Perhaps the Most Important Lesson from History

On Tuesday, January 26, 1932, infamous gangland kingpin Al Capone was imprisoned for income tax evasion.

The son of Italian immigrants who had entered the United States in 1894, Alphonse Capone was born in a rundown Brooklyn tenement on January 17, 1899. His father was a struggling but respectable barber, and his mother was devoutly religious. It looked as though little Al was going to grow up to make them proud, but he fell in with the wrong crowd and dropped out of school to join a street gang after sixth grade.

While in the gang, Capone met the infamous gangster king Johnny Torrio, who controlled crime in New York City. Torrio taught him to cultivate a respectable front while being deeply involved in crime, running it like a corporation. Mafia bosses sent Torrio to Chicago to run criminal operations there, and Torrio sent word to Capone to join him in the Windy City to be his lieutenant.

When Torrio had to retire because of his health (he had been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by a rival gang), Capone took over Torrio’s crime operations. He quickly gained a reputation for gunning down rivals and traitors, threatening voters and election workers, and infiltrating government departments, including the police department. Although everyone knew that Capone was behind the criminal actions, no one could ever find his fingerprints on any of them; Capone always managed to have an alibi. He was always a sharp dresser, courted the press, and maintained the façade of respectability. Every financial transaction he made was strictly cash only.

President Herbert Hoover told U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon that he wanted Capone behind bars. Mellon assigned Prohibition Bureau agent Elliot Ness the task of accomplishing that goal. Despite Capone’s widely known activities in murder (particularly the February 14, 1929, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), prostitution, bootlegging, and other criminal activities, Ness finally got his man–on income tax evasion. (Capone and his gang were also indicted on more than 5,000 separate violations of the Volstead Act, but it was the tax-evasion charge that put Capone away.) According to the FBI files, Capone was found guilty and “fined $50,000 and charged $7,692 for court costs, in addition to $215,000 plus interest due on back taxes.” He was sentenced to eleven years in jail.

Capone was confined to the Cook County Jail during his appeal process. That failing, he was transferred first to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and then to Alcatraz. His mental and physical health declined rapidly in prison, and he was released on November 16, 1939, after having served “seven years, six months, and fifteen days, and paid all fines and back taxes.” He went to live in his palatial home in Palm Island, Florida, but his health continued to deteriorate rapidly from syphilis. His personal doctor declared in 1946 that Capone had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child, ironically about the age when he had dropped out of school. He died on January 25, 1947, at the age of 48 years.

Capone’s life illustrates at least two biblical principles:

  1. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
  2.  “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).

Perhaps the most important lesson from history is this: Where there’s sin, there’s always judgment. Sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost. History is filled with examples of this truth.

  • Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo
  • Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin
  • Mao
  • Idi Amin
  • Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier
  • Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon
  • Wilbur Mills
  • Osama bin Laden and all the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS who have witnessed firsthand the surprising speed of a U.S. Special Ops team or the ability of a drone-fired missile to find them
  • The list is endless.

No one has ever escaped this truth; no one ever will. It’s an absolute. It is as true for the mighty, the wealthy, the politically powerful, and the influential of every level of government as it is for the Al Capones and lowly two-bit hoodlums of this world. Although they might seem to be thriving, escaping judgment, that won’t be the case forever. Pay day will come some day. And woe to them when it comes.

This truth should make a difference in how each of us lives: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness” (2 Peter 3:11).

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