Finding Al Capone

Several years ago, a good friend and I embarked on a day trip that took us all over Chicagoland. Starting at her apartment on the north side of the city, we journeyed (10+ miles on Chicago surface streets really do feel like a journey) first to Arlington Heights and its Japanese supermarket, Mitsuwa (we share a love for Japanese snacks that borders on addiction). Next we headed southwest to Bartlett and the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago to see its gorgeous architecture and landscaping.

By the time we left Bartlett for Hillside, we were calling the excursion our "Day of Culture." First Japanese culture, then Indian, and next something very different – Chicago mob culture, circa 1920s. Hillside is the home of Mount Carmel Cemetery, the final resting place of mobster Al Capone.

Mount Carmel is an interesting place to visit even without that notorious criminal's grave. A predominantly Italian-American cemetery, it's filled with headstones bearing one of that culture's hallmarks – ceramic photos of the deceased. These photos, usually oval-shaped and inset in the stone above the name, were popular in Italy (and here too, as Italians immigrated to America) in the first half of the 20th century. Walking through any cemetery gives you a chance to peer into the lives of the past, but Mount Carmel offers even more insight than most. More than just reading names, dates, and a few carefully-chosen words, we can see the very images of the deceased.Al Capone's mug shot (U.S. Department of Justice)

Not so in Capone's case. You might think the man who ruled a criminal empire would have the most ostentatious grave of them all – with the biggest ceramic photo of them all. Instead, the grave is small, flush to the ground, and hidden behind a bush. If you don't know where to look, you're going to wander around for quite a while trying to find it (as we did). And the inscription is simple: Alphonse Capone, 1899 – 1947 (no months or days, though the full truth is that he was born Jan. 17, 1899 and died Jan. 25, 1947, 65 years ago today), and a brief epitaph: "My Jesus Mercy."

So there wasn't much to see once we reached Capone's grave, but we stayed for a while anyway. We took a couple of pictures, lost now several cell phones back. We looked around at the nearby stones, gazing into the eyes of someone's long-dead loved ones. And we thought about the sense it makes for a big, violent man to have a small, unobtrusive gravestone. It might be the opposite of what one would expect for Capone, but it feels a bit like poetic justice.