In his new mob history "The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America" (Bloomsbury, 550 pages, $35), Baltimore author Gus Russo sees gangsters as colorful characters to be sure, but also as important players in modern American history and an embodiment of America's literary love of the rugged individualist.
And judging from the reception he said he received on the streets of Chicago, the gangsters who belonged to the Outfit have been elevated to the romantic stature of Wild West anti-heroes Jesse James, Billy the Kid, or the captivating modern-day rogues -- John Gotti and fictional New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano.
"You go to Chicago today and talk to the old timers and nobody feared these guys," Russo told United Press International in a telephone interview. "That's what first hooked me on this story. You talk to these people and they tell you how great a guy Al Capone was."
People who actually knew the immortal mobster boss were children at the time and there aren't many of them left, but Russo said Chicagoans he came across while researching his book also had fond memories of Capone's lesser-known successors such as Tony Accardo, Sam Giancana and Murray Humphreys.
"Obviously, time plays games with your memory, but the number of comments you get like that is so overwhelming that you sense there must be some truth to it," said Russo, author of 1998's critically acclaimed "Live by the Sword," a history of the Kennedy Administration's secret war against Castro.
The Outfit ruthlessly knocked off its competition in the Roaring 1920s and went on to control virtually every sector of vice in the Windy City and quite a few legitimate industries as well. Politicians and many law enforcement officers were so corrupted they were more allies than adversaries to this virtual criminal army.
The ability of the mobster to live the good life without having to fear the government or kowtow to a skinflint employer, and avenge wrongs with enthusiastic violence, appealed to honest workingmen in much the same way as the gun-slinging cowboy heroes of the movies.
"In this country, we pride individual freedom above everything, and here are the ultimate free people who live by their own rules," Russo noted. "Many people distrust government, while the gangsters are open about it; people sort of respond to that individualism, especially when they get away with it for a long time."
As their power increased and spread west, the Outfit began to exert an economic and political influence that Russo sees as legitimately historical.
Most modern gangster books -- beginning with "The Last Mafioso" in 1981 and Nick Pileggi's 1985 classic "Wise Guy" -- are biographies of a particular hood, but Russo, whose book debuted as a bestseller in Chicago bookstores, took a different tack in "The Outfit" and placed the Chicago mob in context of U.S. history.
The fact that Las Vegas was launched by Mafia money from both Chicago and New York is no secret, but Russo also reminds the reader that Hollywood had plenty of gangsters and their allies in positions of power for decades.
Entertainers of the Rat Pack era in Vegas knew all of the wise guys, but the world of jazz may owe Al Capone an even bigger debt because he brought pioneering black musicians out of the segregated squalor of the South, north to Chicago, where they were treated like kings while playing in the mob's speakeasies.
The crumbling labor movement, the book alleges, may have been saved in the 1930s through its takeover by organized crime, which gave struggling unions some needed firepower against ruthless employers. One small union of Chicago elevator operators shook down residents of high-rise apartments buildings who were given the choice of ponying up the payment or hiking up the stairs.
The Outfit also is reputed to have played a pivotal role in John F. Kennedy's presidential election by getting Chicagoans to "vote early and vote often," a phrase coined by Humphreys, the son of Welsh immigrants who became a key aide to Capone and Accardo. According to Russo, the Outfit's assistance was also courted during the campaigns of FDR and Harry Truman, and they were also recruited into the anti-Castro campaign by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
There was also the less-glamorous work of maintaining the Outfit's grip on the rackets, and Chicago had its corps of psychos that maintained discipline in the most brutal fashion; Russo's book mentions countless shootings, vicious throat slashings, the use of acid to blind victims and an unfortunate who had his face seared by a blowtorch.
But the violence appears to be a side issue that doesn't interfere with the book's image of mobsters as generally stand-up guys who didn't impose their wrath on anyone who didn't get out of line.
"You have to get past the initial shock," Russo chuckled about his research, "but the old-style guys from the 1920s through the 1960s saw violence as a last resort and it tended to be perpetrated on each other almost exclusively."
"They didn't rob old ladies or break into stores," he pointed out. "And you knew it when you were in trouble with them long before it happened. It wasn't the out-of-the-blue violence perpetrated on innocent people like you have today."
Some reviewers have found "The Outfit" to be a little obsequious to those who employed machine guns, bombs and torture to attain their goals, particularly in Russo's contention that organized crime would not exist without the complicity of respectable businesses, including modern-day banks that launder drug money for Latin American traffickers.
But in the "The Outfit," as in the legend of Robin Hood, the cops become secondary players to the characters who were as colorful as they were dangerous.
"The Outfit guys said, 'Look, people at all levels get away with stuff. The whole country is corrupt and we're just trying to get our piece,'" Russo said. "There are a lot of people who respond to that and say, 'Yeah, you're right.'"
Law enforcement may have the mob on the run these days, but as a new season of "The Sopranos" approaches and books like "The Outfit" continue to attract enthusiastic readers, those who document the history of gangsters will always have a piece of the action.