Creepy history, Criminals, Museums, Pop Culture

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

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Original publish date:  July 12, 2018

Recently I was fortunate enough to take a tour of an American treasure housed within the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland. What, you ask? An American treasure in a medical examiner’s office? Yes dear reader, let me share with you a story about the coolest display you’re ever likely to find in any government office, anywhere. This is the story of the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” On the fourth floor, room 417 is marked “Pathology Exhibit” and it holds 18 dollhouses of death. These meticulous teaching dioramas, dating from the World War II era, are an engineering marvel in dollhouse miniature and easily the most charmingly macabre tableau I’ve ever seen.

Frances Glessner Lee

These dioramas were created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962) over the course of 5 years between 1943 and 1948. Glessner Lee was a pioneer in the burgeoning field of forensic science and a trailblazer for women’s rights. She used a sizable inheritance to establish a department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1936. She donated the first of the Nutshell Studies in 1946 for use in lectures on the subject of crime scene investigation. Glessner Lee named her studies nutshells because they were designed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” She instructed her students to study each scene methodically by “moving the eyes in a clockwise spiral” before drawing conclusions based on visual evidence. Crime-scene investigators had 90 minutes to study each diorama.
I was fortunate to have Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant for the Office of the Chief M.E., as my personal tour guide. Bruce, a former EMT, newspaper writer and accomplished author many times over, knows more about the Nutshell Studies than any one else in the Clipper City. “There are 18 dioramas in our collection and another is housed in a museum in Littleton, New Hampshire.” Bruce says, “Glessner Lee was an heiress to the International Harvester fortune and a dedicated model-maker. Each diorama cost as much to make as a full sized house.” Each model cost about US$3,000–4,500 to create which, when calculated for inflation, translates to $ 40,000 to $ 60,000 today.

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Each exquisitely detailed miniature diorama (1 inch equals 1 foot or a 1:12 scale) depicts a different true crime scene and are so well done that they are still used for forensic training today. Bruce explains, “These are not famous crime scenes. They are local scenes chosen by Frances to tell a story using composites of actual court cases. They are designed to teach young investigators how to examine and preserve a crime scene properly.”
11-11-28 Nutshell StudiesHoused in impressive looking wood and glass locked cases, they are not unlike the ancient penny arcade mechanical machines recalled by every baby boomer’s childhood. Except these scenes are populated by dead bodies, gruesome instruments of death and startling realistic blood spatter patterns. The scenes take place in attics, barns, bedrooms, log cabins, bathrooms, garages, kitchens, parsonages, saloons, jails, porches and even a woodman’s shack. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine the cause of death, but look closer and conclusions are tested. There is more than meets the eye in the Nutshell Studies and any object could be a clue. Every element of the dioramas-angles of minuscule bullet holes, placements of window latches, discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses-challenges the powers of observation and deduction.
99percent_5Bruce says, “Look at the miniature sewing machine (about the size of your thumbnail) it’s threaded. There is graffiti on the jail cell walls. The newspapers (less than the size of a postage stamp) are real. Each one had to be printed on a tiny press, the newsprint is immeasurably small. The Life magazine cover is accurate to the week of the crime. The ant-sized cigarettes are hand rolled and burnt on the end. Amazing!” Bruce, who came to the M.E.’s office in 2012, says that although he’s been over every inch of each diorama, he is still making new discoveries.

Bruce Goldfarb and Alan E. Hunter

Bruce credits a recent exhibition of the Nutshell Studies at the Smithsonian for reinvigorating interest in the displays among the public. The dioramas were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC from October 20, 2017 to January 28, 2018. When I asked if they would ever be put on public display again, Bruce answers quickly, “Never. That is the last time they will be available to the general public. This is a classroom, not a gallery. The studies won’t leave this room again.” He continues, “The Smithsonian people really helped in our preservation efforts. They had expertise far beyond our knowledge.” Bruce especially credits Smithsonian conservator Ariel O’Connor for her expertise, “Ariel is the only woman to have entered the Apollo 11 capsule and only the 6th person overall. She was lowered Tom Cruise / Mission Impossible style into the capsule to retrieve a bag left under the seat by Neil Armstrong.”

Frances Glessner Lee’s diploma.

As informative as Mr. Goldfarb is on the dioramas, his eyes really light up when it comes to the artist. He explains “Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. and is considered the mother of forensic science.” Lee’s original commission as captain hangs nearby on the wall. Bruce delights in telling the story of how a woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the male-dominated field of police investigation and to establish herself as one of the founders of “legal medicine”, what we now call forensic science. “These studies are not puzzles waiting to be solved. They are designed to teach police officers to handle, observe and assess crime scenes. Frances wanted the investigator to get a sense of who these people were by deciphering the residual clues found in the surroundings.”
primary_298The Nutshell Studies made their debut at the homicide seminar in Boston in 1945. It was the first of it’s kind. Bruce says, “Frances’ intention was for Harvard University to do for crime scene investigation what they had done for their famous business school. When Frances died in 1962, support evaporated and by 1966, the department of legal medicine at Harvard was dissolved.” When asked how the displays made the trip from Harvard yard to Baltimore, Bruce states, “That’s a good question. When Harvard planned to throw them away, longtime medical examiner Russell S. Fisher brought them here in 1968. Fisher was a legend and a former student of Frances Glessner Lee. Fisher was one of the doctors called in to examine John F. Kennedy’s head wounds.”
Each study includes a descriptive crime scene report placard (written by Lee to accompany each case) containing a general outline of the crime, parties involved and date. But the solutions remain a secret. One such placard reads: “Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor.”

Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

One model shows farmer Eben Wallace hanged in a hay-filled barn. One depicts a man shot to death in a log cabin, another shows a charred body in a burnt home, another, a body splattered face-down on the sidewalk outside a three-story apartment complex and still another reveals the decomposing body of “Mrs. Rose Fishman,” found in a pink bathroom in 1942. The scenes are accurate to the tiniest of details, including the appropriate lighting. “Frances was very ingenious in her lighting choices. There were no LED lighting options available. She used turn signal bulbs, Christmas tree lights, flashlight bulbs, anything she could find. Sometimes it came down to the color of the bulb or a particular paint color to achieve appropriate mood lighting.” says Bruce. “The blood pools and spatter are actually finger nail polish, which took us forever to figure out.”
While perusing these fascinating dioramas, it’s easy to forget where you are. Researchers who work in the $43 million Forensic Medical Center call the state-of-the-art facility the “Bat Cave.” It is the largest free-standing medical examiner’s office in the country and home to some 80 full-time employees, many of them pathologists, who analyze death in minute scientific detail, much like the Nutshell Studies themselves. Here, the state of Maryland learns the facts behind thousands of deaths each year.

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Bruce Goldfarb

I inform Bruce that the last time I was in Baltimore was on April 15, 2015 during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It was 3 days after the tragic death of Freddie Gray that sparked Civil Rights protests in the city and all across the country. My visit this time came just 3 days after the Capital Gazette newspaper shootings in Annapolis. Bruce pauses, shakes his head slightly and says, “Yes, we were very involved in the Freddie Gray incident and we’re working on the Capital Gazette shootings downstairs right now.”
In a typical summer, the M.E.’s office receives 13 to 18 bodies each day (more than 8,000 per year). It is the sole medical examiner’s office for the entire state. Homicide accounts for about 14 % of deaths, suicide for 12 % and accidents for 27 %. The first floor of the building serves as a garage that can be transformed into a mass casualty center. A large classroom on the fourth floor, with banks of desks and communication connections, can become an emergency command center during disasters. It’s like a hospital where patients are getting a physical exam, one day too late.

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Each investigator is given a penlight to examine the diorama closer.

Bruce says the Nutshell Studies are an integral part of the M.E.’s popular 5-day homicide seminar every April. The seminars are limited to 90 people and are routinely filled to capacity. He reveals that the courses are likely to be expanded this October. “The seminars are not pass or fail, they are designed as a team exercise. Each team member is paired up with strangers. They are conducted the same way that Frances did them back in 1945. Each graduate receives a ‘Harvard Associates in Police Sciences’ diploma and a class photo. Historically, police officers and journalists do well.” Bruce says with a wry smile.

Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

However, the Nutshell Studies are not the only visual aids created by Frances on display in the M.E.’s office. The walls of the entryway to room 417 are lined with 48 incredibly realistic looking bullet wound patterns and the conference room has 3 life-size heads with bullet wounds, slashed throats and a reconstructed face. Cases contain cremated remains, shoes worn by people struck by lightning, exploded oxygen tanks and even a motorcycle helmet from a crash victim who died in an accident. But wait, there’s more.
Bruce asks, “Would you like to see the Scarpetta House?” Accompanied by official tech advisers Kris & Roger Branch and my photographer wife Rhonda, I answered “Absolutely” even though I had no idea what lay in store for us. Bruce explains that the Scarpetta house is an enclosed space decorated like a typical model home complete with a swing set and wooden deck “outside”, a furnished living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry room “inside.” It was donated by novelist Patricia Cornwell and the facility is named after Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell’s medical examiner heroine. Her books, including 24 novels in the Scarpetta series and 2 non-fiction books on Jack the Ripper, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

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The Scarpetta House.

It should come as no surprise that the Scarpetta house is incredibly accurate in every detail. Cigarettes on the kitchen table, cereal boxes on the counter, trash in the trashcans: it looks like someone just stepped out to get the mail. Bruce notes that a few years ago, the M.E.’s office used bloody mannequins to recreate death scene scenarios for investigators to solve, but now they use live volunteers to portray the dead.
“We have local makeup artists with ‘Special FX’ experience from TV and movies come in to apply the Moulage make-up. And they look very realistic. We’ve even had some celebrities come in to portray dead people. It’s like a bucket list thing with them.” Bruce continues, “Last year my brother came in and portrayed a suicide victim. His family asked him not to take the makeup off when he was finished so they could see it. I drove him home (in the passenger seat) with a gunshot wound (complete with dripping blood) to the right temple. I even pulled in to the 7-Eleven and parked. Nobody even raised an eyebrow. He warned me that if I got pulled over for speeding, he was gonna play dead and let me explain it.”
I must admit that by this time in our visit, the investigation bug had bitten our little group. The four of us were now spread out in the Scarpetta house in search of our own clues. And although the facility had been cleaned up after last Spring’s class departed, upon closer examination, blood spatter evidence remained in those hard to reach places found in normal household scenarios. For example, the space between the toilet & sink, the bathtub grout and that pesky space between the fridge and the cabinet. Rhonda notes that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom but the empty roll remained on the holder. “That is a crime in itself,” she states. While in the kitchen, Bruce pauses before saying, “Oh yeah, don’t open the fridge” before walking out of the room. Although tempted, we took his advice and left it alone without ever knowing exactly what was inside of it.

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Photo Courtesy Forensic Medical Center State of Maryland. 

Viewing the Nutshell Studies in this information age of virtual reality, it becomes easy to appreciate them as works of art and popular culture over and above their importance as forensic tools. Lee’s hyper-real dioramas are designed to re-train people to see. It becomes obvious that Frances Glessner Lee’s genius for story telling by using simple materials was both exacting and highly creative in her pursuit of detail-knitting tiny stocking by hand with straight pins, writing minuscule letters with a single-hair paintbrush, and crafting working locks for tiny windows and doors. Exacting details, easily overlooked.
What may be most overlooked in her dioramas is the subtle social commentary found within these complex cases. Her subversive velvet touch challenges the mores of femininity, questions domestic bliss and upends the traditional ideals for dollhouse miniature modeling, sewing, and other crafts considered to be “women’s work” back in the day. Often, her models focus on society’s “invisible victims” and feature victims (women, the poor, and people living on the fringes of society) whose cases might be overlooked or tainted with prejudice on the part of the investigator. She wanted trainees to recognize and overcome any unconscious biases and to treat each case equally, regardless of the status of the victim.
So much of today’s culture is digital, and the Nutshell Studies are three-dimensional. You can’t really understand it from a flat page; you have to see it to believe it. And if that isn’t enough, Bruce Goldfarb is in the final stages of a book about Frances Glessner Lee. “Why not? I know her as well as anyone and it’s a story is worth telling. ” Bruce says. I’m sure that Bruce’s book will sum it up quite nicely…in a nutshell.


Alan E. Hunter and Bruce Goldberg.  Photo by Rhonda Hunter.


Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
Photo by Rhonda Hunter.
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Criminals, Ghosts

Gypsy Ghosts in Terry Hot. (Terre Haute, Indiana)

Original publish date:  March 20, 2014

z timthumbWhen you hear the term “Gypsy”, what comes to mind? A vagabond road wanderer? A classic motorcycle? Maybe a Sonny and Cher song? Well, let me share with you a real gypsy story from a century ago that happened just up the National Road in Terre Haute. On May 16, 1914 three bodies were interred in “Terry Hot’s” Highland Lawn cemetery. According to newspaper accounts of the day, at the burial site “strange balls of incense” were placed around the graves. As the caskets were slowly lowered into the ground, veiled women wailed, tore at their clothing and pounded their chests. Their grief cut through the thick sickly sweet smoke hovering over the graves like a switchblade. When the graves were closed wine bottles were opened and their contents pored atop each grave in the shape of a cross.
Socca Demetro, her father Bob Riska and son-in-law Joe Riska were gone. The trio had been part of a group of about thirty Gypsies who had traveled north from their winter quarters in Kentucky to set up camp on the outskirts of West Terre Haute, arriving on May 1st, 1914 . They parked their wagons and pitched their tents along Paris Avenue, an area that 100 years later still carries a seedy reputation populated by strip clubs, bars, liquor stores and cheap motels. West Terre Haute was a known “friendly” stopover for Gypsy caravans and railroad hobos. The self described “King of the Hobos”, known only as “A-No1”, lauded the area in his 1911 book “Hobo Camp Fire Tales” as a place with two great “hobo jungles” and very tolerant citizens.
No small feat when you consider that back then, Gypsies were a much despised group most associated with “curses, kidnapping, thievery and general chicanery”. Stories were told of how the “filthy gypsies” would kidnap children and steal everything in sight. The gypsies encamped here sustained themselves by fortune telling, horse-trading, and selling their handmade goods to the townsfolk. It was considered high risk entertainment to brave a walk through these camps to witness the exotic women and ethnic traditions not usually found in the American heartland. Shopkeepers were eager to sell their visitors staple goods but were forever keeping a keen eye out for shoplifting connected to the Gypsy people.
z roma-childrenThe May Day visit began like any other visit to town by the Gypsies. But Sunday May 3rd would prove to be an especially raucous day in camp. No-one knows what the Gypsies were celebrating, but celebrating they were. During the day (and through most of the night) 8 kegs of beer, wine and ale were consumed in camp. Neighbors reported the “camp was a scene of brawling and hilarity.” Eventually, most of the Gypsies passed out cold in their bunks. But in the predawn hours of Monday, one man still stalked the camp: John Demetro.
John (Pronounced Tsine in the Gypsy culture), was a large, surly man with a commanding presence. He was a 55 year-old Brazilian who listed his profession as coppersmith, and most considered him to be a leader of the band. By 5:30 AM, a drunken Demetro was convinced that his wife Socca had been unfaithful to him and he felt his in-laws were covering it up. Around 6:00 the camp was startled awake by the sound of gunshots. Panic spread through the camp after 3 dead bodies were found in the Demetro tent. Big John was not among them. Terrified clan members ran to a nearby saloon and adjacent farmhouse to report the crime. West Terre Haute police were notified and quickly responded.
z gypsy-wagon-with-hohrseCamp residents warned officers to be careful as Demetro was still stalking around the camp, most likely armed with his 16-shot Remington rifle, and was sure not to go down without a fight. Officers found him sitting in front of his tent, gun laid across his lap, staring blankly at the ground. Policemen cautiously approached, guns drawn, ready for a gunfight. But instead of resisting, Old John placidly handed over his gun and calmly surrendered. When they drew back the tent flap, they learned that Demetro had first bludgeoned, then shot, his wife to death. He then turned the gun on her father Bob Riska and shot Joe Riska in the face. Socca and Bob were DOA but Joe, despite missing half of his head, was still clinging to life. They took John to jail and Joe to the hospital were he died of his awful shotgun wound the next day.
After John was taken to jail, the Gypsy “tribe” set about the task of the burying their dead. The bodies were taken to Hickman’s funeral home and the tribe moved east of Terre Haute away from the death scene. The tribe asked for the most expensive caskets and purchased them with cash. Soon, the upscale stores in town were visited by groups of exotically attired Gypsies who purchased the best clothing available for their dead. Socca was dressed in an expensive “silk dress of brilliant colors and oriental design.” Her head was wrapped a crimson red silk scarf, her feet covered by red silk stockings and red leather slippers. Her father, Bob, wore a fine dark suit and crisp felt hat. Son-in-law Joe was dressed in a light suit, expensive Panama hat and low cut tan shoes. Both men wore silk underwear. Pipes and exotic tobacco were placed in each coffin. The bodies were covered with white silk sheets.
When a reporter attempted to ask an aged woman a few questions, she broke down, wailing between statements in broken English and murmuring Demetro’s name in a thick accent while she mimicked the signs of a hanging. In the meantime, John was arraigned in city court on May 8th, ironically the day after Congress declared Mother’s Day a National holiday and the day before President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law. After entering a plea of not guilty, he was charged with murder four days later and a September trial scheduled. It was the beginning of a two-year process.
After two continuances, the trial commenced in September of 1915. Although nearly a year and a half later, members of the tribe flooded the town for the event, most staying in a boarding house on North 4th Street. The night before the trial, police responded to the boarding house on a report noted as a “babblement” by the dispatcher. A scuffle had started in one of the rooms when a supporter of the accused bellowed that he was going to pay $300 to get Demetro out of jail. Police had to push through a crowd of curious locals to get into the house. Once inside, police drew their revolvers when they were confronted by an angry crowd of Gypsies fighting among themselves. To diffuse the situation, they hustled seven men outside to a waiting paddy wagon and off to jail. After the situation calmed down, aided by nearly every police officer in Terre Haute, all but one of the men were released.
Later, around midnight, a member of the clan walked into the station to file a complaint against boarding house owner Charles Grubb. He accused the innkeeper of stealing $ 40 from under the pillow of Demetro John’s mother. Grubb was arrested. The next day at the trial the Gypsies were searched before being allowed entry into the courtroom. The accused sat in a chair surrounded by his son and 3 nervous deputies. After much legal wrangling, the case was postponed yet again. Prosecutor “Little” Dick Wereneke argued against it, citing costs of once again bringing back witnesses to testify, but failed. Defense lawyers argued that their client could not possibly get a fair trial in this town and asked for a change of venue, and succeeded.
The trial was moved to nearby Rockville in covered bridge country. In January, 1915 the court convened but this time, the John Demetro who appeared in court was a broken man. He had lost 60 pounds and he was pale as a ghost. Seems that jail had taken a toll on the man who had previously lived a life unbound by walls or borders. Jailers reported he had collapsed while making the short trip from the jail to the courthouse. They told the judge that John “worries about his problems and seldom eats.” In addition, Demetro was broke. He entered jail in 1914 with $ 5,000 in his possession but the costs of his defense had made him a pauper.
Once again, the trial was postponed. In April, 1916, a plea bargain was made. Two of the murder charges were dropped and the defendant plead guilty to the second degree murder of his wife. On April 20th he was taken to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to serve out a life sentence. The long ordeal was over. By now, he was 58-years-old and prison records list his mental condition as insane. He spent most of his time in the prison hospital. Astonishingly, the government of Indiana wanted this sickly Gypsy prisoner off its hands. On December 12th, 1916, within 18 months of Old John’s imprisonment and against the wishes of his own Board of Pardons, Governor James P. Goodrich paroled Demetro (longtime rumors persist that a bribe was passed). The parole stated that John “had no previous criminal record, was in poor health, bordering on insanity, and suffering from ‘locomotor attaxis’ which prevented him from walking.” He was to be transported back to Brazil by his son to die. He was released on December 13th.
z gypsyJohn Demetro’s wife and other victims lay in a Terre Haute Cemetery far from the lands of their birth. In Terre Haute’s Highland Cemetery Gypsies make almost annual pilgrimages to visit the graves each summer. Of course, there are numerous reports that the gravesites are haunted by “Gypsy Ghosts”, but most consider these stories as mere folklore designed to scare girlfriends and make kids nervously giggle. But, like every historical ghost story, there is truth behind the legend.


Baseball, Criminals

The New York Mets, Bobby Bonilla and Bernie Madoff.


Original publish date:  July 6, 2015

On Sunday, October 7, 2001, 6-time all-star Bobby Bonilla of the St. Louis Cardinals stepped to the plate before a crowd of 47,518 fans at Busch Stadium. The 3-time silver slugger award winner appeared as a pinch hitter and struck out in the 9-2 loss to the Houston Astros. It was Bonilla’s last at bat as a player. He officially retired at season’s end citing “injuries and reduced playing time” as the main reason for his decision. And although Bobby Bonilla has not recorded an MLB at-bat in 14 years, on July 4th, he cashed a $1.19 million paycheck from the New York Mets.
Bonilla was a 3rd baseman / outfielder for 8 teams (Pirates, Mets, White Sox, Marlins, Braves, Cardinals, Orioles and Dodgers) during his 16 year big league career. He finished with a .279 lifetime batting average, 287 homers and 1,173 R.B.I. He turned 52 years old this year and yet his salary would be the eighth-highest on the Mets 2015 payroll. He received his first million-dollar-plus check on July 1, 2011 and will continue to receive one every year until 2035. The $1.19 million tag would place him above Mets stars Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey even though Bonilla hasn’t worn a Mets uniform in 16 years.
At his peak, he averaged 20 home runs a year with 100 RBIs and a batting average over .300. In 1991, Bobby signed a five-year $29 million contract with the Mets that made him the highest paid baseball player ever, up to that point. Bonilla played for the Mets from 1992-1995, tanked, then bounced around the league for 3 teams in 3 seasons. He returned to Shea Stadium and the Mers in 1999 when he hit a paltry .237 with seven homers and 30 RBI in 60 games. During that horribly bad season, Bonilla spent the bulk of his time arguing with manager Bobby Valentine. The season ended with an embarrassing incident that irreparably severed the Mets love affair with Bobby Bonilla.
In Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, the Mets were down to the Atlanta Braves 5-0 in the first inning. By the 7th inning, the Mets had tied the game. Both teams battled run-for-run to remain tied through the 10th inning. By then, Bonilla and teammate Rickey Henderson had been pulled from the lineup. While their teammates were fighting for their series lives (they were down to the Braves 3 games to 2), Ricky and Bobby were absent from the dugout. Seems they were in the clubhouse playing Go Fish as the Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves 10-9 in 11 innings The victory sent the Braves to the World Series.

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New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, Bonilla and manager Bobby Valentine.

By then, the Mets wanted to get rid of Bonilla’s contract so badly that they deferred his $5.9 million buyout until the year 2011. Ironically, Bonilla signed with Braves for the next season even though the Mets still owed him $5.9 million. Enter the biggest financial error in Mets history. Instead of simply writing Bonilla a check for that amount in 2011, they agreed to spread it out over 25 years, plus interest. The Grand total after eight percent interest? $29,831,205. Cha-Ching!
So why on earth would the New York Mets agree to that incredibly lucrative contract that still pays Bobby Bonilla millions every year? The answer involves some razzle-dazzle financial planning, an overly aggressive Mets owner and, are you ready for this? Bernie Madoff. Mets owner Fred Wilpon accepted the deal mostly because he was heavily invested with Ponzi scheme operator Madoff. Wilpon did the math and decided that the 10 percent returns he believed he was getting on his Madoff investments outweighed the 8 percent interest the Mets were paying on Bonilla’s initial $5.9 million. While it is true that the Mets team owner deserves the blame, Bonilla deserves some credit here.
Bobby was in the twilight of his career and he knew that these were likely the very last dollars he would ever see from a big league contract. He was still young (36) with a young son and daughter who would be looking to go to college, and he likely had many years worth of life left to live. Whatever money he had saved up plus this final payment from the Mets would need to last him the rest of his life. Bonilla surely realized that high profile athletes going broke was an all too common story. Sports Illustrated recently reported that 70% of NFL players, 60% of NBA players and a high majority of MLB players went bankrupt within 2-4 years after retirement.
z marijuana--pile-of-moneyMany of these athletes are notoriously bad at managing their own money. Their teams often take care of all travel, meal and lodging expenses as part of their contracts. They see their salaries as instant, disposable income and make terrible investment decisions. When they retire or injury ends their career, they continue to spend wildly even though there is no more money coming in. Curt Schilling lost every cent of the $50 million he made playing baseball on a failed video game company. Allen Iverson squandered a $150 million fortune on gambling, houses, jewelry, child support and a 50-person entourage. Mike Tyson blew through a $300 million fortune. Evander Holyfield blew through a $250 million fortune. Phillies star Len Dykstra lost his fortune, then regained it only to lose it again. Locally, former Colts Quarterback Art Schlicter lost his fortune to drugs and gambling and he has been in-and-out of prison since his playing days ended.
When it came time to leave the Mets, Bonilla was smart enough to negotiate one of the most forward thinking contracts in sports history. He knew the Mets wanted him gone but they still owed him $5.9 million. Bonilla and his agents offered the team a quick fix: The Mets could release him and delay paying him the $5.9 million buyout for 11 years, with interest, starting in the year 2011. When he received his first payment, Bobby was 48 years old and had not played in the big leagues for a decade. He has basically guaranteed himself a big league salary every year for the rest of his life. Today Bobby Bonilla makes more than most of the team’s active players! So, again, why would the Mets ever agree to that deal?
In 1986, real estate developer Fred Wilpon purchased 50% of The New York Mets for an undisclosed sum. He then purchased the remaining 50% for $135 million in 2002. Wilpon was one of the biggest investors in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme hedge fund. It has been reported that Wilpon lost about $700 million with Madoff, which led to speculation that he would be forced to sell the team. Wilpon expected that the Mets would actually make a huge profit by deferring Bonilla’s $5.9 million. Even though it meant agreeing to pay Bonilla more than five times the amount they owed ($29.8 million), Wilpon estimated that the Mets would make $60-70 million in interest off of the $5.9 million over those 25 years investing with Madoff. Unfortunately for the Mets, Bernie Madoff’s investment fund was actually a gigantic scam that wiped out between $20 and $65 billion in wealth for thousands of investors. Madoff’s in jail for the rest of his life, Bonilla is a lifetime millionaire and Wilpon is still majority owner of the New York Mets. Go figure.
G1BBNOT21 3C S USA PA$1.9 million annual salary a decade after an employee leaves the job? What does all that mean? Well, nothing really. That is nothing to everyone except Bobby Bonilla. Keep in mind that an average annual teacher’s salary in Indiana is $ 53,000, a Hoosier cop makes about $ 50.000, a Circle City Fireman makes about $ 45,000 and the President of the United States makes $ 400,000 per year. To me it means that it’s the Major League All-Star game break again and I felt like writing a baseball story. True, the Bonilla deal remains a trivial footnote from the pages of sports history, but it’s a footnote that I find infinitely interesting.

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Criminals, Indianapolis

John Mathews, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and six degrees of separation.

SONY DSCOriginal publish date:  February 19, 2016

Remember the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” that was so popular a few years back? It was a parlor game based on the concept that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. The winner is determined by the person able to use the least links to get to Kevin Bacon. Example: Someone draws the name Elvis Presley. Elvis was in the 1969 film CHANGE OF HABIT with Ed Asner. Asner was in the 1991 movie JFK with Kevin Bacon. Next player gets Will Smith. Smith and Jon Voight starred in ENEMY OF THE STATE… Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds starred in DELIVERANCE… Burt Reynolds and Demi Moore starred in STRIP TEASE…Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon starred in A FEW GOOD MEN . So Elvis wins.
I sometimes find myself playing six degrees with two of my favorite subjects: Abraham Lincoln and Indiana. I also love historical trivia. This article involves both. John Mathews was an actor and childhood friend of Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Mathews grew up with Booth in Baltimore Maryland and remained a close friend right up to that fateful night in April of 1865. They had the same jet black hair and classic features, but Mathew lacked the style and charisma that made Booth the superstar who many considered the most handsome man in America at the time. In fact, Mathews was acting on stage at Ford’s Theatre the night his friend killed the President.
Sometime around 11:00 am on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth left the National Hotel and went to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail. At Ford’s he learns that President Abraham Lincoln would be attending the evening performance of Our American Cousin. Booth paced around the theater in a trance for some time before he decided that this would be the perfect time to assassinate the president.
zjohn-h-mathews-croppedThat afternoon, Booth sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of a Washington D.C. newspaper called the National Intelligencer. In it, he explained that his plans had changed from kidnapping Lincoln to assassinating Lincoln. He signed the letter not only with his own name but also three of his co-conspirators: Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold. Then he got up and walked his rented horse down Fourteenth Street.
Around 4:00 pm, Booth runs into his old friend Mathews on the street near Willard’s Hotel. As it happens Mathews was playing the role of Richard Coyle in Our American Cousin that night. Booth greeted his friend with excited handshake, Mathews later recalled that Booth squeezed his hand so tightly that his nails left marks in his flesh. He gave Mathews the letter and asked him to deliver it to the National Intelligencer the next day. Booth got on his horse and rode off, passing General Ulysses S. Grant’s carriage along the way. Mathews, used to his friend’s odd behavior, tucked the letter into his coat pocket and thought no more about it.
Six hours later Booth enters Ford’s Theatre lobby around 10:07 P.M. He walks in the shadows along the curved back wall of the theatre up to the President’s box. Within minutes, Booth mortally wounds the President, jumps from the box 12 feet to the stage (breaking his leg in the process) and vanishes into the night. Inside the theatre, chaos ruled. Mathews and many of his fellow actors decided fairly quickly that the best thing they could do was to get out of there quick. Back then, actors were considered in the same vein as pickpockets, confidence men, rat catchers and prostitutes and they wanted nothing to do with the police. Those few actors who remained were quickly rounded up and jailed by the police. Harry Hawk, the actor who had been on stage at the moment of the shooting, wandered the streets of Washington aimlessly all night too afraid to go home.
In the chaos following the shot, Mathews retreated to his nearby boardinghouse. The streets were choked with people and soldiers guarded the entrance to every building. Mathews climbed the gutter to the open window of his upstairs room totally unaware that Booth’s letter was still secreted away in his overcoat pocket. As he removed his coat, the envelope dropped out with a pop onto the hardwood floor. Time stood still as a terrified Mathews stared at the unopen letter laying at his feet. “Great God,” he surely thought, this could be the instrument of my doom.zjonathan-h-mathews-cropped
30-year-old Mathews picked up the envelope with the care and concern of a surgeon. He slowly turned it over in his hands, unsure of what to do. Finally, he decided to open the letter. While the true contents of the letter are known only by Mathews and Booth, Mathews claimed it was a detailed confession to the assassination. Mathews quickly destroyed the letter by throwing it into the fireplace after reading it. After all, no one wanted the authorities to believe that they were associated with the assassin, childhood friendships notwithstanding.
After watching the fires consume the murderous edict, Mathews climbed back out the window and nervously walked back to the place he knew best; Ford’s Theatre. John Mathews almost got himself hanged twice on assassination night. Two separate crowds tried to hang him based on his resemblance to Booth and because he was in the theatre that night. He escaped the first unscathed. The second time, the rope had already been placed around his neck when some soldiers rescued him. Eventually, Mathews was detained by the authorities; partly for his own safety and partly for interrogation.
In time, Mathews revealed his long association with Booth and the details of the mysterious letter. He tried to reconstruct the letter for authorities but strenuously proclaimed his innocence and complete ignorance of his friend’s murderous intentions. Despite his protestations, he was detained for several days as an accomplice. Luckily for Mathews, Booth read newspaper accounts smuggled to him while hiding in the pine thicket of the southern Maryland woods. He discovered that Mathews had not delivered his manifesto to the newspaper as promised. Booth recreated it for posterity in his diary and it would match, nearly word-for-word, Mathews account of the letter.
After his release, Mathews was so frightened that he thought briefly of changing his name, but relented. Although risky and unpopular, Mathews remained faithful to his friend Booth for the rest of his life. He told friends and fellow actors, his sole reason for burning the letter was to erase any evidence against his friend. Even three decades later, he referred to the country’s first presidential assassination as “the great mistake.”
Interesting to be sure, but what about the trivia and the six degrees? John Mathews lived upstairs at Petersen’s Boardinghouse, the house directly across the street from Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was taken after he was shot. Petersen often rented rooms to the stock actors playing at Ford’s. During the 1864-65 season both John Mathews and fellow actor Charles Warwick had previously rented the room Willie Clark was renting on April 14. It was in private Willie Clark’s room where Abraham Lincoln died at 8:22 am on April 15, 1865.
Booth knew both actors well enough that he often stopped and chatted with each of them there. A few accounts go so far as to claim that Booth himself spent the night in the Petersen house, possibly even in the room in which Lincoln died. What historians know for sure is that Mathews was boarding at the Petersen House on March 16th when he returned to find Booth stretched out on the bed, hands clasped behind his head calmly smoking a cigar while waiting for him. It was the very same bed in which Lincoln died less than a month later.
z attachment-image-154bab99-e5ab-487c-82b3-f53b57612c82Apparently Booth visited Mathews and Warwick at the Petersen house and both rented the Lincoln death room on numerous occasions. Both actors recalled Booth visiting them there, stretching out on the bed, laughing and telling stories, chomping on a cigar or with his pipe hooked in his mouth. There are several unconfirmed claims that Mathews was actually staying in an upstairs room at the Petersen House on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The accounts are speculative at best but tantalizing to be sure. If that were the case, then Mathews burned Booth’s confessional letter in a fireplace just feet away from the dying President.
As for the six degrees? John Mathews is buried in the Actors Fund plot of Kensico cemetery in Valhalla, New York a few feet away from vaudevillian actor Pat Harrington, Sr. His son Pat, Jr. played handyman Dwayne Schneider in the TV show “One Day at a Time” that also starred Bonnie Franklin, Valerie Bertinelli and MacKenzie Phillips. The sitcom was based in Indianapolis. I win!

Assassinations, Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, John F. Kennedy, Politics

Lee Harvey Oswald and the death of Innocence. Part I

oswaldshot1Original publish date:   December 7, 2013

Fifty years ago this month, the death of innocence in America began. I believe its roots can be found in a single diary entry made on February 1, 1961 that reads: “Make my first request to American Embassy, Moscow for reconsidering my position, I stated “I would like to go back to U.S.” Nearly two weeks later, on February 13, 1961, the author of that diary entry officially notifies the Embassy that he wants to return to the United States. That disgruntled Cold War continental traveler was Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy.
Indeed, a case can be made that the path to the death of innocence in America was paved by many events; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Watergate? However it was the death of JFK that changed America forever. True, three U.S. Presidents were assassinated before Kennedy, but these murders were perpetrated by men best described as “nuts with a cause.” Oswald killed Kennedy for one reason only; fame. Lee Harvey Oswald proved once and for all that one motivated, unknown man with a gun can change history forever. That single act shattered the myth of the invincibility of power and fostered an atmosphere of mistrust of authority that survives to this day.
The assassination of Kennedy is much too complicated to sort out in this simple article and I assume that all of the facts, theories and lore are well known to my readers, so I won’t debate the particulars here. The facts are that both men are dead and both men are forever linked by this one cowardly act. Kennedy was a true American hero; an accomplished author, legendary statesman and devoted father who deserves to be remembered for the way he lived, not the tragic way he died. Oswald is an American nightmare; the product of the original dysfunctional family, a disgraced Marine, a misanthrope who craved fame so much that he didn’t care who he killed to get it. The fact that Oswald’s name is known by millions of Americans disturbs me, but would delight the assassin immeasurably today.
Controversy followed Lee Harvey Oswald for all of his life and doesn’t appear to be waning nearly fifty years after he pulled the trigger. He very publicly supported Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the late 1950s. He defected to Communist Russia at the height of the Cold War in 1960. He changed his mind and returned to the United States, with a Russian bride, in 1961. He tried to kill right-wing Major General Edwin Walker in April of 1963. He killed millionaire President John F. Kennedy with a $ 20 mail order rifle in November of 1963. He was killed two days later in what was the first televised murder in the history of our country. For the next 3 decades he was the central figure in countless conspiracy theories revolving around the death of the President. His body was exhumed in 1981 when rumors persisted that he was not the corpse buried in his own grave. And most recently, his coffin was auctioned for @ $ 87,500 by a California auction house.

For saleLee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 by firearm from the sixth floor of the Texas schoolbook depository in Dallas, Texas. Later that day, Oswald murdered Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit by shooting him four times on a Dallas street approximately 40 minutes after Kennedy. He was arrested while seated in the Texas Theatre a short time later and taken into police custody. On Sunday, November 24 Oswald was being led through the basement of Police Headquarters on his way to the county jail when, at 11:21 a.m., Dallas strip-club operator Jack Ruby stepped from the crowd and shot Oswald in the abdomen. Oswald died at 1:07 p.m. at Parkland Memorial Hospital-the same hospital where Kennedy had died two days earlier. A network television camera was broadcasting the transfer live and millions witnessed the shooting as it happened. After autopsy Oswald was buried in Fort Worth’s Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park.
In 1981, with widow Marina Oswald’s support, the grave was opened to test a theory from a conspiracy book alleging that during Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union he was replaced with a Soviet double. The rumor claimed that it was this double, not Oswald, who killed Kennedy and who is buried in Oswald’s grave. The author charged that the remains, if exhumed, would prove it when a surgical scar Oswald was known to carry would not be found. Robert Oswald (brother of Lee Oswald) obtained a temporary restraining order halting the exhumation. Marina filed suit against Robert to allow the exhumation to proceed. Two days later citing emotional and financial burdens, Robert withdrew his opposition to the exhumation.
Backhoes began the process with the onset of sufficient daylight at about 6:30 am Central time on October 4th. The initial plan called for the removal of the entire concrete vault containing the casket. When the excavated vault was found to be cracked it was immediately obvious that the casket and body had suffered extensive water damage. The casket cover was noted to be severely weakened and one section had fallen in, actually exposing the remains to onlookers.
The casket was then covered by a cardboard lid and carefully slid onto a wooden platform placed in the trench alongside the coffin. The entire platform was then raised and placed in a waiting hearse for the trip to nearby Baylor University. The excavation took about two and a half hours, by which time the small crowd had turned into a large one including the morbidly curious and several members of the news media.
The remains arrived at Baylor and the examination began at 10:00 am. The casket was opened and it was obvious that the water that had so damaged the coffin had caused marked decomposition of the body as well. The exposed ribs crumbled with only mild pressure and the beige viscera bag containing the organs (placed in the bag after the original ’63 autopsy) was in full view.
Mortician Paul Groody, who had embalmed and buried Oswald in 1963, remained in the examination room long enough to identify the remains as those he had worked with. First, he observed rings on the hands of the body that were placed there by Marina Oswald. The rings, a gold wedding band and a red stone ring, were the same and seemed to be in the same position as he remembered. Secondly, Groody recognized the aforementioned viscera bag that was not in common use in 1963. Finally, Groody noticed that the clothes were those that he had placed on Oswald before he was laid to rest. After making his identification, Groody promptly left the examination room.
The identification would be made primarily using dental records. However, the team was aware of the craniotomy procedure performed on the skull of the deceased that would provide convincing proof of the identity of the corpse. The head was removed from the body in order to facilitate the examination by an incision near the second cervical vertebral interspace. The autopsy saw cut was indeed present providing the first confirmation of Oswald’s craniotomy procedure.
The teeth were cleaned and photographs and x-rays taken. Two forensic odontologists then charted the complete dentition independently and dental casts were made and a positive dental identification of Lee Harvey Oswald was therefore made. A news conference was held at about 3:00 pm to announce, “We… have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is in fact Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the decades that followed, conspiracy pundits raised identity questions based on the condition of the burial vault and coffin, claiming both had been tampered with, questioned the autopsy craniotomy with the charge that the head had been replaced, and questioned the identification by dental records after it was pointed out that Oswald had lost a front tooth during a high school fight (there is a photo of him in class with a gap-tooth smile, and many classmates remember the fight and the missing tooth) and that the exhumed skull had a full set of natural front teeth. However, Marina had made it clear to the media that she considered the exhumation issue closed.
The murder of John F. Kennedy proved once and for all that a disgruntled, motivated mental defective like Oswald can change the world by a singular cowardly act and bask, however briefly, in the reflected spotlight of their unwitting victim. In some circles, Lee Harvey Oswald has become a sympathetic figure. In truth, he’s a stone cold killer who ruined many lives.
Why do I feel it necessary to delve into the gory details of Oswald’s exhumation and subsequent body defilation? Because, for years I’ve watched film clips of a beloved President’s assassination being played and replayed on television and in movies, undoubtedly at times within eye-shot of his friends, family and loved ones, and I object. I think for once, the wages of Oswald’s crime should be made clear. Lee Harvey Oswald does not rest in peace.

Criminals, Pop Culture

I tink dat I shall nevah see a ting as be-u-de-full as dis tree. Al Capone’s tree.

Al Capone treeOriginal 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.