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Capone Looking for a legend, finding the man

Capone: Looking for a legend, finding the man BY JONATHAN EIG  |
I LIVE IN Chicago, which means I’ve heard a lot of stories about Al Capone.
Al Capone had a hideout in the apartment building on Surf Street, around the corner from my house. Al Capone and his brother Ralph ran a casino on Broadway, where the eyeglass shop sits today. Al Capone used to get his hats from my friend Jim’s grandfather. The Green Mill jazz club has secret tunnels that Al Capone used to escape enemies. Al Capone was the first person to suggest putting expiration dates on milk.
I could go on.
I spent years researching Capone’s life, and while I would never call my friend Jim a liar, I have no idea if any of the above claims are true. That’s the trouble with Capone: He was so big, so famous, and he mingled so thoroughly and so casually with the people of Chicago during his 10-year run as the city’s leading bootlegger that it’s difficult if not impossible to disprove claims such as these. Capone really did get around.
Capone represented a special kind of challenge to me as a biographer. On the one hand, everybody has a story about him. On the other hand, many of those stories were patently false.
When I began researching the life of this notorious criminal, I applied the same techniques and standards I’d used throughout my career as a newspaper reporter. I would write only what I could confirm from primary sources. And if primary sources were not good enough, I would admit my gaps in knowledge, present whatever information I could and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
I discovered quickly that Capone had become an almost mythological figure in American lore. We picture him with cigar stuck in his mouth and a Tommy gun in his hand, spraying bullets into his enemy. In truth, Capone was almost never seen holding a gun. After a violent incident early in his career, he was always careful to delegate his dirty work.
We also blame Capone for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, when seven men were brutally gunned town in 1929 in a parking garage on Chicago’s North Side. It turns out Capone was out of town when the attack occurred. Moreover, my research suggests he probably had nothing to do with it.
One more example: Most people think Eliot Ness was responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of Capone. In fact, he had almost nothing to do with it. My hunch is that Capone never heard of Eliot Ness. It was a mild-mannered attorney and a bunch of accountants who put Capone behind bars.
Just a businessman
I was disappointed at times while writing this book that I couldn’t describe some of the brutal scenes depicted in movies like “The Untouchables,” starring Kevin Costner. But once I got over that disappointment, I discovered that the true story of Capone’s career was more interesting than the film version. In “The Untouchables,” Robert DeNiro portrays Capone as a snarling psychopath. He was no such thing. Capone was capable of brutality, but he saw himself as a businessman first, and so did many of the people with whom he worked. It just so happened that his business involved the murder of rivals from time to time, but Capone believed that he was worthy of respect. He believed that the ban on booze was a flawed law and that he was merely providing a commodity that the vast majority of Americans continued to crave. He traveled safely throughout the city and mingled with ordinary citizens because he was a friendly, gregarious man, not a sneering monster.
To understand how Capone could have been both a criminal and a part of the Chicago community, one must understand American culture in the 1920s, when lawlessness became sexy and when everyone—even criminals—craved celebrity.
After the Valentine’s Day Massacre, President Herbert Hoover told members of his Cabinet that he wanted to send a message to Americans that even unpopular laws would be enforced. To make the point most forcefully, he wanted Capone jailed. When it became clear that there was no way to build a strong case against Capone for murder or bootlegging, the U.S. Attorney for Chicago, George E.Q. Johnson, made the difficult decision to pursue charges of income-tax evasion.
Some government officials didn’t care much for Johnson’s approach. They worried that going after Capone on something as mundane as an income-tax charge would be to admit their own failure. It was not the way to make Hoover look tough on crime.
But Johnson argued that the most important thing was getting Capone off the streets. Once he was gone, his organization would fall apart. It would send the message that no one was above the law in the United States, and that criminals weren’t the only ones capable of cunning.
In the course of my research, I found thousands of pages of George Johnson’s original working papers, including his memos to the White House, wiretaps of the Capone gang recorded by Eliot Ness and Johnson’s handwritten notes on Capone’s trial.
Was all of it thrilling? No, in fact, most of it was duller than U.S. tax code. Come to think of it, some of it was U.S. tax code.
But I loved getting my hands on it, touching and smelling the same pieces of paper that Johnson scattered across his desk as he prepared for Capone’s trial. I may never know where Capone bought his hats or whether he sneaked through tunnels at the Green Mill. But that’s fine. I don’t need the myths. The real Capone is good enough for me.

Jonathan Eig is the author of “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.” He’ll be speaking about Capone this Tuesday at UMW.

Q: When Al Capone was serving time in the Atlanta federal pen, did his wife live in a pink stucco house on West Paces Ferry Road?

By Andy Johnson

A: There are stories about Mae Capone staying at the Briarcliff Summit, which was a hotel in those days, while her husband, the notorious Chicago mob boss, was locked up (or was he?) at Atlanta’s imposing penitentiary from May 1932 until August 1934. I couldn’t find anyone who could confirm if she stayed at a pink house on West Paces Ferry Road, but the Capones never bought a home in Atlanta during that time, with Capone expert Mario Gomes calling that a “myth.” I discovered there’s more myths to the Capone legend while researching where Mae might have stayed while standing by her man. There are rumors of the him living it up along Ponce de Leon or Peachtree while he was supposed to be behind bars. You might have heard them. Capone stayed at the infamous Clermont Hotel or was spotted at the Woodruff Inn or had a suite at the Briarcliff Summit. He was so powerful, it seems, he could come and go between the pen and penthouse. This legend became so widespread that it began being accepted as fact. WABE producer Myke Johns shot down the stories of Capone carousing around town in recent articles for the Bitter Southerner (BitterSoutherner.com) and WABE.org. “As far as I can tell, any story about Capone being anywhere in Atlanta but inside the prison is entirely fabricated,” Johns wrote in an email to me last week. Capone’s time here ended when he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he was jailed until his release in 1939.

A close call with Al Capone

A close call with Al Capone By Rev. John Lutton 
I invited readers to send me stories of famous people in their family tree last week, and I received one I would like to share with you.
First of all, I wish to introduce the writer: James Alan Cox. Jim and I grew up together in Muncie and have been lifetime friends. He introduced me to guitar playing and singing. He still calls Muncie Home.
 Jim has been a performer and writer of country music for nearly all of his adult life. His website is jamesalancoxmusic.com.
Here is his story:
“Dad was a Western Union messenger in Chicago in the ’30s, and used to deliver messages to Al Capone, who rented several suites of one of the better hotels. Instructed that the message was for ‘Al Capone’s eyes only,’ several times he directly handed the telegram to the man himself, after being filtered through several body guards. As a result, he and Mr. Capone almost became friends.
“According to Dad, after delivering a message one afternoon, Al Capone told my Dad he liked him and offered him a job as a driver, figuring that Dad, being a messenger, probably knew the city well.”
“Dad had to make a quick decision and, of course, it was in the negative. From then on, my Dad said when he delivered a cable to him, Capone treated him like a complete stranger and never spoke to him or acknowledged him again.”
“In ‘43, when I was two years old, Dad moved us back to his hometown of Marion, and later to Mom’s hometown of Muncie. I’ve wondered if his leaving Chicago wasn’t smarter than he imagined, having rejected what I’m sure was a handsome offer from one of the top gangsters in the country.”
Something that might be of interest to amateur radio operators, or Morse Code buffs, Jim’s Dad could copy the Morse Code in his head at 35 wpm.
Jim and his wife, Sandy, are both amateur radio operators: His call is KA9PBO and hers is N9XYN.
If you get a chance, be sure and check out some of Jim’s tunes on his web page.
If anyone else has a story or name of fame to share, send it to me at my Gmail account listed below and we will see what we can do with it.
We pray God’s richest blessings to all.

Weird NJ: The Spanish Mansion and Al Capone

Neil Slowik for Weird NJ

BERKELEY – Located in the wood on the outskirts of Pinewald, near Cedar Creek, can be found the mysterious ruins of a hacienda-style dwelling that has come to be known in local lore as The Spanish Mansion. Today all that remains of the once opulent home are a few crumbling concrete archways, shrouded by intertwining thorn bush tendrils and poison ivy vines.
The actual name of the property was Cedar Crest and was once the home of B.W. Sangor, who developed Pinewald in the early 20th Century. But whenever the Spanish Mansion is brought up in conversation, someone will inevitably chime in with the rumors of Al Capone running an illegal liquor operation at the site. Most people who are familiar with the area seem to enjoy hearing and passing on these stories, but generally dismiss them as works of fiction. Well, it turns out that there might be a legitimate reason for the property's association with the mob after all.
B.W. Sangor was a close friend and business associate of Harry Donenfeld. This is the same Harry Donenfeld who at one point owned Detective Comics (DC). Donenfeld had ties within the New York mob community and reputedly engaged in a number of illegal activities, including running booze during Prohibition. Sangor was crooked as well and did time in the state slammer for embezzlement and larceny. I've never seen direct evidence of it, but I think that it is highly likely that Donenfeld visited Cedar Crest on one or more occasions. Given the friendship and business relationship between these two men it's possible that Cedar Crest really was used to produce or stash alcohol during Prohibition. Now, obviously that's a far cry from the locally circulated rumors of mob assassins burning bodies at the site, or a rat's maze of tunnels being located beneath Pinewald's sandy soil, but Sangor's association with Donenfeld definitely lends a little credence to some of the mob rumors.
Most of the mob rumors about the Spanish Mansion, however, involve Al Capone. So, did Capone ever set foot in Pinewald? I'd say the likelihood of that hinges on whether or not Harry Donenfeld, and possibly B.W. Sangor by extension had any verifiable ties with Capone's branch of the mob. It is also worth noting that the Spanish Mansion is not the only location in the area that is said to have ties to Capone, the former Royal Pines Hotel in nearby Bayville has long be rumored to have once been a favorite haunt of Scarface. As far as I've been able to determine though, Donenfeld's contacts were solely with the NY mob, and not Chicago. However, as it is said, there is a kernel of truth at the core of every legend. I often wonder if the locals of the day were confusing Donenfeld for Capone. In the meantime, I continue to look for more evidence.
The preceding article an excerpt from the brand new issue of Weird NJ magazine, #43, which is now available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com.

Weird NJ searches for Al Capone's summer home deep in the Jersey Pines

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