A New Look at Al Capone in St. Pete – Part 1
Over the years, there have been numerous rumors, reports, and stories about Al Capone in St. Petersburg. This article is an exploration and new look at those stories.
“Al Capone Pays Vist to the City” reads the caption on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times on February 10, 1931. The article reported, “Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, reputed king of Chicago’s gangland, paid a visit to Pinellas County Monday, spending a few hours in St. Petersburg and later motoring to Tarpon Springs, where he spent considerable time looking over the sponge industry. Capone, with a party of five, including one woman, was seen here by several persons. Later in the afternoon, a large crowd gathered at the Sponge Exchange in Tarpon Springs to see the famous baronial head of the beer racket. Capone’s business on Florida’s west coast could not be ascertained, but there was plenty of speculation.”
The article continued, “Some said he came to visit his old but retired henchman, John Torrio, who long ago settled down to a quiet life after a reputed ‘break’ with ‘Scarface.’ ‘There’s nothing to that,’ a man at Torrio’s home in a fashionable section here said Monday night. ‘Those two haven’t seen each other for four years [1927?]. Besides, John’s in New York.’ Others said Capone came to Tarpon Springs to consider financing the sponge industry… Last news reports on Capone this year said he had disposed of his mansion on Palm Island at Miami and had gone to Havana for a visit.
“Capone was in St. Petersburg several years ago, stopping at a downtown hotel under the name of Al Brown, a moniker he discarded when he began his spectacular rise from a bodyguard for the late ‘Big Jim’ Collissimio [sic] to his present position. Later he went to Miami, where he bought the big house on Palm Island. Last year, he was harassed by police and arrested time and time again. The governor issued an order forbidding him to enter the state, but this was staved off by a federal injunction. Capone and his party are making their trip over the state by motor.”
Al Capone could well qualify as the most notorious gangster in American history. Starting out in Brooklyn as a youth in a local gang, he graduated to providing ‘muscle’ in a protection racket operated by the Italian Five Points gang led by Paul Kelly and Johnny Torrio. Torrio had recruited Capone into the gang. Because of his smarts, Capone was promoted to bartender and bouncer in one of the gang’s establishments. It was during this time that he was knifed in the face for insulting the sister of a patron, receiving his nickname “Scarface.” (Much later he apologized to the knifer for insulting his sister and even hired him as an occasional bodyguard.) Subsequently he became involved in a fight with a rival gang, and may have fled to Chicago to avoid retaliation. Accounts of the exact circumstances of his relocation to Chicago differ. But Torrio had himself previously relocated to Chicago to join the gang of ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo. Capone soon became a trusted lieutenant of Torrio, and was a behind-the-scenes party to Torrio’s subsequent murder of Colosimo. In 1925, Torrio himself was the subject of a murder attempt by a rival gang. He received gunshot wounds to the arm, jaw, neck, chest, and belly, and still managed to survive. Thereafter he was known as ‘The Immune.’ It was then that he announced his retirement and turned his gang enterprises over to his second-in-command, Al Capone. But he would continue to receive a cut of gang profits, perhaps as much as 25%, for ten years. He also was to be available for ‘consultations.’
According to a 1925 Chicago Daily Tribune article, Torrio visited St. Pete in late 1924, perhaps trying to elude the would-be rival gang assassins who finally caught up with him in early 1925. Capone’s biographer, Robert Schoenberg, stated that after Torrio’s retirement, he and his wife Anna went to Italy for two years. Assuming he stayed in Italy the whole time would have him returning to the United States in about 1928. However, there are ship manifests for John Torrio and his wife Anna, giving St. Petersburg as their home address for the years 1926, 1927, and 1928. These manifests were for travel between Hawaii and the West Coast. In May 1929, he was involved in organizing a loose cartel of Northeast bootleggers to prevent further turf wars. This evolved into what became known as the National Crime Syndicate. Chicago newspaperman, Fred Pasley, stated that while Capone was in prison on a weapons possession charge in 1929, Torrio was based in Brooklyn but commuted twice a month to Chicago, likely assisting with running the Chicago operations in Capone’s absence. Otherwise, he spent considerable time in real estate investments. Beginning in 1939, he served two years in prison for income tax evasion.
Torrio is identified as living in various locations in St. Petersburg. These include 2300 Lakeview Avenue South (now 22nd Avenue South); possibly also the 1600 block of Lakeview Avenue South; the 100 block of 14th Avenue Northeast; possibly another location in the Old Northeast neighborhood; and Pass-a-Grille. Travel documents for the Torrios (ship manifests) give 2300 Lakeview Avenue South as their address. City directories for 1925-1928 list George R. Jacobs, or his mother Belle, living at 2300 Lakeview. George Jacobs was Anna Torrio’s brother and Belle Jacobs was also her mother. In 1931 Anna’s mother is listed as living at 14th Avenue Northeast. George R. Jacobs also was a known member of Johnny Torrio’s Chicago gang. Documentation indicating Torrio’s personal presence in St. Petersburg falls off after his mother-in-law dies in 1930. Visits with his wife to see her mother no doubt were a factor in becoming for a time a seasonal resident.
There is an amusing story of Torrio protecting a neighbor’s pecan orchard against a poacher with a pruning ax near his residence on Lakeview Avenue. Torrio also sold (some accounts say donated) property with a grove and large home known as the “Green Cabin” at 2350 Lakeview in 1927 to the American Legion for use as the original American Legion Hospital for Crippled Children, forerunner of today’s All Children’s Hospital. Today the site of the American Legion Hospital and Torrio’s 2300 Lakeview residence are the location of Sanderlin Middle School.
As Capone excelled in bootlegging, racketeering, vice, gambling, and other organized crime, he made enemies. One of these was Joseph Aiello, also in the Chicago ‘alky’ and bootleg trade. Capone had engineered the elevation of Tony Lombardo to the presidency of L’ Unione Siciliana (a powerful Chicago Italian welfare and political organization), a position to which Aiello aspired. Aiello then went gunning for Capone. Capone fought off Aiello’s would-be assassins, killing one after another, ten in all. Police were tipped off about still another effort being planned by Aiello to murder Capone, which resulted in Aiello being taken into police custody. Capone then sent six cabs full of gunmen to the police station where they waited for him to be released. When the ambush was discovered, police escorted Aiello safely from the station. Aiello, like Johnny Torrio, then decided it was best to get out of town. But even though Aiello escaped with his life, the damage was done.
It just so happened that Chicago Mayor Bill Thompson was running for president, and the assault on the police station, combined with the rest of Chicago’s unsavory crime history, called the attention of the country to his inability to control his own city. Though Mayor Thompson was on the take from Capone, his presidential aspirations trumped, and he ordered Capone out of the city. It was at this moment that Capone made the only quote found as of yet mentioning St. Petersburg (December 5, 1927): “I’m leaving for St. Petersburg tomorrow,” he said, further explaining that he had some property there he wanted to sell. As it turned out, the reference to St. Pete was a ruse, and instead he went to Tijuana, Mexico, and then Southern California, where he was again asked to leave town. But, his mention of St. Petersburg is telling – a strange place to mention unless he had some connection to it.
Florida’s governor also added his voice to the chorus declaring Capone unwelcome. Chicago Tribune newspaperman, Fred Pasley, in his 1930 biography of Capone, states that Capone did in fact go to St. Petersburg in early 1928 after his sojourn out West. Pasley stated, “The police met him at the [train] station and trailed him so assiduously that he stayed only overnight.” No local documentation of this has been found. Capone’s wife stated in a 1941 deposition that Capone was in St. Pete for a “short visit… fourteen or fifteen years ago [1926 or 27].” If Capone in fact visited St. Pete in early 1928, it would have been ironic as the Southeast Regional Anti-Saloon Convention was being held in the city at the First Baptist Church at that time. After his possible brief stop in St. Petersburg, Capone went to Miami, and in March bought a 14-room estate on Palm Island which he purchased from beer magnate August Anheuser Busch. He called Florida “the garden of America, the sunny Italy of the new world, where life is good and abundant, where happiness is to be had even by the poorest.”
February 14, 1929 was the date of the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. This involved the brutal execution of seven members of a rival Chicago gang. Capone is widely assumed to have been responsible for ordering the killings, although he personally had an alibi. He was in Miami meeting with an assistant district attorney from New York minutes after the slaughter occurred. The massacre attracted worldwide attention, and further motivated public officials and law enforcement to bring Capone to justice.
In May 1929, Capone was convicted of possession of a weapon in Philadelphia and was sentenced to a year in prison, most of which he spent at Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. There Capone was allowed to furnish his cell, hire fellow prisoners as servants, and receive many visitors and mail. The junk mail was thoughtfully discarded for Capone by the warden. He was released in March 1930, whereupon authorities in Chicago once more warned that he was unwelcome and that he would be arrested on sight if he entered the city. Florida’s new governor, Doyle E. Carlton, followed suit. He sent an identical telegram to the sheriffs of all sixty-seven Florida counties: “It is reported that Al Capone is on his way to Florida. Arrest if he comes your way and escort to state border with instructions not to return. If you need additional assistance, call me.” As if to help with Capone’s public identification, Time Magazine ran his photo on their cover for the March 24, 1930 edition.
Capone at some point attracted the active attention of President Hoover. There are stories that Hoover was personally annoyed by Capone when in January 1929, Capone got more attention than the president-elect upon entering the lobby of a Miami hotel. But Hoover denied any personal animosity toward Capone. The more likely impetus was a meeting with a delegation of Chicago citizens who demanded federal action to deal with the gang disaster in Chicago in view of the city’s inability to do so. Regardless of the circumstances, it is known that Hoover repeatedly raised the issue of Capone’s prosecution with his closest advisors after becoming president. Ultimately, the only charge the feds could get to stick against Capone was non-payment of income tax, and even that was minimal. The indictment identified a little over one million dollars in income between the years 1924 and 1929, for which $215,080 in taxes were owed. There is speculation that Johnny Torrio may have advised Capone to take the rap to get it over with, not expecting the long prison sentence he would receive. In May 1932, at age 33, Capone was sent to the Atlanta Federal Prison. Having wised up to Capone and other criminals’ ability to manipulate the prison system, in 1934, Alcatraz was renovated and converted from a military to a federal maximum security prison for the most dangerous criminals, including those who had the resources to corrupt prison officials. Capone was among the first to be transferred there. Contrary to the experience a few years earlier in Philadelphia, Alcatraz was as grim as it got. There he occupied a 9’ x 5’ cell. Personal furnishing was not permitted. Mail was heavily censured and newspapers not allowed. Visitors were restricted to twice a month family visits. Use of personal funds to purchase anything was forbidden. He was paroled in 1939, soon returning to his home in Palm Island where he died of cardiac arrest in 1947 after a history of neurosyphilis which began to manifest while in Alcatraz.
This is the first of a two-part series on Al Capone in St. Pete. Part 2 will appear in the next edition of the Journal. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources Used: 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; Chicago Daily Tribune, January 25, 1925, p. 5; Scott Deitche, “Al Capone in St. Petersburg,” Informer (October 2012), pp. 4-10; Evening Independent (Various); 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; St. Petersburg Times (Various, especially 2/10/31, 2/13/31, 2/13/61, 9/28/74, 1/17/88, 3/23/92); June Hurley Young, The Don Ce-Sar Story, (Partnership Press) ND; and communications with Scott Deitche, Elaine Normile, Kimberly Hinder, and Gary Mormino.