Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Al Capone's Bulletproof Car

A story is current on the Internet that, after Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service thought President Franklin Delano Roosevelt should be riding in a bulletproof car. Until his current Ford limo could be bulletproofed, the Secret Service used a Cadillac that the Treasury Department had seized from Al Capone. FDR was mightily amused to be riding about in Capone's car.

It's a great story.

Unfortunately, it almost certainly isn't true.

The story derived from three books. The first, and principal source (1947), was by Michael F. Reilly, who had been one of the heads of the detail protecting the president from 1941 to 1943. The next book (1965) was by Frank J. Wilson, whose painstaking research as an agent of the Treasury's Special Investigation Unit (SIU) had unearthed what proved the key exhibit in the tax evasion case that put Capone in prison; Wilson also tracked down (and "broke") people to testify about that exhibit, and he went on to head the Secret Service from 1936 to 1947. The third book (1988) was by David M. Brinkley, the famed TV anchor, who had been an obscure radio reporter in Washington—but starting in 1943, not in time for Pearl Harbor.

So why is the story most likely untrue?

To start with, there is a small mystery. FDR demonstrably did have a limo to use during the retrofit bulletproofing of his own, and—unless Reilly was flat-out lying, which seems highly unlikely—it probably was a Treasury impound. But if it really had been Al Capone's, why was there no contemporaneous newspaper mention of such a marvelously amusing story? It had no currency at all, not even rumor about it, until Reilly's book, six years later. Yet it was the sort of story FDR would have loved telling about himself and that the Liberty League would have loved to spread, perhaps blazoned in Cissy Patterson's Times-Herald: How fitting! That Man in the White House riding around in another arch criminal's car!

There is, however, no mystery about why there had been no news stories when Treasury would have seized Capone's car—i.e., after his tax-evasion conviction in 1931. There were no such stories because it never happened.

The government had a terrible time convicting Capone. In fact, of the 23 counts, he was found guilty on only five, two of them misdemeanors, not guilty on the rest—and that after a very questionable ruling about the admissibility of some vital evidence. The whole problem was that the government couldn't locate any assets that were provably Capone's (and couldn't really establish any income) to provide the necessary "starting point" of a tax evasion charge. They did prove that he spent a lot of money; they just couldn't prove (except circumstantially) where he got that money—and, more to the point of the FDR story, they couldn't prove that he owned anything. Nothing was in Capone's name, including his Palm Island estate, which he had paid for with a check signed by Jack Guzik (q.v., this Website's "People" page).

How could the government seize what they couldn't prove he owned? Even if they could prove he regularly used a particular car, they couldn't prove it belonged to him. And if they couldn't prove that he owned it, how could they seize it to help defray at least a part of his tax debt and fine? Moreover, if they had seized from Capone the car Reilly, Wilson and Brinkley wrote about, why not also seize the other cars that were later identified as his (by common sense, if not legally), three of which had a history after Capone's death?

And if—despite the plain illegality of seizing property that can't be proven to belong to the tax debtor to satisfy that debt—the Treasury really had seized a "Capone car," why not sell it to indeed reduce the debt? It would have been seized shortly after Capone's conviction on October 17, 1931. So why, instead of being sold at once, would it have languished in an impound lot for 10 years, losing both real value and the cachet value of having been his bulletproof car (which had to be greater in 1931 than in 1941, three years after his release from prison)?

The essential element missing from all three book is how Reilly, Wilson and Brinkley knew that the car FDR used while his own "Sunshine Special" was being retrofitted had belonged to Capone. Of course, Brinkley didn't know: he couldn't have had any firsthand knowledge. But how would the Secret Service agent and Secret Service chief have known? Since neither explained (or even mentioned the point) in the books, we can only speculate. And that speculation points to the most probable origin of the story.

Since there could not have been "papers" in Capone's name—no title or registration with his name on it—the car's provenance could only have been anecdotal. "Say!" someone at Treasury tells Reilly, "you'll never guess who this baby belonged to!" But how would that "someone" have known? There were almost surely some internal, Treasury papers with the car's ID numbers, at least an inventory; but why would previous ownership be specified? An impound isn't like a pawn: the original owner isn't going to get it back. So its ownership had to be, at best, something that "everybody knew."

Of course, nothing above is proof that the story is untrue; it's just "logic." But by Reilly's own account, the particular limo the Secret Service got from Treasury for FDR could not have been Capone's. Reilly claimed it was his idea to see if Treasury had any bulletproof cars ("I made a phone call," he wrote, whereas Wilson just wrote that it was "pressed into service"). But Reilly specified about the car he got from Treasury that "…any of Capone's innumerable enemies could have gotten him easily if they had remembered to shoot through the body of the car, rather than through the glass windshields, which were the only part of the vehicle that were truly bulletproof." (Emphasis added.) Capone started to bulletproof his personal limos when, near dawn on January 12, 1925, his un-armored car was forced to the curb and riddled with bullets. He wasn't in it at the time; but his driver, Sylvester Barton, took a slug in the back, having turned away and slumped down in the seat, the bullet easily penetrating the car's normal body metal. From then on, Capone had his factory-model limos completely custom armored. Only the windows "truly bulletproof"? According to the most reliable source, written nearest the time (1931), the custom bulletproofing of Capone's cars added five tons of armor plating to the factory model's weight, protecting the entire body. And that overall bulletproofing was true for all of Capone's cars from then on. Before 1925, they had no bulletproofing, not even the glass; after, they were entirely bulletproofed, glass and body. Clearly, the one Reilly described could not have been Capone's.

Then was Reilly just making up the story that the car had belonged to Capone? Not necessarily. Someone at Treasury may have heard someone else say that that this impounded car with the bulletproof glass had been Capone's and cheerfully passed it on to Reilly, loving the irony of who would soon be riding in it. Who knows? Stories get started somehow, especially when they involve the celebrated or notorious. Through its "Contact Us" page, this Website gets many inquiries about local legends of a "Capone Hideaway" or "Capone House" in places he almost certainly never visited—like New Mexico and Kemptville, Ontario, Canada, where, in addition to having a house, local legend has him financing a golf club.

On the other hand, their books show that neither Reilly nor Wilson scrupled to make things up. For instance, both claimed credit for the idea—and procurement—of a completely bulletproofed car for the president, the procurement obviously above Reilly's pay grade. But Reilly's account was plainly a vainglorious fabrication: he had explained the situation "to some friends in Detroit," and Ford built a bulletproof car to order. But that was indisputably not the case; the record shows that Ford retrofitted FDR's extant limo, a detail that Wilson got right in his book.

Not that Wilson distained vainglory. Earlier in his book, Wilson told of an encounter with Capone at a vital tax-settlement meeting, complete with convincing dialogue in which Wilson "stands up" to Capone ("You better take care of yourself, Wilson." "You bet I will."), refusing Capone's offer of a cigar and refusing to shake his hand ("I didn't intend to soil my hands with his bloodstained paw."). The problem was that the government had a court stenographer present for this key meeting, recording what everyone said and listing all participants. Frank Wilson was not among them. In another place, Wilson—who wasn't content simply to have done superlative investigative work, but hankered after the appearance of dangers manfully met—told how he had gotten word that Capone had him and his wife staked out at the Sheridan Plaza, where they were staying, Wilson on loan to Chicago from the SIU's Baltimore office. So Wilson switched their residence to the Palmer House, a move of such cunning it so completely confounded The Menace that they were never afterward bothered!

Given that demonstrated willingness of both men not to let fact get in the way of a good story, if Reilly indeed was told by someone at Treasury that the car had been Capone's, it's not at all inconceivable that he didn't really believe it, at least not enough to mention it to FDR (except in his "recollection" six years later) or anyone else at the time—which would explain why there were no contemporaneous newspaper accounts of such a juicy story.

And everything flowed from Reilly's book. Wilson, whose book came 18 years later, may have relied on Reilly. Brinkley certainly did, in a one-paragraph paraphrase of Reilly's one-and-a-half-page rambling account, crediting Reilly's book in the source notes, with Wilson never mentioned. And when Stanley Weintraub wrote his Pearl Harbor Christmas in 2011, mentioning the story in passing, he relied on…Brinkley's book! When stories do get started somehow, they acquire a life of their own. And this is a great story.

Pity it isn't true.