…than you can with a smile alone.”
This quote and its many variations are widely attributed to Al Capone, Chicago’s most famous gangster.
Unfortunately, it was likely invented by journalists—or perhaps a Seattle comedian—back in 1962.
A journalist could have done it easily. Capone loved reporters and quipped for them constantly, and I’m sure some of them wouldn’t have been above attributing a phrase or two to the Big Fellow for the sake of good copy—especially since his views on gang violence didn’t exactly jive with the image of a bloodthirsty gangster. In fact, if you were to open a newspaper in the 1920s you were much more likely to find Capone insisting that he was just the opposite.
Capone had inherited his former boss Johnny Torrio’s attitude towards violence as something to be used sparingly. While he wouldn’t hesitate to strike back, he often tried to find a peaceful solution first. This isn’t that surprising, as his mentor Torrio is usually credited with putting the “organized” in “organized crime” in Chicago. After Torrio left, Capone often acted as a mediator between gangs when violence flared up on Chicago’s streets. He saw himself as a businessman who was just trying to make a living—which is pretty hard if people are always trying to shoot you. As time went on, he got more and more sick of it and he’d take the opportunity to tell the papers this every chance he got. A quote he gave in a newspaper interview illustrates his position pretty well:
“I don’t want to die. I especially don’t want to die in the street, punctured by machine gun fire. That’s the reason I’ve asked for peace. I’ve begged those fellows to put away their pistols and talk sense. They’ve all got families, too. I know I’ve tried since the first pistol was drawn in this fight to show them that there’s enough business for all of us without killing each other like animals in the street…but they don’t see it.”
Chicago’s toughest gangster pleading for everyone to just stop the violence? Not exactly great copy for the papers. It might have been tempting to put other words in his mouth—ones that reporters felt someone like him should have said. But combing through Chicago newspaper archives is useless. There are no period newspaper clips, interviews, or radio broadcasts. Historians haven’t found a thing.
Yet, even today if you crack open a”famous quotes” book or just pop it all into Google, pretty much everyone attributes this quote directly to Al Capone.
So where did it come from?
The website Quote Investigator may have the answer. According to a November 2013 post, this quote may have originated with a comedian named Irwin Corey in 1962, who was quoted in the Seattle Daily Times of Seattle as saying “you can get more with a KIND WORD–and a gun–than with just a kind word.” By 1969, he had tacked on the Al Capone bit to improve the joke. After that, everyone seemed to run with it. By the early 1970s everyone was contributing this quote to Big Al, from actors to economists to newspaper articles. It was finally cemented into the public consciousness when Robert DeNiro said a similar line in 1978’s The Untouchables while acting as Al Capone: “I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and we used to say you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word; and in that neighborhood it might have been true.”
You can read the rest of the Quote Investigator article here. It’s pretty interesting: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/11/03/kind-gun/
And if you’re wondering why I’ve referenced this quote in my blog title even though it’s inaccurate, it’s because the tough, cynical attitude it espouses seems to fit very well with Chicago in the 1920s. In the end it was just too good to pass up! 🙂