Gangsters on the Gold Coast: Scarface Comes to Miami

miami post cardThe Gold Coast. The Magic City. South Beach. Lincoln Road. Few places among America’s urban centers possess as much mystique as the narrow strip of land lying between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. While Miami Beach and Miami proper are separate incorporated areas, their individual developments followed similar paths. What Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle did for the land bordering the Miami River, Carl Fisher did for the mangrove swamps and sand nestled against the Atlantic. The result in both cases was rapid growth, land speculation, boom, bust, winking at vice activities, and an ultimate status as playground for the rich, famous, and infamous. It is those infamous personalities that in part helped create the mystique. From the earliest days of development, prostitution, outlawed gambling, moonshining, bootlegging, etc. were present on the Gold Coast. They thrived as growth industries operated by hometown folks, especially during the decade of Prohibition. Locals inclined to criminal activity enjoyed life as freewheeling, independent operators until the year 1928 and the arrival of a certain snowbird from Chicago.

Al-Capone-QUotesBorn in 1899, Al “Scarface” Capone grew up brawling on the streets of Brooklyn. He joined a street gang as a child and pursued the criminal life until his death in 1947. After finishing sixth grade, Capone dropped out of school and became a member of the Five Points Gang of Lower Manhattan. As a teenager, he went to work as a bouncer and bartender in gangster Frank Yale’s Harvard Inn on Coney Island. In 1917 during a knife fight at Yale’s place, Capone acquired the three thin scars that ran along his jaw. A female patron’s brother did not take kindly to Capone insulting his sister.

capone's first chi home

7244 South Prairie, Capone’s first home in Chicago

There are differing accounts of why Capone moved to Chicago, but by 1925 Capone was large and in charge in the Windy City. He was tapped by his boss, Johnny Torrio, to take over their criminal organization when Torrio departed Chicago after nearly being killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home. When Capone assumed control of “the Outfit”, he was 26 years old. It has been said that fully grown tough guys would wet themselves in his presence if they suspected he was about to administer his favorite form of correction when displeased. It involved the brutal, but effective, application of a baseball bat.

Those who knew him well said that he could be sweet and gentle unless thwarted, then his rage knew no bounds. The New Yorker dubbed him “the greatest gang leader in history.” He was suspected of ordering numerous murders, of operating speakeasies and prostitution rings, of bootlegging, of racketeering, of running illegal gambling concerns, and controlling other forms of vice and criminal activity. The saying that crime does not pay did not apply whatsoever to Capone. It is believed that his criminal enterprise raked in $100 million annually at the height of his power. He never paid for his most serious crimes because he was clever and very skillful in keeping his operations secret, usually through payoffs, intimidation, and by eliminating anyone who might be a danger.

Given all that money and the nature of Chicago’s winters, it is no mystery what drew Capone to south Florida; although, his first visit was not entirely voluntary. Big Bill Thompson became mayor of Chicago probably with considerable support from Capone, but in 1927, Thompson cast his political gaze toward the White House. With this grander ambition, Thompson turned on Capone with a promise to clean up the vice and crime that was rampant in the city. He set about forcing Capone out of town by encouraging the police to do their jobs. It became hot enough in Chicago that Capone began seeking temporary relocations elsewhere. He first tried Los Angles, but the Chicago police had already notified their LA counterparts and also made it clear that he was not welcome back in the Windy City. After unsatisfying stays in the Bahamas, New Orleans, and St. Petersburg, FL, he lit in Miami just as a stopover until he figured out his next move. He liked the area well enough to rent a bungalow on Miami Beach for the winter.

Though early on Miami had taken a laissez-faire attitude to locally produced vice, having the world’s biggest gangster move in was another matter. The Miami Daily News started a campaign to prevent Capone from settling permanently and the governor, Doyle E. Carlton, put the state’s sheriffs on notice that Capone was to be arrested on sight. Capone, as usual, took advantage of opportunities where he found them. Miami and South Florida, having just suffered twin disasters of a serious economic downturn bought on by the land bust and two devastating hurricanes, were ripe for being wooed by what Capone possessed so much of – money.

plam isle old picutre

Early aerial view of Capone’s Palm Isle estate

First, he politely enquired of Miami’s police chief if he would be allowed to live in the city and declared that he would not engage in criminal activity. The chief answered that he could stay if he kept his nose clean. Capone even held a press conference where he turned on the charm. He praised Miami as the garden of America and hinted that his friends would come and bring money. He donated to politicians’ campaigns – all of them regardless of party affiliation. He spent money in prodigious amounts. The plan worked. Through an intermediary, he purchased 93 Palm Avenue in the Palm Isle section of town for $40,000. Built in 1922 by brewer Clarence Bush, the seven bedroom, seven bath 6,103 square foot house still stands today as a premier property. It is currently on the market for $14,900,000. Once he moved into number 93, he fortified the place with heavy doors and thick concrete walls. Florida state attorney Vernon Hawthorne filed suit to have Capone removed from the state as a public nuisance and for providing safe harbor for the criminal element. When Capone prevailed, the judge told him to appreciate being a citizen and to help the police to enforce the law.

capone's aromored carA victorious Capone set about enjoying all the area had to offer. He played golf and tennis, enjoyed part interest in the Palm Island Club, and controlling interest in the gambling casino Villa Venice. He, his bodyguards, and his associates tooled around town in a seven-ton armor-plated Cadillac limousine. On occasion, he rented a private plane to ferry his group to Bimini for picnics of beer and salami sandwiches. He paid $150 for each trip and tipped the pilot $100. He befriend a few locals like Jack Sewell who sold Capone and his friends expensive clothing. Sewell was reportedly invited to Capone’s home one evening. When he arrived, a poker game was going strong with nothing but $1,000 bills on the table. Another suit alleging Capone to be a public menace was filed in 1930 to try and dislodge him from Miami, but once again he prevailed. As with all of Capone’s crimes, the prosecution could not prove its case and the judge threw it out.


Alcatraz during Capone’s stay.

Capone’s luck eventually ran out in 1932 when he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in federal prison. By 1938 while in Alcatraz, he was diagnosed as suffering from paresis, brain damage caused by advanced syphilis. He was transferred for treatment first to Terminal Island Penitentiary in Los Angles and then to a hospital in Baltimore. Upon release from the hospital, he returned to his Palm Isle home where he lived a much quieter life than he had previously known there. Though among the first suffers to be treated with penicillin in 1942, his condition was too advanced and the treatment failed. On  January 21, 1947, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died six days later at the age of forty-eight. Alfonse “Scarface” Capone was the first and perhaps biggest gangster to grace Miami’s palm lined streets, but he would not be the last.

Further Reading

Chepesiuk, Ron. Gangsters of Miami. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2010.

Gaines, Steven. Fool’s Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach. New York: Thee Rivers Press, 2009.


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Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

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