Happy Birthday Al Capone

Capone

Capone showing the scars that named him Scarface

Al Capone was a low level criminal born in New York to Italian immigrants on this day in 1899.  Expelled from school at age 14 for hitting a female teacher in the face, he picked up odd jobs and drifted into crime.  He joined an Italian crime gang in the Five Points district of New York, where he was a bouncer in night clubs and brothels.

It was on the door of a nightclub in New York that he insulted the sister of Frank Gallucio who slashed his face.  Capone hated the nickname “Scarface” and pretended to people they were war wounds.

It was as a bouncer in the brothels of Chicago that he contracted Syphilis, the disease that stayed with him for his life, and caused him brain damage.  He died at age 48 of complications arising from tertiary stage syphilis.

What changed Capone from a low level crook to the flamboyant anti-hero of the roaring ’20’s was Prohibition.  100 years ago this week the USA prohibited the manufacture, distribution and retailing of alcohol.  For 13 years the drinks industry was placed in the hands of organised crime, and boy did they have a party.

When his boss in Chicago, Johnny Torio, resigned after being shot in the territorial wars waged between the crime gangs, a 26 year old Capone stepped into the top job in 1925.  Noted for his charisma in the press his real tools were bribery, intimidation and brutality.

After numerous attempts to bring him to justice failed he was famously sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1931 for tax evasion and made liable for court costs and back taxes.  His party ended just 2 years before the repeal of the Prohibition laws.

Capone was an early indicator of what happened in the crime gangs when alcohol became legal again.  When he was processed in the prison he was found to be a cocaine addict.  The gangs switched seamlessly from alcohol to drugs as soon as alcohol was legalised.

I wonder what would happen if we decriminalised drugs?

 

 

Poxy King

charlesviii

Charles VIII of France, who was known by his subjects as Charles the Affable.  For me he is the Monarch of the morbus gallicus, the Sovereign of syphilis, the prince of pox.

In 1494 on the death of his relative he exercised his “right” to the throne of Naples.  In a swift campaign he swept through Italy and seized Naples (on this day in 1495) without a siege.   On the way through Italy his French and Swiss troops deported themselves in the usual manner of invading soldiers and raped their way down the peninsula.

The Italians rapidly formed the League of Venice, or the Holy League in 1495 with support mainly from the Neapolitans, Milan, Venice, the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdoms of Spain.

There is a “pre-Columbian” theory that syphilis was present in Europe in some form before this point, but it is also known that it was in the New World.  The popular theory is that the Spanish contingent contained some soldiers and sailors who had been with Columbus in the new world.  Or perhaps they shared the same brothels as the Sailors of Columbus before they departed for Italy.

Whatever the origination there is no doubt that the full blown and virulent explosion of syphilis into Europe can be traced to the war in Naples.

In 1495 the French and Swiss were driven out of Italy by the Holy League, but they brought the disease with them.  They raped and pillaged their way back through Italy to France and then brought the disease home.  It spread throughout the world and was initially a highly virulent disease that resulted in early death.  This supports the theory that it came from the New World for the Europe of the 15th Century had no immunity to the illness.

England had the misfortune to join the League of Venice in 1496. By 1497 the disease had reached England and Scotland.

To this day it remains one of the most horrible and contagious diseases in existence.  Modern antibiotics kept it in check for the last 60 years, but now it is having a resurgence in a world of relaxed sexual mores, anti-biotic resistant strains and low immune conditions such as Aids.

The disease recedes in times of peace, but resurges every time there is a major war.  War is the friend of the Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Spanish Flu

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

What’s in a name?  Diseases are often named after places, and who wants to be remembered for a disease?  Early outbreaks of Syphilis in Europe for instance occured during a French invasion of Italy in 1494.  The French promptly called it the “Italian” disease and blamed it on Neapolitans.  The Neapolitans blamed it on the French soldiers and called it the “French” disease.  The truth is that the strain probably came from the New World, transmitted to Europe by the men who sailed with Christopher Columbus.  Which would make it the Spanish disease.  Or the “Indian” disease since Columbus thought he had found a Western route to India.

Spanish flu was confirmed in the USA in March 1918 in Fort Riley, Kansas.  There is much debate now about the origin of the flu.  What is certain is that it exploded all along the Western Front at the end of World War 1 in the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which troops commonly live.

One theory is that it migrated from the herds of pigs that were kept penned nearby to feed troops.  Another theory arises from a forgotten piece of war history.  Thousands of Chinese coolies were recruited by the allies to provide labour along the western front.  There was an outbreak of H1N1 virus in China around the same time.  Did it originate in Europe and spread to China or vice versa?

In France, England and Germany the wartime propaganda machine was in full swing.  There was no reporting of deaths from flu as this might encourage military action by the enemy.  However Spain was outside of the conflict.  When the Spanish king Alfonso XIII became ill with the flu the pandemic was reported widely, giving the impression that it was rampant in Spain.  As a result it became known as the Spanish Flu.

Now a truly international poet.  Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.  Born in Italy to a Polish family he was wounded in WW1 fighting for France and died of the Spanish flu.  He coined the terms “Cubism” and “Surrealism”.

Le Pont Mirabeau; Guillaume Apollinaire

Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away
And lovers
Must I be reminded
Joy came always after pain

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

We’re face to face and hand in hand
While under the bridges
Of embrace expire
Eternal tired tidal eyes

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

Love elapses like the river
Love goes by
Poor life is indolent
And expectation always violent

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

The days and equally the weeks elapse
The past remains the past
Love remains lost
Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I