In 1986, Al Capone had been dead for four decades yet remained an enigmatic figure for history enthusiasts. The Mob boss from Chicago was one of the most famous gangsters of the Prohibition era, with a long list of crimes to his name. At the height of his fame and notoriety, Capone had rented two floors of Chicago’s Lexington Hotel to operate his criminal empire. In the early 1980s, a not-for-profit construction company purchased the Lexington Hotel and began the mystery of the supposed vault in the basement.
Who was Al Capone?
Chicago was the epicenter of the bootlegging industry following prohibition in 1920, and Capone quickly became its most famous bootlegger. Al Capone was a career criminal by the time of the Prohibition Act, with his criminal career beginning when he was expelled from school. Al Capone would move forward with his career under the tutelage of his criminal mentor, Johnny Torrio. A slashed face led to the nickname Scarface for the man who would replace Torrio as the head of an organized crime family in Chicago. An attempt at Torrio’s life led to his return to Italy and a quiet life.
Despite the best efforts of the FBI’s finest agents, Al Capone remained at large until 1931, when he was arrested for tax evasion. Although his crime was not violent, Scarface was dispatched to Alcatraz, where he grew ill from a combination of syphilis and cocaine abuse. The worsening health of Capone led to his early release from prison in 1939 before he finally died in Miami in 1947.
A mysterious vault
By the early-1980s, the Lexington Hotel had fallen into disrepair and was ripe for development. The Windy City was in line to host a World’s Fair and prime real estate was at a premium. Patricia Porter headed the Sunbow Foundation that was providing construction training and employment to women in Chicago and decided the Lexington Hotel was the perfect project to undertake.
Restrictive gender laws limited the chances for work among women in the construction industry. Sunbow found itself looking for projects to provide work for its members, which led them to the Lexington Hotel. A survey of the property revealed a mysterious concrete slab and the possibility of a hidden vault.
Planning a live TV event
In the early 1980s, the live TV event sector was limited to broadcasting awards ceremonies and sporting events. The idea to broadcast the opening of the supposed vault beneath the Lexington Hotel was attractive to broadcasters in the U.S. and around the world. Sunbow enlisted the help of experienced Hollywood producers who decided to give the event a glamorous feel with a large budget. After securing the production team from a Chicago-based company, the hunt was on for a host. Giraldo Rivera had recently been fired from CNN and described himself as the most famous unemployed person in the U.S. Rivera was chosen and ramped up the production with the addition of FBI agents and members of the IRS waiting to examine the vault.
Nothing of Interest
A U.S. audience of an estimated 30 million and millions more overseas watched live in April 1986 as the vault was opened. A two-hour TV special hosted by Giraldo Rivera detailed the history of Al Capone and highlighted any finds in the vault. After a few cans and little else was discovered in the vault, Giraldo Rivera would be ridiculed in the press for his serious approach to the subject. Both Rivera and the producers explained there was a chance nothing would be found and barely hid their disappointment. Al Capone’s wealth has yet to be found, and the careers of those involved in the live TV event took years to recover.