The house that isn’t there

By Wayne Bryan Published June 30, 2011 at 2:54 a.m.
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The story is told around Hot Springs by tour guides, shopkeepers and residents who have heard the tale many times: “Al Capone used to come to Hot Springs in the old days.

He had a house out on Lake Hamilton with a tunnel that ran from a boat dock to the house. That’s where the liquor was brought in for Hot Springs.” The story is a part of the city’s lore, but with a little research, it seems the facts don’t match up.

Did “Scarface” Capone, the most infamous of all mobsters, own a home in Hot Springs?

“No,” said Orval Allbritton, a member of the Garland County Historical Society and author of The Mob at the Spa: Organized Crime and Its Love for Hot Springs, set to be published this week. “Capone liked to visit here, but he stayed at the Arlington Hotel after it opened in 1926.” Allbritton, a Hot Springs native and a former researcher for the FBI, said he has not been able to find the origin of the story of the “Capone house” but said facts have never gotten in the way of a good story.

“It is hard to stop a rumor when it gets started and makes its way around town,” Allbritton said.

Brian Dotson, a manager and guide at the Gangster Museum of America in Hot Springs, said just a few misinterpreted words can grow into an urban legend.

“These things move by word of mouth, and anything could have started it,” he said. “Ralph Capone (Al Capone’s brother) used to come to Hot Springs as well. He was an older and taller version of his brother. Someone might have seen him at a house, or someone said, ‘Mr. Capone was here last night,’ and the story grows.”

Allbritton said another possible Capone story involved a Chicago couple who had racehorses that ran at Oaklawn Park during the season.

“The husband, the owner of a Cadillac-La Salle dealership in Chicago, sold cars to Capone,” he said. “Because of the business friendship, Ralph would call on the couple when they were all in Hot Springs. Soon the stor y was going around that the wife was Al’s sister.”

The house most often mentioned as the “Capone home” is the Van Lyle Estate on Lake Hamilton, now known as the Hamilton House Bed and Breakfast. It was designed in the late 1920s, but the lake was not there until 1932 after Carpenter Dam was build by the Arkansas Power and Light Co.

“The timelines don’t work out,” Dotson said. “By the time the lake was there, Capone was in prison.”

A staff member of t he Hamilton House said she hears the story all the time, and guests ask about it. The estate does have a tunnel from the house to the boat dock, but the legend at the estate is that the tunnel was a private way to the lake for skinny dipping.

Another version of the Capone-house story points to a smaller property on the lake near where Central Avenue crosses the lake for the first time. However, the time line still does not work. By the time that house was built, Big Al, has he was sometimes called, was old, ill and living in Miami.

While Capone never owned a house in Hot Springs, he made many visits to the city, beginning around 1920, when he accompanied Johnny Torrio, head of the Five Points Gang from Chicago’s south side.

“Torrio’s wife had visited Hot Springs, and she wanted to come back,” Allbritton said. “[Torrio] would bring around four men with him to watch the front desk [of the hotel they were staying in] and make sure no one from the North Side Gang of rival Dean O’Banion had arrived in town.”

One of those men who traveled with Torrio was Al Capone. The trips to Hot Springs continued after Capone took over, and he would bring his own gang. Allbritton said the group was known to be “raucous.”

The group was asked to leave one hotel but found ahome in Hot Springs at the Arling ton Hotel. Capone would sometimes reserve an entire floor at the hotel.

“Capone liked Suite 443, on a floor with a direct entrance to the baths,” Allbritton said. “There is a plaque there now calling it the Capone Suite.”

By 1927, Capone’s trips to Hot Springs ended.

“That’s when he fell in love with Miami,” Allbritton said. “It was his fantasy of sunny Italy.”

Allbritton, who has written four books about the lawless days in Hot Springs, is the acknowledged local expert about those days.

“His research is so impressive and detailed. He backs up everything he writes,” said Liz Robbins, executive director of the county’s historical society. “There are a lot of rumors about Capone and those days in Hot Springs. Orval knows what really happened.”

Such as knowing there was never a Capone house in Hot Springs.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.