Capone, Hoover and J.C. Penney: How a Belle Isle winter led a president to take down Scarface

This photo, shot Nov. 23, 1928, shows the Belle Isle estate of J.C. Penney.

In November 1928, Belle Isle’s most prominent resident was retailer J.C. Penney, who wintered in a spectacular mansion on Biscayne Bay.

The economy of the United States was booming. Herbert Hoover had just been elected president. Before his January 1929 inauguration, he traveled to Florida, and visited his friend, Penney, and stayed on Belle Isle.

It was the roaring 20s, and Al Capone cut a swaggering profile here, with a house a short distance across Biscayne Bay from Belle Isle, at 93 Palm Ave. on Palm Island. He bought that house in early 1928.

Some say it was during Hoover’s visit to our island that he crossed paths with Capone and decided to point the IRS at the gangster.

We happened upon the historic photo of the Penney mansion knowing none of this. We bought it on eBay. When the tattered black-and-white arrived, we turned it over. Taped to the back was a cutline:

The home of J.C. Penney on Belle Isle on the Venetian Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach, Fla., where President-elect Herbert Hoover is expected to stay while in Miami. 11/23/1928.

We googled “JC Penney Belle Isle Herbert Hoover” and got this account, from About.com:

Herbert Hoover vacationed at the J.C. Penney estate on Belle Isle in 1928. It is rumored that Hoover’s grudge with Al Capone started in Florida. There are two versions of the story circulating. First, the Capone compound was not far away from the Penney estate and the tale goes that there was so much shouting and shooting during the night from the Capone retreat that Hoover couldn’t sleep. His ire aroused, Hoover decided then and there to destroy the famous gangster when he took office. The second tale describes an enraged Herbert Hoover. The president-elect watched in dismay as a drove of reporters suddenly abandoned him in a Miami lobby when a more important person strolled in. That person? Al Capone.

From the Mafia Encyclopedia:

It was now a matter of folklore inside the underworld that the president railroaded Scarface Al to prison because of a personal vendetta. One allegedly dates to shortly after Hoover won the 1928 contest against Al Smith and vacationed at the J.C. Penney estate on Belle Isle in Florida, not far from the Capone compound on Palm Island. The tale goes that there was so much shouting, females crying, and shooting during the night from the Capone retreat that Hoover could not sleep. His puritanical ire aroused, Hoover decided then and there to destroy the famous gangster when he took office.

Who knows if the stories are true — but we do know that Hoover spent time on our island, with Al Capone a short distance away. And it makes for a great story…


3 responses to “Capone, Hoover and J.C. Penney: How a Belle Isle winter led a president to take down Scarface

  1. Great story. Had no idea. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Did retailing genius J.C. Penney hoodwink Herbert Hoover into hyping Belle Isle real estate? | Belle Isle Blog

  3. Pingback: A video visit to the Al Capone house on Palm Island, across from Belle Isle | Belle Isle Blog

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