39 THE END FOR CAPONE
The glory for Al Capone ended on October 24 1931 when he was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Six years earlier Al Capone had inherited the Torrio organisation. He became the most powerful bootlegger in Chicago. After serving nearly three years of his sentence in the Leavenworth and Atlanta prisons, Capone was transferred to Alcatraz on August 1 1934. There he joined inmates that were considered to be the most dangerous and difficult criminals in the USA. He had been convicted, though, of nothing more than tax evasion. Neither had Capone the prisoner been disruptive during his first three years in prison. He spent five years at Alcatraz. His release from Alcatraz happened on November 16 1939. To complete the necessary discharge papers he made a cross country journey to the prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Mae, his wife, agreed that Capone would continue to receive medical treatment for his syphilis and that this should be administered in a hospital. He was released to his family and then admitted to Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital. Dr Moore was a specialist in the treatment of syphilis. He also had admitting privileges to the Union Memorial. The private room that Capone was given had a connecting door to a two room suite that was rented by Mae. She occupied one room, and the other was used by members of the family that visited.
Dr Moore concluded that the disease had been in the advanced ‘paretic psychosis’ stage from 1936 although he added the advanced stage might have begun at an earlier date, Capone was now forty-years old and had been suffering from advanced syphilis for at least three years. Dr Moore is on record as describing the treatment of Capone in Alcatraz as inadequate. It had taken the prison medics until 1938 to administer the malaria injections that alleviated the symptoms, a treatment known as ‘fever therapy’. When Capone entered the Union Memorial hospital he had a mental age of a seven-year-old. He remained in the hospital for several months. The improved treatment from Dr Moore secured some improvement. Capone had the mental age of an eleven-year-old when he left the Baltimore hospital. His behaviour was described as ‘silly, childish and mentally deteriorated’. Mae was pleased with both the progress and the treatment of her husband. She purchased two weeping cherry trees for the hospital. The trees remain in the grounds at the front of the hospital building. Local TV reporters sometimes report their blooming as a news event.
At the family home in Miami the family physician Dr Phillips took responsibility for the care of Al Capone. Liaison between the two doctors, though, did occur. Dr Moore encouraged Mae to find an experienced and well-trained nurse. Mae and the brothers of Al accepted that, because no one outside the family could be admitted to the house, they would have to control Capone by themselves. Dr Moore recommended that the family purchase a vacant plot of land adjacent to their Miami home. The doctor suggested that the patient could run his own personal garden. This did not happen, presumably because Capone needed almost constant supervision. Mae and her husband would instead wander around the Miami property. Mae would name the various plants, and Al would remove dead leaves and do the occasional weeding. As the condition of Capone stabilised, some non-family members were gradually allowed into the house. A nurse was hired. The entire Capone family was resident at Palm Island. The brothers, sister and mother lived on the $600 that the Chicago outfit provided each week. Palm Island, the Miami home, was a large property, and the grounds were extensive. Mae could not afford a maid or a cleaning woman. She took her husband to the occasional movie and sometimes to restaurants that had a secluded table. Al gardened, swam in the pool and fished off the dock. Within several months of being at home, Capone had gained the fifty pounds in weight that he had lost at Alcatraz. Al attended the wedding ceremony of his son.
Sonny married Diane Ruth Casey at St Patrick’s Church on December 30 1941. Shortly after the photographs were taken the suffering gangster was led away from the main celebration and taken back home to Palm Island. The family needed to prevent the festivities from upsetting Capone and also to avoid the disruptive effect his unpredictable behaviour might have had on the wedding guests. The FBI continued to watch and file reports on the Capone family for as long as Capone lived. The government was still convinced that more unpaid taxes could be recovered. No hidden assets, though, were discovered. The FBI, wanting to discover titbits about the Chicago Outfit, occasionally questioned Mae about the weekly allowance that helped the family survive. Capone spent the month between mid-August and mid-September 1941 at the Wisconsin lodge owned by brother Ralph. Al and whoever in the family was interested fished, ate the fish they caught and played cards. Mae remained unwilling to accept that there was no cure for the syphilitic symptoms of her husband. She would put her hands over her ears and walk away when the doctors tried to explain. This might reveal a stubborn and irrational nature but there must have also been confusion. Mae had also been infected with syphilis by her husband but she received regular and effective treatments throughout her life.
The production of penicillin became widely available in 1945, and Al Capone was one of the first to receive the medicine. It did little, though, to mitigate the impact of the disease. Long time partner and friend Jake Guzik visited Palm Island. He described Capone as being as ‘nutty as a fruitcake’. In the summer of 1945 there was a second trip to the lodge in Wisconsin. The mental age of Capone had now returned to that of a seven-year-old. There were occasions or periods in certain days when his behaviour improved but his mental age never exceeded that of a ten-year-old. The new childlike Capone developed a taste for Dentyne gum and licorice Sen Sen breath fresheners. He hoarded candy bars in his bedroom. Used to sleeping in prison beds, Al was no longer comfortable in the master bedroom at Palm Island. He found sleeping easier when he used one of the two single beds in the small bedroom at the back of the house. Mae slept less well without her husband. Al had also suffered from insomnia and he experienced the occasional panic attack in the large bedroom. Over time the panic attacks reduced and Al would occasionally return to the bedroom of his wife. He was sleeping with Mae on January 21 1947. She was woken at 3.30 am. Mae noticed that the breathing of her husband had become laboured. He was gasping for breath. Dr Phillips arrived at Palm Island at 5.00 am. The condition of Capone was stabilised but the heavy breathing indicated bronchial pneumonia. Three days later, Capone was drifting in and out of consciousness. Whatever had happened on January 21 must have shocked Mae. As a precaution, she had the last rites administered.
Al Capone died January 1925 1947 at 7.25 pm. The death was expected but sudden. The death certificate of the once powerful gangster stated that bronchial pneumonia was the cause of death. The certificate included the information that the deceased had ‘retired from his usual occupation’. There was no mention of neurosyphilis on the death certificate. Mae never again, after the death of her husband, returned to the second floor of the house in Miami. She slept in the bedroom of the garage apartment that was attached to Palm Island. Inside the mansion the living room furniture was covered with sheets. No more meals were served in the dining room. Meals were eaten in the three porches that were attached to the main building. The day after the death certificate was prepared, January 26 1947, the body of Al Capone was taken to the Philbrick Funeral Home in Miami Beach. The body was embalmed, and three to four hundred people visited the home. The visitors saw the body of a man that had lived outside the law, a larger than life figure that was already iconic within American history and fiction. In his $2000 bronze casket, Al wore a new dark blue suit, black tie, white shirt and black and white shoes. The body arrived in Chicago on February 1 1947. The funeral has often been described as a modest affair but in its report of the proceedings the Chicago Tribune referred to the attendance of ‘half a hundred of the smaller fry from the vast areas which comprised the vice empire of prohibition’. There had, of course, been grander affairs in the past and at the height of prohibition. The burial ceremony lasted less than an hour. The Archdiocese of Chicago forbade requiem mass but allowed a small ceremony at the graveside. The ground was covered by snow, and a tent was erected to prevent the mourners from typical and bitter Chicago winter weather. The tent also shielded the family from inquisitive reporters and photographers. Digging the frozen ground where the coffin was laid had been hard work. Three hours elapsed before the gravediggers of the Mount Olivet cemetery completed their task. The coffin of Al Capone was laid between those of his father and his brother Salvatore or ‘Frank’. During his last years, Al Capone had attended confession and repented his previous sins. In the same period he had often attended daily mass with his wife and mother. Two Chicago policemen were present at the funeral but they watched from a distance.
Andrew J Volstead was the congressman whose name had been used to identify the legislation that introduced Prohibition. Andrew J Volstead died five days before Al Capone, the man that did as much as anyone to undermine the intentions behind the Volstead Act. In 1950 and three years after the Capone funeral, the bodies and coffins of Al and his father and brother were moved to the western suburb Hillside and the Mount Carmel cemetery. The original graveside stone at Mount Carmel, which was vandalised twice, has been replaced. There is nothing in the cemetery to assist the curious that continue to visit with the purpose of locating the grave. Most, though, find what they are looking for. The original inscription on the gravestone has been retained. It says, ‘My Jesus Mercy.’ Well, there is no harm in asking.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.