Mary Ann Johnson, who had ties to case against Al Capone, dead at 82

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Mary Ann Johnson looked like a fashion plate and appeared in the society pages, but her life was filled with colorful characters and chapters out of Chicago history books, including a famed Dempsey-Tunney prize fight and the prosecution of Al Capone.

Mrs. Johnson, 82, died Thursday of squamous cell cancer at her home in Lakeside, Michigan.

“Untouchable” Eliot Ness got much of the glory, but it was her late father-in-law, prosecutor George E.Q. Johnson, who helped send Capone to Alcatraz — not for splashy crimes like bootlegging or machine-gunning other gangsters, but for tax evasion.

Newspapers of the day described Johnson as “mild, middle-aged” and of“ministerial mien.” Nonetheless, the United Press called him the “most dangerous foe Chicago gangsters have encountered.”

Capone liked to style himself as a public benefactor, but in closing arguments at his 1931 trial, U.S. Attorney Johnson asked the jury, “Was it a Robin Hood who bought $8,000 worth of diamond belt buckles to give to the poor? . . . Did [Capone’s] $42,500 worth of shirts and clothes go to the shivering men who sleep under Wacker Drive?”

After the 2010 death of her husband, Gene Johnson, Mary Ann Johnson wanted to leave her late father-in-law’s personal papers to the Chicago History Museum. They’re fascinating documents that analyze the evidence against Capone and point to the decision to try him for dodging taxes instead of violent crimes, said John Russick, the history museum’s director of curatorial affairs.

“What they decided was an easier and more effective case could be made” through tax fraud, Russick said, “and, probably, put him away for longer.’’

“Mary Ann wanted to leave them to the Chicago History Museum and had donated them to us,” Russick said. “We had pursued them. We wanted them.”But the National Archives has the right to claim federal documents, he said. As a result, George Johnson’s records are at the National Archives office at 7358 S. Pulaski Rd.

Born into a politically connected South Shore family, the young Mary Ann Barry lived a privileged life. Her engagement and wedding were chronicled in the society pages. She was celebrated for her beauty. “A lot of folks said she looked like Jackie Onassis,” said her son, Philip W. Collins III. “But I thought Jackie Onassis was not in the same league as my mother.”

Mary Ann Johnson (pictured in the 1980s) looked like a fashion plate and appeared in the society pages, but her life was filled with colorful characters and chapters out of Chicago history books, including a Dempsey-Tunney prize fight, and the prosecution of Al Capone. | Provided photo

Her maternal grandfather was an alderman, Thomas Carey, her son said. He owned a brick company that was awarded lots of city contracts, he said.

Her grandfather bought Hawthorne Race Course for a little over $20,000, and “to say that the return on the $20,000 was a good investment was an understatement,” he said. The racetrack is still in the Carey family today.

She and her family were members of the South Shore Country Club. She attended St. Philip Neri grade school and the Faulkner School for Girls. In 1954, she married Philip W. Collins Jr., a GOP state representative from the Southeast Side.

His father, Golden Gloves boxer “Little Phil Collins,” was a respected referee who was supposed to work the 1927 prize fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, which drew more than 100,000 people to Soldier Field. It was an electric event, the New York Times reported, drawing stars of that era, including Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, Broadway showman George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas.”

But Collins hurt his ankle before the legendary “Long Count” fight. When Tunney went down, the man who did referee, Dave Barry, didn’t start the count till a hovering Dempsey returned to his corner, giving Tunney time to shake it off, get up and win the bout.

She and her first husband divorced in 1971. Three years later, she married attorney Gene Johnson. They enjoyed skiing, and she received her first set of golf clubs from his high school friend, Mark McCormack, who would become a superagent for golfers Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, among other sports and entertainment figures.

Gene Johnson often appeared on TV shows and documentaries to discuss the work of his father, whom he revered. “He was raised with U.S. marshals escorting him on dates,” said Philip W. Collins III. “Capone had a contract out on his father.”

Gene Johnson “absolutely hated Capone,” his stepson added. He called the gangster “a murdering pimp, and [that he] deserved the death that he ultimately got.”

Capone, shattered by syphilis, died at 48. In 1988, Gene Johnson wrote a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times criticizing talk of landmark status for a Capone home, calling him a “fiend.”

For years, Mrs. Johnson volunteered at Columbus Hospital. She shopped at Saks, Bonwit Teller and Marshall Field’s, where she worked from 1975-1991, enjoying her employee discount all the while. She liked dressing in Christian Dior and St. John.

Even when she had to use a walker, she loved to take her son’s dog, Zoe, for walks, indefatigably tossing sticks to the Chihuahua-Shih Tzu mix. As a result of her illness, Mrs. Johnson used a feeding tube for two years. She dealt with it with grace, seeing it as a necessary nuisance. But she dearly missed one delicacy. “She said if there was one food she could eat, it would be a Reuben sandwich,” her son said.

Mrs. Johnson also is survived by a daughter, Tierney Eson; a stepson, Charles Johnson; a sister, Margaret Jacob; a brother, Thomas Barry, and four grandchildren. A funeral Mass is planned at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Agnes Church in Sawyer, Michigan. Burial is to follow at Lakeside Cemetery.

Mary Ann Johnson at 21, with her brother, George Barry. | Provided photo

Mary Ann Johnson at her home in Harbert, Michigan. In the background is the patio where her late father-in-law, George E. Q. Johnson, who prosecuted Al Capone, and poet Carl Sandburg used to sit and talk. | Provided photo

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