Frank J. Wilson

Frank J. Wilson
Frank J. Wilson

In the late 1920s, neither the local police nor the FBI under the nervous leadership of J. Edgar Hoover could think of any reason to put America's most infamous gangster, Al Capone—who masterminded bootleggings, hijackings, gambling and scores of murders across state lines—behind bars. The task remained instead for Frank J. Wilson, a treasury agent.

Elmer I. Irey, chief of the Internal Revenue's enforcement branch, came up with the idea for convicting Capone under a 1927 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the government to collect income tax even on illegal income. It was an idea not easily implemented.

First it was necessary to determine that Capone's gross income exceeded the standard exemption of $5,000 for each of the several years he had filed no return. Capone had no bank accounts, signed no checks. He never signed a receipt for anything and had no property in his own name. Thus Frank J. Wilson, assigned to the case by Irey, had to analyze the Big Fellow's "net worth" and "net expenditure."

Frank J. Wilson managed to plant agents on the periphery of the mob's activities and, finally, within it. Soon Capone, who sneered at any number of lawmen, began to quake whenever Wilson's name was mentioned. By comparison, he regarded the activities of the much-publicized Eliot Ness and his Untouchables as petty annoyances. Finally the heat became so intense on Capone that an informer reported: "The Big Fellow's eating aspirin like it was peanuts so's he can get some sleep."

Against the advice of his top lieutenants, Capone ordered five gunmen be brought in from New York to hit Frank J. Wilson. Government agents got wind of the plan and tried to pressure Capone to call off his killers, but Capone vanished from sight with the contract in effect. Capone had been tipped off by corrupt local police officials that the feds were looking for him.

Stalled in their efforts to seize Capone, the agents turned to Johnny Torrio, Capone's old mentor, who was in Chicago at the time. Johnny Torrio was informed that if the hit men were not pulled out within 24 hours, federal agents would start stalking them, and there would be warfare in the streets.

Johnny Torrio explained to Capone that with the assassination plot exposed it could not be put into effect. Capone had no choice but to cancel the rubout order. Johnny Torrio then got on the telephone with a federal agent and announced, "They left an hour ago."

This proved to be Capone's last hurrah at beating the tax case. Now it moved into the courts with ledgers in the hands of bookkeepers and accountants. Frank J. Wilson was in his element. In the end, Capone went to prison, a fate that was to remove him permanently from organized crime.

In 1936 Frank J. Wilson went on to become head of the Secret Service, and in that position did much to wipe out another crime which from time to time had been popular with syndicate criminals—counterfeiting. For the first time in history the amount of counterfeit money fell to insignificant levels.