Though best known for his criminal career in Chicago, Al “Scarface” Capone actually began his life of lawlessness in Brooklyn, and expanded the reach of his Prohibition-era crime syndicate into New Jersey and Philadelphia, smuggling and bootlegging liquor, bribing government figures and dealing in prostitution in the early 1920s.
Fans of the popular HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” see the criminal exploits of a young (fictionalized) Capone at the Jersey Shore in Atlantic City. But how much time did that crime boss actually spend in the Garden State and just what was he doing here?
That’s what Weird NJ wondered ever since we first began hearing rumors of Al Capone’s summer home being located somewhere in Bayville, near Toms River in Ocean County.
When we decided to see what we could dig up on the Chicago crime boss’s travels here, the only bit of information we had to go on was that the alleged summer home was now called Crystal Lake Healthcare and Rehabilitation (formerly known as the Bayview Convalescent Home), and was located near Double Trouble Road. (Hmmm, sounded like gangster’s lingo to us.)
When we inquired about the place and its Capone connection at a local deli, the girl behind the counter told us, “Oh yes, I’ve heard that for years. The place is just down the road. It’s a 10-story building that just rises right up out of the pines!”
A man standing by the magazine stand chimed in with “And his mother was there, too! I heard that he actually built the place for her, as a kind of retirement home.”
Armed with these few scraps of hearsay evidence, we headed to the diner next door and asked our waitress if she had also heard legend.
“Oh, that’s old news, honey,” she snorted. “Al Capone built the hospital for his mother, who was a patient there.”
So we headed over to the Crystal Lake Healthcare and Rehabilitation center, where we noted that certain architectural features of the large, imposing-looking building, such as Corinthian columns and reliefs depicting sailing and hunting scenes, gave the place an odd appearance for a hospital.
The adjacent Crystal Lake was overgrown with reeds; a long forgotten cement deck overlooking the lake was crumbling slowly into the water. We inquired at the admitting desk about the date of the building, and the woman behind the counter was more than happy to tell us she had a brochure that described the place in the 1920s.
We told her we’d heard a legend about Al Capone visiting the hotel when it was the Royal Pines, or perhaps when it was a hospital and sanatorium known as the Dennis Rest Resort.
“Well, I can’t vouch for that,” she replied, “but if he did visit here, he came when it was a hotel. That story has been circulating for a long time.”
It was then that one of the administrators showed us a brochure that someone had found in an attic and brought to the hospital. The front of the brochure said “Royal Pines Hotel” and boasted fine dining and dancing. The booklet had many pictures of the hotel in all its Art Deco splendor, including a grand view of the Indian Room, the Mediterranean-style solarium and tiled outdoor patio. The pictures also showed a manicured Crystal Lake in its heyday, with guests swimming and gondolas gliding across the water’s surface.
We walked into a room that is now used for the elderly residents to converge and watch TV. Looking at the intricately designed rafters in the ceiling, we could see that at one time this beautiful dining hall could have very easily attracted high-profile members of society. We also suspected that, due to the location of this hotel just on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens, prohibition laws might have been somewhat less strictly enforced here than they were elsewhere.
“This was the only hotel stop in the 1920s midway between New York and Atlantic City,” said our guide. Then we asked him if he had ever heard any stories about about the appearance of Scarface at the hotel.
“Oh yeah, I’ve even tried to find the hidden tunnel entrances that are supposed to be all through this place, but I’ve yet to discover them.”
Whether or not the Royal Pines was ever a favorite hideout of Al Capone is still a mystery. Perhaps he was just one of many guests who at one time enjoyed a stay at this once luxurious retreat, leaving a local legend in his wake that would persist for decades after his visit.
Two things are certain though. In its prime, this place must have been one hell of a joint; and if you ask anyone you might meet in Beachwood or Bayville about Al “Scarface” Capone these days, they will undoubtedly point you in the direction of the Crystal Lake