In the struggle to keep eastern gangsters out of Los Angeles 1918-1951, amid many headline-making lapses, one oft-repeated success story stood out: the time Al Capone came to town and promptly took a powder back to Chicago with some encouragement from the LAPD. While it had the makings of a myth and the details became blurred over time, this story happened to be true.
On December 6, 1927, Chicago’s most notorious gangster wished all his friends and enemies a Merry Christmas and announced that he was pulling up stakes for St. Petersburg, Florida.
Dressed in an “ultra-nifty hunting suit,” Capone told reporters who’d been summoned to his rooms at the Metropole Hotel: “Let the worthy citizens of Chicago get their liquor best they can. I’m sick of the job- it’s a thankless one and full of grief. I don’t know when I’ll be back, if ever…”
Al and his entourage must’ve got on the wrong train, though, because on the morning of December 12, 1927, they pulled up at Santa Fe station in Los Angeles.
The city had been reading about Alphonse “Scarface Al” Capone since April 1926, when he was sought for questioning in the Cicero, Ill murder of William McSwiggin, an assistant State’s Attorney known for his successful prosecution of local hoodlums (1). Since then, Capone and Chicago’s bloody territorial gang wars had seldom been out of the news.
Word of the famed beer baron’s arrival sent local journalist scrambling but Walter Naughton of The Los Angeles Examiner scooped them all by scoring an interview with Capone at his Biltmore Hotel suite.
Capone downplayed the idea that his trip west had anything to do with the gang wars over control of gambling, vice and bootlegging back home.
“I’m just a peaceful tourist and I want to take a rest and look over this country I have heard so much about.” Capone told Naughton. Like everyone else, he was curious to see how movies were made and wanted to tour a studio.
As it turned out, he barely had time to mail a postcard. By six o’clock the next evening, Al and his “boys” were back on a train, headed east.
According to the Examiner, Capone and company left Los Angeles voluntarily, having gotten wind that Chief of Police Jim Davis wasn’t exactly planning to send over the welcome wagon. The LA Times, however, reported that police detective Ed “Roughhouse” Brown had “escorted” Capone to the station.
“Scarface Al Capone may be the beer baron of Cicero…” the paper wrote on December 14, “but he is just another bootlegger in Los Angeles.”
“Why should everybody in this town pick on me?” Capone is said to have griped. “We are tourists and I thought you folks liked tourists. We have a lot of money to spend that I made in Chicago. Whoever heard of anybody being run out of Los Angeles that had money.”
Despite the cold reception, Al vowed to return someday. He did, but probably not in the way he expected (2).
As the story of Capone’s visit was retold over the years, details varied. In some versions it was the Southern Pacific depot, not the Santa Fe; Al’s stay was said to have lasted anywhere from a few hours to three days to a week. In Times columnist E.V. Durling’s 1937 re-telling, he didn’t even make it out of the station at all- Roughhouse Brown met him on the train and told him “in no uncertain terms” that he wasn’t welcome before placing him right back on the next outbound train.
Legendary “gun squad” detective Frank “Lefty” James was said to have been part of the un-welcoming committee in the news of his retirement in 1939. William “Sledgehammer” Joslin recounted the event when he retired in 1944, noting that Al had stayed a week. Some accounts have also suggested that Richard “Dick” Lucas was involved.
Roughhouse Brown, the hero at the center of the tale, was accused of shaking down bootleggers in 1929. Though the case ultimately ended in a mistrial, he was fired from the department. Brown fought the decision and was reinstated in November 1935, largely due to his reputation in the Capone roust (1).
In the fall of 1947 with a renewed threat of an eastern gangster invasion following the murder of Bugsy Siegel, an editorial, “No Winter Resort for Racketeers,” in the Los Angeles Times pleaded: “Let it not be said that the spirit of Roughhouse Brown has vanished from the department!”
Capone died in January 1947. Edward Daniel “Roughhouse” Brown died in February 1973 at age 88, still remembered as the man who ran Al Capone out of town.