Friday, January 25, 2013

Al Capone – Chicago Gangster

Alphonse Gabriel Capone
January was always an interesting month in his life; it was one hundred fourteen years ago this month that he was born, ninety-three years ago that Prohibition was enacted, and sixty-six years since the death of Al Capone, Chicago gangster.

Al and his mother, Teresa
He was born Alphonse Gabriel Capone on January 17, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York.  His parents, Gabriele and Teresina Capone, were Italian immigrants.   Gabriele Capone worked as a barber, and Teresa was a seamstress. Capone was one of nine children.  He dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and was heavily influenced by New York gangster, Johnny Torrio.

Five Points Gang
Capone started with small time gangs but quickly moved up to Torrio’s Five Points Gang.  This group, made up of Italian-American men and boys, was based in the Sixth Ward (Lower Manhattan) of New York City.  It was during this time that Capone suffered the three slashes on his face that earned him the name, ”Scarface.”

Mae Josephine Capone
Capone's Chicago Home
Capone married Mae Josephine Coughlin on December 30, 1918, one month after their first son, Albert Francis Capone, was born.  Shortly after, Capone moved to Chicago. In 1923, he purchased a house for his family in the Chicago neighborhood of Park Manor.

Johnny Torrio
Johnny Torrio recruited Capone and moved him to Illinois in 1919 for potential Chicago “business opportunities.”  With Prohibition now law, Chicago offered gangsters a great opportunity for “bootlegging” – smuggling illegal alcohol - into the city. 

Al Capone "The Boss"
Downtown Chicago in the 1920's
Capone organized Chicago’s underworld and quickly made the town his own.  In 1925, Torrio handed over the reigns of “The Outfit” to Capone. During Prohibition, with Capone as the crime boss, the Outfit, also known as the Chicago Syndicate, and the Chicago Mob, made over $100-million dollars per year in revenues from gambling, prostitution, racetracks, night clubs, and the sale of alcohol. (The Chicago Outfit is still in existence.)

Chicago Mayor, William Thompson
Capone’s gang operated casinos and speakeasies throughout the city with the bribed blessings of Chicago Mayor, William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson.

St Valentine's Day Massacre
The 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven rival gang members were gunned down in a garage, has been attributed to Capone’s order, but facts to substantiate that were never proven.  When questioned, Capone had an alibi – he was at his house in Palm Island, Florida.

Soup Kitchen, courtesy of Capone
Capone understood the benefit of a good PR campaign. He acquired media attention by opening soup kitchens for the poor, and providing clothing to those who could not afford them, providing assistance at his expense.  The way Capone saw it; he was “just a businessman, giving the people what they want." And, because of the effects of Prohibition and the Great Depression, the public wanted to believe him.

In 1930, Capone was named as Chicago’s “Public Enemy Number One.”

Capone's Arrest Record
Capone's Mug Shot
Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness, was intent on convicting Capone on bootlegging charges, but never could.  In 1931, Ness settled on arresting Capone for income tax evasion.  Following a long and corrupt trial, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison.  He was first sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary, and then moved to the Lincoln Heights Jail in L.A. On August 11, 1934 he was sent to "The Rock" - Alcatraz.

Capone's Cell
Alcatraz Sign
Capone spent the last year of his sentence in the prison hospital, dealing with the disabling effects of syphilis.  He was released from Alcatraz on January 6, 1939, and sent to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island in California to serve a one-year sentence for contempt of court.

Capone Before Release
Death of Capone Reported
Capone’s reign as Chicago’s lead crime boss was over.  Capone returned to his home on Palm Island, in Florida after prison.  His physical and mental health deteriorated to that of a 12-year-old child. On January 21, 1947, he suffered a stroke. The next day, January 22, 1947 Al Capone suffered a fatal heart attack and died. He was 48 years old.

Original Family Stone
Capone's Grave at Mt Carmel Cemetery
Capone was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side, along side his father and brother, Frank.  In 1950, all three were moved to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillsdale, Illinois.

Al Capone was, and continues to be, one of the most notorious gangsters of the 20th Century.

~ Joy

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Poe Toaster: Nevermore…

Edgar Allan Poe
Poe's Monument
Tomorrow will be the 204th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, and most probably the fourth year in a row that the Poe Toaster has failed to appear. What began in the late forties, became an annual tradition for 60 years, but now it appears to be over.

The Poe Toaster?
Martell Cognac
Every year since the late forties, (some say the 1930’s), a mysterious figure dressed in black, with a white scarf and wide brimmed hat, appeared in the early morning hours to visit Poe’s grave.  The man would always leave three red roses, one for Poe, his wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm, all buried there. He had been known to leave notes at the grave, one that said simply, “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.”  Then he would pour a glass of Martell cognac, toast the writer, and leave the half empty bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave. Who was he?  It’s a mystery quite befitting Poe - one that has not been solved.

Boston Harbor
Fitting, for Edgar Allan Poe lived a life of mystery.  He was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to actors.  His father, David Poe, Jr., abandoned the family one year later.  His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, died of tuberculosis when he was two years old.  Poe was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia.

Tamerlane & Other Poems
Poe attended college for one semester, and went to West Point for a short time.  A collection of his poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems, were published anonymously in 1827.  For several years, Poe wrote for literary journals and periodicals that published his works.  In 1835, he began working for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia.

The Raven
In 1845, Poe’s poem, The Raven, was published and became an immediate success.  His themes of death and the macabre electrified readers.  Other famous works included The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe is given credit for writing the first modern detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Virginia Clemm Poe
Poe married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm on September 22, 1835.  It is thought that Edgar and Virginal had a relationship more in keeping as that of a brother and sister, than husband and wife. 

Several of Poe’s writings are said to be about Virginia.  The most popular is the poem, Annabel Lee, where it's believed she was the inspiration for the main character.  The poem, Lenore was also inspired by Virginia, as was the short story, Eleonora. 

Virginia's Grave
Virginia began to show signs of consumption in 1842.  As the disease progressed, she became an invalid, and Poe began to drink heavily. Virginia died of tuberculosis on January 30, 1847 in New York.  She was 24. After her death, Poe’s behavior became even more erratic and unstable.

Washington College Hospital
Poe in 1849
On October 3, 1849, Poe was discovered wandering the streets of Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothes and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to Joseph W. Walker, the man who found him.  Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital but was never coherent long enough to tell anyone what had happened to him.  Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of 40. 

Written by a rival- Rufus Griswold
But even in death, mystery surrounded him.  It was never known for sure what caused Poe’s death because the medial records and his death certificate have been lost. Rumors as to the cause of his death include, alcoholism, heart congestion, cholera, syphilis, rabies, brain disease, even suicide.

Westminster Burial Grounds
Poe's Stone
Poe was buried in Westminster Hall and Burial Grounds in his grandfather’s lot, but was moved to a more prominent spot in 1875.   On January 19, 1885 the remains of his wife Virginia, were exhumed and buried next to Poe’s.  Then, in the late forties, the Poe Toaster began his annual pilgrimage.  His visits were first mentioned in passing in the Evening Sun of Baltimore Newspaper in 1950.

Tell-Tale Heart
Over 160 years after his death, people are still haunted by Poe’s writings, understanding that the suffering of his characters blended with his own personal torment and angst. 

Poe's House & Museum
Several of the homes he lived in have been preserved and are now museums, including the Poe House and Museum* in Baltimore, where the Poe Toaster made his yearly pilgrimages to Poe’s grave. The Toaster could arrive any time between midnight and 5:30 A.M. on Poe’s birthday. Although museum curator, Jeff Jerome has held a vigil for the Poe Toaster each January 19th since the late 1970’s, he says he does not know who the Toaster was.

A note from 1993 says, “The torch will be passed.”  In 1999 another note left at the grave declared that the original toaster had died in 1998, and his son would be continuing the tradition.

The Toaster’s last official visit to Poe’s grave was January 19, 2009, 150 years after Poe’s death, and the 200th Anniversary of Poe’s birth.  Fans have continued to wait for the Toaster for the past three years; on January 19th, 2010, again in 2011, and finally, last year, declared that if he did not appear in 2012, the tradition was officially over.

And so it appears we may never know who the Poe Toaster was, nor what influence Poe had on his life to keep him coming back each year to celebrate the writer’s birthday.  

But there are so few mysteries left in this world, I for one, would like to think his identity is safe with the ages, even if his visits shall be Nevermore…

~ Joy

* Please note: The Poe House and Museum is currently closed to the public until some time in late 2013. Find out more on their Facebook page @

For more on Poe visit The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore @

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Poet For His Times - T.S. Eliot

He was considered one of the most compelling poets of his time, if not one of the most important poets of the Twentieth Century.

T.S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888 in St. Louis to Henry Ware Eliot and Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot.  He was a sickly child and spent much of his time reading. He began writing poetry when he was fourteen. His first poem, A Fable For Feasters, was published in the Smith Academy Record in February 1905.  That same year, his poem Song was published, along with three short stories.

Harvard Writeup
Ezra Pound
Eliot attended Harvard from 1906 to 1909, graduated, and worked for a year as a philosophy assistant.  He then spent a year in Paris, returning to Harvard in 1911 to study Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. In 1914, he left on a traveling scholarship to Europe, just as WW I began.  He began attending Oxford that autumn.  Eliot loved London and met several influential people there, including Ezra Pound who promoted Eliot at literary events and gatherings.  Pound called Eliot a poet “worth watching.”

Vivienne Haigh-Wood
Vivienne Eliot
In June 1915, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer, in London.  The marriage was unhappy, partially due to Vivienne’s health issues and the fact she spent most of her time away, trying to recuperate.  In 1933, Eliot arranged a legal separation from Vivienne.  In 1938, she was committed to the Northumberland House Mental Hospital where she died in 1947. 

Eliot later said that one of his most famous poems, The Waste Land, published in 1922, was the result of his negative state of mind while married to Vivienne. The poem sought to juxtapose beauty and ugliness with monotony and horror.

The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock was the poem that made him famous.  Written in 1910, it was published in 1915 by Poetry magazine.  Composed in the style of the Modernist movement, the poem is written in a stream of consciousness style, allowing the reader into the mind of J. Arthur Prufrock as he searches for love.  The Times Literary Supplement reviewed it in 1917 but did not give it high marks.

Plaque Outside of Firm
Eliot & Farber Staff
In 1925, Eliot joined the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer, which later became Faber and Faber.  In later years he became a director of the firm.  He worked there until his death.

Eliot loved living in London, and at the age of 39, became a British citizen. That same year, 1927, he also converted from the Unitarianism religion and entered the Anglican Church of England.  His writing took on a religious bent from this time on.

Eliot was also known for his poems, Gerontion, The Hollow Men, and Ash Wednesday, along with seven plays.  In 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for what he viewed as his masterpiece, Four Quartets, written in 1943.

In 1949, King George VI bestowed upon him the Order of Merit, one of England’s highest awards.

Eliot received many other awards including a Tony Award in 1950 for Best Play, The Cocktail Party, the Legion d’Honneur in 1951, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and two posthumous Tony Awards, in 1983, for his poems used in the musical Cats.

Eliot and wife Valerie
In January 1957, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his private secretary, and finished out his life in a more tranquil, domestic relationship.

Plaque in Church
T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot died on January 4, 1965 of emphysema.  He was 76.  Eliot was cremated and his ashes interred in the church at St Michael’s in East Coker, England. East Coker was the village that his ancestors had left to go to America. A plaque hangs on the church wall with a quote from the Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning."

~ Joy