Inside the Global Cult of Al Capone
A recent auction of the Chicago gangster’s mementos testifies to his enduring appeal—and the thorny nature of collecting items owned by criminals
It’s a name almost all Romanian children learn: Al Capone. The American gangster whose organized crime operation dominated 1920s Chicago appeals to Romanians in part because, as the child of immigrants, he’s seen as an underdog, says Bucharest resident Kat Graepel. Self-made individuals and gangsters became particularly popular in the Eastern European country after capitalism replaced communism in the 1990s.
“[Capone is] the first name that comes to mind when you think about [the] Mafia and mob and gangsters,” adds Sergiu Prundurel, Graepel’s husband.
The two operate an escape room business in Bucharest and built one of their rooms around Capone, drawing inspiration from the American television show “The Making of the Mob.” The room challenges players to infiltrate a gang in 1920s Chicago. Capone, who looms large in the Romanian imagination, was the obvious choice, the couple says.
Almost 75 years after the mobster’s death, an eclectic bunch of enthusiasts continue to chase his memory, from casual supporters who name their pit bulls Capone to diehards who seek bathroom tiles from the Chicago hotel where Capone once stayed.
These devotees can be found in surprising places. In Árborg, Iceland, an annual Al Capone Day festival finds costumed adults chasing each other—and authentic Chicago deep dish pizza; meanwhile, in her 2016 book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, the late scholar Deirdre Bair reported that postage stamps in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan featured the gangster’s face.
A recent reminder of just how widespread Capone’s popularity is arrived earlier this month, when Sacramento auction house Witherell’s sold about 200 Capone family treasures for a collective $3.1 million. Among the nearly 1,000 registered bidders were residents of Singapore and Turkey—far-reaching interest that more than simply surprised Witherell’s COO, Brian Witherell. “It almost terrifies me,” he says.
Still, Witherell admits that he understands the widespread appeal of owning something that belonged to Capone: “I think that’s good cocktail talk in any environment and impressive to anyone.”
But it was a more practical reason that inspired Capone’s three granddaughters, all descendants of Capone’s only son, Sonny, to auction off some of their grandparents’ furniture, decorations, jewelry and photos. All three women live in Northern California, a region wracked by wildfires. For the past two years, the oldest of the granddaughters, 77-year-old Diane Patricia Capone, has had her suitcases packed and ready to evacuate. If a fire did break out, she wondered what would happen to her grandmother May’s Empress chair and other items that once belonged to her famous grandfather and his wife: a decorative cigar humidor sold for $145,200 (including buyer’s premium), the couple’s bed ($84,700), family photos, a monogrammed platinum diamond pocketknife ($78,650), several pistols.
Diane believes that these personal items—including a letter written to Sonny while Capone was incarcerated at Alcatraz—show a side of her grandfather few have seen, that of a loving family man. That these items could end up in the “wrong hands” did cross her mind. But by choosing the family-owned Witherell’s, she felt comfortable that the auction house would vet its clientele.
“I have great faith in their discretion,” she says.
Of course, not everyone can afford to spend $1 million on Capone’s favorite Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol, or $11,495 on a hand-colored print of the mobster and Sonny. They must find other ways to connect to the infamous criminal, who is estimated to be behind as many as 200 murders but was convicted of and served time only for tax evasion.
While still in his 20s, Capone became the head of the notorious Chicago Outfit, one of the city’s largest and most violent criminal organizations. The group controlled the distribution of alcohol and is estimated to have made as much as $100 million a year. Capone’s prominence was such that an elite squad of Prohibition Bureau agents was established to try to bring him and his counterparts down. In the end, though, it was the Internal Revenue Service that caught the gangster. Capone was convicted of five counts of income tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was released in 1939 for treatment of late stage syphilis and died in 1947 after suffering a stroke.
In Romania, connecting to Capone means talking about the supposed Romanian members of his gang. A Romanian driver is said to have eluded the police by dumping a truck full of whiskey into a river. He is also rumored to have introduced Capone to Romanian plum brandy before running into trouble with the law and returning to Europe, where he became mayor of his hometown.
The story is likely more legend than fact. But that hasn’t stopped one Romanian tour company from launching a week-long trip called “In the Footsteps of Al Capone’s Driver.” The tour features a castle that supposedly belonged to the driver’s cousin and the story of another Romanian immigrant, Capone’s lawyer. Not included are Motel Al Capone in Satu Mare or the numerous Capone bars found in many towns around the country.
A longtime Chicago resident, author and scholar John Binder became interested in the history of organized crime in the early 1990s. With his background in finance and economics, the subject wasn’t exactly a predictable area of interest. Before long, however, Binder became president of the Merry Gangsters Literary Society, a group of writers, cops and historians who met until about 1997 to talk about organized crime. Part of what attracted Binder is the uniqueness of the Prohibition era, a short period of time when a hard-drinking country made a dramatic change by outlawing the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol. As for people’s fascination with Capone, Binder cites four factors: He was an interesting guy who did interesting things at an interesting time in an interesting place.
That place, of course, is Chicago.
A doctor and book collector, Craig Showalter traces his increased interest in Capone to the 1970s, when he moved to the Windy City for medical school. The initial tour Showalter’s aunt took him on included Capone’s headquarters; he soon found himself acquiring texts about crime in Chicago, which in turn led to collecting Capone memorabilia. He owns a card signed by Capone, as well as a typewritten letter signed by the man who tried to bring him down, federal agent Eliot Ness. For Showalter, the Capone autograph provides “a personal connection with someone that I’ve always found fascinating.” Still, he adds, “I can’t say I particularly admire him.” Showalter knows about Capone’s dark deeds, including possibly orchestrating the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which seven members of Capone’s rival gang were murdered.
Gangsters are one thing, serial killers another. Showalter says he would never collect the artwork of late serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Showalter knew Gacy’s psychiatrist, who claimed to have kept the so-called Killer Clown’s brain in a jar in her home following his execution in 1994. (Gacy’s family authorized the psychiatrist to examine the organ, but studies yielded “nothing abnormal.”)
“That’s something I would be afraid of,” says Showalter.
Outlaws are different. Showalter considers our fascination with them to be “very American.” Yet Istanbul resident Serdar Börekoğlu argues that Al Capone is even more popular in Turkey than in the U.S., with numerous Turkish media outlets reporting on last week’s auction and locals jokingly referring to each other as “Al Capone” in conversation.
A lawyer by trade, Börekoğlu is fascinated by Capone because of the almost Robin Hood–like way the gangster has been portrayed in the media. He considers this coverage unfortunate, especially because his own father was a well-known politician who fought against corruption and the Mafia. Still, Börekoğlu admits that he’d like to own something of Capone’s. If nothing else, he believes it could prove profitable.
New York City psychiatrist Robert Nadrich equates such purchases to holding a piece of history. He compares Capone to military commanders who were brilliant tacticians—and ruthless. A collector of artifacts related to French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, Nadrich registered for the auction in hopes of adding Capone to his list of notorious men.
“The most interesting things to me in the world are human beings,” Nadrich says.
In Italy, the connection to Capone can be summed up in a single word: mafia. Like Turkish news outlets, the Italian media gave the recent auction of Capone memorabilia prominent coverage, according to Milan resident Luca Borla. As the owner of a shop that sells cigars, whiskey and rum, Borla says he was destined to be interested in Capone, who smoked the former and smuggled the latter.
At 53, Borla is old enough to remember the Second Mafia War. Waged by the Sicilian Mafia between the late 1970s and early 1990s, the conflict led to the deaths of thousands of Italians. But it was Hollywood that sparked Borla’s interest in Capone. He became fascinated after watching the 1987 film The Untouchables, which features Robert De Niro as Capone and Kevin Costner as Ness, the agent chasing the mobster.
As an Italian, Borla is well aware of the harm the Mafia has caused. He knows Capone was a brutal man.
“Unfortunately, like in the movies, you don’t always love the good character,” Borla says.
Binder, author of the 2017 book Al Capone’s Beer Wars, agrees, saying history does not draw a line between good and bad. It does, however, seem to focus on winners. By surviving the deadly gang wars and evading capture for murder and bootlegging, Capone is seen as outwitting the system. Some even consider his imprisonment for tax evasion a tactical move designed to provide him with a way of exiting the business in something other than a body bag.
Capone was very human in his downfall, a man who made it big and then was taken down by a debilitating disease, syphilis. Nadrich, who is 75, describes Capone as “old fashioned,” harking back to a time when criminals were loyal to a creed and wouldn’t kill family members or children.
This is a view Binder disputes.
“So much time has gone by,” he says. “So many people have lost track of the facts in many ways. And they’re just sort of seeing it as they want to see it.”
Reality isn’t the goal of the Bucharest escape room either.
“The idea of escape rooms nowadays is not necessarily to escape the room,” Prundurel explains. “It’s rather to escape reality into the room.”
Two years after the Prohibition room debuted, another room eclipsed it in popularity. It’s an attraction that seems a little more suited to Romania, homeplace of the real-life inspiration behind Dracula: a vampire room.