Capone, written and directed by Josh Trank of The Fantastic Four fame, isn’t a gangster film so much as it is a tearjerker. It is set when America’s most infamous gangster is 47 and his mind is rotting from dementia. Beneath the family tragedy is a national mystery. Whatever happened to the millions of dollars Capone stashed before he went to jail for tax evasion? Geraldo Rivera tried to answer this in the run-up to his 1986 TV special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. But when he opened Capone’s secret vault in the Lexington Hotel live on TV, there was nothing inside.
As the new film shows, Rivera, like Capone, didn’t know where to look. In her book Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family, Deirdre Marie Capone says she knew the vault would be empty when she was approached to appear on Rivera’s show. But that didn’t mean there was no hidden money. Capone had money delivered to him while he was in prison. He even financed “the only successful escape from Alcatraz” by Roy Gardener, who was formerly holed up in Cell Number 110. So the only thing stopping Al from financing his post-prison retirement was Al.
“I put it in a bunch of different banks and had the safety deposit box keys and the names I used in a strong box,” Capone is quoted as telling his grandniece and goddaughter in Deirdre Marie’s book. “I buried the box, but when I went to dig it up after I got out, I couldn’t find it. Then I thought I had buried it in another place but when I looked, it wasn’t there either.”
Deirdre writes that she tried everything to help him remember. She hired a hypnotist; she got people to dig up the yards on his estates in Prairies and on Palm Island in Miami; she doesn’t think his loss of memory was because of the syphilis but because of “what those prison docs did to him in Alcatraz.”
“They told Al he had syphilis, and that’s a damned lie,” Clyde Smaldone, the head of Denver’s Smaldone crime family, told author Dick Kreck for his book Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family. “He never had syphilis. I think his heart was broken more than anything. I snuck down and got to see him a week before he died. Nobody knew when I went and nobody knew when I come back.”
In the movie, it’s stressed that folks aren’t supposed to call Capone “Al.” He prefers, “Fonz”– even though Joe Bonanno claimed in his autobiography A Man of Honor that the somber word ‘Capone’ is just Italian for “castrated chicken.” Either way, the real Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in Brooklyn in 1899. At age 14, he was expelled from school for hitting a teacher. Johnny “The Fox” Torrio, “the father of American gangsterdom,” saw potential in this and introduced him to Frankie Yale and the Five Points Gang. Yale went on to own the Harvard Inn bar on Coney Island where Capone became “Scarface,” the other name you didn’t call him, after getting slashed across the cheek by the brother of a woman he insulted. Capone worked for Yale for two years before he was sent to work for “Big Jim” Colosimo’s crew in Chicago.
Capone’s first job was as a bouncer in one of Colosimo’s bordellos where he contracted syphilis. There was no guaranteed cure at the time, even with medical help, so Capone let the disease progress. Syphilis has three major stages. It starts as a painless chancre sore, which gives way to rash and then disappears as the syphilis microbes, called Treponema pallidum, bore their way into the liver, the heart and the brain. The unchecked syphilis got to Capone’s brain while he was an inmate at Alcatraz, Cell No. 181.
By the mid-1920s, Capone was reportedly earning $60 million a year. Capone never filed a federal income tax return, claiming that he had no taxable income. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, America’s first female assistant attorney general, changed all that. She prosecuted Manly Sullivan for not paying taxes on his income, illicit though it may have been. On May 16, 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gains “from illicit traffic in liquor are subject to the income tax.” IRS Special Agent Frank Wilson and the “T-Men” indicted Capone on 22 counts of federal income tax evasion, even though the statute of limitations on the IRS’ claim had already expired. Capone was convicted on Oct. 24, 1931, sentenced to 11 years in prison, fined, and had his property seized by the federal government. Capone served seven years of his sentence; he spent more than four at Alcatraz.
The former crime boss got a formal diagnosis of syphilis of the brain in February 1938. Penicillin treatment, for the disease and others, was discovered to be effective against syphilis in 1909 by German doctor Paul Ehrlich. Capone was the first American ever treated for syphilis with penicillin, but the disease had progressed too far for it to be effective.
Capone was sent to a mental hospital in January 1939 to serve out the remainder of his sentence, yet he still found himself released on Nov. 16, 1939 from custody, paroled due to his “reduced mental capabilities.” The former top boss retired to Florida.
According to most documents, Capone’s physical and mental health continued to deteriorate. His doctor said he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. Some have speculated Capone’s famed syphilitic dementia was a brilliant ploy. After all, Smaldone visited Capone shortly before he died and concluded something was wrong with the narrative. If that were true it wouldn’t be the last time. Future mafia don Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family, claimed in court he was mentally unfit and walked around the West Village in a bathrobe.
As far as the treasure, Capone may not have known where it was buried, but he may have known people who could dig it up. “He was glad to see me,” Smaldone says in the book. “He even asked me, ‘How do you stand on the money?’ I said ‘It’s all right.’ He gave me the name of a fella and says, ‘If you ever need anything or need any money, you go see him. I’m going to put a mark on this so you can show him this.’ Well, I don’t have that anymore, I tore it up and burned it.”
Capone died of heart failure on Jan. 25, 1947 at the age of 48.
Capone is now on VOD, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.