Ask McGehee

Did Al Capone ever visit Mobile during its bootlegging heyday?

The Alcatraz Island prison train carrying gangster Al Capone was ferried to the notorious island. Photo from the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

I could find no direct link between Chicago mobster Al Capone and Mobile during the Roaring Twenties. Perhaps he was too busy arranging the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which gangsters dressed as policemen gunned down seven of his rivals in a garage. That was also the year that Capone’s empire was estimated to be worth more than $62 million. Not bad for a man who had started his career at age 12 by pimping out Brooklyn prostitutes.

Prosecutors finally got Capone into court in 1931, and he was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He was convicted of income tax evasion rather than the estimated 300 murders and countless criminal activities that had made him a household name.

In May of 1932, Capone arrived at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where he was treated like a celebrity and provided with every luxury. He had large sums of cash in his cell with which to “tip” the guards. The floor was thickly carpeted and held fine furniture, luxury bedding and the latest radio. A nearby apartment building housed various relatives and cronies who visited him regularly.

The fun in Atlanta ended in 1934 when a new waterfront facility was completed in San Francisco: Alcatraz. In August of 1934, Atlanta’s “model prisoner” joined 51 other convicts in two specially equipped railway cars for a trip west to the nation’s most secure prison. The men were accompanied by dozens of railway officials, FBI agents and U.S. Marshals.

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Capone’s smirk in his Alcatraz mugshot was short-lived, and he ultimately admitted that “Alcatraz has got me licked.”

A Visit to the Port City

On August 19, a Sunday afternoon, that train made a stop in Mobile. The cars with barred windows were attached to a regular passenger train of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. When the train pulled into the L&N station at the foot of Government Street, news reporters anxious to see the train’s most famous passenger surrounded it.

Although the press was ordered away by the security detail, a helpful prisoner called out that Capone was in the first car, sixth window from the front. “Hi, Al!” a reporter shouted. According to the newspaper account, “A swarthy man who bore a marked resemblance to Capone waved his hand and smiled. A guard promptly pulled down the window and drew the shade.”

The train pulled out of the station soon after, ending the brief visit to Mobile of one of history’s most notorious and colorful gangsters. The Register predicted in its account that Capone and his co-passengers were headed where “they would sit behind bars and watch the waves lashing against their island and long for freedom.”

Capone found his California accommodations, with its strict warden and prison guards unmoved by his charms, far less plush than those in Georgia. He ultimately told the warden, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.” He was released in 1939 and died in his south Florida mansion in 1947. Alphonse Gabriel Capone, nicknamed “Scarface, ” was 48 years old.

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