This is What Al Capone Did to the Hospital that Treated his Debilitating Syphilis

This is What Al Capone Did to the Hospital that Treated his Debilitating Syphilis

Patrick Lynch - August 12, 2017

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, more famously known as Al Capone, was one of the most ruthless and vicious gangsters of the Prohibition Era. Although his name goes down in the annals of gangster history, he was only a crime boss for six years. He led Chicago’s South Side Gang, and its conflict with the North Side Gang was pivotal in Capone’s rise and fall. Yet even vicious killers have softer sides on occasion and Capone’s was evident in the gift he gave to the Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Al Capone’s Downfall

Before we delve into Capone’s time in the hospital, let’s look at the chain of events that led him there. After a failed assassination attempt in 1925, Johnny Torrio, the leader of the South Side Gang, relinquished control and handed the reins to his trusted lieutenant, Al Capone. Capone responded by using violence to increase the gang’s stranglehold on Chicago’s bootlegging business. As he forged relationships with the city’s police and the mayor, William Hill Thompson, Capone must have felt as if the law couldn’t touch him.

In the 1920s, Capone managed to cultivate a positive public image. The people of the city saw him as a modern-day Robin Hood as he donated money to various charities; Capone was even cheered when he appeared at ball games. However, the positivity towards him vanished in the wake of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. The brutal murder of seven rivals in broad daylight resulted in newspapers calling him ‘Public Enemy No.1.’

This is What Al Capone Did to the Hospital that Treated his Debilitating Syphilis
Capone before prison. Gentlemansgazette

Throughout his years as a gang leader, Capone’s biggest worry was the actions of his rivals. Indeed, he survived multiple murder attempts, but as his rivals died or were jailed one by one, he remained standing. Capone also managed to avoid the attentions of police for the most part; that is until the aforementioned massacre. Within days, he received a summons to testify before a grand jury in Chicago on violations of the federal Prohibition law. He claimed he was too sick to attend.

Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Capone. The gruesome images of the massacre victims were published in newspapers, and a wave of public anger ensured the heat was well and truly on him. In May 1929, he was sentenced to prison time in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, and when he was released in March 1930, Capone was greeted with the news that he was Public Enemy Number One on the Chicago Crime Commission list.

By now, the police and FBI were eager to bring him down by any means necessary. He was subject to a variety of charges including perjury, vagrancy, and contempt of court. Eventually, Capone was charged with income tax evasion in 1931 along with numerous violations of the Prohibition Act. In October of that year, he was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. Overall, Capone owed over $215,000 in back tax so instead of going to prison for murder; he was behind bars for being a tax cheat. For all his domination of the gang scene in Chicago, Capone was now powerless as a prisoner at Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary.

This is What Al Capone Did to the Hospital that Treated his Debilitating Syphilis
Al Capone’s Cell in Alcatraz. Flickr

Capone in Prison

At one time, Capone was among the most feared people in America, but in May 1932, he was nothing more than another prisoner in Atlanta. Upon his arrival, Capone was diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. In addition, Capone had been a cocaine addict, and the level of his drug abuse was such that he had a deviated septum. The resulting withdrawal symptoms contributed to his early misery in prison.

On the outside, Capone was a gang leader, but in Atlanta, the other inmates saw him as a weak personality. He was fortunate that his cellmate, Red Rudinsky, was associated with the South Side Gang at one time. Rudinsky was worried that Capone would suffer from a breakdown because he was so inept at dealing with the inmates that bullied him. The other inmates were not happy at the supposed special treatment Capone was receiving so he was moved to Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco.

An inmate named James Lucas stabbed Capone in June 1936, but the former gangster only suffered minor wounds. It became increasingly apparent that the effects of neurosyphilis were having a deleterious impact on Capone’s mental faculties. It turned out that Capone contracted syphilis in 1919 when he worked as a bouncer in one of Big Jim Colosimo’s bordellos. Capone was a regular customer himself and got syphilis for his troubles. His acute embarrassment meant that he refused to seek help. Over time, the condition became worse, and by the time the doctors at Alcatraz treated him, the condition was too far gone.

The physicians infected him with malaria in the hope that the fever would kill syphilis. However, the condition had spread to his brain and rendered him insane. In his later years in prison, Capone exhibited increasingly strange behavior. For example, he believed he was the owner of a large factory with up to 25,000 employees. He also wore a winter coat and gloves in his heated cell because he believed it was winter.

Capone spent the last year of his prison sentence in the hospital where he was reportedly confused and disorientated the entire time. His sentence was reduced by a few years for good behavior, and he was released from Alcatraz on January 6, 1939. Capone was then transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island to serve out the rest of his sentence on a contempt of court conviction. The ex-gang leader was finally paroled on November 16 of that year, but his woes were far from over.

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This is What Al Capone Did to the Hospital that Treated his Debilitating Syphilis
The tree donated by Capone at Union memorial hospital. Welcometobaltimorehon

Capone at Union Hospital

Capone was referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he was supposed to be treated for a condition called Paresis which is associated with late-stage syphilis. His doctor was an associate professor of medicine at the hospital, but its board of trustees refused to treat a known gangster suspected of involvement in dozens of homicides.

However, Capone didn’t need to leave Baltimore because Union Memorial Hospital accepted him as a patient. As well as allowing him in for treatment, the facility even permitted him to bring along his entourage which included a barber, food tasters, and bodyguards. Capone was so grateful for the care he received that he paid for two Japanese weeping cherry trees in 1939. Although both trees were planted on hospital grounds, one was removed to make room for a new wing of the hospital in 1950.

The other tree, known as the Capone tree, still stands proudly. In 2010, a snowstorm split the tree in half and broke off a ten-foot portion. A wood turner from Virginia, Nick Aloisio, contacted Union and offered to create mementos from the fallen wood. The hospital asked him to proceed, and Aloisio created wine stoppers, pens, food-safe bowls and a variety of other trinkets. He sold them on eBay, and the hospital received the money. An arborist has planted clippings from the old tree, known as ‘Caponettes’ around the hospital campus.

Despite being happy with the standard of treatment at Union, Capone left Baltimore in March 1940 and moved to Palm Island in Florida. His physician and a psychiatrist from Baltimore performed examinations of Capone in 1946 and concluded that his condition had caused his mental faculties to regress significantly. In fact, they said he had the mentality of a 12-year old. Despite everything, he was still able to retreat to his mansion in Palm Island, but he had a stroke on January 21, 1947. Capone had a cardiac arrest the following day and died on January 25.

While his contribution to Union Memorial Hospital has unquestionably helped improve the aesthetics of its grounds, it is one of the few decent things that Al Capone did in his life. That the last years of his life were spent in constant pain probably comes as some solace to the friends and families of his many victims. Overall, Capone is believed to have been involved in at least 33 murders; the first of which was Joe Howard on June 7, 1923. Howard made the mistake of trying to hijack one of Capone’s beer trucks and paid the ultimate penalty. The last known victim of Capone’s violent whims was probably Joe Aiello on October 30, 1923.

The personality, character and even appearance of Capone have formed the basis of numerous fictional crime lords. However, while he was feared and respected in the Chicago underworld, he possessed no power when in prison and was someone that other inmates liked to bully. His refusal to treat his syphilis resulted in the condition almost destroying his brain. In the end, he died as a sad, lonely and pathetic figure.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 10 Things About Al Capone That You May Not Know

Forbes – Al Capone Convicted on This Day In 1931 After Boasting, ‘They Can’t Collect Legal Taxes from Illegal Money’

Chicagology – Rise and Fall of John Torrio

FBI – How the Law Finally Caught Up With Al Capone

WBEZ Chicago – Chicago During the Capone Era and Today

Click Americana – How ‘Scarface’ Al Capone served hard time at Alcatraz (1930s)

All That’s Interesting – How Did Al Capone Die?