You Can Get Much Further with a Kind Word and a Gun than with a Kind Word Alone

Al Capone? Irwin Corey? Ted Bessell? Robert De Niro? Willie Sutton? Apocryphal?

alcapone05Dear Quote Investigator: The notorious gangster Al Capone reportedly had an odd sense of humor and joked about using coercion. Here are three versions of a saying that is attributed to him:

You get a lot more from a kind word and a gun than from a kind word alone.

You can go further with a smile and a gun, than with a smile alone.

You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

I am very skeptical. Capone died in 1947, and I haven’t been able to find any expressions like this credited to him when he was alive. The famous actor Robert De Niro did utter the saying in a movie when he was playing the role of Al Capone. Would you explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Al Capone made a remark of this type. The earliest citations suggest that the line was created by a comedian named Professor Irwin Corey who performed as an eccentric academic spouting parodic erudition.

In 1953 the trade journal “Variety” published a transcript of an NBC radio broadcast presenting a “survey of humor, down through the ages”. Corey appeared as a comical Hamlet-like character. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have a simple philosophy which is poignant. Shoot a point, point blank, unsubtle, simple, poignant. My philosophy is you can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

Corey’s linkage of the quip to Hamlet was odd because within Shakespeare’s play Hamlet wields a sword and not a gun. However, by 1969 Corey had heightened the humor of the line by attaching the words to Al Capone.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including the 1969 citation.

In 1958 a Washington D.C. newspaper “The Evening Star” reported that Corey used the jest during a comedy routine: 2

Philosophy from Irwin Corey at the Village Vanguard: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word.”

In 1962 the Seattle Daily Times of Seattle, Washington reported on an appearance by Corey at a local venue and described some of the jokes he employed: 3

On his campaign to become President — “My slogan was: SOAK THE POOR. I figured we’d better get it from the poor before the rich got it.”
On philosophy—“You can get more with a KIND WORD — and a gun — than just with a kind word.”

In 1966 the syndicated column of the “Hollywood Reporter” noted that Ted Bessell, a television actor in a popular sitcom, deployed the quip. The words were not credited to Capone: 4 5

Ted Bessell, on his set of “That Girl,” has your thought for the day: You can get more with a kind word—and a gun—than you can with a kind word.

In 1968 a short article printed in a Pennsylvanian newspaper reported that an unnamed comic used the expression during a television broadcast. The joke was not yet connected to a gangster in this instance: 6

Did you hear the television comic the other night:
“You can get more with a kind word, and a gun, than you can get with just a kind word.”

In July 1969 the popular widely-distributed newspaper-supplement “Parade Magazine” published “My Favorite Jokes by Professor Irwin Corey” which included a profile of Corey together with a collection of humorous remarks. This article is the first located by QI that tentatively and satirically assigned the jest to Al Capone: 7 8

I think it was Al Capone who once said: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.”

In August 1969 a variant of the expression was printed in a Brooklyn, New York periodical. The ascription to Capone was treated seriously: 9

It is said of Al Capone that he always claimed that the best way to get along was with a “kind word and a gun, especially a gun.”

In October 1970 a newspaper in Iowa printed the statement and credited Capone: 10

It was Al Capone who once said, “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.”

In November 1970 the expression was published with a tentative ascription to Capone in a Wisconsin newspaper: 11

I think it was Al Capone who said “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.”

In 1972 an economist was quoted using the expression in Time magazine. The topic was wage and price controls and Capone was credited: 12

Says Walter Heller, a member of TIME’S Board of Economists: “Things will never be the same again. Even after controls are lifted, there will be the threat of their reimposition. As Al Capone put it: ‘You can get so much farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.'”

In 1974 “Parade Magazine” published “My Favorite Jokes by Jim Gannon & Wil Gerstenblatt”, and the comedy team mentioned a variant of the jest attributed to Capone: 13

We leave you with some of Al Capone’s wisdom: You can always get somewhere with a kind word and a gun.

In 1977 the economist Heller was quoted in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper, but this time he used the word “smile” instead of the phrase “kind word”: 14

Commenting on Carter’s potential coercive powers for dealing with the spiral, Heller quoted the depression era gangster Al Capone, “You can go further with a smile and a gun, than with a smile alone.”

In 1979 the language maven William Safire writing in the New York Times stated that the saying was used by an economic adviser who ascribed the words to Capone: 15

One of Mr. Kennedy’s eminent economic advisers, when in a facetious mood on the subject of incomes policy, likes to recall an aphorism attributed to the gangster Al Capone: “You get a lot more from a kind word and a gun than from a kind word alone.”

In 1987 the film “The Untouchables” was released, and it dramatized the conflict between Al Capone and a team led by government agent Eliot Ness. During a scene with journalists Al Capone played by Robert DeNiro replied to a question about his reputation for using violence with these words: 16

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.

In modern times, another famous criminal sometimes receives credit for the saying. A 1988 business book titled “Changing The Game: The New Way To Sell” ascribed the quip to the bank robber Willie Sutton: 17

Willy Sutton said it best. Willy was one of the world’s great management strategists. He was also one of the world’s greatest bank robbers. Willy’s management philosophy: “You can influence more people and get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

The important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006) included a note of commentary about this quotation. The editor pointed out that a 1980 book had linked the statement to the entertainer Irwin Corey: 18

Usually associated with Capone, but Paul Dickson, The Official Explanations (1980), attributes to Irwin Corey, “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word.”

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that this quip was crafted by the humorist Professor Irwin Corey by 1953. Further, QI believes that Corey fabricated the ascription to Al Capone by 1969 to enhance the comical effect and with no real intention to deceive. Nevertheless, the attribution was taken seriously, and today the expression is often incorrectly attributed to Capone.

Image Notes: Gun outlines from Nemo on Pixabay. Al Capone image from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain mugshot.

(Great thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the 1953 citation and other helpful citations.)

Update History: On August 23, 2016 citations dated 1953 and 1958 were added.

Notes:

  1. 1953 July 29, Variety, Survey of Humor: Double-Talk Hamlet, Start Page 36, Quote Page 51, Column 2, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest Variety Archive)
  2. 1958 October 24, The Evening Star, Midtown New York by Robert Sylvester, Quote Page A30, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1962 July 3, Seattle Daily Times, Impeccable Educator: Prof. Irwin Corey Hits Kennedy Steel Stand! by Jack De Yonge, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1966 December 14, Arizona Republic, Hollywood Reporter: Beatty Makes Hit in Dallas by Mike Connolly’s Staff, Quote Page 36, Column 4, Phoenix, Arizona. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1966 December 14, Marietta Daily Journal (Marietta Journal), Producer-Actor Beatty Makes Good Impression by Mike Connolly, Quote Page 8B, Column 4, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1968 April 3, Leader-Times (Kittanning Simpson Leader Times), “Is Foreign Policy Comic?”, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Kittanning, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1969 July 13, Sunday Advocate (Advocate), Section: Parade Magazine (Sunday Supplement), My Favorite Jokes by Professor Irwin Corey, Quote Page, 18, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1969 July 13, Wichita Eagle, Section: Parade Magazine (Sunday Supplement), My Favorite Jokes by Professor Irwin Corey, Quote Page, 18, Wichita, Kansas. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1969 August 30, Weekly People, Our own past shows that for well-being the control of production is necessary by John P. Quinn, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  10. 1970 October 4, Waterloo Sunday Courier (Waterloo Daily Courier), Thoughts While Viewing, Quote Page 43, Column 1, Waterloo, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1970 November 21, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, “Look to Good, Clean Land: The Notebook” by Emilie Russert (Women’s Editor), Quote Page 12, Column 7, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1972 February 14, Time, Time Essay: The Future of Free Enterprise by Donald Morrison, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine Archive; accessed content.time.com on October 31, 2013)
  13. 1974 September 1, Springfield Union, Section: Parade Magazine (Sunday Supplement), My Favorite Jokes by Jim Gannon & Wil Gerstenblatt, Quote Page 12, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1977 January 8, Boston Herald American (Boston Herald), Carter adviser outlines steps to halt inflation, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1979 September 24, New York Times, ESSAY: Rejected Counsel Returns by William Safire, Quote Page A19, New York. (ProQuest)
  16. YouTube video, Title: “The Untouchables (1/10) Movie CLIP – A Kind Word and a Gun (1987) HD”, Uploaded on October 6, 2011, Uploaded by: movieclips, (Quotation starts at 1 minute 12 seconds of 2 minutes 14 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on November 3, 2013)
  17. 1988, Changing The Game: The New Way To Sell by Larry Wilson with ‎Hersch Wilson, Quote Page 264, A Fireside Book: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  18. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Al Capone, Page 130, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)