To Americans of the 1920s and 1930s, he was the notorious gangster Scarface Al, Public Enemy # 1. But when he arrived at Alcatraz in late August 1934, Alphonse “Al” Capone took on a more humiliating name: Prisoner. 85.
As Prisoner 85, Al Capone led a very different life from his days of freewheeling on top of Chicago snowshoes. He became a serious reader, musician and composer. A model prisoner, he kept a low profile, carried out his prison duties and rarely resorted to violence unless provoked, in one case hitting the head of a fellow inmate with a basin.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Al Capone was the man of the Renaissance for Alcatraz, but he seems to have kept his promise to make amends for his bad manners, at least temporarily.
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Al goes to Alcatraz
Alcatraz, located on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay and nicknamed The Rock, opened in August 1934, shortly before Capone’s arrival. It was a maximum security federal prison, considered escape proof. Capone, who was serving his sentence in Atlanta, was transferred there along with more than 100 other prisoners from across the United States.
Technically a white-collar criminal, convicted of tax evasion in 1931, Capone was an unusual choice for the jail freshman class. Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, tells HISTORY that he thinks attributing a government PR ploy to Capone to “show off their new prison and justify the cost.” What could be better than sending the most notorious gangster in the country?
At Alcatraz, Capone was assigned to a typical nine-by-five-foot cell. Unlike previous stops in his prison career, where he received privileged treatment, this would not be the case here. No more huge private cells, home cooked meals, phone privileges, or visits from gang buddies like Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz, as provided by the Cook County Jail in Chicago. There would also be no silk underwear, tailored suits or extra time on the tennis courts, as a sensational post from a former inmate he enjoyed in Atlanta claimed. (The Atlanta manager denied any special treatment for Capone.)
Although he was undoubtedly a celebrity, he was assigned the same kind of work as any other inmate: sweeping the halls, wiping the floors, doing laundry in the prison laundry. Another fellow inmate told reporters: “Al Capone does not have any more privileges than the others, except that he is not beaten or thrown in the dungeon. He has too much political influence for that.
WATCH: Inside Alcatraz: Legends of the Rock on HISTORY Vault.
Al Capone, passionate reader
Capone’s education had stopped when he was kicked out in seventh grade. (A teacher hit him, so he hit her back, according to Laurence Bergreen’s 1994 biography, Capone: The Man and the Times.) But prison gave him the opportunity to catch up on his reading.
Biographer Eig reports that Capone’s selections in the prison library suggest a man interested in self-improvement, including books on the proper use of English, the appreciation of music, and flower gardening. . He also subscribes to 87 newspapers and magazines, according to Bergreen’s tally.
One book in particular on Capone’s reading list stands out: Life begins at forty, a 1932 bestseller by Walter B. Pitikin. A popular inspirational speaker, Pitkin promised that “every day brings something new that adds to the exhilaration of life after forty years. The work becomes easy and brief. The game is enriched and lengthened. The leisure is growing. The afternoon of life is brighter, warmer, fuller of songs … ”For Capone, then 36 years old and serving an 11-year sentence, the book may have given him something to hope.
READ MORE: 8 Things You Need To Know About Al Capone
Al Capone, the man of music
Shortly after arriving at Alcatraz, Capone came up with the idea of starting a musical group with other inmates. He lobbied for a year before the manager gave in and allowed Capone to form an ensemble, which was allowed to work out no more than 20 minutes a day.
Capone chose the banjo, writes Bergreen: “He had never played this instrument or any other instrument, and there is no evidence that he was able to read music before prison, but he did. ‘is patiently acquainted with the basics of music theory and has finally been able to decipher musical notation and choose a few simple tunes, singing softly.
Playing drums in the Alcatraz band was another prominent gangster, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, a bank robber and kidnapper best known for his virtuosity with a machine gun.
Soon after, Capone traded his banjo for another instrument. Some biographers say it was a mandolin, but Eig notes that Capone himself called it a mandola, a similar but larger stringed instrument. The extra weight would have come in handy in a 1936 incident when a fellow inmate attacked Capone, then dabbed the floor near the showers, with a blade from a pair of scissors. Before a guard intervened, Eig wrote, “Somehow Capone grabbed his mandola, picked it up, and swung it like a club at his attacker.”
Capone quickly gained confidence in his musical skills, boasting in a letter to his son that he knew about 500 songs, especially show tunes. “Junior, there isn’t a song written that I can’t play,” he said. Capone also wrote at least one song himself, “Madonna Mia,” a sentimental tribute to his long-suffering wife.
The end of the line
WATCH: Coroner’s Report: Al Capone
Meanwhile, Capone was also suffering from syphilis, which had gone untreated for years. By the time he arrived at Alcatraz, the disease was incurable and he had started an intermittent descent into insanity.
The prison doctors tried an experimental treatment consisting of injecting Capone with the malaria virus, to raise his temperature and theoretically kill the syphilis. The treatment itself almost killed him, as did a second attempt.
In Capone’s remaining days at Alcatraz, he was at times lucid and mad at others. “His behavior has become totally unpredictable,” writes Luciano J. Iorizzo in his 2003 biography, Al Capone. “A model prisoner could turn into a berserk.”
If Capone was simply biding his time in jail until he could return to his former gangland glory, that couldn’t be the case. After his release from Alcatraz in January 1939, he had several months to serve his sentence, which he spent in federal prisons in Los Angeles and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. After a brief stint in Baltimore for medical treatment, he returned to his Palm Island estate near Miami, where he spent his days fishing, playing cards, entertaining visitors, and losing his mind. He died on January 25, 1947, eight days after his 48th birthday. His death certificate indicated that his profession was “retired”.