The first objects listed on the auction site offering Al Capone’s belongings depict an affectionate son and father of a family. There is a black and white photo of him and his mother smiling happily at each other. And there’s a picture in a gold frame of the mobster with his arm around his only son, Albert Francis. Both are elegant, wearing a felt hat and a starched jacket.
But continue to browse the items for sale on Witherell’s Auction House website and you’ll see more sinister items, reminding potential buyers that while Capone may have been “Papa” to his grandchildren, he was also a violent mob boss who would have been the mastermind behind the Valentine’s Day (or Valentine’s Day) massacre, in which seven men were shot down in a Chicago auto repair shop by gangsters posing as police officers.
Entitled “A Century of Notoriety: Al Capone’s Legacy,” the collection also includes several of the mobster’s firearms, including a 1911 Colt .45 pistol described as his favorite weapon. Live bidding doesn’t start until Oct. 8, but two six-figure bids have already been made for the pistol, according to Brian Witherell, founder of the Sacramento, Calif., auction house.
It is a sign of the fascination exercised to this day by a mobster who died more than 70 years ago.
“This is going to be a big auction,” Witherell said. “We’ve been doing this work long enough to know what attracts buyers. But this collection is exceeding our highest expectations.”
Known as Scarface (Scarface), Capone died in January 1947 at his mansion in Palm Island, Florida, of complications from a stroke and pneumonia. I was 48 years old.
His belongings remained with the family and ended up in the hands of the four daughters of Albert Francis Capone, known as Sonny. One of the daughters, Diane Capone, said that she and her two sisters still alive, all living in Auburn, Calif., decided to sell her grandfather’s possessions because they are aging and they feared what could happen to them if the fires that have been ravaging the country. Northern California recently forced them to abandon their homes overnight.
“We’ve spent the last two summers packed and by the door,” Diane said.
The objects, 174 in all, also include furniture, clocks, a white and gold cover from a box in which Capone kept matches for his cigars, and a letter he wrote to Sonny Capone in prison.
Also on sale will be some of the mobster’s jewelry, including diamond pins used to fasten his bow tie and a flashy pin with the word “AL” embedded in diamonds, used to fasten his tie to his shirt so it won’t get out of place.
Diane Capone, 77, said she understands that there is “an enormous gulf” between her grandfather’s private life and his public life, which has been exposed in detail in newspapers, films and books.
“Do I know he was responsible for many bad things or for sending his men to do bad things?” he asked. “Of course I know. But I’m also aware that it had multidimensional characteristics. He was able to separate his public life from the life he led as a family man.”
Diane was 3 years old when her grandfather died, but she says she has clear memories of Capone reading to her, holding her in his lap and leading her through the mansion’s gardens, pointing to flowers and figurines as she clung to his fingers. “He was very, very affectionate.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Al Capone grew up in New York and chose to be a gangster as a teenager, according to a biography written by Deirdre Bair. He was a shoeshine boy, saw mobsters extorting local merchants and decided to start his own gang. As an adult, he built his empire selling alcoholic beverages during the Prohibition era, between 1920 and 1933, when the consumption of alcohol was prohibited in the USA.
He earned about $100 million a year, according to researchers at Harvard Business School, who say Capone’s strategies were a reflection of “the destructive forms of American entrepreneurship of the early 20th century.”
Capone was reportedly responsible for more than 200 deaths, including that of a public prosecutor. The culmination of Chicago’s gang wars pitted Capone against his main rival, George Moran (aka Bugs), on February 14, 1929. Seven men, mostly members of the Moran gang, were in the countryside from a workshop when four others broke into the place and announced a blitz. They ordered those present to line up against the wall and shot them.
Capone, who was on vacation in Florida, was not arrested, and some people expressed doubts that he was the one who commissioned the crime. He was never convicted of murder.
He was sentenced in 1931 for tax evasion and served seven and a half years in a federal prison. According to the FBI, while Capone was in detention his health seriously deteriorated due to paresis, a partial paralysis due to syphilis.
Released, he was hospitalized in Baltimore and then moved to his mansion on Palm Island. “He was mentally unable to go back to mob politics,” the FBI said.
His granddaughter said he doubted this theory. She claims to believe that her grandfather was content to leave his former life behind. She said her grandmother once described how Capone’s former associates came to visit him when he left prison. As they left, Capone’s wife would hear them comment: “He’s completely out of his mind.”
“My grandmother mentioned this to my grandfather, and Papa’s response was, ‘Let them think what they want – it’s my exit ticket,’” he said.
Diane Capone said she plans to donate part of her proceeds from the auction to charities such as the local food bank. It was the kind of charitable organization supported by his grandfather, who sponsored community restaurants during the Great Depression.
Capone’s granddaughter said she will never be able to understand this dichotomy. “I have no idea how a person can be able to live the public life he lived and be the family man he was.”