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

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Alphonse Capone - Al Capone mugshots 1939
Al Capone’s prison timeline

May 1932: Capone imprisoned at the US Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia
August 1934: Transferred to Alcatraz in San Francisco, California
January 6, 1939: Left Alcatraz for the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Southern California
November 16, 1939: Paroled and released from prison
January 25, 1947: Death at age 48


A look at Al Capone’s life in prison at Alcatraz (1936)

Ex-Gang King on spot — Foes swear revenge — ‘Armor’ of canvas worn to ward off knives — Guards alert to keep him alive

San Francisco Examiner (California) February 12, 1936

Al Capone, once the bland and cocksure Chicago “king of crime,” in Alcatraz Prison, today is running a race with death — a race to complete his time on the island before fellow convicts carry out threats to kill Capone.

The real story of Al Capone on Alcatraz Island, heretofore guarded by official silence and censorship as grim as the battlements of “The Rock,” was obtained by The Examiner exclusively yesterday.

Al Capone - Scarface scar

Smuggled out

Written in the prison and smuggled past the censorship, the account gives a first-hand version of the life of Capone and other notorious criminals on Alcatraz, the details of Capone’s fight with another prisoner in the laundry and the reason for Capone’s death-dodging.

Al Capone, in spite of official statements, is not “just another number” on Alcatraz. Prison guards are performing for him now a service amazingly similar to that of his paid bodyguards during his Chicago heyday.

Death forecast

For the job of Warden James A. Johnston and other officials is not go much to keep Capone imprisoned on Alcatraz, as it is to keep him alive!

“If it were possible to get away with it, Capone would never leave here alive,” the Alcatraz informant wrote. “Al Will be fortunate if he is alive six months after leaving here.

“Capone was transferred from the United States penitentiary at Atlanta, Ga. to Alcatraz on August 19, 1934. He was not transferred because he was such a ‘bad’ man, but because he bribed the guards to bring him nearly anything he wanted.

Alphonse Capone - Al Capone fingerprints 1930s

The ‘Grease Ball’

While at Atlanta he was employed in the shoe shop. When he arrived at Alcatraz, he was assigned to the shoe shop, but did a few days’ duty in the laundry first.

“Al missed Atlanta a great deal. At Alcatraz, he did not have men pointing him out or have men following him around as if he was a ‘little tin god.’

“These men (at Alcatraz) know Capone. There are many men here that had friends killed by Capone. Capone here is known and referred to as ‘that Grease Ball.’

MORE: How Al Capone said he was innocent & pretended to be a gentleman, not a gangster (1929)

Don’t forget

“There are men here who are friends of men who were rubbed out in the St. Valentine Day massacre in Chicago (in 1929, when seven ‘Bugs’ Moran gangsters were killed).

“They know that Capone directed that (the massacre). They know Capone hid ‘Killer’ Burke across from Florida in a British possession — a piece of property Capone owns. As soon as things cooled off, Burke returned to the States and married. His wife today receives so much per week (from Capone), even though Burke resides in prison.

“Dutch Louie (apparently Ludwig Schmidt, alias Dutch Lewis, a Touhy gangster and a leader of the January mutiny on Alcatraz) is here on Alcatraz — Capone’s old enemy. Dutch Louie doesn’t forget, neither does he let others forget.”

Vintage Al Capone Alcatraz mugshots

Wears ‘armor’ in prison

Defensive measures of Capone, In his race with death on Alcatraz, were described by the informant.

“Is Capone afraid to die?” he asked.

“Capone had canvas wrapped around his body from his heart to his stomach. The several wraps made a thickness of about one-half inch. That was to keep any one from stabbing him.”

Capone on the Federal “Devil’s Island” is threatened by death not only because of gangland battles, but also as a result of new prison feuds, the informant disclosed.

He said, “Capone was asked by same men to furnish sufficient money to buy a boat for them so they could plan an escape. He would not do so and we understand it (the information) went to the deputy warden.

Sent to laundry

“That was the reason for the canvas, and the reason he does not go into the yard with the other prisoners.” From the shoe shop, Capone was transferred to the laundry. There, in February 1935, occurred his fight with another prisoner.

For the first time, the officially guarded secret of the identity of Capone’s opponent was broken by The Examiner’s informant. He was Al Collier, serving a life sentence.

Capone in the laundry worked on a mangle, the informant wrote: “He was one of these industrious workers. He fed through work faster than the ‘catcher’ could catch (the pieces of laundry). He was asked to slow up.

MORE: The Godfather: The gangster movie moves uptown (1972)

Al Capone's criminal record as of 1932

No damage done

“When Capone paid no attention, the ‘catcher,’ Al Collier, threw something at him. That started the fight. There was no damage done.”

Previous versions had said that Capone started the fight, and that he was struck in the face so hard by his opponent that the latter retired with a broken wrist.

“Capone was locked in solitary confinement for five days. He was taken out of the laundry and put to work in the library.”

Bribe attempt

Subsequently, Capone was returned to laundry duty. Convict antipathy toward Capone was carried into the yard where prisoners play baseball during recreation periods.

“The men here could not refuse to let Capone play hall. That is for every one who can play. They did make it rather unpleasant for him, so he quit. That was exactly what the men wanted.”

Capone was declared by the Alcatraz informant to have attempted to bribe two prison guards. They rejected the offer.

San Francisco prison - Alcatraz in the 1930s

Favor curried

From another source, The San Francisco Examiner learned an Alcatraz group, in contrast to the general convict attitude, has sought Capone’s favor in the belief his wealth can help them when he leaves prison.

This group was held responsible for the slugging of a Negro prisoner, identified as the man who informed the warden’s office that Capone had smuggled $400 into Alcatraz for purposes of bribery. The money never was found.

In addition to enmities dating from Chicago gang war and personal feuds developed in Alcatraz, Capone now must dodge the added danger of wholesale convict threats of retaliation for his refusal to join in the January 20 mutiny.

ALSO SEE: The real Bonnie & Clyde: Texas officers trap and kill notorious duo in shootout (1934)


Al Capone released from penitentiary (1939)

Murphysboro Daily Independent (Illinois) November 16, 1939

Washington, Nov 15 — The Department of Justice announced today that Al Capone, the one-time Chicago gangster chieftain, was released to his family this morning at the Lewisburg, Pa., penitentiary.

Capone has completed his sentence, having done so three days ahead of the scheduled date because of a credit of three days in federal custody in 1931.

The Department of Justice said that Capone had been transferred today from the Federal Correctional Institution at Los Angeles.

Al Capone - Alcatraz 1937

The brief announcement did not explain in what manner Capone was brought from the west coast, but inasmuch as the formal announcement said “today,” it was assumed he was brought eastward by airplane.

The mystery of Capone’s whereabouts and when he was being released was announced by James B Bennett, director of the Bureau of Prisons.

“Bennett announced this morning that Alphonse Capone’s sentence having expired today, he was discharged from the US penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa, to his relatives,” the announcement said. Capone was transferred today from the Federal Correctional Institution near Los Angeles, Calif, to Lewisburg.

MORE: John Dillinger: When the notorious gangster and most wanted criminal was killed in Chicago (1934)

“Capone began service of a 10-year penitentiary sentence for evasion of income tax on May 4, 1932, and completed this portion of his sentence on Jan 19, 1939, upon which date he began service of the sentence of one year for failure to file an income tax return.

“With allowances for good behavior and credit for the three days he served in jail in Oct 1931, Capone’s sentence expires Nov 16, 1939.”


Al Capone released to his family; being treated for syphillis

Washington, Nov 16 — Director James V Bennett of the Bureau of Prisons revealed that Al Capone was accompanied by three federal officials when he left the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, penitentiary at the end of his federal term today.

He emphasized, however, that Capone was not in federal custody.

Vintage Al Capone Miami mugshots - Florida

Philadelphia, Nov 16 — Al Capone is in suburban Villanova for treatment of paresis, a well-informed police official said today.

The former Chicago gang leader is being guarded by Department of Justice agents pending his release, scheduled for Sunday, on completion of his imprisonment for evasion of income taxes.

Capone was said to have been brought secretly across the country, having been moved from Alcatraz prison, to be placed in a sanitarium for treatment of paresis, a softening of the brain resulting from syphilis.

A relative of the former gang leader was a student at Villanova College several years ago, and Capone and his brother, Ralph, reported bought or leased a house there at that time. Efforts to locate the private sanitarium where he will be treated were unavailing.

MORE: Chicago gang kills six: Al Capone & the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1929)

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