The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, or better known as Al Capone, is the most notorious American gangster of all times.

Born on 17th January 1899 in New York to Italian parents, Capone was the absolute ruler of the organized crime in Chicago for seven years. Capone began the life as a criminal at the early age, right after he was expelled from school at the age of 14 for hitting a female teacher in the face.

He became a member of some smaller gangs and later worked as a racketeer for the Italian criminals. Nicknamed as Scarface, due to the injury he got after getting slashed by Frank Gallucio, a local New York tough, Capone left New York when he was 20 years old. The young criminal moved to Chicago to join his mentor and friend Johnny Torrio, with whom he established the crime syndicate named as the Chicago Outfit. Capone and Torrio controlled the gambling and prostitution businesses until the Prohibition Act was brought in 1920 when the two became bootleggers and distributors of illegal alcohol.

Al Capone in 1930

Al Capone became the head of the organized crime in Chicago in 1925, when Johnny Torrio left the United States and returned to Italy as a result of an attempt on his life by a rival gang. Left alone to control all the operations, the smart Scarface soon expanded his businesses and began a luxurious life which caused the attention of the authorities. Capone moved to a ritzy apartment in the Metropole Hotel, and later in a suit in Lexington Hotel, where he established his headquarters. At the peak of his criminal career, Al Capone was employing more than 600 gangsters all around Chicago, while the local newspapers estimated that his business had generated $100 million in revenue, annually. Capone’s net worth is estimated to be about $1.3 billion today, and the smart gangster was always using cash, thus destroying all evidence and paper trails leading to him. He finally was caught on 5th June 1931 when the U.S. government finally arrested him for income tax evasion, sentencing him to 11 years of imprisonment. Al was sent to the Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary in 1932, when he was 33 years old, where he was diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. Together with his cocaine addiction, the sickness led him to disorientation and mental problems.

Capone was soon transferred to the notorious Alcatraz prison, where he spent the next five years. With his disease progressing, Scarface spent the last year of his imprisonment in the Alcatraz hospital, before getting released on parole in 1939. The notorious gangster and ex-crime boss spent several years in mental institutions, before moving to Miami with his wife, where he stayed until his death on 25th January 1947.

Cell 181 in Alcatraz where Capone was imprisoned   Photo Credit

The ruthless mob boss and cold-blooded killer died from cardiac arrest, leaving substantial sums of money behind. However, nobody knew what happened with his wealth. Marie Capone, his niece, wrote that her uncle had millions of dollars buried and hidden, but being too mentally ill when released from prison, he could not remember where he hid the money.

There were rumors that he buried the money on a peninsula in Michigan and people have been unsuccessfully searching for the money ever since he was arrested. During the 1980s, a construction company named Sunbow was planning a renovation of the Lexington Hotel in Chicago where Capone had his final residence before the imprisonment.

Rivera after delivering the keynote at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 2008 Public Policy Conference Photo Credit

During the survey, Sunbow discovered a series of underground tunnels beneath the hotel which connected the nearby bars and brothels and were built to provide an escape route for Capone and his associates in case of a police raid. Along with the tunnels, a shooting range was discovered and a secret vault built beneath the building believed to contain a part of Capone’s wealth.

The Lexington Hotel as depicted in a postcard circa 1906

The vault mystery was finally solved on 21st April 1986, when the safe was opened for a television show. The TV special named as “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults”  was broadcasted on ABC and lasted for 2 hours. The show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, was marketed as sensational, as millions of viewers, all across America, watched the live excavation of the vault.

Rivera brought agents from the Internal Revenue Service in case they find some money, and a medical examiner if some dead bodies were found. When the vault was finally opened, the discovery only brought disappointment to Rivera and the viewers. The only items found inside were several empty bottles and dirt, with no other spectacular finds. Even though the TV show had a disastrous ending, it was still the most seen syndicated TV special, with an audience of over 30 million. The mystery of Capone’s money remains unsolved, with many still looking for his substantial wealth.

 Ivana Andonovska

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