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Al "Scarface" Capone

Al Capone en route to prison, playing cards with federal marshal.

The name most often associated with Alcatraz was that of Big Al "Scarface" Capone. It is considered a tribute to the formidable geography of the island and the indelible integrity of its warden and officers that Al Capone, leader of the best-organized underworld operation in America, was contained for 4.5 years. His treatment was like that of any other prisoner, which cannot be said of the other penal institutions in which Capone "did time."

It might be conjectured that the basic design of Alcatraz was indirectly geared just for Capone and the like. There was a definite fear, on the part of the prison systems, that the gang members would try to spring Capone. The Capone organization seemed the true test.

Alphonse Capone came to Brooklyn as a child with his parents. He was born in Castellammare, Italy. He grew up as a thief, was a pimp before puberty, and a bouncer in the local brothels. He was a husky, gutsy kid and a smart one as well. He knew he had to get out of Brooklyn after beating up a local politician's son. With the help of a man named Jonny Torrio, he hid in Chicago.

It was 1919 and Al Capone was a 20-year old bouncer at The Four Deuces. Soon he was managing the place, under the alias of Al Brown, and rising in the Torrio organization. The Volstead Act came into effect on January 16, 1920. The next morning came bootlegging, speakeasies, and a whole new industry of local organized crime. During the 1920s the underworld grew, and though all the power shifts in Chicago the Capone faction grew.

It has been estimated that by 1924 Capone was making nearly $100,000 per week. That was his cut from the prostitution, gambling halls, dog tracks, and bootlegging. There was big money to be made. With that risk came a high demand for more, and low regard for life. The Capone group played the game well. After years of inter-gang warfare, it was conceded that his name topped the list of power in Chicago. Al Capone didn't "win" with just muscle. He "greased" the political machinery of a city that thrived on such "grease." He opened soup kitchens, and even sponsored a bill dating bottled milk, despite heavy dairy group protests, so that children of the city wouldn't have to drink sour milk.

The record shows that Al Capone spent a year in prison in Philadelphia for possessing a concealed weapon. There is a strong sentiment that Capone sought that jail sentence as a safe place to hide. He needed to hide from rival gang members after his orchestration of the St. Valentines Day Massacre. It is a fact that, though bail was set at $35,000, Capone was carrying $50,000 cash! Still, he elected to go to jail. It is also a fact that the state paid for a private phone line from Capone's cell in the penitentiary to his offices in Chicago. He was granted unlimited visiting privileges, was allowed to furnish his cell with personal goods (thick carpeting, radio, etc.) and even was offered a ticker tape machine! Reportedly it was here that Capone outlined the formal organization for his city which he implemented of his return to Chicago. A board of directors for the Capone organization for his city which he implemented on his return to Chicago. A board of directors for the Capone organization was established and all aspects of his business were delegated and monitored.

Today the F.B.I. consists primarily of lawyers and accountants. The reason is quite simple: it's not always easy to hide money. Capone took a big tumble on tax evasion, specifically from 1925 to 1929. The sentences and fines added up to ten years in a federal penitentiary and a year to follow, on a state offense, with a $37,000 fine.

On May 4, 1932, Al Capone began serving his federal jail sentence in Atlanta. Public Enemy #1 was doing time. It became questionable what kind of "time" he was doing in Atlanta. While the luxuries of his first prison experience were more extreme, it became apparent that Capone was currying favor with guards and fellow inmates. He was buying his time. It has been said that Capone had more control of the prison than did the warden. There was also fear of Capone's men attempting an escape for him. When the maximum security of Alcatraz became available, Capone was on one of the first trains to San Francisco.

It was safe to say it was not quite what Capone had in mind. He spent his initial interview with Warden Johnson explaining his special needs. He told of his friends and family and asked for extra visiting rights. The rules were explained: family visitors only, one visit a month per prisoner, and two people per visit were the maximum. Capone's response was, "It looks like Alcatraz got me licked."

His first work assignment was in the laundry. When local soldiers got wind of it, they told their families what Big Al was doing. He was soon transferred to cleaning the bathhouse. He found the stringent rules difficult, mostly the silence rules. Capone was a gregarious and congenial man but eventually became simply #85. He was jeered as by fellow inmates simply because he was no bigger than the petty thief in Alcatraz. Consequently, other inmates tried to pick several fights, Capone was stabbed with a pair of shears by Jimmy Lucas. The wound was superficial and nothing came of it.

On his induction into the prison system, a medical exam showed Capone had syphilis. Dr. George Hess, the medical examiner on Alcatraz, knew Capone when he was in Atlanta. Al refused treatment. He claimed he had tests done in Chicago that showed a negative result. He believed he had been cured until one day in 1938. On the morning of February 5th of that year, Capone began to show signs of confusion.

He started by wearing his Sunday clothes instead of the weekday work uniform. After breakfast, he returned to the wrong cell tier. His speech was thick and slurred and his color very pallid. He was taken to the prison hospital above the cell-house where Dr. Hess diagnosed the premonitory signs of syphilis induced paresis. Capone cooperated on all further treatments, but a check and recheck of his spinal fluids showed neuro injury and irreversible brain damage. Degeneration could be slowed but not stopped. The press called it insanity due to his incarceration at Alcatraz. His immediate release was called for. He was kept in the hospital during the remainder of his tenure on Alcatraz. The therapy helped defer the problem. An examination, before he was sent to Terminal Island in Southern California, to serve out a separate one-year sentence, showed his speech to be adequate and relevant. Al Capone was transferred to Lewisburg before his final release. From there he spent some time in Baltimore hospital, under private treatment for the syphilis degeneration. He lived the remainder of his life at his family estate in Miami and died there on January 25, 1947.