A New Look at Al Capone in St. Pete – Part 2

Posted by adminNEJ  /   September 11, 2015  /   Posted in History  /   No Comments

Capone’s partner, Johnny Torrio, patronized the Jungle Hotel and the nearby Gangplank Night Club in West St. Petersburg. The Jungle Hotel is a city landmark and now serves as the Admiral Farragut Academy.

Capone’s partner, Johnny Torrio, patronized the Jungle Hotel and the nearby Gangplank Night Club in West St. Petersburg. The Jungle Hotel is a city landmark and now serves as the Admiral Farragut Academy.

A 1961 Times editorial entitled “Everybody’s Target: Al Capone,” stated “St. Petersburg and Pinellas County have been fortunate over their lifetime because our citizens have elected sheriffs and appointed police chiefs who have seen to it that racketeers moved on and never got a start here. That’s the way the citizens wanted it when Pinellas broke away from Hillsborough 50 years ago and that’s the way they want it today. In their heyday Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and other gangsters came to St. Petersburg, but their welcome was so cold and their stay so brief that the incident is hardly a footnote to history.” Capone’s visits to St. Pete may have been brief, but that was certainly not the case for Torrio, who wintered in the city for several years, starting perhaps as early as 1924, and certainly after 1925.

While Torrio enjoyed wintering in St. Pete’s sunshine, that was not his only activity here. In addition to visiting his wife’s brother and mother, he actively engaged in real estate speculation. This included a 30-acre tract of land south of Lakeview Avenue (now 22nd Avenue, and in the vicinity of the Twin Brooks golf course); North Disston Boulevard (now 49th Street); Lido Beach, Sarasota; various properties along Central Avenue; 4th Street North in the vicinity of 7th Avenue, and property in Pass-a-Grille. The Pass-a-Grille property was sold in 1945 to Sheriff Hugh Culbreath of Hillsborough County, and became the subject of an inquiry by the Kefauver Senate Crime Committee in 1950. Interestingly, a descendent of the founder of Rhodes Funeral Home on 4th Street North reported his father buying the property from Al Capone’s son-in-law in 1925. Capone did not have a son-in-law then, but possibly the property was purchased from Torrio (either directly or indirectly).

Al Capone fishing in Florida

Al Capone fishing in Florida

To what extent Capone had an interest in some of these properties is harder to document. Capone’s name is on the tax records for the Twin Brooks and Disston parcels. A December 18, 1965 Independent article reported that Capone operated under the auspices of the Manro Corporation which was jointly owned by Torrio, Capone, “Jack” Guzik, and Jack Vanella. A 1957 Times article stated that tax records showed Capone owned 18 acres south of Lakewood Avenue. ‘Jack’ (Jake) Guzik, Capone’s financial advisor, owned additional property nearby. Vanella has been identified in the press as a representative of Capone. Perhaps he had some connection with Robert ‘Roxie’ Vanella, a criminal associate of Torrio. Capone also owned property with Torrio on Central Avenue. A 1926 Shore Acres home has been rumored to have been built by Capone, possibly for his mother. But there is no evidence of this, and his mother lived in Chicago, occasionally visiting Capone’s Miami Beach home. In 1936, Capone paid $51,489 to clear U. S. liens against his Florida property, including that in St. Petersburg. A 1931 Independent article reflected, “In the time he was living here, Torrio has been very little in evidence and only a few people ever saw him to know him [sic] though it was generally known that he was living here. Torrio’s name has never been connected here with anything other than legitimate business transactions…” Also, the Tampa Tribune noted “his chief recreation seemed to be feeding pigeons in Williams Park and tossing small coins to children.”

Gangsters have been reported as guests at various St. Petersburg area hotels. A 1992 Times article leads off, “AL CAPONE BATHED HERE!” The article quotes Times writer Dick Bothwell as at one time saying the Royal Palm Hotel was a stopping place for Capone and some of his ‘cohorts’ in 1926. The hotel once stood at 112 5th Street South. It was demolished aorund 1967 to make way for the expansion of the Times Building. Direct documentation of Bothwell’s statement has not been found. However, a 1974 Times article referred to the Royal Palm story as a “rumor,” and added that Capone supposedly stayed at the hotel for two days registered as “A. Brown,” an alias he frequently used. Perhaps the basis for Bothwell’s possible assertion was the 1931 Times article quoted at the beginning of Part 1 of this article. Sometimes rumors have a kernel of truth. It may be that the date 1926 was an error but that other elements of the story were correct. A better alternative date might be 1928, the date mentioned by Pasley for a brief visit after Capone’s first eviction from Chicago.

Al Capone’s criminal record through 1930. Despite Capone’s many arrests he only served time in jail once, for eight months, before his conviction on income tax evasion in November 1931.

Al Capone’s criminal record through 1930. Despite Capone’s many arrests he only served time in jail once, for eight months, before his conviction on income tax evasion in November 1931.

A popular St. Pete ghost story book claims that Capone, his family, and ‘henchmen,’ stayed at the Sunset Hotel at the west end of Central Avenue near Boca Ciega Bay. It’s possible Capone or his associates may have stayed there, although adding his family is a stretch. It would have been convenient to the famous Gang Plank Night Club and other sources of liquor and vice in the area. But no documentation of this has been found.

At one time, the Don Cesar claimed on its website that Al Capone stayed there, but that has been removed. June Hurley Young’s history of the Don Cesar Hotel makes no mention of Capone or any other mobster. Jean Renwick Ott, an assistant to the Don’s developer, Thomas J. Rowe, recalled in a 1988 interview that when the hotel first opened around 1928, she met “shady friends of gangster Al Capone, who also owned property in St. Petersburg Beach.” As for the Vinoy Park Hotel (now the Renaissance Vinoy), the hotel’s in-house historian stated she had no knowledge of Capone ever staying there.

Al Capone’s mug shot after his release from Alcatraz in 1939.  Capone served a little over eight years in federal prison for income tax evasion.

Al Capone’s mug shot after his release from Alcatraz in 1939. Capone served a little over eight years in federal prison for income tax evasion.

Historian Scott Taylor Hartzell wrote in a Times column that the Jungle Hotel, now Admiral Farragut Academy, entertained “henchmen for Al Capone.” Walter P. Fuller built and owned the Jungle Country Club Hotel and nearby Gangplank Nightclub, conveniently located on Boca Ciega Bay, where it was easy to off-load whisky from bootleg boats. Fuller later in life freely admitted being a bootlegger. “I, a nondrinker at the advent of Prohibition [1920] became a lawbreaker, a habitual evader of authority, and a steady customer of alcoholic beverages,” he stated in 1970. “The first bootlegger I ever saw was me. In such an atmosphere, even the most righteous lacked the courage to speak out, and law enforcers became a lonely and ostracized group.” Fuller was not only a leading St. Petersburg developer, but he later went on to become an able state legislator and writer of a city history. Fuller opened the Jungle Hotel in February 1926. He noted that some of Chicago’s criminal element visited the hotel, including Johnny Torrio. “They were the most genteel, the best mannered guests.”

A September 28, 1974 unattributed Times article in the ‘Scene Action’ column, stated that Torrio came to St. Petersburg in 1925 as Capone’s ‘front man.’ It then went on to say that, “Although the Torrios lived here for a year or so, we find no record of home ownership. [In 1926?] The whole Capone crew stayed at the late Walter Fuller’s hotel… during an abortive attempt to operate a gambling ship just beyond the three-mile limit.” The article further quoted Fuller as saying that after Capone was arrested in 1926, Torrio left immediately and never returned. What arrest is being referred to is unknown. Additionally, it was reported that Capone was a party to several real estate investment, and that Fuller was convinced Capone never visited St. Pete personally. In 1967, Fuller wrote a letter that stated “Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, and beyond a peradventure of doubt for sure, Al Capone was never in St. Petersburg.” Apparently Fuller did not see the front page story in the Times about Capone’s “few hours” spent in St. Pete in 1931, or did not think that counted.

The Jungle Prado in West St. Petersburg on Boca Ciega Bay was the site of the Gangplank Night Club, a likely watering hole during prohibition for the Capone-Torrio mob.

The Jungle Prado in West St. Petersburg on Boca Ciega Bay was the site of the Gangplank Night Club, a likely watering hole during prohibition for the Capone-Torrio mob.

During Capone’s February 1931 visit to the area, the Times also reported that Capone and his associates visited the Clearwater Court House, where an associate discussed St. Petersburg’s Club Madrid which had been recently raided by police. Capone did not engage in the conversation but waited in his car. Club Madrid was located near the Jungle Prado Night Club, also operated by Walter Fuller.

So was Al Capone in St. Petersburg, and if so what was he doing here? Based on the 1931 Times article we know Capone spent at least a few hours in St. Petersburg before proceeding to Tarpon Springs on February 9, 1931. A local Tarpon Springs paper also covered the 1931 visit. That paper asserted Capone spent ‘several days’ in St. Petersburg. Additionally, it appears Capone paid at least one visit to St. Pete sometime between 1926 and 1928. Only Chicago journalist and biographer Fred Pasley reports a definite year – 1928. But Pasley’s biography of Capone has its problems. No local confirmation has been found that Capone was met at the train station upon his arrival in St. Pete by police who “trailed him assiduously,” as Pasley asserted. Surely Capone’s arrival would have been a newsworthy event. With his extensive facial scars he would have been hard not to notice. Pasley’s narrative needs to be read with skepticism. It’s possible he received information directly from Capone which was spun to protect Capone’s (and Torrio’s) interests. In this regard, Pasley made no mention of Torrio’s frequent presence in St. Petersburg. Perhaps Capone was in St. Pete in 1928, but not greeted by police. And perhaps he spent two nights at the Palm Hotel – as referenced in the 1931 Times article, and later alleged to have been reported by Times columnist Dick Bothwell – rather than one night as stated by Pasley.

Capone visited St. Petersburg in February 1931, and perhaps in 1928.

Capone visited St. Petersburg in February 1931, and perhaps in 1928.

And the purpose of Capone’s possible 1928 trip? The most compelling theory would be to consult with his mentor and silent partner Johnny Torrio. Unfortunately we have no confirmation of whether Torrio was in the city at that particular time, although we know he was a visitor or part-time resident from the mid-1920s perhaps into the early 1930s. At the time of the possible 1928 visit Capone had not quite yet bought his home in Palm Island at Miami Beach, and had not yet reached the peak of his notoriety. Visits to Torrio in St. Petersburg become less plausible after 1930, when Torrio’s mother-in-law dies.

3-gCapone’s grandniece Deirdre Marie Capone reports that after Capone purchased his home at Palm Island in 1928 he would on occasions drive from Chicago to Miami via Route 41 which would have taken him through the Tampa Bay area. Rather than meetings in St. Petersburg, a safer option would have been for Torrio to go to Capone for consultations or just a friendly visit in Tampa, Miami (or elsewhere). Miami was very friendly to Capone and meeting there would have less chance of jeopardizing Torrio’s low profile in St. Petersburg. It’s of course possible Capone was in St. Pete on other occasions as yet lost to history.

And then there is the matter of Torrio’s and Capone’s extensive real estate investments in St. Petersburg and other nearby areas. Given Torrio’s semi-retirement, jumping into the 1920s St. Pete land boom, or even after the boom ended in 1927, makes some sense as a financial investment. Capone’s investing is harder to fathom. Did he really need the money? Perhaps he was doing it as a favor to his mentor. Were these investments an early form of money laundering? Perhaps another purpose of the investments was to secure St. Petersburg as a safe haven for Torrio. As the 1931 Independent article noted, few people knew that Torrio had made St. Petersburg his seasonal home. Did his extensive financial investments in the community somehow help avoid closer local scrutiny? And how significant were these investments in fueling the local land boom?

Much has been written about the 1920’s St. Petersburg boom era. It was a period of astronomical building growth; get-rich-quick real estate dealing; glorious new hotels such as the Soreno, Vinoy, Don CeSar; Rolyat, and the Jungle; the five-mile Gandy Bridge connecting to Tampa and the Bee Line Ferry connecting to the South; rampant tourism; minimal enforcement of Prohibition; and just plain zaniness. Celebrities came to the city both to perform and to vacation: novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow, bandleader John Philip Sousa, golf champions Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen; baseball icons Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri, entertainers Harry James, Rudy Valee, Will Rogers, and Sophie Tucker to name a few. Historian Raymond Arsenault has written that also during the 1920s “the city flirted with decadence” and that there was “a new looseness in social mores.” Maybe the city did more than flirt, as it also attracted celebrities of a different ilk such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.

Mobsters usually do not disclose their operations, and what they do disclose is often disinformation. No doubt the full story of Torrio’s presence and Capone’s influence in St. Petersburg remains to be discovered.

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The story of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio in St. Petersburg continues to be discovered. If you have any information to add you may reach Will Michaels at 727-420-9195 or wmichaels2222@gmail.com.

by Will Michaels
Sources Used: Raymond Arsenault, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream: 1888-1950 (1988/1996); Prudy Taylor Board, The Renaissance Vinoy: St. Petersburg’s Crown Jewel (1999); Stephen C. Bousquet, “The Gangster in Our Midst: Al Capone in South Florida, 1930-1947,” Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3, Winter, 1998, pp. 297-308; Deirdre Marie Capone, Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family (2012); Chicago Daily Tribune, January 25, 1925, p. 5; Clearwater Sun, 2/10/31; Kim Cool, Ghost Stories of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, pp. 89-120 (2004); Scott Deitche, “Al Capone in St. Petersburg,” Informer (October 2012), pp. 4-10; Evening Independent (Various, but especially 3/15/78); Scott Taylor Hartzell, Remembering St. Petersburg (2006), Vol 2, pp. 31-35; Scott Taylor Hartzell, St. Petersburg: An Oral History (2002), pp. 77-80; Gary R. Mormino, “Tampa at Mid Century: 1950,” Sunland Tribune (Journal of the Tampa Historical Society), Vol XXVI, 2000, pp. 65-81; Fred D. Pasley, Al Capone: The Autobiography of a Self-Made Man (1930); St. Petersburg Times (Various, especially 2/10/31, 2/13/31, 1/13/39, 2/13/61, 9/28/74, 1/17/88, 3/23/92, 11/19/94, 12/12/09); June Hurley Young, The Don Ce-Sar Story, (Partnership Press) ND; Tarpon Springs Leader (2/10/31); and communications with Deirdre Marie Capone; Scott Deitche, Elaine Normile, Kimberly Hinder, and Gary Mormino.

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