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Opinion: The puzzling allure of Al Capone's pistol

<em>U.S. gangster Al Capone has his photo taken while in custody in Philadelphia, May 18, 1929. </em>
U.S. gangster Al Capone has his photo taken while in custody in Philadelphia, May 18, 1929.

The pistol Al Capone nicknamed “Sweetheart” almost sold for $885,000 this week, before the unidentified owner pulled it from auction. The gun had been purchased for $1 million in 2021. The owner believes it should bring in more today.

But why would anyone buy an infamous mobster’s gun for even $1?

It is not, for example, one of the muskets fired in Lexington, Mass., on April 19, 1775, that sparked the American Revolution. “Here once the embattled farmers stood,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “and fired the shot heard round the world.”

It is not the Colt .45 Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp may have carried in Tombstone, Arizona during the fabled "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." That gun sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars.

It is not one of the flintlock dueling pistols Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fired at each other on the plains of Weehawken, N.J., two centuries before the musical made that mournful scene into a song where Hamilton asks, “If I throw away my shot, is this how you'll remember me? / What if this bullet is my legacy?”

Al Capone’s gun is a 1911 Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol carried by a criminal who, though never charged with murder, has been linked to hundreds. Perhaps the most notorious was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which six members of the Bugs Moran gang, and a friendly optometrist, were pressed against the wall of a garage on Chicago’s north side and shot, point-blank.

Richmond Auctions in Greenville, South Carolina doesn’t use such commercially discouraging words as murder, blood, or massacre in its catalog. The house firearm specialist told the Chicago Sun-Times that Al Capone’s gun is, “A relic of an era marked by lawlessness and larger-than-life personalities. Its profound connection to Al Capone adds an extra layer of allure, making it a must-have and trump card for any world-class collector.”

You might wonder: why would anyone want to feel a “profound connection” or “an extra layer of allure” to a figure from history who was famously conscienceless and cruel?

If the selling price of an artifact from a life of bloodshed and crime has slightly declined over the past few years, maybe that trend is in the right direction.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.