The story of Union Memorial's Al Capone tree has become part of Baltimore lore -- a tale often repeated at this time of year, when the old weeping cherry just east of the hospital's 33rd Street facade bursts into bloom.

Legend has it that Capone gave the hospital the tree as a gift after being treated there for syphilis. No one has ever proven this to be true, although hospital employees have long sworn by the story.

It is hard to think of this glorious botanical specimen as the legacy of one of gangland's most famous characters, the man remembered as the architect of the bloody St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

But Laurence Bergreen's 1994 biography, "Capone, the Man and the Era," would have you believe otherwise. His book portrays the man they called Scarface as, among other things, a person revered for his generosity.

The book also includes much about Capone's two significant stays in Baltimore.

During 1920 and 1921, Capone lived here and worked as an accountant for a Gough Street construction firm owned by the Aiello brothers. Bergreen suggests this perfectly legal business experience taught Capone how to run a large operation before he left for Chicago.

In the years after he left Baltimore, Capone fought for the control of the Chicago rackets. While newspaper readers gobbled up lurid details of the gang wars, Bergreen writes, they often missed Capone's generosity.

This lifelong trait, the author says, endeared him to many a golf-course caddie, waiter and hotel porter. In the days when a dime was considered a respectable tip, Al Capone handed out $5 bills. Of course, he had plenty of $5 bills to hand out. If you were a better friend, you got a $100 bill.

Some readers, of course, would find it distasteful that Bergreen is openly favorable to a gangster and killer who dealt in gambling, prostitution, illegal liquor and beer -- not to mention having policemen, judges, juries and mayors on his payroll.

But Capone was eventually brought down -- taken in by the feds, convicted on tax charges and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He served a number of years on Alcatraz Island, where physicians learned that he had an advanced case of syphilis, a discovery that would eventually bring the gangster back to Baltimore.

A California prison doctor had recommended that Capone go to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment after being released from the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., where he had been sent to finish serving his time.

On Nov. 16, 1939, Capone was released on probation after having served eight years. A limousine took him immediately to Baltimore, where he was examined by Hopkins' Dr. Joseph E. Moore.

Evening Sun reporter H. L. Mencken, ever a medical busybody, recorded in his diary how the medical establishment reacted. Capone, he wrote, was too hot a case for the Hopkins trustees. They would not admit him, even if their physicians felt this was in violation of the code of medical ethics.

The compromise was Union Memorial Hospital, where many Hopkins physicians had privileges. But Mencken notes that Capone's troubles were far from over.

At Union Memorial, he wrote, "The women of the lay board began setting up a row, led by Mrs. William A. Cochran, whose husband is a prohibitionist and a wowser." "Wowser" is a Menckenism for a zealous reformer of the sort he couldn't abide.

In the end, though, Capone was admitted to Union Memorial and was treated there until March 1940, spending part of the time at a home in Mount Washington, where he and his family had state-police protection.

That spring, Capone left for Florida, where he died at age 48 on Jan. 25, 1947.

It is said that the weeping cherry tree outside the hospital was given to Union Memorial as a token of Capone's appreciation, akin to those $100 gifts he was so lavish with. For what it is worth, Mencken also noted Capone's generosity.

"He is naturally very popular with the hospital staff, and especially with the orderlies, for he not only a good patient, he is also likely to leave large tips," Mencken recorded in his diary on Nov. 29, 1939.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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