Miami Beach

The day when an infamous gangster died of syphilis at his Miami Beach mansion

FILE In this file photo taken Jan. 19, 1931, mobster Al Capone is photographed at a football game. As Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn considers signing a bill into legislation that would allow legal gambling for the first time in Chicago, opponents of the bill fear that political corruption and crime syndicate infiltration will follow. (AP Photo)
FILE In this file photo taken Jan. 19, 1931, mobster Al Capone is photographed at a football game. As Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn considers signing a bill into legislation that would allow legal gambling for the first time in Chicago, opponents of the bill fear that political corruption and crime syndicate infiltration will follow. (AP Photo) AP

He had a famous name He had a nice house. He lived among us in Miami Beach.

He also was one of the world’s most notorious gangsters.

Al Capone died at home on Jan. 25, 1947 — 72 years ago this month.

Here is a look back at his time in South Florida through the archives of the Miami Herald.

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The front page of the Miami Herald announcing Al Capone’s death in January 1947.

BACK IN TIME

Published Sept. 27, 2010:

A historic Miami courtroom goes back in time this week to the days when local prosecutors had the nation’s most famous gangster — Al “Scarface” Capone — on the ropes and on trial for perjury.

Tuesday morning, in the same courtroom where he stood 80 years ago, actors will take part in a mock recreation of Capone’s trial at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, 73 W. Flagler St.

Capone will take the stand in the now restored Courtroom 6-1 and utter the same words he did during his three-day trial there in July 1930. Starting at 9 a.m., the public is invited to attend the proceedings of the State of Florida vs. Alphonse Capone, Case #621.

So how did Capone break the law in Miami? Let’s set the stage. It’s April 1930. The pudgy and dapper Capone, fresh from serving 10 months in a Pennsylvania prison for carrying a concealed weapon, returns to his 93 Palm Island home in Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade College history professor Dr. Paul George reveals his favorite spots inside Al Capone's Palm Island mansion, the home where he passed away in 1947.

He doesn’t know new legal problems await him. Miami’s civil society is up in arms. Local newspapers describe Capone as a menace to their way of life. So city officials and the local sheriff adopt the so-called “Chicago Plan” -- geared to hassle the gangster so much he’ll move out of his beautiful mansion by the bay.

An order to arrest Capone “on sight” is issued by Dade Public Safety Director S.D. McCreary. Every time he leaves home, Capone could end up in jail. That’s just what happens four times during May 1930.

The first arrest comes as Capone is headed to a matinee showing at the old Olympia Theatre, now the Gusman, of The New Adventures of Fu Manchu. The charges against him often range from the non-existent crime of “investigation” to vagrancy because Capone doesn’t have any visible means of support.

“All the methods they employed to arrest Capone were clearly illegal,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott J. Silverman, official historian for the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, which is sponsoring the Capone mock trial as part of its centennial celebration.

Capone fights back. He accuses Public Safety Director McCreary of falsely imprisoning him. In retaliation, Capone is charged with two counts of perjury for alleging that during his arrests he was secretly confined and denied the use of a telephone.

At the original trial, the Miami Daily News described the scene: “The courtroom was crowded, exits being blocked and many women and children were present. A sister of the defendant, Mafalda, was seated beside him and attracted much attention.”

After days of testimony, the jury didn’t get the chance to decide Capones legal fate. Instead, Judge E. C. Collins announced his ruling from the bench. He acquitted Capone..

“As Judge Collins announced his decision, the crowd that had jammed the court room through the three days of the trial cheered wildly. They halted their demonstration only when the judge instructed bailiffs to arrest any who continued to cheer,” the Associated Press wrote.

Capone smiled broadly and thanked the crowd, the AP said. He didn’t know it, but it would be the last time he fought the law and won.

The day after his acquittal, Capone said he was abandoning his Palm Island mansion and moving to a 35-acre plot that he owned in Broward County, where he lived briefly.

Pleased, prosecutors dropped all other pending perjury charges. It seemed as though the “Chicago Plan” had worked. Capone had been run out of town.

But Capone would return. After Chicago federal authorities sent him to prison for tax evasion in 1931, he served eight years.

A sickly Capone then moved back to his Palm Island home in late November 1939.

Capone died there of a heart attack on Jan. 25, 1947. He was 48.

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Famed mobster Al Capone is shown in a family photo. Deidre Capone Courtesy for the Miami Herald

HIS LAST GETAWAY:

Published Feb. 3, 2008:

Al “Scarface” Capone beat the rap in Miami’s Courtroom 6-1, but within a year he would be locked up for good.

The name Alphonse Capone appeared as a defendant on the courtroom’s docket in early July 1930.

The charge: Not murder, but perjury — one count.

Historical photographs show a dandy Capone arriving at the Dade County Courthouse, flanked by police. Capone didn’t have to travel far to get to court. At the time, he had a winter mansion on Miami Beach’s Palm Island, just off the MacArthur Causeway.

Capone’s legal problems here stemmed from efforts by local lawmen to force him to skedaddle back to Chicago.

In their efforts to make Public Enemy No. 1 feel unwelcomed, Miami police and Dade County sheriffs hauled Capone to jail three times in a matter of months — all for minor charges.

The final time stuck. Prosecutors said Capone perjured himself in a civil lawsuit against Public Safety Director S. D. McCreary over his arrests. Capone had sworn that when arrested on May 3, 1930, McCreary denied him the use of a telephone to call his attorney and threatened his relatives, saying he would arrest them on sight.

All a big lie, prosecutors said.

The two-day trial began on July 10, 1930. Six wide-eyed jurors were picked to decide the fate of America’s biggest crime boss. But things ended. When the prosecution rested, Capone’s lawyers moved for a directed verdict of acquittal, claiming the state failed to prove its case.

Circuit Judge E.C. Collins agreed with Capone’s lawyers and found the beefy mobster not guilty. Five years later, Collins would resign after being tried on corruption charges.

However, a year after his victory in Courtroom 6-1, Capone was convicted on federal charges of income tax evasion and sent to the clink for 11 years.

His days as a mob boss were over.

In 1939, Capone was released after serving most of his prison time in Alcatraz. By then, he was suffering with late-stage syphilis. He returned to his Palm Island home where he lived until his death on Jan. 25, 1947 at age 48.

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This is an aerial view of the home of gangster Al Capone in Miami Beach on Oct. 24, 1931. ASSOCIATED PRESS

THE MUSICAL:

Published May 17, 1985:

No, it’s not another blood-and-guts, black-eye-for-Miami remake of the movie Scarface like the 1983 Al Pacino version, yammered into filming elsewhere by the Miami City Commission.

This time it’s a singing and dancing stage version — “America’s Sweetheart,” a musical on the life of Capone, opening to the public Saturday at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

For a couple of hours, Capone, his hoodlum sidekicks and the people of Chicago will trill and tap about larceny and the good life until the ugly mug of taxes rears its head and the federal bureaucracy finally gets the gangster.

The production and subject matter should intrigue audiences with a sense of South Florida history.

Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, termed with delicious simplicity “the most famous U.S. gangster” by the Encyclopedia Britannica, made Miami and Miami Beach his winter home on and off from 1927 to 1947. (Mostly off from 1932 to 1939 — when he was in Alcatraz and other prisons on that tax evasion matter.)

His son, Albert Francis, went to school and married here. He even got in trouble here, pleading “no contest” in 1965 to shoplifting $3.50 worth of headache pills and flashlight batteries. (“Everyone has a little larceny in them,” Albert explained at the time.)

Scarface himself died here — of syphilis — at about 7:15 p.m. on Jan. 25, 1947, in his 14-room house at 93 Palm Island. It was eight days after his 48th birthday.

His death occasioned the kind of lavish newspaper prose rarely seen since the days of The Front Page. His Page One Herald obituary referred to “a near-fatal dose of buckshot” and described the deceased (Capone ordered perhaps 500 killings) as “the scar-faced, disease-ridden gangster who invented the one-way ride and whose prohibition day hoodlum empire gave America in general and Chicago in particular a worldwide reputation for lawlessness.”

“America’s Sweetheart,” for all the suitability of its subject to South Florida, does not dwell much on the gangster’s connection to the region.

Miami Beach is seen mostly as the place where Capone relaxes while his cronies pull off the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre back home in Chicago. (Seven of the competition were machine-gunned to death that Feb. 14, 1929, in a killing so shocking that it began Capone’s downfall.)

But for all the musical’s casual attitude about South Florida, the Capone legend is so tightly woven into the beach blanket of Miami that his tracks remain vivid in the lives and land of the region.

As a Miami News copy boy in the 1920s, Allen Morris, now the much respected clerk of the Florida House of Representatives, once plotted to pose as a telegraph deliveryman, get an interview with Capone and make his reputation as a newsman.

Morris never followed through on the idea, however — “I thought they might throw me in the bay” — but his byline does show up years later on a long Herald story about Capone’s possible post-prison return to Miami Beach in 1939. “Al Capone,” Morris wrote, “ . . . has lost so much weight that it’s doubtful now whether those two suits fashioned for his Miami vacation will fit him.”

Capone touched the lives of non-media people, too, then and now.

Mention the gangster in a call to Professional Oxygen Services, 7280 NW 58th St., and there’s instant memory. Shirley Eyzaguirre volunteers, “Oh! My next door neighbor used to do Mrs. Capone’s hair!” (Later it turns out to be the hair of Al Capone’s son’s wife, but you get the idea.)

Professional Oxygen Services has its own connection with Capone. It provided the breathing apparatus for his last days, and its wood-sided station wagon was photographed at Capone’s gate when his brother, Ralph, brought beer out to newsmen then keeping deathwatch at the house.

“I was actually six years old then,” says Jeffrey Glasser, a Coral Gables dentist whose late father was co-founder of the 40-year-old oxygen business. “But I remember my dad’s truck was in Life magazine.”

Capone’s name is also attached to real estate all over South Florida.

There are, for example, the two El Portal houses. The gangster is rumored to have lived in the historic Sherwood House at 301 NE 86th St. (once Robin Hood Dr.) and stashed his Prohibition bootleg booze at 413 NE 89th St.

Boca Raton residents never have quite gotten used to calling the city’s only offshore park by its official name: Deerfield Island Park. To them, it’s “Capone Island” because the hoodlum once considered buying the property.

And then there’s the Burt Reynolds connection.

The Capone family once owned the 160-acre BR Horse Ranch in West Jupiter where The Bandit now stashes his horses, a tack- and-feed store, a country music radio station, a petting zoo and his parents.

But far and away the most important piece of Capone property is, of course, the nine-bedroom waterfront house at 93 Palm Island.

Capone paid $40,000 for it in 1928 and put in $200,000 worth of improvements. The Henry T. Morrisons bought it in 1971 for $56,000, and have lived there since. The property is now assessed at more than $500,000.

The Morrisons sleep in the bedroom where Capone died. “It’s the master bedroom,” Mrs. Morrison explains. And, no, there are no ghosts inside the house that she can see.

But there are sightseers and more sightseers outside the house. A tour boat floats past three times a day with its commentary in English and Spanish. And every now and again, when a local TV station shows an old Capone movie as WCIX-Channel 6 did last weekend, the traffic by the gate picks up.

The Morrisons just hate those movies.

“I now have two quite large dogs that I did not used to have,” she says. “And I have to keep the gates closed. Dade County is not as safe as it used to be, and I can’t open my gates to just anybody.”

And so Capone lives on, continuing to provide discomfort, if not pain, in some lives and amusement in others.

“He’s one of the highlights of my tour,” says Chuck Sofge, who runs the Island Queen II sightseeing boat past the Morrisons’ house. “The man’s been so famous. He’s known all over the world. No one on my boat has never heard of him -- except the littlest children.”

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