How Al Capone Thanked the Hospital That Treated His Syphilis

Getty / Alex Wong / Staff
Getty / Alex Wong / Staff

The world’s most famous cherry trees are probably in Japan and Washington, D.C., but for the most notorious ones, you’ll have to go to Baltimore. There, you can see Al Capone’s weeping cherries.

Capone didn't end up in Alcatraz for murder, gambling, running a prostitution ring, or other violent crimes that spring to mind when we think of his reign as Public Enemy No. 1. What finally brought down the original Scarface was primarily a simple case of tax evasion—he owed $215,000 plus interest on back taxes. For this surprisingly white-collar crime, in 1931 Capone was fined $50,000, charged $7692 in court costs, and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

With time off for good behavior, Capone emerged from Alcatraz after being imprisoned for seven years, six months, and 15 days. The mobster was a changed man, but not because his time in the pen had reformed him. No, the most notorious gangster in the world was suffering the effects of a raging case of syphilis left virtually untreated for decades. He had contracted the disease around the age of 20 when he scored a job as the bouncer at a Chicago bordello owned by mobster Big Jim Colosimo. Capone patronized the establishment himself and discovered that he had gotten syphilis not long after. Embarrassed, he refused to seek help.

Capone’s condition was discovered by doctors at Alcatraz years later, and though they gave him treatment—including infecting him with malaria in hopes that the fever would also kill the syphilis—the disease was too far gone. It had spread to Capone's brain, rendering him insane, according to reports at the time. His strange behavior included a belief that he owned a factory with 25,000 employees, and sitting in his heated cell with his winter coat and gloves on.

Capone spent the final year of his prison sentence in the hospital, then sought additional care as soon as he was released. His doctor, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, planned to admit Capone to his own hospital for treatment—but its board of trustees turned the gangster away, refusing to associate with a man of such ill repute. Instead, Capone was forced to go with plan B: Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital. In addition to admitting Capone for treatment, Union Memorial even put up with his entourage, including bodyguards, a barber, a masseur, and food tasters to protect him from grudge-holding enemies.

Grateful for the care, Capone gave the hospital two magnificent weeping cherry trees in 1939. Both trees were planted on the grounds, but by the 1950s, one of them had been removed to make way for a new wing of the hospital.

The remaining tree grew without fanfare for more than half a century, until a 2010 snowstorm split it down the middle and claimed a 10-foot branch. Woodworker Nick Aloisio made bowls, wine stoppers, pens, and trinket boxes from the fallen branch, then sold them on eBay to benefit the hospital.

The rest of the tree still stands, and hospital officials say it’s doing well. An arborist has also successfully planted clippings from the old tree around the hospital campus. The new trees are called “Caponettes.”

If you want to catch a glimpse of what must surely be the world’s only tree donation inspired by a gangster’s STD treatment, visit Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital and check out the glorious pink planting by the East 33rd Street entrance.

Winston Churchill Once Got a Doctor's Note So That He Could Drink Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

 Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

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