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.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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