Al Capone's Hobby: Songwriting

Getty Images
Getty Images

There weren’t many constants in Al Capone’s rocky life, but the crime boss—who was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1899—had a love of music, and it never wavered. He spent countless hours reclined listening to his phonograph, which cycled through an impressive collection of Italian opera records (Aida by Giuseppe Verdi was a personal favorite). Capone also adored—and more or less controlled—Chicago’s rising jazz scene. Musicians would gravitate toward him, hoping to score a gig at his favorite nightclubs.

In 1926, the mobster’s friends kidnapped jazz star Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller. Holding him at gunpoint, they ordered the terrified artist into the back of their limo. But, to Waller’s surprise, he wasn’t harmed. Instead, he was taken to Capone’s 27th birthday party and politely asked to perform. The shindig lasted for three days, and by the end, Waller had received scores of tips and free drinks from grateful attendees.

Five years later, Big Al’s chickens came home to roost. On October 24, 1931, he was sentenced to 11 years in Alcatraz for having committed tax evasion. While behind bars, numerous attempts were made on his life, including an especially nasty shower room episode in which bank robber James “Tex” Lucas stabbed Capone with half a pair of scissors. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” Capone famously told the warden.

Things started looking up (if only slightly) when Capone joined the Rock Islanders, Alcatraz’s very own inmate-run band, which threw Sunday concerts. Capone’s instrument of choice was a banjo sent by his wife, Mae—though he eventually switched to the mandolin-like mandola.

Between performances, Scarface could often be found strumming away in his cell. And on Saturdays, he’d speak at length with a special guest: Vincent Casey was planning to become a Jesuit priest (although those plans later changed), and his training involved spiritual visits with Alcatraz detainees. Over a two-year span, he and Capone grew quite close. According to Casey’s son, Mike, “My father spoke very highly of him. It was incredible. This criminal murdered many people, but he told me when you got to know the man in the cellblock on Alcatraz, he was very humble and polite and courteous.”

One holiday season, Casey received an unexpected present: a piece of sheet music. “To my good friend Father Vin Casey,” the accompanying note read, “with the best in all the world for a Merry Christmas always for you. Alphonse Capone.” Entitled "Madonna Mia," the romantic solo had been penned by the ex-gangster himself, presumably about his faithful Mae.

Here’s how it went:

In the quaint Italian garden While the stars were all aglow Once I heard a lover singing To the one that he loved so.

In that quaint Italian garden ‘Neath the starry sky above Every night, he’d serenade her With his tender song of love:

“Madonna Mia, You’re the bloom of the roses, You’re the charm that reposes, In the heart of a song.

Madonna Mia, With your true love to guide me, Let whatever betide me, I will never go wrong.

There’s only one moon above, One golden sun, There’s only one that I love, You are the one.

Madonna Mia, This I vow here before you, ‘Till the end, I’ll adore you. Madonna Mia.”

Once again, I see that garden Many years have hurried by I can see that sweet Madonna There’s a teardrop in her eye

For her soldier has departed Left his loved one with a sigh She said “I will wait forever” As he sang this last goodbye: “Madonna Mia…”

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

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11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

This story has been updated for 2020.