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Al Capone's Hobby: Songwriting

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Getty Images

There weren’t many constants in Al Capone’s rocky life, but the crime boss—who was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1899—had a love of music, and it never wavered. He spent countless hours reclined listening to his phonograph, which cycled through an impressive collection of Italian opera records (Aida by Giuseppe Verdi was a personal favorite). Capone also adored—and more or less controlled—Chicago’s rising jazz scene. Musicians would gravitate toward him, hoping to score a gig at his favorite nightclubs.

In 1926, the mobster’s friends kidnapped jazz star Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller. Holding him at gunpoint, they ordered the terrified artist into the back of their limo. But, to Waller’s surprise, he wasn’t harmed. Instead, he was taken to Capone’s 27th birthday party and politely asked to perform. The shindig lasted for three days, and by the end, Waller had received scores of tips and free drinks from grateful attendees.

Five years later, Big Al’s chickens came home to roost. On October 24, 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in Alcatraz for having committed tax evasion. While behind bars, numerous attempts were made on his life, including an especially nasty shower room episode in which bank robber James “Tex” Lucas stabbed Capone with half a pair of scissors. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” Capone famously told the warden.

Things started looking up (if only slightly) when Capone joined the Rock Islanders, Alcatraz’s very own inmate-run band, which threw Sunday concerts. Capone’s instrument of choice was a banjo sent by his wife, Mae—though he eventually switched to the mandolin-like mandola.

Between performances, Scarface could often be found strumming away in his cell. And on Saturdays, he’d speak at length with a special guest: Vincent Casey was a future Jesuit priest whose training involved spiritual visits with Alcatraz detainees. Over a two-year span, he and Capone grew quite close. According to Casey’s son, Mike, “My father spoke very highly of him. It was incredible. This criminal murdered many people, but he told me when you got to know the man in the cellblock on Alcatraz, he was very humble and polite and courteous.”

One holiday season, Casey received an unexpected present: a piece of sheet music. “To my good friend Father Vin Casey,” the accompanying note read, “with the best in all the world for a Merry Christmas always for you. Alphonse Capone.” Entitled "Madonna Mia," the romantic solo had been penned by the ex-gangster himself, presumably about his faithful Mae.

Here’s how it went:

In the quaint Italian garden
While the stars were all aglow
Once I heard a lover singing
To the one that he loved so.

In that quaint Italian garden
‘Neath the starry sky above
Every night, he’d serenade her
With his tender song of love:

“Madonna Mia,
You’re the bloom of the roses,
You’re the charm that reposes,
In the heart of a song.

Madonna Mia,
With your true love to guide me,
Let whatever betide me,
I will never go wrong.

There’s only one moon above,
One golden sun,
There’s only one that I love,
You are the one.

Madonna Mia,
This I vow here before you,
‘Till the end, I’ll adore you.
Madonna Mia.”

Once again, I see that garden
Many years have hurried by
I can see that sweet Madonna
There’s a teardrop in her eye

For her soldier has departed
Left his loved one with a sigh
She said “I will wait forever”
As he sang this last goodbye:
“Madonna Mia…”

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Courtesy of Freeman's
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History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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