Growing up in Chicago, I have always heard so much about gangsters: John Dillinger, Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. When I travelled in Europe and told people I was from Chicago, Al Capone flew out of their mouths. In 2005, when I moved to Sawyer, Michigan, I thought I was leaving talk of Al Capone and gangsters far behind. Boy was I wrong!
Just as we all adore Southwest Michigan, guess who else partook of its charms? None other than Al Capone and his buddies. Unlike crime weary Chicagoans, local folks looked past the most famous gangster ever. They warmed to his charm, his style and his lavish tips. And Al Capone fell in love with our fertile land and especially enjoyed playing golf here. But the thing that drew Capone here most of all was: Southwest Michigan was the perfect place to make whiskey. And to hide.
How did Capone find Southwest Michigan anyway? When Highway 12 was completed in 1927, it connected Chicago to Detroit passing right through glorious Southwest, Michigan. Back in the nineteen twenties, members of the Chicago crime scene discovered Michigan’s bountiful setting was perfect for making backroom hooch.
And so bootlegging flourished and drew a host of Chicago gangsters, who made SW Michigan their personal retreat. They dined, played golf – and did their best to keep their illicit side under wraps.
In 1920, prohibition was passed into U.S. law. It stipulated a nationwide constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages, their production, importation and transportation. Prohibition remained in place from 1920 to 1933.
Isn’t it a coincidence that prohibition came at the same time Al Capone and his cronies began their major flirtation with Southwest Michigan? It certainly seems that all the Women’s Christian Union’s vigorous work didn’t stop people from drinking. Instead, alcohol became more in demand than before. It was an emblem of the roaring nineteen twenties. Unassuming Highway 12 became the preferred route for moving alcohol from Detroit’s Purple Gang to Al Capone.
Southwestern Michigan has always been known as the perfect environment for growing corn and fruit. Even cautious farmers began to test the waters of bootlegging. Compared to the dollar per bushel they were getting for corn, selling to a distillery was incredibly more lucrative. But Bootleggers and their allies shook up the peaceful cornucopia of Southwest Michigan. A sinister crop was intruding upon the area; its name was violence. And there was no doubt that it was an outgrowth of prohibition.
Chicago was still Capone’s major domain but Berrien County was his sanctuary. Being able to escape the law by crossing state lines made our area a haven for criminals on the lam. Along with St. Joe and Benton Harbor, Al Capone and his cohorts indulged themselves in Coloma and Berrien Springs. They built houses in New Buffalo and Sawyer Michigan, Grand Haven and Long Beach Indiana. Gangsters dotted the map of Michiana like bullet casings. Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana became Capone’s personal putting green and horn of plenty.
The villages of Lakeside and Union Pier also saw their share of gangsters. Capone himself spent time at the Lakeside Inn. Chicago mayor Anton Cermak kept a summer home in Union Pier before his untimely assassination in Miami in 1933. The former Illinois state’s attorney, John F. Tyrrell had a vacation home in Long Beach. He is known for his role as a prosecutor during the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919.
Al Capone and his cronies liked it so much here that Capone convinced a fellow mobster to raise money to build a hotel in downtown Benton Harbor. Named the Hotel Vincent, it was the finest hotel in the area – eight floors high, with an elevator.
Everyone in Benton Harbor prospered from the presence of Al Capone: the waitresses at the Hotel Vincent Café, barbers in its barber shop that Capone frequented for close shaves, haircuts and manicures.
Especially generous tips were doled to the elevator operators and front desk clerks. Al Capone was dropping hundred dollar bills everywhere, paying people off not to tell anyone or transport any person to the eighth floor of the Hotel Vincent, his private headquarters.
The Hotel Vincent still stands in Benton Harbor’s “Arts District.” I visited the former Hotel Vincent recently, now named Vincent Place. It doesn’t look luxurious at all. It is now marketing itself as an office building. I snooped around but the place was fairly deserted. I especially wanted to visit Al Capone’s former headquarters on the eighth floor. I stared at the elevator buttons in disbelief. The elevator only goes as high as the seventh floor. A nearby realtor’s sign advertised that the entire eighth floor was for lease so there must be a way to get there. Any takers? How about a gangster themed nightclub? Does “Bootlegger’s Hideaway” work for you?