hospitality industry. The CEO had grown up in Naples, a friend of the man’s

The keen nature of competition in the industry resulted in the CEO, stressed out by the demands of his job, taking early retirement. Our man had learned well from his time as the CEO’s assistant: He stepped in and saved the business.

Noted for his sharp Italian suits and an armor-plated Cadillac, like so many insurance men then as now, he was an avid golfer. To enhance his operations, he formed close relationships with political figures and judges, and was a more-than-generous supporter of the Chicago Police Department.

His earnings have been estimated at $100 million a year in the late 1920s. His net worth hit $1.3 billion in today’s money. His work gave him a wide profile and he reveled in the attention of the public. He was, for example, cheered by spectators when he appeared at baseball games. Well-known as a philanthropist, he made significant donations to a number of charities.

Some viewed him as “a modern-day Robin Hood.”

The man made strenuous attempts to broaden the size and scope of his operations, but his outrageous attempted takeover of seven rivals simultaneously, on February 14, 1931, turned public opinion against him.

Eventually, his activities brought him to the attention of the federal authorities, who charged him with 22 counts of tax evasion. Despite the best efforts of his press agent, Damon Runyan, the fellow was convicted on five counts.

He appealed the decision, and even with a recent sympathetic Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, was sentenced to 11 years.

He served eight.

The man died in 1947, at the age of 48, just eight years after being released.

His fame lives on. In half a dozen biographical movies, he has been played by actors of the stature of Rod Steiger and Al Pacino. His life was the subject of video games and a musical. Michael Jackson
wrote a song named for him, as did Prince Buster. An American rapper and a Jamaican reggae musician took his name. A steeplechaser was named after him.

Who was this giant who built his empire on a specialized form of insurance protection, with which his name is practically synonymous?

Sometimes known as Scarface, his real name — have you guessed it? — was Alphonse Gabriel Capone: Al Capone. &

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