The world’s most famous cherry trees are probably in Japan and Washington, D.C., but for the most notorious ones, you’ll have to go to Baltimore. There, you can see Al Capone’s weeping cherries.
Capone didn't end up in Alcatraz for murder, gambling, running a prostitution ring, or other violent crimes that spring to mind when we think of his reign as Public Enemy No. 1. What finally brought down the original Scarface was primarily a simple case of tax evasion—he owed $215,000 plus interest on back taxes. For this surprisingly white-collar crime, in 1931 Capone was fined $50,000, charged $7692 in court costs, and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
With time off for good behavior, Capone emerged from Alcatraz after being imprisoned for seven years, six months, and 15 days. The mobster was a changed man, but not because his time in the pen had reformed him. No, the most notorious gangster in the world was suffering the effects of a raging case of syphilis left virtually untreated for decades. He had contracted the disease around the age of 20 when he scored a job as the bouncer at a Chicago bordello owned by mobster Big Jim Colosimo. Capone patronized the establishment himself and discovered that he had gotten syphilis not long after. Embarrassed, he refused to seek help.
Capone’s condition was discovered by doctors at Alcatraz years later, and though they gave him treatment—including infecting him with malaria in hopes that the fever would also kill the syphilis—the disease was too far gone. It had spread to Capone's brain, rendering him insane, according to reports at the time. His strange behavior included a belief that he owned a factory with 25,000 employees, and sitting in his heated cell with his winter coat and gloves on.
Capone spent the final year of his prison sentence in the hospital, then sought additional care as soon as he was released. His doctor, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, planned to admit Capone to his own hospital for treatment—but its board of trustees turned the gangster away, refusing to associate with a man of such ill repute. Instead, Capone was forced to go with plan B: Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital. In addition to admitting Capone for treatment, Union Memorial even put up with his entourage, including bodyguards, a barber, a masseur, and food tasters to protect him from grudge-holding enemies.
Grateful for the care, Capone gave the hospital two magnificent weeping cherry trees in 1939. Both trees were planted on the grounds, but by the 1950s, one of them had been removed to make way for a new wing of the hospital.
The remaining tree grew without fanfare for more than half a century, until a 2010 snowstorm split it down the middle and claimed a 10-foot branch. Woodworker Nick Aloisio made bowls, wine stoppers, pens, and trinket boxes from the fallen branch, then sold them on eBay to benefit the hospital.
The rest of the tree still stands, and hospital officials say it’s doing well. An arborist has also successfully planted clippings from the old tree around the hospital campus. The new trees are called “Caponettes.”
If you want to catch a glimpse of what must surely be the world’s only tree donation inspired by a gangster’s STD treatment, visit Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital and check out the glorious pink planting by the East 33rd Street entrance.