Near the East 33rd Street entrance of the Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, stands a beautiful Japanese weeping cherry tree (Prunus pendula). Each spring, the tree bursts into a marvelous display of pink cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms or sakura represent beauty, rebirth, and mortality. Ironically, this tree was gifted to the hospital by infamous American mob boss and gangster Al Capone.
During his 11-year sentence for federal income tax evasion, Capone spent four-plus years incarcerated at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco. While there, he was diagnosed with syphilis of the brain. The paresis and dementia resulting from neurosyphilis worsened during his incarceration and expedited his early parole from federal custody on November 16, 1939. Upon Capone’s release, prison officials urged family members to seek medical treatment for his progressing venereal disease.
The Capone family tried to get him admitted to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, the leading treatment center for advanced stage tertiary syphilis. Concerned about negative press because of Capone’s notoriety and criminal history, the hospital board refused to treat him. Instead, Union Memorial Hospital agreed to take him as a private patient. Immediately following his prison release, Capone lived in a two-room suite on the hospital’s fifth floor with windows overlooking the area where the cherry tree now grows. Union Memorial even permitted his entourage’s attendance, including family members, a barber, food tasters, and bodyguards. While there, he was treated by Dr. Joseph E. Moore, a renowned syphilologist. Capone spent six weeks in the hospital and several more weeks receiving outpatient treatment at a private Baltimore residence before returning home to Miami, Florida, in March 1940.
To thank Union Memorial for the compassionate care and medical attention he received, Capone gifted the hospital with two Japanese weeping cherry trees. One of the trees was removed in 1950 to make room for the construction of a new wing. The remaining tree still stands, despite a heavy snowfall in February 2010 that split the tree in half and caused the loss of a 10-foot branch.
Decorative items were carved from the fallen branch and sold to raise funds for the hospital. The younger weeping cherry trees on the Union Memorial campus are cuttings of the original tree. These offspring are affectionately referred to as “Caponettes.” The Capone Cherry Tree continues to bloom lavishly every spring.