Al Capone - "Scarface"


Alphonse Capone, better known to most of us as Al Capone, or “Scarface”, was The most notorious gangster in the history of the U.S.A.  









Al Capone, 1930
(National Archives, Still Picture Branch,
306-NT-163.820C )  

Al Capone: Mugshot of Public Enemy Number 1




Picture from FBI file



      Did the famous Al Capone (Scarface) spend time hiding out at Big Star Lake ?!  Some say yes, other say probably not.  But where did these stories all begin?  Is it just “hearsay”?  Even “hearsay” has to have some basis for a beginning.  So what truly did happen.  Let me give you a little back ground information, and then tell you a little about the History and life of Al Capone, and then you can decide for yourself weather it is fact or fiction that Scarface hid out on Big Star Lake .  

     On the north side of the lake is a lovely home, now completely remodeled, and added on to several times since the “Capone era”.  I was invited over to discuss this topic with the present owner of the home Phil Ryskamp.   Phil, being one of those who has lived on the lake longer than most, had many stories, but for me, this one caught my interest more.

     Phil begins, by telling me about his parents (Henry and Flora) getting married in 1923 and honeymooned up at the lake, and came back to vacation every summer.  When Phil and his wife were married in 1961 they first rented each summer, and in 1963 purchased their present cottage/home from Ada B. Pickle, who was the mistress of the deceased Foster VanZyl, who died in 1950.  Now - -this is where the story gets a little tricky.  Foster VanZyl was the owner of the land, so when he died, in order to sell the property, Ada had to prove that she had the rights to the property and could legally sell it.  This process took a few years in the courts before Phil and his wife were legal owners. Now back to Foster, - He was from Detroit, and it was said he worked for J.L. Hudson.  We don’t know “doing what”.  Could this be the “tie” to “Big Business”/ the “Mob”?  Many people have told me that Al Capone never owned land in his own name, for protection purposes.  But that is not true.  In my research I have found two instances where it states with out doubt that  he did own land.  One was property in Escanaba Michigan , and another, an estate in Florida, on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay, near Miami , which he purchased in 1928.  But that doesn’t mean there were not more, or he had them in other names.  In fact there are claims of many places he either hid out at or owned, like - Leland, Glen Arbor, Northport Point and North Fox Island, Berrien Springs, and the list goes on, because in his day, Michigan was still a very remote area and good for hiding.  

     Something else that may point to ‘fishy business’ going on at the property, is the story Phil told me about when he was a young boy and his family was up at the lake every summer, he and his other young friends would walk around the lake along the beach.  This was a full days excursion at that time, and they would stop and eat, and get drinks of pop along the way at various places.  When they got to the “VanZyl” property, there was a fence that went along both sides and way down into the lake, so that no one could get anywhere close.  The kids had to walk way into the lake to get around the property.  So - ask yourselves - why would someone do this in those days?

     Now that you have this in the back of your minds, lets look at a little history and back ground information about the life of Al Capone.   He was born 17 January 1899 in Brooklyn , N.Y. USA .  Died 25 January 1947 Chicago , IL USA of Cardiac Arrest and pneumonia.

      On December 1918, Al Capone killed a man in an argument. He called his old friend Torrio, whom he first met in N.Y., but was now in Chicago. Capone moved to Chicago at the invitation of Torrio.  Al Capone became Torrio’s right hand man, and was bartender at his club.  He got rid of the unwanted, and 'drunkards’.  He was also involved in illegal gambling, bootlegging (illegal alcohol), and prostitution.  When prohibition started in 1920, Capone ran the underground drinking establishments for Torrio, after he (Torrio) had Capone kill off the Chicago boss named Colosimo.  Torrio then became the Chicago boss, and Capone the manager of alcohol in the city.  When Torrio was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt, he stepped down from the head of the mob in 1925 and Al Capone became the head of the Chicago Mafia.  Through his reign in Chicago Al had the congressmen, mayors, legislators, governors, city aldermen, and much of Chicago police force on his payroll. 

      On the 2nd of January 1919, Michigan ratified the 18th Amendment to end the sale of liquor,  this is when the Gangs really got started bootlegging liquor from Canada across the Detroit River and selling it to other mob figures like Al Capone.  At this time Al Capone was the head of the Chicago Mob when the Detroit gangs (The Purple Gang) started gaining strength.  The Purple Gang and Al Capone had an agreement to “share” Michigan . The Purple Gang ran everything east of U.S. 131 and Al Capone had everything west of 131 which basically divides Michigan in half from the southern tip on the Indiana border, to the northern tip up to what is now where “The Bridge” is.  So this would be Capones' territory, West Michigan.

      The Mobs also developed interests in legitimate businesses, in the cleaning and dyeing field, and cultivated influence with receptive public officials, labor unions, UAW,  and employees’ associations.  Does this hint at a connection with the J.L. Hudson, of Detroit and his employee Foster VanZyl who owned the land up at Big Star?  Is this why “Scarface” may have spent time at our beloved Big Star?

Photo of AlPhonse Capone






Picture from the FBI files


      At the end of my afternoon with Phil he gave me a tour around his home.  He showed me what is now his office, but at one time, before he remodeled it, it was a garage.  The garage had a false back/bottom, and after a car drove in you would go down to the basement.  AN ESCAPE ROUTE YOU ASK?  Down in the basement was also a false wall, and an escape exit which would be consistent with the other homes/hide outs that claim to have been occupied  by the famous “Scarface” at one point.

      So – whether it is fact or fiction that one of Al Capone’s hideouts was on Big Star Lake doesn’t matter to me.  I for one think it would be fun and thrilling to believe the  ‘stories’ - that we had the famous “Scarface” (Al Capone) living in our area.  But you must decide for your selves,  is it FACT or FICTION.  J
*Written by: Webmaster of Big Star Lake History


   * Research and Information for the above article is from: 
            1). FBI files, 
            2). National Archives, 
            3). Michigan Land Records, 
            4). Florida Land Records,



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