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Al Capone slept here... or did he?

The legendary gangster regularly hid out in hotels to escape the long arm of the law.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007
David Wilkening
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Al Capone slept here... or did he?

“Al Capone slept here” may be as common a claim as the ones about George Washington staying overnight. But did he (Capone) really? In fact, America’s best-loved and most famous gangster did love hotels, perhaps as hideouts. And he even owned one hotel.

Oops, maybe not.

“The fact that Al Capone may have owned a hotel is I believe folklore,” says Michelle Roling, general manager of the 135-room, historic Julien Inn in Dubuque, Iowa. But it says on the Web site that the hotel dating back to 1839 was owned by Capone.

“Capone had a fondness for Dubuque, and when things became too ‘hot’ in Chicago, he would come to Dubuque and use the Julien Inn as a retreat and hideout,” the Web site says, adding: “He had an underground garage in the area in order to hide his personal cars so that he could better disguise his presence in the city.”

“We mention it on the Web site, but do not really do any promotions or tie-ins,” Roling says. Lending some plausibility to the story of Capone is that the hotel has the best view of any cars entering Dubuque.

Roling speculates Capone may have owned the hotel under an alias. “It is very interesting to think that all this may be true,” she says.

So where did America’s most famous gangster really stay? Historians agree that Capone started his career of crime with residency in the old Metropole Hotel at 2300 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. But he left there in 1928 to take up residence in a fifth floor suite of rooms at the Lexington Hotel. He registered under the innocuous name of “George Phillips.” He continued operations there until October of 1931, when he took up residence in Leavenworth and later Alcatraz.

Lifeguard Tony “Joe Batters” Arcaro would sit in the lobby in a chair with a fully loaded Thompson submachine gun. Another one of Capone’s trusted bodyguards slept on a cot beside him. The gangster widely featured in films and television programs had a special stairway built to leave the Lexington in a hurry. He also had underground tunnels built. Later, underground workers found gold coins and jewelry with the initials A.C.

Capone decorated the room with portraits of Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson, and deer and elk heads. Capone was living at the Lexington during the bloody St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The hotel had one last shot at fame in 1986 when TV personality Geraldo Rivera and his camera crew went live to look into a basement where rumor had it Capone stashed a fortune in hidden vaults. All that was found were some old bottles and a faded sign. The hotel was torn down in 1995.

One hotel which historians agree was frequented by Capone -- Louisville’s Seelbach Hilton -- is still alive and thriving.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda stayed here. We’ve had a lot of famous people,” including Capone, says general manager Jon McFarland of the century-old hotel.

“The fabled Chicago gangster made dozens of visits to the Seelbach every year,” says CNN. Guests today can eat dinner in a room designed especially for the gangster’s poker games. There’s a large mirror on the wall apparently built for Capone to see if anyone was sneaking up on him.

Hot Springs, Arkansas in the earlier part of this century drew a lot of famous people such as Bat Masterson and President Herbert Hoover. But the thermal baths were also popular with Capone, who stayed several places here, including the Arlington Hotel.

“It was reputed to be his favorite, and the town’s history of gambling enticed a number of gangsters to frequent the hotel,” says Jana Greenbaum, communications manager for Arkansas Parks & Tourism.

Steve Arison, head of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, used a photo of Capone riding a donkey in promotional material.

“We found over the years that Al Capone’s connection to Hot Springs is known all around the world,” he says. During prohibition, Greenbaum says, Capone came here from Chicago to make deals with bootleggers to stock his clubs with alcohol. “Capone would ship his bootleg liquor in tanker railroad cars and for protection, he had the words ‘Mountain Valley Water’ printed on the side of the railcars,” she says.

At one time, Capone and his entourage occupied the 4th floor of the Arlington. She says it’s not been proved but legend has it that Capone always stayed in room 442.

Capone’s arch-enemy Bugs Moran also stayed here at times, at the Majestic Hotel just a block away. But there was no conflict, Greenbaum says, presumably because both men were on vacation.

Other places were Capone was rumored to have stayed: Cuba’s Sofitel Sevilla, the only hotel in Havana with a swimming pool and sometimes termed a masterpiece of colonial architecture. Capone hired a whole floor, according to displays on lobby walls. Now an AAA Five Diamond property in Nashville, the Hermitage opened in 1910 with a claim for its rooms that may have appealed to Capone: “fireproof, noise proof and dustproof.” The guest book reads like a Who's Who in American History and includes Capone, according to the Web site.

The 1910-circa Golden Hotel in small town O’Neill, Nebraska. Capone and fellow mobsters had tunnels built in the hotel and used them to hide from law enforcement, according to newspaper accounts of the time. But why the gang came here is a mystery, though there was speculation their goal was money laundering.

In the early part of last century, the old Terre Haute Inn in Indiana (which later gave way to a Hilton Garden Inn) attracted gangsters largely because of its gambling and prostitution. Capone stayed here, according to a biography of the late actor “Scatman” Crothers.

The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, an elegant lodging place that claims to have the largest hotel swimming pool in the continental US, also claims the “legendary gangster” as a guest, as does the Pink Palace, aka the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach.

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