One of Miami’s most enduring sagas centers on the larger than life presence of Al Capone in the area for a portion of the twentieth century. Capone was already a major crime figure, worth scores of millions of dollars, when he moved to the Magic City in the late 1920s, a move prompted perhaps by the fact that he was being targeted by both an organized crime foe, Joe Aiello, and by Big Bill Thompson, the politically ambitious mayor of Chicago, who decided to get tough on Capone and Chicago’s criminal element and ride that crusade to the White House. For Capone, Miami was “the garden of America, the sunny Italy of the New World, where life is good and abundant, where happiness is to be had even by the poorest.”
The gangster also relished the wide-open nature of the Magic City, which unabashedly flouted National Prohibition. Even more importantly, Miami and its environs were the leakiest areas in the U.S. for rumrunners and bootleggers who brought in vast quantities of illicit alcohol from the nearby Bahamas.
On Capone’s first visit to Miami in December 1927, he rented a full floor of the swank Ponce de Leon Hotel in downtown Miami’s E. Flagler Street under the name “A. Acosta.” In the following year, the gangster bought a plush home on Palm Island, an eighty-two acre island dredged from bay bottom just ten years earlier. The crime lord added $100,000 in improvements, including a swimming pool, a boathouse, and rock gardens and fountains.
Al took a liking to his new community, hosting spaghetti and steak parties, bereft of booze, all day, high stakes poker games, while welcoming members of his gang to the island. Capone also visited the Miami Jockey Club, a horserace track in Hialeah, and dined at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant, where he was always among the first in the restaurant for that evening’s fare.
But not everything was clear sailing for Public Enemy Number One. He was arrested a few times, targeted by officials of the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, who had no legal basis for these actions other than the fact that he was an “undesirable.” Accompanying these arrests were vows by governing officials “to run him out of town.”
Capone became an even greater persona non-grata following the fabled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, in 1929, when members of his gang wiped out, in a hail of gunfire, seven lieutenants of George “Bugs” Moran, a major rival. (Al at the time was conveniently meeting with Robert Taylor, Dade County solicitor, in Miami’s towering downtown courthouse, answering questions about his businesses and associates).
Indeed, Scarface was busy with local business investments, reportedly owning 25% ownership in the posh Palm Island Club, a like percentage in the gambling room of the Floridian Hotel overlooking Biscayne Bay from the Miami Beach side of the waterway, and controlling interest in the Miami Beach Kennel Club, among other holdings.
While the late 1920s were heady times in the Magic City and surrounding communities for the crime kingpin, the 1930s would witness his decline as he spent most of that decade in prison.
In our next installment of this column, we will conclude the story of Al Capone’s presence in the Miami area.
Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum. He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Dr. George also leads Little Havana tours as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.