Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Last Days of Al Capone


On this date, January 6, 1939, former Chicago mob boss Al Capone left the Alcatraz federal prison in San Francisco Bay. By the time of his discharge, he was a broken man. Gone were the glory days when he literally ran the city of Chicago and gone were the days of the vibrant, brutal man who ordered the deaths of rivals and ran the Outfit with an iron hand.

The attempts on his life in prison, the days of enforced silence, the trips of punishment to the “hole, the grinding daily routine and likely what was, by now, an advanced case of syphilis began to take their toll on Capone. Eventually, he stopped going into the recreation yard and practiced his banjo, which he played in the prison band, instead. Once practice was over, he returned immediately to his cell, avoiding all of the inmates except for a few of his closest friends. Occasionally, guards reported that he would refuse to leave his cell to go to the mess hall and eat. They would often find him crouched down in the corner like an animal. On other occasions, he would mumble to himself or babble in baby talk or simply sit on his bed and strum little tunes on the banjo. Years later, another inmate recalled that Capone would sometimes stay in his cell and make his bunk over and over again.

It was a long hard fall for a man who once knew absolute power.

Capone’s real decline began about ten months before his eventual release. When the Alcatraz guards decided that the weather was cold enough for the inmates to wear their pea coats during yard time, they indicated the decision with three blasts of a whistle. The morning of February 5, 1938, started off unseasonably warm and no whistle blew. Capone nevertheless put on his pea coat. For a year, he had been on library duty, delivering and collecting books and magazines. Alvin Karpis, who occupied the second cell to the left of Capone and always followed him in the line to the mess hall, had a magazine to return and he tossed it into Capone’s cell as he passed it. Seeing Capone standing there in his winter coat, including a cap and gloves, he called to him that he didn’t need his jacket that day. Capone seemed to neither hear nor recognize him. He simply stood there, staring vacantly into space.

Capone’s initial entry forms at Alcatraz Prison. It would become a deadly place for Capone as a number of small-time inmates tried to make a name for themselves by killing the one-great mob leader.

 He failed to fall into line when ordered to do so, a breach of discipline ordinarily punished by a trip to the hole, but the guards sensed something was seriously wrong and watched without disturbing him. He finally left his cell and entered the mess hall, last in line. A thread of drool dripped down his chin. As he moved mechanically toward the steam table, a deputy warden, Ernest Miller, spoke to him quietly and patted his arm. Capone grinned strangely and for some reason, pointed out the window. Then, suddenly, he started to choke and retch. Miller led him to a locked gate across the hall and called to the guard on the other side to unlock it. They helped Capone up a flight of stairs to the hospital ward.

To the prison physician, and a consulting psychiatrist for whom he sent, Capone’s symptoms suggested central nervous system damage characteristic of advanced syphilis. When Capone, after a return to lucidity, understood this, he finally agreed to the spinal puncture and the other tests that he had refused in Atlanta. The fluid was rushed to the Marine Hospital in San Francisco for analysis. Warden Johnston later stopped by his bed to ask him what had happened to him that morning. Capone replied, “I dunno, they tell me that I acted like I was a little whacky.”

The report from the Marine Hospital confirmed the doctors’ diagnosis. Word of it reached the press and newspapers from coast to coast painted a picture of Capone as a man driven insane by the horrors of Alcatraz. Mae Capone pleaded with Warden Johnston by telephone, imploring him to free her husband, an act that was far beyond his power. The hardened warden must have taken some pity on the former gangland boss, though. Capone was never returned to the cellblock and spent the remainder of his sentence in the hospital ward, subjected to injections of arsphenamine, shock treatments and induced fever. His disease was slowed down but not stopped. He alternated between lucidity and confusion, often at the brink of total insanity. He spent most of his time sitting by himself, plucking at the strings of his banjo, sometimes completely unaware of his surroundings.

Capone finally left Alcatraz on January 6, 1939 – and some say may have left a bit of himself behind. Troy Taylor’s book, BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES recounts not only the ghost that allegedly haunted Capone for the last 17 years of his life, but the haunts of the prison as well. 

 Capone was discharged from Alcatraz on January 6, 1939 but still owed another year’s sentence for the misdemeanor offense of failing to file a tax return. Reducible by good behavior, he still had about ten months to serve. Due to his deteriorated state, officials decided not to ship him to Chicago to serve out the sentence at the Cook County Jail. Instead, they sent him to the newly opened federal prison at Terminal Island, just outside Los Angeles. He was taken there by Deputy Warden Miller and three armed guards, with extra weights added to his leg chains, which was rather pointless since he was partially paralyzed.

The following November, after the last of his fines were paid through a Chicago gang lawyer, Capone was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He arrived on November 16 and was met by his brother, Ralph, and his wife, Mae, who drove him to Baltimore’s Union Hospital. Until spring, he lived with Mae in Baltimore as an outpatient of the hospital under the care of Dr. Joseph Moore, a syphilis specialist from Johns Hopkins.

In Chicago, reporters asked Jake Guzik if Capone was now going to return to Chicago and take command of the mob again. Jake, despite being one of Al’s closest and most loyal friends replied, “Al is nuttier than a fruitcake.”

Capone’s final years were lived out on his estate near Miami. He often cried at night and the sight of an automobile, especially one carrying men, would throw him into a panic. No outsiders were ever allowed into the compound or near Al because, Ralph cautioned, in his foggy mental state, he might talk about the organization.

The Capone house on Palm Island, outside of Miami, where Al spent his final days. 

The household on Palm Island was made up of Al, Mae, and Sonny; Mae’s sister, Muriel; her husband, Louis Clark; and an old but alert fox terrier that barked ferociously at any stranger. Two servants, “Brownie” Brown, cook and general handyman, and Rose, the family’s maid, lived off the premises. There were a variety of gunmen who came and went, all there to protect Capone, and Steve from Steve’s Barber Shop at the Grand Hotel, a Miami hangout for gangsters, came once each month to cut Capone’s hair.  Mae’s brother, Danny Coughlin, and his wife, Winifred, operated two nearby establishments frequented by resident and visiting mobsters: Winnie’s Waffle Shop and Winnie’s Little Club, which grossed between $500 and $700 a day. Danny was also the business agent for the Miami Bartenders’ and Waiters’ Union.

At least four times each week, Mae attended mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Miami Beach. Capone never accompanied her because he claimed that he would embarrass the pastor, Monsignor William Barry. Capone’s boy, Sonny, had gone to the private preparatory school run by the monsignor, who took a special interest in the shy, semi-deaf boy, helping him to rise above the problems caused by his family name. In 1937, Sonny had entered Notre Dame under his father’s alias, Al Brown. He withdrew after his freshmen year, when his real identity became known. He eventually earned a business degree from the University of Miami.

Probably because Capone slept so badly, the household kept strange hours. They often retired around 10:00 p.m. and were up again by 3:00 a.m. Most of the day was spent next to the pool. Capone, wearing pajamas and a dressing gown, would spend hours on the dock, smoking cigars and holding a fishing rod. Occasionally, he would hit a tennis ball over the net that had been strung across the yard. He hated to be alone and always wanted people around him, provided that he recognized them as trusted friends. He had grown obese and looked much older than his years. He also enjoyed playing gin rummy and pinochle; but the mental effort was usually too much for him and his friends let him win.

On December 30, 1941, Capone overcame his reluctance and went to church to witness his son’s marriage to Diana Ruth Casey, a girl whom Sonny had first met in high school. After the honeymoon, the newlyweds remained in Miami, where Sonny had opened a florist shop. During World War II, Sonny was classified as 4-F because of his defective hearing but he volunteered for civilian employment with the War Department and was assigned to the Miami Air Depot as a mechanic. His wife bore him four children, all girls, on whom their grandfather doted, constantly buying them expensive gifts and playing with them in the Palm Island swimming pool.

The course of Capone’s syphilis was unpredictable. At times, he seemed normal but at other times, his speech was slurred, he became disoriented and he suffered from tremors and seizures. Even at the best of times, Capone lacked mental and physical coordination and he skipped abruptly from subject to subject, humming, whistling and singing as he chatted about nothing. By 1942, penicillin had become available, but in an extremely limited supply due to the war. Dr. Moore at Johns Hopkins was able to procure dosages for Capone, who became one of the first syphilitics to be treated with antibiotics. His condition stabilized somewhat after that, but no therapy could reverse the extensive damage that had been done to his brain.

On January 19, 1947, at just after 4 a.m., Capone collapsed from a brain hemorrhage. Dr. Kenneth Phillips arrived, followed by Monsignor Barry, who administered the last rites. The newspapers announced that Capone was dead, but he rallied and Dr. Phillips pronounced him out of danger. The following week, though, he developed bronchial pneumonia and reporters began to gather outside the compound’s locked gates. As the hot day wore on, Ralph let them inside and offered them cold beer.

On Saturday night, January 25, witnesses claim that Capone was lucid – but he died that night at 7:30 p.m. Capone’s body was dressed in a new blue suit, white shirt, black tie and two-tone black and white two-tone shoes. He was placed in a $2,000 bronze casket and returned to Chicago for burial. Two drivers took turns behind the wheel of a Cadillac hearse for the 48-hour trip. Meanwhile, an empty coffin had been loaded aboard a train bound for Chicago in order to fool the press.

Capone was buried on a cold, winter’s day in Mount Olivet Cemetery, sharing a black granite marker with this father, Gabriele, and his brother, Frank, who had been killed by police in Cicero. This was no typical “gangland funeral;” it was a simple affair with only family and Al’s closest remaining friends in attendance, although a number of lavish floral arrangements were delivered to the funeral home and the graveside. Among them was a seven-foot-tall floral cross.

Capone’s grave in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. On many days, it’s found “decorated” by cigars, coins and liquor bottles, left in tribute to Al. 

 When Capone’s mother died in 1952, Capone’s body was moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery, where he now lies in the same burial ground with Dion O’Banion, Hymie Weiss, the Genna brothers, Jack McGurn and Sam Giancana.

It was a quiet end to the life of the man who had once ruled Chicago.

Troy’s book, BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES is not only a biography of Capone and other mobsters of the 1920s, but it also – for the first time – tells the whole story of the ghost who haunted Capone to his grave, as well as other gangland hauntings from Chicago. Click here to get an autographed copy – and say you saw it on this blog and you’ll get the book for only $12! It’s also available as a Kindle title from

1 comment:

  1. Although Al Capone was a feared gangster, his story is nevertheless a delightful pastime for those who like the Mafia theme, like me. The content of this subject written by Troy Taylor, besides being clear, is an excellent historical document.
    PS. By chance, I was researching the life of Eliot Ness, when, by my luck, I found this excellent blog.
    My sincere thanks.
    Darlon Shelter.