Thursday, October 20, 2011


This is a photograph of Al Capone's prison cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was held for eight months in 1929-30. Eastern State was closed in 1970, and is now run as a public attraction by a non-profit, with tours and exhibits, including the Capone cell above. You can see some paint or plaster accummulating on the red fabric--is that a bed, or a blanketed storage box? There's something very surreal about this space.

Ken Burns's expose on the Prohibition Era has just been aired on PBS. There was a lot about the Chicago Gang wars, and Capone's crime empire there during the 1920's. Capone, as everyone knows, was eventually imprisoned on income-tax evasion, though the real motivation behind his incarceration was the violent activities he had engaged in to preserve and promote his various elicit business-activities, including illegal alcohol distribution, gambling and prostitution. His gang's annual income at its height has been estimated at 100 million dollars a year. Even today, money on that scale would be impressive, but that amount today would be worth between 10 and 100 times that amount, depending upon what indexing formula one uses.

Capone was not a very attractive man--in several senses. He had a very unpleasant Sicilian face, with dark-ringed eyes, and fat lips.

Capone was transferred to Alcatraz Island prison in August 1934. Here he was denied the privileges which had been accorded him at Eastern State. He lived only eight years after being released from prison in 1939, and they were not good ones.

His health had begun to decline, partly from a case of syphilis. By 1946, his doctors estimated his brain capacity to be that of a 12 year old. He died the year I was born [1947]. He was only 48.

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