How Did Al Capone Get Syphilis: The Truth About His Secret Shame

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Did you know that the biggest baddie of all time, the infamous Al Capone, got released early from the slammer because of a disease he had picked up earlier in his life?

Al Capone in 1930
Al Capone in 1930 by Chicago Bureau

Yes, Capone died from the complications of syphilis, a disease that is easy to treat now, but back in the 1930s when Capone was in prison, there was no treatment.

Personally, I find history fascinating, especially the little details that tend to get left out of history books, such as Clark Gable demanding that the “white” and “colored” signs on the set of Gone with the Wind be removed or he would not play the part of Rhett Butler.

So how did Capone get syphilis? Did his wife give it to him (read more on Al Capones Wife )? Did he pass it on to her? Ah, syphilis, the gift that keeps on giving.

Let’s take a good look at Al Capone’s life and find out where and who the generous syphilis-giver was.

How Did Al Capone Get Syphilis?

Capone’s STD more than likely came from his first real job.

In his early 20s, Capone became friends with Johnny Torrio, a gangster in Chicago, who showed the young Capone how to run various scams and organized crime activities.

Torrio assigned Capone as a bouncer in one of his brothels. Anxious to try out the merchandise, Capone is said to have slept with nearly every lady of the night that this brothel employed. We will never know which young lady passed on her gift of syphilis, but there is no doubt he got it from one of them.

men and women dressed in retro fashion, drinking and laughing at a nightclub

At that time in history, there was no cure, although there was a treatment, called arsphenamine, that did seem to “help” some gentlemen. As the name implies, arsphenamine is a synthetic form of arsenic that is known to kill the microbe that causes syphilis, but it also sometimes killed the patient.

Capone was far too embarrassed to say anything to anyone at the time, so he simply lived with the symptoms and let the disease grow and fester.

Perhaps if Capone could have seen his future, he might have overcome his embarrassment and tried the only treatment available at that time.

Is It Possible that Capone Got Syphilis from His Wife Mae?

More than likely, Capone gave Mae his STD and not vice versa.

Mae was 2 years older than Al, but both lied on their marriage certificate to say they were both 20 years old. Mae was a good Catholic and knew Al Capone’s mother from church. It was Capone’s mother who arranged the marriage, believing that marriage to this good Catholic girl would help her son.

Mae gave birth to a son just three weeks after the wedding. Although the couple tried to have more children, every pregnancy ended in either a stillbirth or a miscarriage, most likely due to syphilis that her husband gave to her.

The son of Mae and Al Capone had hearing problems from a young age, most likely because Mae had passed on her case of syphilis to her son.

a man in retro attire holding and looking at an attractive girl

Al continued to have affairs with prostitutes and other young ladies in his employment, and Mae knew about it but remained loyal to her husband.

It was Mae who cared for her husband when he left prison due to advanced syphilis. Although she tried penicillin for his syphilis, it was too far advanced for the medicine to have any effect.

Mae died at the age of 89. It is unknown if she received antibiotics for her syphilis, but considering that she lived to the ripe old age of 89, she probably did.

Why Didn’t Al Capone Get Treated for Syphilis?

While today a quick trip to the doctor and a script of antibiotics will get rid of nearly all STDs like syphilis, back in the early 1920s, penicillin had yet to even be discovered.

Was Al Capone Treated for Syphilis

At the time, the only treatment was arsphenamine, a type of synthetic arsenic. Similar to the way chemotherapy tries to kill the cancer cells without killing the patient, arsphenamine was used to kill syphilis.

Syphilis starts off as nothing more than a small sore and later a rash, but it attacks the central nervous system within 5-20 years if left untreated. The worst cases result in paralysis, dementia, seizures, and oftentimes, death.

In 1909, scientists created a drug called Salvarsan or arsphenamine, which was rather successful in the treatment of syphilis in the early or even middle stages.

Penicillin would not be discovered until 1928 and not be readily available to the public until 1945, far too late for Capone’s use.

What prevented Capone from being treated? Embarrassment. While he may have realized that he had contracted syphilis early on, the disease hides and shows little or no other symptoms after the first year. Capone may not have even realized that he was passing it on or that this was the reason he and his wife never had more children. Capone may have even believed that he had beaten syphilis.

Capone was officially diagnosed with advanced syphilis when he entered the prison system in 1931. He was also diagnosed with gonorrhea and was suffering the effects of cocaine withdrawal.

Mug shot of Capone in Miami, Florida, 1930
Mug shot of Capone in Miami, Florida, 1930 by Miami Police Department

By 1934, Capone was showing signs of dementia, and his wife noticed his strange behavior, so she petitioned to have him sent to the hospital wing of Alcatraz Island federal prison in San Francisco, California.

As Capone’s health began failing in prison, he was granted an early release to seek treatment. Al Capone was one of the first civilians to receive penicillin. While penicillin helped to slow down the progress of the disease, the brain damage that it caused was irreversible.

Who knows what might have happened to Al Capone if he had overcome his embarrassment and sought treatment in the early 1920s? Would he have beaten the tax evasion charges? Would he have had more children who would have continued his legacy?

Were Women Al Capone’s Weakness?

You might say that.

Personally, I think all heterosexual males have a weakness for women. I can’t imagine any young man in charge of brothels not taking advantage of the situation.

A villa formerly owned by Al Capone in Varadero, Cuba
A villa formerly owned by Al Capone in Varadero, Cuba by Normann

Capone’s true weakness was the finer things in life. He wore the most expensive suits money could buy tailored to fit him perfectly. He could be seen at the best restaurants in town eating heartily and drinking fine wines, his diamond pinkie ring shining in the lights.

He owned three houses, one in New York, one in Chicago, and one in Florida. He allowed his wife to adorn the houses in any fashion that suited her, and he spared no expense. If Mae wanted something for the house, even if it had to be imported from Europe at a great cost, Capone would pay for it.

Capone was also addicted to cocaine as his prison intake record indicates. Even when it came to drugs, Capone had to have the best of the best!

Rumor has it that Capone had tons of cash and jewels hidden in various places but that his dementia robbed him of the ability to tell anyone where it’s all buried. That’s a story for another day!

How Did Capone Finally Die?

Grave of Al Capone
Grave of Al Capone By Bence27

The biggest, meanest gangster ever to live died at his home in Palm Island, Florida after having a stroke, then a heart attack, and finally pneumonia. A year earlier, his doctor and a Baltimore psychiatrist examined him and declared that his mental capacity regressed to that of a 12-year-old child.

Al Capone was only 48 years old when he died, with his death certificate stating bronchial pneumonia as cause of death.

Before You Go……..

Syphilis has been around since time immemorial it appears, with even some medieval clerks writing about the scourge of syphilis.

Antibiotics have taken much of the bite out of syphilis, and it is one of the main reasons this STD is still with us today – no one fears it as they did in the past.

One wonders if Capone feared syphilis or if he believed that he was so powerful that he had beaten the disease right up until he couldn’t deny what was happening to his body.

Regardless of the manner of Al Capone’s death, Scarface Al will live forever in history as perhaps the most notorious, cruel gangster who ever lived.

How Did Al Capone Get Syphilis: The Truth About His Secret Shame
How Did Al Capone Get Syphilis: The Truth About His Secret Shame
Hard to believe but it’s absolutely true: the biggest, baddest gangster to ever walk the streets of Chicago died from an STD. Where did Al Capone pick up syphilis? Find out here.
Gatsby Flapper Girl