Friday, May 6, 2022

The Truth About Al Capone's Soup Kitchen at 935 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

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When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


Chicago shivered through a particularly bleak October in 1930. As the U.S. economy plummeted into the Great Depression, thousands of Chicago's jobless huddled thrice daily 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."
Original caption: "Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone."

The kind-hearted philanthropist who had come to their aid was "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.

It culminated with the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the murder of seven Irish members and associates of Chicago's "North Side Gang." The men were gathered at a Chicago Lincoln Park garage on the morning of February 14, 1929. They were lined up against a wall and shot by four unknown assailants, two dressed as police officers. The incident resulted from the struggle to control organized crime in the city during Prohibition between the Irish North Side Gang, headed by George "Bugs" Moran, and their Italian Chicago Outfit rivals led by Al Capone. The triggermen have never been conclusively identified, but former members of the Egan's Rats gang working for Capone are suspected of a role, as are members of the Chicago Police Department who allegedly wanted revenge for killing a police officer's son.

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.
Capone's Soup Kitchen at 935 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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 that the mysterious benefactor who had recently rented out a storefront and opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street was 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 daily (The NY Times reported the Soup kitchen fed 3,000 daily).

In the soup kitchen, smiling women in white aprons served 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. 

You had to eat your meal there. A few exceptions were made, where food could be taken home if the unemployed man had a family to feed.
Interior of Al Capone's Soup Kitchen at 935 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.

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 his handouts to widows and orphans. When the government deprived them of beer and alcohol during Prohibition, Capone delivered it to them. The crime boss gave them food when the government failed to feed them in their desperate days. Hunger trumped principles for anyone who felt conflicted about taking charity from a gangster. The Bismarck Tribune noted, "A hungry man is just as glad to get soup and coffee from Al Capone as from anyone else."
Interior of Al Capone's Soup Kitchen at 935 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
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, costing about $300 a day ($5,175 today). It was a sum that Capone could easily afford since, on the same day that news of his soup kitchen broke, Capone's bookkeeper Fred Ries testified in court that the profits from Capone's most lucrative gambling houses cleared $25,000 a month.

One night, Lou Barelli, a former gangster and enemy of Capone's syndicate, walked into the soup kitchen, unaware of the owner. A gang member saw Barelli and decided to make a special bowl of soup for him. It's unknown what was done to make a poisonous spoon, but shortly after leaving the soup kitchen, Lou Barelli died; an autopsy revealed he’d been poisoned.
A spoon from Al Capone's Soup Kitchen that makes any edible
food item it touches poisonous. The person gets increasingly
sicker over several hours, then... lights out!
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.”

Although he was one of the wealthiest 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 State Senator Daniel Serritella, claims ducks donated by a chain grocery store for Serritella's holiday drive ended up being served in Capone's soup kitchen.

The original soup kitchen idea really had nothing to do with Capone. The idea was originally thought up by Daniel Serritella who later suggested it to Capone. On November 2, 1930, there was a gathering in Nick Circella's apartment in Berwyn. Capone had been hiding there often during of the investigation into the murders of reporter Jake Lingle, Jack Zuta and Joe Aiello. 

Capone, Circella, and Read were discussing the general elections coming up on November 4th. Capone had deals going with candidates on both parties. Dan Serritella had just arrived at the apartment. Capone turned to Dan and said "By the way, Dan, I don't want that woman beaten badly in the First Ward. Keep your eye on that!" Capone winked at Read. "That's insurance! I told the top men she'd lead the Republicans in the First Ward and so she'd better." He turned again towards Dan. "What about that spot on State Street?" He asked. "It's going to take about a C note ($100) a day to run, any way we figure it.' said Serritella. "That's okay!" said Capone "I don't want to be cheap about it."

"Opening a new place?" Harry Read asked. "Sure! Now I got a soup kitchen!" exclaimed Capone. "A soup kitchen?" echoed Read in astonishment.

"That's right!" affirmed Capone. "There are so many people hungry in the First Ward because of the depression that Dan asked me to back a free handout joint. He's got more starving people down there than he can handle—all the bums that land in Chicago go to the First Ward. That makes it tough for the people who live there and so we figured if we could feed the drifters it would lighten the load for the regular charity rackets."

Read being the city editor told Capone that it would make a great story! Capone frowned and immediately retorted "Nothing doing! Nix on that! No story! I'd only be panned for doing it!" Serritella departed.

Capone was confident that Dan Serritella his protege, would have no difficulty getting elected State Senator from the First District. The fix was in. Dan Serritella became State Senator just as Capone had predicted. He had been City Sealer [1] for the William Hale Thompson administration.

Irregularities during his City Sealer days were later coming back to bite him. By this time, Capone was carted off to prison for hs income tax evasion. Serritella and his one time Deputy City Sealer (Harry Hochstein) were convicted of fixing the weight of food through grocers. Meaning that the public was short changed whenever they bought anything by weight. This resulted in a monopoly of millions of dollars received through bribes, extortion and defrauding the public. These are the same charges that were brought fourth against Hochstein and Serritella.

Just before Christmas 1930, several trucks from major food store chains pulled up to a warehouse on the Southside of Chicago. Serritella had presented these stores a list of provisions they were to "Donate" to the cause. In exchange, Serritella would have their short change the public charges dismissed.

Deputy City Inspector Herman Levin that Serritella's secretary had directed him to go to 3022 South Wells (Santa Lucia Church) to direct the packing of Christmas baskets for the needy. December 23, 1930, during the whole day, trucks upon trucks arrived leaving goods to be used for the Christmas basket preparations.

A south side market chain brought chickens and ducks. The National Tea company truck brought a 1000 cans of corn, tea, half pound bags of sugar, and candy. A Novak truck brought a couple of barrel of hams. The General Markets truck brought a couple of barrels of raw hams. Twenty to thirty men who were precinct captains in Serritella's ward were there packing the xmas baskets. Al Tallinger, who was Dan Serritella's secretary had given the strict order to take the ducks that were delivered and hand them over to Capone bodyguard Phil D'Andrea. The ducks, instead of being used for Christmas baskets, would be diverted to the soup kitchen at 935 South State street.

Once the word was out the crowds multiplied. Once Capone's name was tied to it the authorities were mortified. While whether or not partly a ploy for public sympathy by Capone just before went to trial, the soup kitchens he opened were still very appreciated by the hungry jobless men in photo who visited daily. In a sense ploy or not, Al did more than the government ever did at that time for the needy.  It did personally cost Capone about a c-note ($100) per day to operate. This was beside the "Donated" food.  Newspaperman Harry Read stated that he was in Nick Circella's Berwyn apartment with Capone and Serritella when the soup kitchen was planned.

In the end, the reality was the soup kitchen had been primarily state senator Daniel Serritella's idea, and not Al Capone's at all! Serritella ran with the venture in order to garner votes from his constituents for Mayor William Hale Thompson's re-election bid. Once he saw that Thompson's chances were fading the soup kitchen was promptly closed!

In May 1932, Daniel Serritella and Harry Hochstein were given each a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for their grocers extortion role. Daniel had been a well known friend of Al Capone and Harry Hochstein himself had even gone to see the gang chief off  to prison at the Dearborn train station.

On April 10, 1931, the soup kitchen closed. The reasons mentioned were that the economy had picked up, and new jobs were on the market, making the hungry line not so abundant.

However, prison, not politics, would be in Capone's future. No good publicity could save Capone from the judgment of a jury that found him guilty of income tax evasion in November 1931. 
Upon hearing of Capone's death in 1947, only the poverty-stricken
remembered Al Capone's kindness

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] City Sealer. 
A city with a population of 25,000 people or more may have a city sealer. A sealer can certify commercially used weighing and measuring devices via the Department of Agriculture - Weights and Measures. A city sealer does device inspections for vehicles, railroads, retail motor fuel dispensers, and more. This job provided many opportunities to skim funds.


  1. Either way , they fed and took care of human beings at this slump in history . Good read , informative…

  2. Thanks for publishing the historic truth.


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