Alcatraz "Licked" Him, Al Capone Admitted to Warden

On August 11, 1934, Alcatraz Island, essentially a 22-acre rock rising out of San Francisco Bay nearly 1.5 miles from shore, opened for business.

Al Capone's cell at Alcatraz.

Outfit boss Al Capone was among the first contingents of prisoners to inhabit The Rock, reaching Alcatraz sometime that month.

As noted, Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone (Jan. 17, 1899 – Jan. 25, 1947) is still the most popular American Gangster of all, David Brooks, proprietor of American Gangsters website told us. The site sells a range of products featuring images of famous mobsters in American history, and his finding about Capone is based on an analysis of his sales data. Other research further bolsters the fact that Capone is indeed the most popular mobster in America, and probably has been since the Roaring Twenties, as Brooks told us in a recent interview.

The federal government acquired Alcatraz island in 1849. It served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and then a federal prison--until 1963. It's best known as a national recreation area, which it became in 1972. The Rock received landmark designation in both 1976 and 1986.

Today, the island is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours. 

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was touted as the first high-security, escape-proof prison of the 20th century -- it was designed to be inhabited by prisoners deemed to be unusually violent, infamous, irredeemable, or who represented the greatest flight risks. For nearly 30 years, the prison housed the most notorious of the notorious. Aside from Capone, other inmates included George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud, of the 1962 film (and, yes, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin, who "departed" early.)

In 1934, Attorney General Homer Cummings and Sanford Bates, head of the Federal Prisons, arranged for Capone to be transported there. The reason: he would be unable to use his immense wealth, power, and prestige to manipulate the system. Capone the Outfit boss is believed to have generated a whopping $100 million annually. His potential ability to control a prison was something to be taken deadly serious. (Some sources dispute the reasoning behind putting Capone in Alcatraz. The History website, for example, noted: "Because Capone wasn’t a troublemaker while locked up in Atlanta, he likely was sent to Alcatraz as a way for the government to generate publicity for its tough, new facility.")

In any event, in August of 1934, with no formal notice, Capone was shoved onto a prison train along with 52 other inmates and whisked away from Atlanta's penitentiary. (Elliott Ness's role in convicting Capone was indeed sensationalized; the mob boss went away for income tax evasion; they never convicted him of a single homicide, and Capone was a man who didn't hesitate to order murders, including one of the bloodiest, most infamous gangland hits in American history.

Like clockwork, from the start, Capone eagerly set about trying to work the system. As Warden James A. Johnston wrote in a later memoir, he always instantly recognized Capone in a lineup. He was the ever-grinning inmate who wisecracked out the side of his mouth. His trick was to act as if he'd been appointed the spokesman for all inmates He would break formation and step forward toward the warden and asked questions seemingly on the inmates' behalf. Johnston wasn't biting, though; he'd simply tell Capone to zip it and return to the lineup.

Capone in 1930.

Capone tried numerous times to wring special privileges out of Johnston, who summarily denied them all.

Capone eventually admitted defeat one day, telling the warden, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked." 

Capone endured a near-five-year stint at Alcatraz. His time was actually much, much harder than the average Alcatraz inmate. He got into fights and would be sent to work in the basement as punishment. Once, while serving basement "punishment" Capone was nearly murdered. While in line for a haircut, an inmate had words with Capone. Before either could throw a punch, the inmate stabbed Capone with a pair of shears, and the mob boss was admitted to the prison hospital. He was released a few days later, his injuries apparently minor.

Capone eventually succumbed to the syphilis, which he'd evidently been carrying for years. It's one of the most debilitating diseases one can catch. A sore or sores can suddenly rupture the skin at the original site of the infection, usually around the genitals or in or around the mouth. The sores are usually (but not always) painless. Secondary symptoms can expand to include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The disease untreated can in time affect the heart, brain, and other organs.

He'd been diagnosed with syphilis during a medical exam way back when he was in Atlanta's penitentiary, started showing signs of the disease, including dementia. As his condition worsened, prison doctors treated him with malaria injections, thinking it an innovative drug Sith which to fight the disease. However, the treatment nearly killed Capone. In January 1939, he was released from Alcatraz and transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island, to serve out the rest of his sentence. He was released in November of 1939.

Suffering from mental and physical deterioration due to late-stage neurosyphilis, on January 25, 1947, he died of cardiac arrest.

Capone was honored in death, his funeral a major affair, with massive crowds and media coverage.

The Outfit honored Capone's memory.
Successor/onetime Capone driver Tony Accardo had ordered all the Outfit to show respect to Capone.

Despite his crimes, Capone's reputation soared due to his carefully orchestrated Depression-era acts -- donating to charity, opening soup kitchens, even positioning himself as a sort of Robin Hood, and was even "sympathetic" enough to weep during the more poignant moments of certain operas, which he loved (Stalin cried during operas, too, make of that what you will) -- but then fell into the sewer in the wake of his involvement in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a crime so brutal and hideous, he lost his fan club.

Capone was considered by his cohorts in crime as the least Mafia-like boss in probably all of American history; some even doubted if Capone considered himself a member. He was known for not following most of the edicts that Salvatore Lucania handed down, many of which had been built on top of the organizational structure built by Salvatore Maranzano (before his execution).

Capone, for, example, is known to have:
  • Declined to conduct ceremonies to officially induct men into his family -- "made men";
  • Never appointed capos or even a consiglieri;
  • Delegated high-level responsibilities to non-Italians, and his organization in fact did not function like a traditional borgata;
  • Held a love of publicity that turned off many mob bosses of the era.

Mob bosses did learn from him, nevertheless. Consider that thousands of "legal" enterprises sprung up at the hands of other Mafiosi in Capone's wake. 

The great lesson of Al Capone: Pay your goddamn taxes -- or at least create the perception that you are. When the taxman cometh, have legit businesses in place to plausibly explain your extravagant lifestyle.


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