Al Capone in the Kankakee Area
Allegedly owned a hideaway "party house" along the Iroquois River
Right on the Two Rivers Century route!
It was on a bike ride heading South from L'erable, as we crossed over Rt. 52, that my friend indicated the two houses flanking the road and said, "The story is…those houses were the guardhouses for an Al Capone hideaway…. over there," pointing about a half mile Southeast. The two houses did look very similar and were perhaps identical originally, and to the Southeast, across the field, along the bank of the Iroquois River, I could see a row of houses. One stuck out – bigger house, bigger yard, more space between it and the others, or something. And then he added, "There was a tunnel between them."
I would (and still do) often take the long way home when returning to Kankakee from Watseka, and I explore the roads and routes along the river. One of the times I passed by the Capone hideaway road, I turned in. Closer inspection showed the house was certainly different than the neighbors. It looked to me like a Chicago bungalow, but bigger, and it seemed to face the wrong way. To me, that meant it had some story, some different past.
I looked at aerial photographs and could see no indication that there ever was a tunnel. The distance across the field was such that I doubted the story to begin with, but I still looked. I tried to find something on the internet, but didn't. I probed my local historian connection, but he had no information. Then one day I happened to mention the story to a realtor who told me she had been in the basement of the "hideaway" and seen a plugged up opening that could have led to a tunnel. So if there was a tunnel...and it didn't go to a guardhouse.... then...duh...it went to the river. What better place to make an escape? Across, up, or down. It would have been hard for pursuers, no matter what. And with a car stowed on the other side somewhere, and bridges few and far between, it was a good spot for an easy getaway hideaway.
When I knew that our Two Rivers Century would take riders past this spot, I stepped up my investigation. I stopped by often, and one day found the now owners, Larry and Nancy Jacobsen, gardening. They confirmed the story and gave me some names and phone numbers so I might further investigate.
I first spoke with Armand Poskin, who was the Ashkum township assessor after he returned from the service in 1950 and had been in the house. As he recalled, the former owner had been a Dr. Lepard, who was supposedly Al Capone’s dentist or doctor. He said the most unusual feature of the house was a basement garage with a platform that allowed cars to be driven in forward and then turned around to face the exit, much like what was used for train locomotives in a “roundhouse”. The space and system allowed up to 4 cars to be ready for easy exit. Next to the garage portion was a room with a gas fired furnace, the ashes from which would be discharged into the river by way of a pipe. Another feature was a wide staircase that led to the second floor, which was a huge party/dance room with tile floors which took up about 80% of the second floor and which had a hidden staircase.
Next, I spoke with Derry Behm whose grandfather built their cabin just up river from the “Capone” place in 1927. He told me “the Capone place” was supposedly purchased and built by a dentist for cash in the 30’s. He remembered the top floor as a ballroom with decorative tile floors and a dentist office with a chair and the basement garage with a turntable that was manually operated. There was a crawl out escape tunnel in the basement to the river and a brick oven for disposing of body parts. The kitchen was in the basement, and there was a dumb waiter to the 2nd floor. At the North end of the 2nd floor there was a bedroom and an escape stairway hidden in the eaves. His niece experienced a spirit of a lady there, who told her she fell down the stairs and was killed. The main floor is slate with a marble wainscot. The house was surrounded by a high hedge, and the property had a Chinese type pool with goldfish and a bridge and a Madonna statue. The steps down the riverbank to the river were slate. There was an Italian marble fireplace on the 1st floor. The floor joists are a full 2” x 12” doubled up in many places, and a 9’ ceiling in the basement. A Doc Buckner, from Gilman, who built a log house just down stream who may have patched up Capone or one of his guys from some wound.
Then I spoke with Richard Leveque whose good friend from Central High School, (1950-1954) was John Young, whose parents once owned the house. He stayed the night there on many occasions. Back then it was known as “the Al Capone house”, and was supposedly built by Al Capone’s dentist. Richard’s former father-in-law was a motorcycle State policeman and had been stationed at a road block in Momence one night to stop Capone as he came in from Indiana. Then he got a call that they needed someone down south, maybe at Rt 52, and so he and Vern Eastburn another State Policeman motorcycled down to the other spot. 45 minutes later they were radioed that there had been a shoot out at the Momence road block and 2 fellow State troopers had been killed. There was a bowling lane on the second floor at one time. There were little bedrooms off the second floor ballroom and secret doors to a passageway that ran between/along them. There was a shooting range in the basement; and a dumb waiter; and a formal library with steps that led down to a stone garden and maybe a fountain; and a 2 car garage door to the basement garage.
John’s father Bill Young went to Eureka College and was a roommate of Ronald Reagan who came to visit after he was a famous movie star and married to Jane Wyman but before his run for president. Richard played ping-pong with him and hoped he would be a better president than he was a ping-pong player.
The Jacobsens graciously offered to show me around when they caught me snooping around their yard late one afternoon on my way home from Watseka. They purchased the home in 2003.
The house is laid out like a typical Chicago style bungalow, but bigger. While restoring the multicolored slate 1st floor, they found Masonic symbols designed into the floor at the very center of the house. The slate sits upon concrete, together making the floor about 4” thick, and the second floor with concrete and marble is only slightly thinner. Full 2” x 12” floor joists, many doubled, support the weight. The stairs leading up to the 1st floor from the river are not marble, but polished Indiana limestone. The hidden passages around the 2nd floor are in the eaves of the roof with cupboard-like doorways into the various 2nd floor rooms and closets, and with the varied roof line and dormers, some passageways would not have been expected. There was a small room on the second floor that had a dental chair of the dentist owner. There was a stairway behind a door in a 2nd floor bedroom that exited from a small cupboard door in a short hallway in the first floor that was clearly not for normal use of guests. The Jacobsens were told that there was also a hidden exit from the 2nd floor to an outside staircase, but the house had been sided and there was no remnant of that exit when they purchased. The escape tunnel from the basement to the river was re-discovered by former owners (the Snyders) when they built a sea wall and broke into it between its sealed ends. It was about 3-4 foot high and exited by a large Sycamore tree still there on the river bank. The basement turntable had been removed and the floor re-concreted by the former owners. There was certainly room for 2, and maybe 4 cars there. There is a concrete incinerator in the basement which former owners (the Youngs) did use to burn garbage. The original front entrance of the house faces northeast. The house and yard was hidden by a tall hedge, past which vehicle would travel on the way to the drive which lead up to the house and a circle drive around a fountain or pool of sorts. It was a much larger space originally; as a former owner sold off the lane and yard to the northeast and a home now sits on that lot. While there was nothing that shouted “Capone”, the house was certainly unusual, and opulent for its time and place in rural Illinois.
Nancy Jacobsen did extensive research attempting to uncover something that might clearly link the home to Capone, but could find nothing and a purchased title report added nothing to her own efforts. Illustrated maps and plats from the Capone era (books dated 1904, 1921, 1928) stored at the Old Courthouse Museum in Watseka, IL showed ownership of the property in a K. Rosenberger, then E. K. Rosenberger, then Martin and Taylor, the last being in 1928, when the home was supposedly constructed. The house has many windows which would have provided ample views in all directions. Many of them are short and squat – good for shooting out of and harder for shooting in to, some from the basement and some from the dormer, and some in closets, and with the concrete lined floors, it might be likened to a “pillbox”. No record regarding the construction of the home have been found, which seems suspicious. The Jacobsens were told that a former owner (1965-1990), Marguerite Rulison, had a stroke and was in a nursing home, and for 17 years, the house stood empty, during which time it was frequently explored by the local youth, none would stay the night because of the rumor of a "ghost", supposedly sighted several times at twilight, near the stairs on the 2nd floor. The next owners (Cooks) removed the hidden staircases during their renovations.
~Mark Steffen, Event Chairman
The Al Capone house is about a quarter mile off the 105 and 127 mile routes, and so will add a bit more than a half mile to your distance if you want to see it up close. The “guardhouses” however are on the routes and you will pass between them after your last rest stop, when you are riding north on the 1500 Road, about to cross Rt. 52, about 15 miles from the finish. Before you get past the guardhouses, stop and look southeast, over your right shoulder, and you will see the hideaway party house.
All above text was written by Mark Steffen, Event Chairman of the Two Rivers Century.
Photo illustration by Paul Laue. Photos of the home are from the Kevin Butler Picasa collection.