This year, I will publish the newest book in my series South Florida During Prohibition. The new book, Al Capone’s Miami: Paradise or Purgatory?, will take a fascinating look at the years Al Capone spent in Florida. New information will shed light on his life in Florida including liquor smuggling, speakeasys, gambling joints, and his many arrests. And, it will include documents, photos, and other items that have never been published.
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Most people are familiar with the infamous crime boss Al Capone, a.k.a. “Scarface Al” and “Public Enemy Number One,” but few know of his South Florida connection or the establishment of his residency and business in the Sunshine State.
Capone’s Rise to Crime Boss
In the early 1920s, Alphonse Capone was one of a number of foot soldiers in the New York Mob until Johnny Torrio, an up and coming Chicago gangster, recruited him. Capone’s first job—supplying towels to prostitutes at The Four Deuces, a Southside hangout—wasn’t so glamorous. But he was soon promoted to “hit man.” His first successful assignment was to have crime boss “Big Jim” Colosimo taken out. With Colosimo out of the way, Torrio took control of the action and appointed Capone his chief assistant.
When Torrio was wounded in an unsuccessful gangland hit, he wanted out of the mob. Making a deal for ten percent of all illegal profits, he stepped down and seceded the gangland thrown to Capone. Thus, by 1926, Capone’s mob ruled Chicago.
Capone Comes to South Florida
In 1928 Capone traveled to Florida, but before he arrived at his Miami destination he stopped in the little town of Deerfield (just south of Boca Raton) to have several inner tubes fixed. Marlin Eller, 12, was manning his father’s filling station and garage on Dixie Highway in Deerfield when a “big black car filled with several men” pulled into the station. As one of the men handed over several inner tubes for repair, Marlin noticed the southbound car had Illinois license tags. He also overheard the men mention “Chicago.”
David Eller, a Deerfield Beach native recounted this story as told to him by his father, Marlin Eller:
My Dad patched them for them and when they picked up the tubes later on their way back north, the ‘boss man’ of the group paid for the gas and tire patching, and then handed my father a $10 tip! This was a huge tip for a 12-year-old boy at the time. My dad thought he was the nicest man in the world! But later on, when Al Capone was arrested and his picture was in the newspaper, my Dad saw the picture and realized who it was that had tipped him so generously.
Capone drove on to Miami and bought a little house on Palm Island in his wife’s name for $40,000 through Vincent G. Giblin, Broward County Florida’s first circuit judge turned mob attorney. He then kicked in another $100,000 for renovations that included a swimming pool, boathouse and dock.
While Capone’s lawyers established his legal rights of domicile, he was unwelcome in Miami and faced opposition from politicians and residents alike. When state beverage agents confiscated liquor in a raid at his home, State Attorney Hawthorne of Dade County filed a court petition to padlock the house “on grounds that the property was a public nuisance.” But that premise was soon negated when certain facts came to light.
Fred Girton, editor of a local nightlife newspaper, had been to the estate for a drink with the mobster. In addition, the highly respected Roddy Burdine had been to Capone’s home as a representative for Community Chest, a nonprofit agency that served the poor. Burdine claimed he was there to solicit a donation and while he received a generous gift, it was later returned. Because of these and similar incidents, the court reasoned that not all residents considered Capone a threat.
Walter Winchell, the noted New York Mirror’s nationally syndicated gossip columnist, occasionally visited Capone at Palm Island. On one such visit, he watched Capone play poker with some of his henchmen, a loaded automatic pistol nearby:
“I don’t understand that,” Winchell told Capone.“Here you are playing a game of cards with your friends, but you keep a gun handy.”
“I have no friends,” Capone replied coldly.
Capone’s Private Gambling Joint
Capone’s vacation home may have been on Palm Island in Miami but his “business” was farther north in the little town of Deerfield. David Eller recounted:
My grandmother, Mattie Eller, was an excellent seamstress and told her daughter, my Aunt Lavelle Tubbs, that she used to make extra money making dresses for the girls who “worked” at Mr. Capone’s private “establishment.” Located where the Intracoastal Waterway intersects the Hillsboro Canal, the “fish” import business, also had lots of gambling machines and fancy girls around . . . Capone would generally travel by boat from Miami Beach to visit his Deerfield “business.”
To the north of Capone’s gambling joint and just across the Hillsboro Canal was a 56-acre triangular-shaped tract of land. First designated by the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) as “spoils area #702,” it was purchased by Giblin for Capone in 1930 where the notorious mobster planned to build a $250,000 house.
Margaret McDougald Shadoin, a long time Deerfield Beach resident, recalled that her father, W.D. McDougald, Deerfield Police Chief and a Sheriff’s deputy, received a call from Broward Sheriff, Paul C. Bryan about this time:
My dad was told Capone had purchased land on the peninsula, sight unseen, and was coming up to look at it. He wanted my dad and deputy Alvin Stewart to escort the mobster and offer him protection because Capone was the target for an assassin at all times. Dad said Capone was a very mannerly person who told him he was planning to build a nightclub and casino on the island.
The land transaction birthed a banner-headline story in the July 2, 1930 edition of Fort Lauderdale’s Daily News:
What is believed to be a move on the part of Al Capone, Chicago beer and brothel baron, to establish residence and headquarters in Broward county was seen today with the filing of a deed at the Broward courthouse for transfer of a large tract of land lying between the Florida East Coast and Hillsborough canals at Deerfield . . .
After Capone’s arrest for tax evasion in 1932, and given his impending jail time and the burden of taxes on the Deerfield peninsular property, Giblin sold the acreage, never denying that his mob boss was actually eyeing it for a residence.
The Florida Inland Navigation District conveyed the property to the state on a 99-year right to use it as a park and recreation area. It is now a Broward County Park called Deerfield Island and is accessible only by launch from close to where Capone’s Speakeasy once stood.
David Eller wrote of the island:
Officially named Deerfield Island a few years ago, many locals still call it Capone Island, because legend has it that the island is where Capone hid all the booze during prohibition. He brought the liquor from Europe to the Bahamas, and then smuggled it onto Capone Island where it was put in the bottom of watertight containers, topped off with fish and dry ice and delivered to the railroad station for onward shipment to Chicago. Capone became enormously rich in a very short time via this illegal Deerfield Beach-connected enterprise.
The Last of Capone
The mob boss gave the “go ahead” for the slaying of Chicago gangland rival “Bugs’ Moran on February 14, 1929 in an incident that became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. While records show Capone was in South Florida when the massacre occurred, everyone knew Capone had ordered the “hit” that was allegedly carried out by Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn a.k.a. Vincenzo Demarco.
Dade County Solicitor Robert Taylor questioned Capone regarding an “unsolved gangland hit in Manhattan, his comfortable lifestyle, and his frequent telephone calls to Chicago.” Later he was summoned back to Chicago to testify about the killings before a grand jury. But in the end, Capone was never implicated.
Fearing assassination by the Bugs Moran Gang after the famed St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in the spring of 1929, Capone and his bodyguard had themselves arrested for wearing concealed weapons. Released in March 1930, word got out he was headed back to Miami. Hearing this, Florida Governor Doyle Carlton quickly ordered all sixty-seven county sheriffs to “arrest Capone and escort him to the state border if he should appear anywhere in Florida.”
Capone was eventually imprisoned in 1932 for failure to pay income taxes from 1924 to 1929. Sentenced to eleven years in the slammer, Capone was sent to Alcatraz. While there, syphilis attacked his brain and in 1938 prison doctors declared him a mental patient.
Having served seven years, he was released in 1939 and returned to South Florida. A Miami doctor who examined him said, “Capone couldn’t dominate anything, much less a gangland empire.”
In the end, Capone contracted double pneumonia and spent his last days sitting in a lounge chair at his Palm Island estate breathing through an oxygen mask. Outside compound walls, a death vigil commenced. Capone died in an upstairs bedroom on Saturday evening, January 25, 1947. He was forty-eight.
Although Capone was the first crime figure to head to South Florida he wasn’t the last. Others soon followed including Meyer Lansky, the Mafia’s most trusted business manager, Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, Anthony Accetturo, and Carlos Trafficante.
Click here to order a copy of Run the Rum In, which describes more about South Florida during the Prohibition era.