Alcatraz Beat Him, Capone Confessed (Or So Said The Warden)

Outfit boss Al Capone was among the first contingents of prisoners to enter Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary—essentially a 22-acre rock rising out of San Francisco Bay nearly 1.5 miles from shore—which opened for business on August 11, 1934.

Al capone in alcatraz
Al Capone's cell at Alcatraz.

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 Federal Prisons, arranged for Capone to be transported to the Rock. The reason: he would be unable to use his immense wealth to manipulate the system. The Outfit boss is believed to have generated a whopping $100 million annually (though we have trouble with that figure): Capone's potential to control a prison was taken deadly seriously. (Some also posit that he was sent there as a way for the Feds to generate publicity for their shiny new prison.)

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. (The mob boss had finally been convicted---of income tax evasion; he was never convicted of a single homicide, and he was not a man who hesitated to turn to the gun.  (Recall he probably was behind one of the bloodiest, most infamous gangland hits in American history.)

Like clockwork, Capone eagerly set about trying to work the system from the moment he got off the boat.

Warden James A. Johnston wrote in a later memoir that he could always instantly recognize Capone in lineups: the ever-grinning inmate forever wisecracking out the side of his mouth. One Capone trick was to act as if he were the duly elected spokesman for the inmates. He would break formation and start toward the warden, asking his bullshit questions, always seemingly on the other inmates' behalf.

Johnston wasn't biting, though; he'd simply tell Capone to zip it and get his ass back to the lineup.

And that was that.

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. He reportedly had a rougher time than the typical inmate. His former position at the top of the Chicago Outfit didn't stop the brawling. For infractions, he too was sent to the basement for "punishment."

Then Capone was nearly murdered. While in line for a haircut, he was stabbed with a pair of scissors after he and another inmate started arguing. The mob boss was admitted to the prison hospital. He was released a few days later, his injuries apparently minor.

Capone eventually succumbed to syphilis, which he'd evidently been carrying for years. A debilitating disease, it usually causes sores on the skin at the original site of the infection. Secondary symptoms include swollen lymph nodes and fever. Untreated, it can eventually affect the heart, brain, and other organs.

He'd been diagnosed with syphilis during a medical exam way back when he was in Atlanta. He started showing signs of the disease, including dementia. As his condition worsened, prison doctors treated him with malaria injections, thinking it an innovative treatment. (It nearly killed him.)

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.

Outfit boss al capone
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 Capone's name tumbled to the bottom of the sewer in wake of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a crime so brutal and hideous that the allegations of his involvement cost him 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 handed down by wiseguys like the Salvatores, Lucania and Maranzano.

Capone, for, example, is known to have:

• Declined to conduct ceremonies to officially induct men into his family -- meaning no "made men"
• Never appointed capos or even a consiglieri
• Delegated sensitive, high-level responsibilities to non-Italians
• Loved publicity 

Mob bosses did learn from him, nevertheless, and the greatest lesson of Al Capone was pay your taxes.