In the spring of 1929, Al Capone left a meeting of mafia leaders in Atlantic City and was traveling back to his Chicago home when he was arrested in Philadelphia. The mobster was caught carrying and concealing a deadly weapon, a .38 caliber revolver. After a quick trial, Capone and his bodyguard Frank Cline both pled guilty and were sentenced to serve one year in Eastern State Penitentiary. If you visit the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site today, you can even see Capone’s cell as it looked at the time. But what most people don’t know is that Capone was secretly transferred to SCI Graterford the day before his release.
Newspaper articles published shortly before Capone’s March 1930 release date warned that the mob boss’ enemies were coming to meet him at the prison gates and crowds of onlookers started showing up at the ESP gate to get a glimpse of “Scarface Al” in person. Worried about violence and “possible harm, bodily or otherwise,” the ESP Board of Trustees and Warden Herbert Smith came up with a plan: release Capone from another prison. SCI Graterford, built in 1927, was only 30 miles north of Philadelphia and there was plenty of room for Capone and Cline. The two men were both quietly driven to Graterford in the warden’s private car. They spent their last nights as prisoners in a Graterford cell. The public didn’t catch on to the trick until it was too late.
The next morning Capone and Cline walked alone out of Graterford’s gates and into a Buick sedan that sped back to Chicago. Later that day, a crowd of two thousand reporters and curious Philadelphians were disappointed to hear that they wouldn’t get to see America’s most infamous mobster walk free. “We certainly stuck one on your eye,” Warden Smith shouted to the crowd, “the big guy went out of here…we shot him out in a brown automobile.”
Al Capone’s year at Eastern State Penitentiary and SCI Graterford was the first prison sentence he ever served. Some newspaper accounts claim that he arranged to be arrested on purpose in Philadelphia to keep himself safe from rival gang assassins in Chicago after the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Capone always denied this charge, and a month after his release from Graterford said: “One thing I would like to set at rest is the report that I went into jail to dodge something. If I wanted to go to jail, I certainly wouldn’t pick one in Pennsylvania. I would have looked around for one where there were more conveniences.” Whatever the case, Capone’s stay at ESP and Graterford mark an interesting chapter in Pennsylvania’s corrections history.
Administrative staff at SCI Graterford recently helped transfer a large collection of their historical records to the State Archives in Harrisburg, including a 1930 Warden’s journal that describes Capone’s secret transfer and release from Graterford. This journal is the only known record that confirms Capone spent time at Graterford. These records will be preserved in the archives building and will be available to visitors to look at in the coming months. The State Archives also has Capone’s ESP admission records and his sentence commutation order, personally signed by Governor John Fisher.
If you’d like to learn more about Al Capone and his prison time in Pennsylvania, read this New York Times article: Capone Slips Away From New Prison_NYT18301930 or contact the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site or the Pennsylvania State Archives for more information.