The Chicago gang lord who authorized the 1929 “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” learned to play an instrument and penned a love song while at Alcatraz.
Al Capone loved power, fame, money, women . . . and music. The man who orchestrated one of the bloodiest gangland records in history later devoted much of his time at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary to plunking out tunes on a stringed instrument and singing about romance.
An Ear for Music
It’s been well documented that Capone enjoyed opera and jazz. After he was sent to Alcatraz, he decided to while away his idle hours becoming a musician himself.
According to differing sources, he played a mandola or a tenor (jazz, four-stringed) banjo—possibly both. By one account, his wife Mae gave him a banjo; by another, he ordered a mandola by mail (a mandolin is tuned like a violin; a mandola, slightly larger, is tuned like a viola). The Alcatraz warden permitted Capone and several other inmates to form a small band.
Apparently, the sound of his banjo (or mandola) ringing through the cell block sometimes was heard for hours on end. Now part of a national recreation area, the abandoned prison still sometimes echoes with Capone’s music, according to modern ghost tales.
He also composed. One Christmas, he made a poignant gift to Vincent Casey, a Roman Catholic student cleric who regularly visited him in prison. It was the handwritten “Madonna Mia,” a love song Capone wrote in his cell. (It recently was recorded and released.)
Capone never was credited with great intelligence or literary proficiency, but assuming the lyrics truly were his own, he waxed right eloquent in the song: “In a quaint Italian garden while the stars were all aglow, once I heard a lover singing to the one that he loved so. . . .”
Capone’s Bloody Career
Born in Brooklyn in 1899 (or in Naples, Italy, in 1895, by some accounts), Capone began his criminal career in New York City, where he received the knife slash that won him the nickname “Scarface.” In the early 1920s, as Prohibition’s potential was becoming apparent to underworld forces, he went to work for criminal mastermind Johnny Torrio in Chicago and rose to become one of Torrio’s top lieutenants. Torrio retired in 1925; Capone took over the operation and, during the next four years, made himself king of the Chicago underworld through a violent, methodical process of elimination against rival gang leaders.
The event that forever will stamp Capone as a monster gangster was the killing of seven members of a rival organization on Valentine’s Day 1929. George “Bugs” Moran, controller of illicit activities on Chicago’s north side, sent a crew to unload a stash of cheap bootlegged liquor in a garage—or so he thought. Capone operatives (two or three of them dressed as policemen) effected a phony raid at the moment of exchange and slew Moran’s men in a torrent of machine-gun and shotgun fire.
Interestingly, the garage massacre wasn’t Capone’s idea. He merely approved the execution, conceived by one of his henchmen, Jack McGurn. (McGurn was bent on retaliation because Moran’s men had tried to kill him.) Capone on that day legitimately was “vacationing” in Florida.
Conviction & Imprisonment
The infamous mobster beat several murder raps during the 1920s. He ultimately was convicted on five counts of tax evasion in1931. (His indignant defense: “They can’t collect legal taxes from illegal money.”)
Capone was sentenced to 11 years, served 8 (released early because of health complications resulting from syphilis) and lived until 1947 at his mansion in Miami, in a worsening condition of derangement.
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- Babwin, Don. “Capone’s Last Hit Could Be a Tender Love Song.” Associated Press, April 16, 2009.
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- Capone Fan Club.
- Sullivan, Robert, editor. The Most Notorious Crimes in American History. Life Books (2007).
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