NEWAYGO, Mich. — With a public figure as polarizing as Al Capone, there are bound to be many tales about his life. As is the case with many stories passed down over 100 years, some are true while others seem like far-fetched fables.
According to Steven Radtke, the executive director of the Heritage Museum of Newaygo County, some of those tales trace Capone to West Michigan — at least, that's how the story goes.
In order to understand the possible connection, you must first understand the background.
Capone was the co-founder and boss of an Italian-American organized crime syndicate called the Chicago Outfit. Once the 18th Amendment was ratified on Jan. 16, 1919, and Prohibition went into effect a year and a day later, Capone started illegally shipping and selling booze all across the country.
"Newaygo County is a halfway point between Muskegon and Grand Rapids," Radtke said. "It's a logical place to stop when running booze between here and all the points out in the country where he was supplying. So, it makes sense.”
According to the History Channel, Capone was able to rake in $100 million a year. With that kind of operation, Capone had to get creative.
“One of the other things that makes Newaygo attractive is the city was originally heated with coal," Radtke said. "So there was a network of coal tunnels that ran under the streets and along the sidewalks that allowed for illicit hiding of alcohol and transporting of it."
The rumors don't stop there.
“The biggest one was a house called Purgatory, which the Tom Hanks movie's loosely based off of," he said. "It was a hideout, kind of out in the middle of the country near Constantine, Michigan. That had a ton of crazy rumors. There was a boxing ring built for Joe Lewis to fight in. There were alligator pits in the woods and they would dump bodies in the swampy areas. None of that's substantiated, but it's all — it's the rumors."
Amid all the tales though, there is some truth.
“One of the oldest houses in the county, which is currently the Newaygo Bed and Breakfast, was owned by his lawyer," Radtke said. "His lawyer had a family connection to the area."
Across the street from the museum is a building that used to be a hotel called the River Valley Inn.
Radtke said, "It stood there from about the 1880s until it burned down in 1991. There was a bar in the basement called the Snake Pit. That was kind of a watering hole for a lot of local celebrities. Al Capone being one, Henry Ford being another. So yeah, it was there in the basement of the hotel.”
A portion of the bar from that basement still exists today, sitting in the corner of the Newaygo Brewing Co. next door.
Even though most people might've been afraid of a man like Mr. Capone, things were different in Newaygo County.
“You know, he was infamous," Radtke siad. "People still [think] it's a celebrity. We live in this little town and out, way out in the country. We don't ever see any celebrities.”
Capone's reign only lasted seven years, getting cut short after a conviction for tax evasion. Still, he was able to carve a cut so deep that it left a scar on the face of society, especially in West Michigan.
“This is currently the busiest intersection in Newaygo County, so it's really cool to know that a figure like that, who was kind of a folk hero of the era, was popular here," Radtke said.