CHICAGO — Did Chicago’s most notorious gangster — known for ordering countless murders and as the original “Public Enemy No. 1” — ever ditch his three-piece suit and fedora for a red and white Santa outfit?
It’s not uncommon for Capone to be associated with the holidays, in particular Valentine’s Day 1929, in which it’s believed he organized the massacre of seven men.
But in recent years, a gentler holiday tale of Capone has emerged, this time the gangster taking on the role of jolly old St. Nick instead of prohibition kingpin.
But is it true?
One of the biggest recent bolsters of this tale is a photo that allegedly shows Al Capone dressed as Santa with his grandniece Deirdre Marie Griswold, who now uses the name Deirdre Marie Capone, atop his lap.
That photo came from Capone’s 2010 self-published book, “Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family,” which launched the grandniece into the national spotlight as the “last surviving member of the family to bear the Capone name” — though she didn’t originally use the Capone name.
She was born under her father’s middle name Gabriel, and current property records show her with her husband’s last name of Griswold.
The picture from “Uncle Al Capone” that shows a young girl on top of a man clad in a Santa suit. The caption says the photo depicts Deirdre and Al Capone. The picture, which only shows a profile of the man’s face, is not dated in her book; however, multiple interviews with Deirdre after its release slug the year as 1946.
She described the Christmas of 1946 vividly in her self-published book as one “still fixed in my mind,” though other than the caption, she does not make any mention of her great-uncle dressed as Santa, nor does she elsewhere in the book.
In an article published Christmas Day 2011 by the Rio Rancher Observer, which contained the photo, Capone said the mobster had “dressed up like Santa Claus, came to the front door and gave all of us kids war bonds and some candy that’s very Italian.”
“I didn’t know he was [my uncle]; it was Santa Claus,” she told the newspaper.
Indeed, the man in the photo bears little resemblance to Al Capone — especially the white eyebrows that differ drastically from his trademark thick, black eyebrows.
In October 2011, the Daily Herald ran a story on Deirdre Capone using the photo with a similar caption stating she had been surprised by a disguised Al Capone.
In the profile Deirdre went on to say that, “Her life would change in the month after Al Capone donned a Santa suit during the Christmas of 1946,” because exactly a month later, on her 7th birthday, Al Capone died.
However, in her own book, Deirdre Capone tells a slightly different story, one that recalls her great-uncle making the trek from his Palm Island home in Florida to his house at 7244 S. Prairie Ave. in Chicago that Christmas.
In that version, Al Capone didn’t come to the door dressed as a realistic Santa — he was already sitting in a chair in the corner of the family’s living room when she first saw him and he began speaking in Italian with her father.
In fact, she describes Capone’s outfit as a “white shirt, cufflinks that sparkled and a tie held in place with a stick pin in the form of a woman’s face.”
She did say she sat on his lap, but recognized him as her uncle — not Santa — touching the scar across his cheek and asking if it hurt.
The mention of the war bonds was there, too, but in her book they weren’t handed out by Santa; instead, they decorated a big Christmas tree in the corner of the room and had clearly come from her generous great-uncle.
“The money flowed when Al was around,” she wrote.
Deirdre Capone declined to be interviewed for this story.
Reports of Al Capone’s health from the time paint a different picture in which Capone, in the advanced stages of neurosyphilis, had a highly diminished mental capacity and was under the care of his wife and nurses.
Author Deirdre Bair wrote in her recent biography of Capone, “Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend,” that though his outbursts had greatly “lessened” by 1946 and he took joy in seeing children, his intellectual understanding had been reduced to that of between a 7- to 10-year-old.
He did occasionally leave his Palm Island house, but for supervised trips to “fluff” comedy movies or “quiet” restaurants, Bair wrote.
Other remaining family members interviewed by Bair, like granddaughter Diane Capone, say the incident described in Deirdre Capone’s photo “never, ever happened” — adding Capone’s granddaughters were particularly offended at the claim and had asked Bair to address it.
“[Al Capone’s] granddaughters insist vehemently that he never dressed in costume and would not have been mentally capable of doing so around” the time the photograph was supposedly taken, Bair said.
Some of the granddaughters told Bair they thought the picture had been “Photoshopped,” though the grandniece denied it in an email exchange with Bair.
Gregory Foster-Rice, a professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago, looked at a copy of the photo as it appears in Deirdre Capone’s book and told DNAinfo “the photo clearly looks like the digital file was altered” using a black drawing tool near the little girl’s head and hair bow.
“The black background behind her was created using a brush or drawing tool (you can see the strokes in the upper right quadrant of the black rectangle, and also around her hair),” Foster-Rice said. “It’s not very sophisticated and was obviously done with a simple program. … This is commonly done to increase the contrast between the sitter and background.”
Others Recount Al As Santa
Despite inconsistencies in the grandniece’s story, earlier reports of Capone acting or dressing as Santa exist.
Author John Kobler wrote in his biography, “Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone,” that a young Al Capone was known to play “Santa Claus every Christmas” at the school where his younger sister Malfada was enrolled near the family’s South Side home, “driving a Cadillac to the entrance heaped with boxes of candy, baskets of fruit, turkeys and a gift for every student and teacher.”
That story is backed by Laurence Bergreen’s “Capone: The Man and the Era,” which describes Capone as “celebrated” for “playing the role of grand seigneur to the point of parody” while supervising the distribution of gifts and food.
Whether those authors meant he played Santa Claus in a literal or figurative sense is unclear.
In a 1972 edition of Sports Illustrated, Capone’s former caddy Tim Sullivan recalled the Christmas of 1930 when his poor family was surprised by an easily recognizable Capone dressed as Santa.
“We were gathered around the Christmas tree — such as it was, just bare branches — when there comes a loud knocking on the front door,” Sullivan wrote. “Dad opens up and it’s Santa Claus, whiskers, red suit and a big bag on his back. I yelled ‘Al!’ and threw myself at him. He clapped his hands and six of his boys came in, each lugging a box of groceries that could have fed the whole neighborhood.”
Chris Manning, a history professor at Loyola University, said while interviewing former lawyer Truman Gibson Jr. in the 1990s, who knew Capone, the subject of Al Capone’s popularity among kids in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods came up.
“He was just really nice to the kids, he was always giving away candy, always giving away little gifts, they looked forward to when he came to the neighborhood,” Manning said.
So would he think it was unusual if Al Capone, icon of Chicago’s Prohibition-era crime past, ever dressed as Santa Claus?
“No, I don’t think it’s unusual at all,” Manning said. “Some would argue these things are just a veneer to bad activity, throw a few bucks around here or there for some turkeys, some soup kitchens, whatever. Meanwhile you’re making … hundreds of thousands on the take.”
This legend might be as hard to prove as any number of holiday tales.
This story was originally published by DNAinfo Chicago in 2016. It has been updated.
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