Al Capone at Alcatraz
Al Capone still remains one of the most notable residents of “the Rock.” In a memoir written by Warden James Johnston, he reminisced about the intensity of public interest around Capone's imprisonment, stating that he was continually barraged with questions about “Big Al.” Each day newspapers and press flooded his office with phone calls, wanting to know everything from how Capone liked the weather on “the Rock,” to what job assignment he was currently holding.
Before arriving at Alcatraz, Capone had been a master at manipulating his environment at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta. Despite strict convictions from the courts, Capone was always able to persuade his keepers into procuring his every whim, and often dictated his own privileges. It was said that he had convinced many guards to work for him, and his cell boasted expensive furnishings which included personal bedding along with many other amenities not extended to other inmates serving lesser crimes. His cell was carpeted, and also had a radio around which many of the guards would sit with Al conversing and listening to their favorite radio serials. His friends and family maintained residence in a nearby hotel, and each day he was flooded with visitors.
Capone started his life of crime at a young age. Rumored to have started pimping prostitutes before reaching puberty, he was raised on the tough streets of Brooklyn and earned extra money as a bouncer in various brothels. By the age of twenty, Capone had moved to Chicago and was managing a popular nightclub named The Four Deuces. By 1924, Capone had his hand in various rackets, including prostitution rings, bootlegging, and gambling houses and was believed to be earning over $100,000 per week.
Capone had mastered the art of politics, and as a wealthy, powerful gangster figure, he attempted to balance his activities. Despite his illegitimate occupation, he had become a highly visible public figure. He made daily trips to City Hall, opened soup kitchens to feed the poor, and even lobbied for milk bottle dating to ensure the safety of the city's children. City officials often were embarrassed by the politic strength of Capone, and began leveraging his illegal activities through police raids, along with setting intentional fires to his places of business.
In the beginning, the public glamorized Capone's activities and identified with him as a modern day Robin Hood. It wasn't long, however, before the public started weighing against him when it was believed that he had ordered the death of a famed local prosecutor named Billy McSwiggin. The young prosecutor had before tried to pin Capone with the violent murder of a rival gang member and he had a reputation for going after bootleggers. Although many speculated against Al's involvement in McSwiggin's death, there was a great outcry against gangster violence, and public sentiment went against Capone.
Capone quickly went into hiding, fearing he would be tried for McSwiggin's murder. He remained out of sight for nearly three months, and then after realizing he couldn't live the remainder of his life underground, he negotiated his surrender to the Chicago Police. The authorities eventually recognized that they lacked sufficient evidence to bring Capone to trial, and though very unpopular with public opinion, he was set free. The public was outraged and law officials were left embarrassed. “Big Al” had become one of the most powerful crime czars in Chicago. It was said that Capone was now big as life, and more powerful than the mayor himself.
By 1929, Capone's empire was worth over $62,000,000, and he was ready to wage war on his most prominent bootlegging rival, George “Bugs” Moran. Bugs was also one of the principal Chicago gangsters. He was known to publicly talk against Capone, and maintained a sense of spiteful arrogance that was said to anger Capone so much that Moran became one of Al's routine topics of discussion. It was rumored that Capone gave orders to take Bugs down by assassinating his gang members from the bottom, not stopping until they reached Bugs.
Capone was living lavishly in Palm Beach, and assigned one of his top associates “Machine Gun” McGurn to mastermind the hit. McGurn had one of his bootleggers lure members of the Moran gang into a garage to buy liquor at an unreasonably cheap price. The deal was made and the delivery was scheduled to take place on Valentines Day. McGurn and his men awaited them in stolen police uniforms. When they arrived, McGurn's gang pretended to be police making a bust, and ordered all of Moran's men to stand facing the wall. Thinking that they had just been caught by police, seven members of the Moran gang turned to the wall awaiting arrest. McGurn and his men opened fire with machine guns, fatally killing the gangsters. Bugs, who saw the police car before stopping and thought it was a raid, fled the scene. Capone was credited with what would be deemed one of the most famous mass murders in American history, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre received national attention, and Capone was glamorized in books and newspapers across the country. Capone was a high class, family oriented and self-made gangster-millionaire who now had the attention of everyone. Many of the local politicians were complaining about Capone and his self proclaimed political stature. The publicity ultimately backfired and attracted the attention of President Herbert Hoover. Having just started his presidential term, Hoover demanded that Capone be brought to justice. Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury, was pressured by Hoover to spearhead the government's battle against Capone. Mellon collected harsh evidence against “Big Al” which exploited his gang affiliations, bootlegging, prostitution rings, and flagrant evasion of taxes.
It would take nearly five years and an intensive undercover operation before Capone was finally convicted. On October 17, 1931, Alphonse Capone was sentenced to 11 years, $50,000 in fines, and was forced to pay court fees totaling over $30,000. The judge refused to allow Capone to be released on bail and he was confined at the Cook County Jail until arrangements were made for his transfer to Atlanta. On May 4, 1932, Capone began serving out his federal prison sentence at Altanta. Capone quickly flaunted his power and started to again have the ability to dictate his privileges. He was given unlimited access to the Warden, and was said to maintain large reserves of cash hidden in his cell, often generously “tipping” guards who would assist him by yielding to special requests. His time spent at Atlanta would not be as plush as when he was confined in Cook, but he still had means to manipulate the system.
In 1934, Attorney General Homer Cummings along with Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, made arrangements to send Capone to a facility where he would be unable to leverage the system. Alcatraz was the perfect answer to a problem that no one could seem to control. In August of 1934, without any formal notice, Capone was placed on a secure prison railroad car, on a journey along with 52 other inmates to America's Devil Island.
From the first moment of his arrival, Capone worked to manipulate the system. Warden Johnston had a custom of meeting the new “fish” when they first arrived at Alcatraz, and usually participated in their brief orientation. Johnston wrote in a later memoir that he had little trouble recognizing Capone while he stood in the lineup. Capone was grinning, and making quiet smug comments from the side of his mouth to other inmates. When it became his turn to approach Warden Johnston, it appeared that he wanted to show off to the other inmates by asking questions on their behalf in a leader-type role. Johnston quickly provided him his prison AZ number, and made him get back in line with the other convicts. During Capone's time on Alcatraz, he made several attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but all were denied. Johnston maintained that Capone would not be given any special rights and would have to follow the rules as would any other inmate.
Capone eventually conceded and one day made the comment to Johnston,
“It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”
Capone spent 4 ½ years on Alcatraz and held a variety of jobs. Capone's time on Alcatraz was not easy time. Capone got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days. While working in the prison basement, an inmate who was standing in line waiting for a haircut, exchanged words with Capone and stabbed him with a pair of shears. Capone was admitted into the prison hospital and released a few days later with a minor wound. Capone eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had evidently been carrying for years. In 1938, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence, and was released in November of 1939. Capone died on January 25, 1947, in his Palm Island Mansion from complications of syphilis.