Original publish date: November 5, 2014
In May of 1932, 33-year-old Chicago Gangster Al Capone was sent to Atlanta Penitentiary following his conviction for tax evasion. Upon his arrival at Atlanta, Capone was officially diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. He arrived while suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from his cocaine addiction and dealing with the drug’s aftermath: a hole in his septum (the nose wall separating the nostrils). Capone busied himself at his prison job of stitching soles on shoes for eight hours a day, but his letters home were rambling and barely coherent. Contrary to his Chicago tough guy reputation, he was seen as a weak personality who could not deal with bullying by fellow inmates. His cellmate, seasoned convict & former low level Capone gang member Red Rudinsky, found himself becoming a protector for Capone. The conspicuous protection of Rudinsky and other friendly prisoners, as well as accusations from less friendly inmates, led prison official to believe that Capone was receiving special treatment.
Ironically, while these rumors were unfounded, it was decided to move Capone to the recently opened Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Once on “The Rock”, Capone went downhill fast. His neurosyphilis was slowly driving “Scarface” mad. He spent the last year of his sentence in the prison hospital, confused and disoriented. I once met an inmate who was at Alcatraz at the same time as Capone. He was an orderly in the prison hospital on the segregated 2nd floor of the prison (along with “Birdman” Robert Stroud) and regularly encountered “Big Al” on his rounds. He explained to me that he always had to be careful while near Capone as Al liked to engage in “Snowball” fights. The material used to make these snowballs was the worst you can imagine, suitable only for flushing down a toilet. Al Capone was going insane and Alcatraz wanted him gone.
Capone completed his term in Alcatraz on January 6, 1939 after serving nearly eight years of an 11-year sentence. Officials thought him harmless and didn’t think he had much longer to live. He was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in California, to serve out his sentence for contempt of court. After leaving Terminal island, the ailing ex prohibition gangster was transported and given his unconditional release at Lewisburg penitentiary in Philadelphia in the early hours of November 16, 1939, 75 years ago this week.
Capone was referred by prison officials to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for the treatment of paresis (weakness of the limbs and bodily functions caused by late-stage syphilis of the brain). Johns Hopkins refused to admit him solely based on his infamous reputation reported in the newspapers, but nearby Union Memorial Hospital took him in and gave him the necessary treatment to ease the disease.
Al Capone entered Union Memorial hospital as a private citizen but he didn’t travel light. Capone brought along an entourage including a massage therapist, bodyguards, a manicurist, chefs, and his very own food tasters, who spent a good amount of time testing out Little Italy’s finest for the ailing gangster. He ended up as the lone patient on the fifth floor. Scarface was attended to by well known syphilologists Dr. Joseph E. Moore and Dr.Walter Baetjer. Dr. Moore stated “The illness is a long standing nervous disorder for which he has recently undergone drastic treatment and for which further medical care is still necessary.”
After almost eight weeks at the hospital, on January 8,1940 the Capone’s took up residence at 5708 Pimlico Road in the city. It was believed that a home and family setting might be the best thing for Al and his recuperation. The family members that moved into the north end home were Al’s brother John, son Albert (aka “Sonny”), his mother Theresa and his wife Mae. According to his brother John Capone,” The Al Capone of today isn’t the Al Capone of a few years ago.” Al’s gangster brother Ralph would come up and visit occasionally at the hospital and then the home. Al could be seen taking short walks on the streets of Baltimore assisted by family members.
Although the Baltimore home was leased until April, the Capone’s felt that Al would recover more quickly at his sunny home in Palm Island, Florida. Without telling the doctors at Union Memorial, the Capone family packed up Al on March 19,1940 and made the 30-hour drive to Florida. John told reporters that they had left secretly from Baltimore because they did not want anything to happen that would aggravate Al’s condition. After the trip, the Capone family physician handed out a written statement reading: “His physical condition following the trip may be regarded as being considerably weakened. For the present he must be kept isolated and free from contact with anyone except his immediate family.” Big Al was now down to 230 from his “salad days” weight of 268 lbs.
In 1946, his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist performed examinations and concluded Capone had the mental capability of a 12-year-old child. Capone spent the last years of his life at his mansion in Palm Island fishing in his swimming pool and talking incoherently to long dead gangsters from his past. On January 21, 1947, Capone had a stroke. He regained consciousness and started to improve but contracted pneumonia. He suffered a fatal cardiac arrest the next day. On January 25, 1947, Al Capone died in his home, surrounded by his family; he wаs buried аt Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.
Al Capone never forgot the good care he received at the hospital and as a token of his appreciation, in 1940 he donated two Japanese weeping cherry trees as a parting gift. The trees were planted outside the hospital. Today only one tree remains; the second was chopped down during the hospital’s 1955 expansion of its medical records wing. The very un-gangster-like tree thrived and has signaled spring every year for its north Baltimore neighborhood for the last three quarters of a century. Known as the Capone tree, the gangster relic lives on outside the hospital’s East 33rd Street entrance (the entrance to the hospital’s original building).
During a 2010 snowstorm, the remaining tree was split in half and lost a 10-foot branch. The toppled tree limb left a gaping hole halfway up the trunk and raised concerns for the erstwhile gangster landmark. An arborist was called in to tend to the ailing tree. He found the tree “in general decline” but was able to save it. Fearful of not getting as lucky next time, several other smaller sprouts called “Caponettes” were planted around the hospital in hopes the legacy would continue.
The broken tree limb was saved by a local woodworking artist and fashioned into functional works of art. He made an assortment of bowls, trinket boxes, wine stoppers, pens and even a small vase from the wood of the felled limb. The hospital sold the broken limb artifacts on eBay as part of a hospital fundraiser known as Union Memorial’s “Champions of Care” gala. Today, its canopy spans 42 feet across and it nearly reaches the fourth floor, one story below where Capone and his entourage occupied an entire level of the hospital. The tree long ago reached celebrity status-more for its intriguing history than its imposing presence. It remains in place as a fleeting reminder of one of America’s most notorious gangsters in the form of a fluffy pink tree.